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The dissolute Tom Bertram is a symbol of the damaged state of both the British aristocracy in general and the Bertram family in particular. Having gotten himself heavily in debt keeping up with the fashions of the times, he has put the entire family in jeopardy. This jeopardy becomes quite literal when Sir Thomas is forced to undertake the hazardous journey to Antigua to manage his investments; perhaps if the family were not in such bad economic shape he would have sent a representative instead. The Antigua holdings have been the subject of much recent critical work on this novel. Upon Sir Thomas's return, questions are raised about the slave trade and other morally questionable aspects of the plantation business. While these questions are merely parlor conversation and are never hostile, they do remind the reader that it is slave labor that enables the Bertrams' lavish lifestyle. Austen shows an unusual (for her) awareness of current events in her references to these issues, and many have suggested that this book contains a submerged critique of slavery and the economic exploitation of the colonies by the British upper classes.
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