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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