In the immortal words of Patches O'Houlian of the movie Dodgeball, "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball." However, if you're Fanny Price, you don't bother dodging anything at all. See, Fanny is the person (either very savvy or just very scared) who hangs out on the fringes of the dodgeball game, avoiding getting hit and not trying to hit anyone else either. Through sheer lurking power, Fanny is the last person standing at the end of this book. But can we really say that Fanny actually "won" the game, so to speak, since she didn't really participate? And why isn't Fanny playing the game in the first place? Fanny is one of the most complicated characters in Mansfield Park, and making sense of her passive attitude, the impression it gives readers, and the impact it has on the narrative, takes some digging.
Misunderstandings and Assumptions
Unlike many of Austen's active, charming, and spunky heroines, like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, if we had to pick one word to describe Fanny it would be "shy." Her shyness and timid nature keep her from participating socially and from speaking. This exclusion makes Fanny lonely and depressed, which often results in psychosomatic symptoms – a big word meaning that mental and emotional problems are having physical results. Fanny gets headaches when she's emotionally upset, for example. When Fanny is depressed, her low self-esteem goes into overdrive, which lowers her confidence, which makes her less likely to speak up. It's a vicious cycle.
And there's another part of the cycle of shyness, too. People tend to forget about Fanny or just misunderstand her. Fanny often disappears from scenes and from people's notice:
"But where is Fanny? Is she gone to bed?"
"No, not that I know of," replied Mrs. Norris; "she was here a moment ago."
Her own gentle voice speaking from the other end of the room [...] told them that she was on the sofa. (7.30-33)
Fanny often disappears, like a ninja. A shy, passive ninja. But she stays on people's minds and confuses them too:
[Sir Thomas] hardly knew whether there were any difference in her spirits or not. She was always so gentle and retiring, that her emotions were beyond his discrimination. He [...] therefore applied to Edmund to tell him [...] whether she were more or less happy than she had been. (37.1)
Sir Thomas, like many of Mansfield Park's characters, has a hard time figuring out Fanny because she never gives clear signs as to what she's thinking or feeling. Fanny hides her emotions and her thoughts, rarely expressing them to others. The thoughts that we the reader hear from Fanny are often dizzying. Fanny spends the entire book fretting over Edmund and later Henry, thinking in circles about her feelings for them and their feelings for her, without saying any of it aloud.
There's another problem with Fanny's reserve. Though she's often misunderstood, most characters are under the mistaken impression that they understand her perfectly:
Edmund now believed himself perfectly acquainted with all that Fanny could tell, or could leave to be conjectured, of her sentiments, and he was satisfied. (36.1)
Fanny gives people very little to work with and, as a result, they end up making assumptions about her that are often wrong. The whole ordeal with Henry is a perfect example of this. No one understands why Fanny is refusing to marry Henry, and because Fanny fails to offer up a strong, clear explanation, everyone assumes that she doesn't actually mean it when she tells Henry "no."
Fanny never reaches out to people or really even tries to overcome her shyness, which makes her frustrating at times. During the theater episode, Fanny notices that Julia is suffering too, but makes no effort to reach out to her unhappy cousin. Even Edmund notes Fanny's tendency to not speak up and the problems it causes her: "This comfort you might have had sooner, Fanny, had you sought it" (35.14).
Fanny passively sits by while everyone else is being active and getting creamed in the metaphorical dodgeball game going on here. Fanny triumphs in the end, winning Edmund as she always wanted, by virtue of being one of the few people still standing.
Even as the other characters are making wrong assumptions about the quiet Fanny, Fanny herself is making a lot of judgments about those around her. She walks a very fine line between having good judgment and being outright judgmental. In fact, some readers find Fanny self-righteous, while others find her principled and steadfast. Which do you see her as?
Fanny sometimes seems just as biased and selfish as those she judges from her moral high-ground perspective. During the play preparation in Mansfield Park, Fanny doesn't want to act in the play and as such feels that her refusal to act is "pure" and moral: "It would be so horrible to her to act, that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples [...]" (16.3). Fanny's morals justify what she wants to do here.
The trouble is that Fanny then thinks that by following her own set of standards and by sticking to "appropriate" behavior, she then earns the right to judge others:
She would endeavour to be rational and to deserve the right of judging Miss Crawford's character and the privilege of true solicitude for him by a sound intellect and an honest heart. (27.18)
Those kind of comments make us wonder how different Fanny would be if she opted not to silently judge but rather to interact with people. And this self-righteousness stands as an interesting contrast to the low confidence and self-esteem we most often see, as she sticks to the sidelines.
At any rate, Fanny and her dodgeball strategy (and life strategy) of silence, secrecy, avoidance, and passivity pay off for her. Does this mean that Austen ultimately approves of her, or is she making fun of Fanny? Depending on your opinion, Fanny may not be an entirely admirable character, but she is often a sympathetic one. And a frustrating one. And above all else, a complicated one.