Friday, December 06, 2013

Truth and Constancy

The question of truth is vital to this reading of Mansfield Park in three important ways. First, there is the pursuit of truth represented by the conversations--both internal and external-- of characters int he novel. There is the truth--or realism--of that representation itself, as manifest by specific narrative techniques (especially with dialogue) of which Austen is an innovator. Finally, there is the larger truth--as effected by a combination of the first two--that conveys itself to the reader. Constancy plays a role in all three expressions of truth. It grounds the right pursuit of truth--enacted by Fanny--whose "hermeneutical" habit and growing clarity of vision contrasts with the inflexible blindness to truth in those around her. In some instances, constancy--in particular its development--also is enacted by Austen's use of narrative techniques; the reverse--the lack of its development--may also be suggested thereby. Finally, from the process of reading and responding to the novel's truth, readers may approximate a kind of constancy that allows them to grow in self-knowledge--discovering truths about themselves that may lead to transformation.

Joyce Kerr Tarpley, Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, p. 182.


  1. MrsDarwin8:00 AM

    Does Tarpley elaborate on Austen's innovative narrative techniques?

  2. branemrys8:32 AM

    She does, although it's a bit difficult to disentangle from her overall discussion which brings in Bakhtin and all sorts of things. Fortunately, though, what she emphasizes is also noted by others, so it can be pieced together without having to get into any of the assumed theory: Austen was one of the first novelists in English to make regular and sophisticated use of what is called free indirect discourse to solve narrative problems. Free indirect discourse is the halfway style between quoting and merely reporting what was said (Wikipedia has a good summary of it under 'free indirect speech'), in which the narrator partly takes on the voice of the person whose words or thoughts are being described. She also refers in passing to Austen's use of ironic distance to distinguish internal and external aspects of life, and the combination of the two:

    "With FID, Austen seems to create a shared inner space within the consciousness of ta character (often Fanny Price), the narrator, and the reader. FID as stylization (two voices felt to be in agreement) may indicate a character's capacity to develop constancy and pursue truth as self-knowledge. Conversely, FID as parody (two voices felt to be in disagreement) may indicate the opposite qualities in a character." (p. 222)

    For instance, when Edmund and Fanny are in agreement Austen will sometimes use free indirect discourse so that it's less marked who is contributing what; or she'll describe Mrs. Norris's thoughts in a parodic way that's not merely descriptive of the content of her thought but mimics how she thinks; or, when Fanny flees to the East Room, Austen will jump around with it in a way that shows Fanny's agitation at the same time that she's reporting her thoughts. With it Austen is able always to show, not just tell, no matter how much exposition she needs to set down. A lot of the style of Austen consists in the fact that the narrator is both ironically distant from the characters, but also blended with them so that the narration is constantly taking on the color of their own attitudes. And this makes it possible to convey a lot more than the mere report can -- she can capture subtle shifts and undertones in attitude, for instance.

    Tarpley also notes in passing Austen's careful use and placement of key words -- she uses 'faith', which occurs only once in MP, but in a key spot. An even better example of what she has in mind, I think, would probably be 'constancy' itself: 'constancy' is not used a vast number of times in MP, for instance, but it is used at crucial points.

    She also mentions Austen's repeated use of antithesis in dialogue and action, and I think she also regards the shift in tone at the ending as a way in which Austen adds another layer to the book as a whole.


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