Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is not, as has often been claimed, a dour morality tale, endorsing prim virtue over wit and charm. Fanny and Mary can be read as representatives of two opposing comic traditions, those of sentimental comedy and "laughing" comedy. The movement of the novel contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of these two traditions, ultimately suggesting that neither is entirely satisfactory. Fanny's moral good sense is unattractive without any leaven of Mary's charm, while Mary's witty amorality is shown to be both selfish and cruel. As Austen suggests the weaknesses of both comic traditions through the weaknesses of her heroines, she avoids endorsing either tradition and explores the limitations of both. Mansfield Park is not a funny novel, but in its exploration of comic conventions it continues, on a structural level, the playfulness that marks Austen's other works.
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