Austen Teaches Moral Compromise 101

Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram

In yesterday’s post I used Jane Austen’s Tom Bertram from Mansfield Park to go after blatant hypocrites like Republican Whip Eric Cantor, but today I want to acknowledge that merely being satiric has its limitations.  One risks becoming self-righteous and superior and of overlooking the mote in one’s own eye. Today, therefore, I use the other Bertram brother to look at the difficulties that principled people encounter when they negotiate with a compromised world.

I have Barack Obama in mind but I could be talking about any Democrat or Republican who genuinely has the public good in mind and who must go through the sausage making process to govern successfully and bring about constructive change. I also have in mind voters who want our leaders to be both principled and effective and who must decide how to respond when they make questionable moves. Edmund Bertram provides a good case study.

Edmund is an exemplary character who is preparing for the ministry. When his brother and two sisters want to stage a scandalous German play in their home—an endeavor that would certainly be vetoed by their father were he not in the West Indies at the time—Edmund objects vehemently.

But he’s the younger brother and is overruled. At first he determines not to have anything to do with the production, even though he is invited to play a major role. The others decide to bring in an outsider, someone who will play opposite the woman that Edmund loves (Mary Crawford). In Edmund’s eyes, this is unacceptable for two reasons: as the first family in the neighborhood, the Bertrams will be lowering themselves by inviting in strangers. This stranger, furthermore, will be matched up with Mary in what is for the time a fairly steamy scene.

So Edmund talks himself into playing the role, and he does so in a questionable way: he eases his conscience by seeming to get the approval of Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, although in fact he maneuvers the conversation in such a way that she cannot help but support him. It is not entirely clear whether he joins the play because he is making the best of a bad situation or because he is drawn to the prospect of acting with Mary. Human nature being what it is, both motivations are probably active. But there’s no doubt how his siblings see it. In their eyes, his principles have been sacrificed to his infatuation:

It was, indeed, a triumphant day to Mr. Bertram [Tom] and Maria. Such a victory over Edmund’s discretion had been beyond their hopes, and was most delightful. There was no longer anything to disturb them in their darling project, and they congratulated each other in private on the jealous weakness to which they attributed the change, with all the glee of feelings gratified in every way. Edmund might still look grave, and say he did not like the scheme in general, and must disapprove the play in particular; their point was gained: he was to act, and he was driven to it by the force of selfish inclinations only. Edmund had descended from that moral elevation which he had maintained before, and they were both as much the better as the happier for the descent.

His father Sir Thomas, who returns unexpectedly early, also does not give Edmund any credit for moral needle threading. He doesn’t expect anything from his oldest son but counts on Edmund to be a moral compass. Fanny witnesses “the look” Sir Thomas gives him:

Such a look of reproach at Edmund from his father she could never have expected to witness; and to feel that it was in any degree deserved was an aggravation indeed. Sir Thomas’s look implied, “On your judgment, Edmund, I depended; what have you been about?”

And now, back to contemporary politics. Should Obama make compromised deals with Republicans to keep the government running? Is he justified in ordering the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen encouraging terrorist attacks who was in Yemen and beyond any legal jurisdiction? Should he support a Canada-U.S. oil pipeline that will contribute to global warming but lessen American dependence on Middle East oil? In these instances, is he a principled man who must make the best of a bad situation? Or has he lost his inner compass?

For that matter (this is a question I ask myself regularly), how many excuses do we as voters make for Obama. Or for that matter, for Bush II or Clinton or any of their predecessors. How many improprieties or deviations do we rationalize away before we ourselves lose our way.

These are questions that require complex moral and political reasoning. Simplistic purity tests won’t suffice, nor can we be purely pragmatic. We have to call on both our values and our understanding of the world and sometimes we get the balance wrong.

In Mansfield Park Edmund gets it wrong–he should have stuck to his guns–and even the best of our leaders stumble at times. We as voters need to hold them accountable but we must also be understanding. After all, they are human and so are we.

Jane Austen helps us hone our skills. Think of reading Mansfield Park as training for citizenship.


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