Jane Austen’s novel “Mansfield Park” is full of symbolism. In most of Austen’s novels symbolism as a literary device is limited to names and places.
But Mansfield Park is packed with symbolic objects and events. Consider Maria Rushworth’s desperation to cross the ‘Ha ha’ with Henry Crawford- the ha ha being a dangerous but invisible boundary passable only by a gate, to which her intended husband held the key. Or the gold chain versus the necklace- both gifts from potential suitors to display Fanny’s amber cross- a gift from her brother. When it came time to dress for the ball Fanny found that only the chain from the appropriate gentleman would fit through the loop on her cross. Even the room designated for Fanny’s use- an unwanted upstairs area near the servant’s quarters, takes on meaning. The family refers to the room as ‘The Little White Attic’. Symbolically this name reminds us that Fanny Price, though small and insignificant, was pure, and morally above the others. As the children grew, the old school room was also given to Fanny for her use, a nod to her intellectual growth over the years.
Today I would like to speak about some of the symbolism found in the well-known ‘stargazing’ scene found in chapter 11 of the first volume. Namely, the three constellations mentioned in the following passage: (page 101-102)
Arcturus- Guardian of the Bear or watcher or guardian. In the Book of Job in the old testament Arcturus is mentioned in a passage praising the greatness of God and the weakness of man. Arcturus is also known as ‘Shepherd of the Heavenly flock, or ‘Shepherd of the Life of heaven’.
‘The Bear’ refers to Ursa Major, the big bear or what we call the big dipper. The bear never sets below the horizon. The bear is a mother and an artist giving life to her offspring.
Cassiopeia- The beautiful and vain queen, punished to a throne where she must hang upside down half the year. Cassiopeia comes from the Greek meaning ‘she whose words excel’.
It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who in Fanny’s Mansfield Park love triangle each constellation is meant to represent.
The bear signifies a feminine, maternal creature. The bear also remains constant, never setting below the horizon. This represents Fanny Price’s constancy and femininity. Though Fanny is often seen as weak and emotional, at the time those qualities were admirable in womanhood. She is strong, but delicate. Such a creature would need a protector, an Arcturus, to guide, guard, and watch over her. Edmund fulfills his duty as a guide well, as a guard and a watcher he leaves something to be desired, for when Fanny needs his support and help to ward off the unwanted advances of Henry Crawford and the threatening control of her uncle Sir Thomas, Edmund is distracted with his own troubles. Even Arcturus, the watcher, in some seasons dips below the horizon and is not found. This leaves Mary Crawford as Cassiopeia, with her admittedly selfish air and her clever, witty conversation. An outsider to the connection between Arcturus and the bear, in order to see her one would have to leave the house and go into the garden, perhaps leaving the confines of society to see this queen, beautiful, even if she is a bit upside down.
Before I finish my remarks I would also like to comment on Fanny’s surname, Price. As I mentioned before, many of the names Jane Austen used had meaning related to the characters. I would like to propose one more for Miss Price. At first glance this might seem like a working class name, something to denote the vulgarity and poverty of the Price family. But what if you take into account a biblical reference that would have been well known to both the Austens, and the fictional Edmund Bertram.
The Christian parable of the Pearl of Great Price.
Matthew 13:45-46 Reads: Again the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls; (46) Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.
This parable immediately follows the parable of the treasure, and has a similar theme. It is usually interpreted as illustrating the great value of seeking the kingdom of heaven. Pope Pius XII used the phrase Pearl of Great Price to describe virginity. The pearl is described in ancient texts as ‘Formed through suffering in the heart of the oyster, to be put on display in a future day. Unlike precious stones which must be cut and polished to reveal their clarity and beauty, the pearl is perfect as it comes from the oyster.
Whether it be stars, pearls, necklaces or gold chains, Fanny price is always adorned with value and virtue, for those who care to find it.