What use does Austen make of comedy? Why are there such light moments in such a serious book? Consider Rushworth and Mrs. Norris in particular.
While both Rushworth and Mrs. Norris are funny in their pomposity and their lack of intelligence, their place in the plot is deadly serious. Rushworth represents the negative side of marrying for money; he is dreadful to know and completely incompatible with Maria. His buffoonery is fun, but it will lead to disaster when Maria just can't take it any more. Mrs. Norris is a deliberate caricature. Her hysterical insistence on preserving social distinctions is responsible for much of the mistreatment Fanny receives. In both cases, though, the comedy can distract from the plot a bit. Austen creates such rich and entertaining characters, however, that the distraction is easy to forgive. Their idiocy makes both Rushworth and Mrs. Norris realistic and memorable.
How does Austen structure her plot? Does the three-volume structure of the typical nineteenth-century novel influence the structure of the events?
The end of each of the first two volumes finds Fanny in peril, first of being forced to take a part in the play, then of being forced to marry Henry. Austen uses the three-volume form to structure her novel like a play: each set of actions is complete and concludes dramatically. The three volumes are broken up further into a series of episodes. As we progress from episode to episode, lessons are learned, characters change, and the structure of the novel gives us a noticeable sense of movement and climax.
What different kinds of marriages are depicted in this novel? What kinds of qualities are important in choosing a marriage partner in this world? What is Austen's ideal for marriage?
Many of the marriages in this novel are based on money and social position. In this society, marriage is one of the few ways a woman can change her status. Austen depicts many of her characters as caught up in either money or extremes of emotion. The ideal marriage, in this world, is one based on companionship. Despite their flaws, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram truly seem to value each other's company. The ideal mate for someone like Fanny would be a man with whom she is intellectually and emotionally close without physical attraction playing too excessive a part. Her brother William is a kind of unattainable ideal in this regard. Edmund is perfect, since he is like a brother in his manner toward her but not actually her brother.
What kind of role does family play in the development of an individual's character? Can a good person come from a bad family, or vice versa? Which is more important--someone's innate qualities, or the way they were raised?
What role do physical settings play in the plot? Why are the "improvements" that Crawford and Rushworth want to make so interesting to everyone? Do the various landscapes have symbolic value?
How does Austen pair up characters to make points about desirable characteristics? Consider Henry, Edmund, and William, and Maria, Mary, and Fanny. What about "love triangles"? Why do characters always have a choice of possible mates?
Describe the letters that appear in this book. How are letters different from conversation as a means of communication? Why are letters so prominent?
Consider Edmund and Henry's conversation about sermons as rhetorical performances in Chapter 34, which follows Henry's dramatic Shakespeare reading. How is public performance viewed in this world? What is the relationship between style and substance? Between style and sincerity?
How is the social order of the country house contrasted with the social order of the city in this novel? Which allows for more social mobility? Which seems stronger morally? How do ideas of tradition and modernity play into this?
What are the uses of illness and physical frailty? Is it important that Fanny is such a physically fragile person? Is it symbolic? Consider also Lady Bertram and her son Tom.
Regarding Maria Bertram and Mrs. Norris in the last chapter, neither leaves England. When Austen writes that "an establishment [is] being formed for them in another country," she does not mean continental Europe. Here, "country" simply means another part of the same country (most likely somewhere in the countryside). They are still in England.