The Art of Manipulation

  Good can imagine Evil; but Evil cannot imagine Good.  – W. H. Auden

The Art of ManipulationBlatant evil can easily be spotted within the pages of zombie and vampire books.  

But sometimes evil is vague and blurred.  

Although we find no flagrant blood-sucking sort of evil in Jane Austen’s stories, a more subtle kind is very much present.  It sits there; finely dressed; fangless; but monstrous in word and action.

Last week, I spent the early part of my day in the company of fellow Janeites (including several males!) at a local JASNA meeting discussing Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.  We began by reading the first chapter.  Within the first three pages of the book, Mrs. Norris makes several calculated moves that drastically affect the lives of other relations. 

I didn’t realize how genuinely evil she was until I’d re-read the book and listened to this fine group of astute-Austen-enthusiasts (say that three times fast) pick apart her words (and Jane can say so much with just a single word) ever so carefully.  

In short, Mrs. Norris is wicked. 

Without going into particulars, Mrs. Norris (J.K. Rowling named Argus Filch’s cat after this character) manipulates people with no motive other than to inflict pain.  She starts with her own sister and then turns her attention to young  Fanny.

Manipulation, old-fashioned manipulation, occurs often in Jane Austen’s characters.  We see it in Isabella Thorpe throughout  Northanger Abbey as she uses the art of manipulation on Catherine.  Isabella’s intentions, however, are not so sinister as to inflict pain.  She is simply trying to bring her rather uncouth brother and Catherine together.  She’s good at what she does.  She is practiced at the art of manipulation. 

Mary Crawford, in Mansfield Park, is the queen of manipulation.  She too, is eager to help her flirty brother; and let’s face it, she’s out for herself.  But, I wouldn’t label her as evil.  In fact, when she is kind to Fanny, I love Mary Crawford!  It’s hard not to like her.  

 The only other barefaced evil character in Austen’s books (other than Mrs. Norris) is perhaps General Tilney in Northanger Abbey.  Why?  He sends Catherine home on the post-chaise; a 70-mile journey; with no servant; exposing the poor girl to the cruel elements of nature and all sorts of potential danger.  Why?  

Because she’s not wealthy.  

What a tool.  

I wonder if Jane Austen considered General Tilney to be on the same evil level as Mrs. Norris. What do you think?

*Photo: Red Baroness with her Carnivale mask by Alaskan Dude, obtained through Flickr.

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  • I think characters like Mrs. Norris and General Tilney serve to show us the good in the heroine. We could not see how good, how respected, if we did not have something sinister to compare.

  • I liked Argus’s Mrs. Norris much better than Jane Austen’s Mrs. Norris. The idea that Filch read Mansfield Park and liked the character Mrs. Norris enough to name his cat after her makes me giggle. Should we invite him to join us?

    Mrs. Norris is just plain horrid. She’s like one of those people who just cannot think of any better way to employ her time than to make others miserable. As the eldest of her sisters she probably was miffed when her second sister married so well and then was pissed as all get out because her youngest married for love, which meant that both of them did better than her one way or another as she neither married so well or for love in comparison.

    As for General Tilney, I’m going with evil elitist, though I think there might have been a bit of pride mixed in with that detest of Catherine Morland’s lack of fortune. Bet he was also very angry that he had actually listened to that idiot John Thorpe and felt made a fool of. He wasn’t the kind of person who could let that go and probably felt that Catherine had been part of that deception.