Jane Austen and “Occupy Wall Street”

Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price

On Monday I posted on how Jane Austen’s depiction of Mrs. John Dashwood (in Sense and Sensibility) gives us an insight into the mindset of certain racists.  The same observation could be extended to those wealthy people and their political allies who are hysterically reacting to the Occupy Wall Street movement. If you are making a tremendous amount of money in a society with a large income gap between rich and poor, then any criticism is going to carry an extra sting. Guilt adds sauce to the mixture.

Come to think of it, a year ago I applied Mrs. John Dashwood to America’s whiney rich. (You can read the post here.) But where Austen really calls out the irresponsible wealthy is in Mansfield Park, maybe her angriest novel. Nowhere is their self-absorption and their insensitivity more on display.

I found myself applying Mansfield Park to some of the virulent attacks from the right against the Occupy Wall Street movement. House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, who describes the New York protests as “mob rule,” was applauding Tea Partiers as patriots a few months ago. Here is Cantor’s recent remark:

If you read the newspapers today, I for one am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country. And believe it or not, some in this town have actually condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans.

The White House described Cantor (legitimately in my view) as “hypocrisy unbound,” and he brings to mind a scene involving Fanny Price and Tom Bertram, the elder son.

Tom is a rake who thinks only of his own pleasure. Fanny, the principled heroine, is a dependent who never thinks of hers. She is at a dance and would very much like a partner, but Tom all but ignores her, choosing to read a newspaper instead. When his disagreeable aunt tries to rope him into a game of cards, however, he suddenly remembers that he should dance with Fanny:

“I should be most happy [to play cards],” replied he aloud, and jumping up with alacrity, “it would give me the greatest pleasure; but that I am this moment going to dance.” Come, Fanny, taking her hand, “do not be dawdling any longer, or the dance will be over.”

Fanny was led off very willingly, though it was impossible for her to feel much gratitude towards her cousin, or distinguish, as he certainly did, between the selfishness of another person and his own.

It’s not enough that Tom is insensitive. He must scold Fanny for dawdling, as though none of the responsibility is his.  But that’s not all.  He wins the Eric Cantor chutzpah award by then complaining to Fanny about selfish people who make ungracious invitations:

And to ask me in such a way too! without ceremony, before them all, so as to leave me no possibility of refusing. That is what I dislike most particularly. It raises my spleen more than anything, to have the pretence of being asked, of being given a choice, and at the same time addressed in such a way as to oblige one to do the very thing, whatever it be! If I had not luckily thought of standing up with you I could not have got out of it. It is a great deal too bad. But when my aunt has got a fancy in her head, nothing can stop her.

Jane Austen would probably approve of neither Occupy Wall Street nor the Tea Party. But she knew about the class fears that are probably at the basis of both movements and she knew a hypocrite when she saw one. And while the left has hypocrites no less than the right, Cantor distinguishes himself, like Tom, by how self-assured he is and how he covers his hypocrisy with attack.


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  • Methinks he doth protest too much.

  • Robin Bates

    Tom Bertram or Eric Cantor, Susan? Or both?

    And don’t you like how Hamlet has a quotation for every occasion?

  • http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/10/jane-austen-and-occupy-wall-street.html

    What do you think about my post, Mister Bates? 😉

    Weston, Florida

  • Robin Bates

    I like your post on this subject a lot, Arnie, and recommend that readers go visit it. I agree with you on just how angry Jane Austen was at the insensitivity and callousness of the wealthy and how, in their smug sense of entitlement, they were all too willing to trample on individual rights. She’s speaking with the fury of a dependent. Let me quote my favorite part of your post:

    And my serious purpose behind this fun, was to make the claim that Jane Austen, as I understand her now, after all my research into her fiction, her letters and her biography, would have been right there in Times Square today, supporting this movement that dares to challenge the fattest cats in the history of the human race, the Wall Street billionaires who take their obscene bonuses (which are truly absurd, but not at all in a funny way), attempt to strip away even the pitifully weak regulations that were enacted 2 years ago, and who exert their gargantuan political influence via mountains of money, in the guise of the “personhood” of multinational corporations.

    Jane Austen would be there in Times Square writing satirical copy for blogs, posters, and sound bites, doing a critical service in using humor and psychological insight to further this genuine revolution against unspeakable wrongdoing.

    The evidence for this includes everything I’ve written in this blog during the last 18 months, but especially what I wrote about Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park, who if he were alive today would not have slave plantation in Antigua, he’d own a large interest in Citicorp.

    Recall that arguably the most thrilling moment in all of Jane Austen’s novels comes when little Fanny Price, shaking in her shoes as the monstrous Sir Thomas, like the Giant in Jack & The Beanstalk, thunderous clomps into her freezing attic, and she dares to tell him that she cannot accept Henry Crawford’s proposal, even though she will suffer dearly for her defiance.

    The reason I can’t imagine Austen joining Occupy Wall Street is because I see her as a Burkean conservative, not so much against class hierarchy as against those wealthy who abuse their positions. She wants to join the upper class, not tear down class distinctions. Therefore, in her next book, in the end she chooses to reside with Emma Woodhouse (once she has cleaned up her act), not in some populist way with Harriet and Roger Martin. I imagine her agreeing with the Kennedys that “those born to privilege have special responsibilities.”

    But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, and I certainly agree that Mansfield Park is a very angry book. I also believe that something new and interesting is happening with Persuasion so who knows where she would have ended up if she had lived longer.


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    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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