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Stop selling me gratitude: Jane Austen called BS on this tyranny of the status quo 200 years ago

You've seen the signs: "BE GRATEFUL," "GIVE THANKS." Austen dealt with the politics of this in "Mansfield Park"


Kevin Stevens
November 27, 2015 3:30AM (UTC)

Go to any store that sells home décor and you’ll be bombarded by them: the wall decals, the geometric cubes, the tablecloths, the hand towels—all imploring you to be grateful, feel thankful or display your gratitude. “BE GRATEFUL” or “THANKFUL,” blare these decorations, which stores now feature throughout the year rather than, as one might assume, just during the Thanksgiving holidays. Nowadays, if you can afford the often not-so-humble sticker price of these furnishings, you can decorate your entire home with entreaties to be grateful or expressions of your gratitude.

As I’ve noticed this décor creeping into the corners of friends’ homes and seemingly every aisle of Homegoods, I’ve wondered why such a market for these items exists, since, from my irascible perspective, these decorations solely arouse anger—a far cry from gratitude. When observing the word “thankful” plastered on a wall, I see only the owner pompously proclaiming that he/she is a thankful person (perhaps when I’d like to object). And when I read the command “Be Thankful,” I instinctively resist—rebel against, even—this demand of my gratitude. Not that I prefer to be ungrateful or surrounded by ingrates; far from it. In fact, having spent the last decade of my life at two expensive private universities, I have often reminded myself to be grateful for my privileges (and sometimes wished others would consider the same).

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But the difference between gratitude decorations and my college experiences is that I am grateful for specific reasons, while the thankful décor blandly requires gratitude at all times, irrespective of one’s current emotional, bodily or financial state. Not just inconsiderate, these decorations also, crucially, instruct viewers to disregard the conditions that might make them feel ungrateful, even indignant. Oblivious of context, these decorations sing a constant refrain: when wrongly persecuted or victimized, Be Grateful; when failed morally or ethically, Be Thankful. If we truly followed their advice, we would become mere automatons, disregarding our complex emotions—and, not to mention, reason and common sense—to express an invariable and unquestioned feeling of gratitude.

Of course, gratitude is an important aspect of our social interactions: We tend to like people who display it (and conversely dislike the consistently ungrateful), and a Harvard study has even found a greater happiness rate among people who consistently express thankfulness than among those who don’t. Yet gratitude’s opposite, the harsher sounding and less marketable “ungratefulness,” can be as meaningful of a social expression, for it announces one’s dissatisfaction with a current circumstance and may lead one to enact meaningful change—to produce something or some situation for which one will be grateful. But these decorations call exclusively for gratitude, thereby renouncing ungratefulness. In so doing, they persuade viewers both to disavow their feelings of ingratitude, along with its accompanying emotions (anger, frustration or indignation), and to appreciate, or be grateful for, the status quo.

To understand the consequences of this contemporary plea for thankfulness, we might consider a novel just a year over 200: Jane Austen’s "Mansfield Park," a work fundamentally about these very politics of gratitude. In that novel, Austen’s characters insistently importune the novel’s protagonist, Fanny Price, to feel grateful for her opportunity to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle. While in transit from her lower-class home to the wealthy Mansfield estate, Fanny quickly learns of the expectations of her gratitude from her aunt, as the narrator notes: “Mrs. Norris had been talking to her the whole way from Northampton of [Fanny’s] wonderful good fortune, and the extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behaviour which it ought to produce.” When instructing Fanny to feel grateful, Mrs. Norris conspicuously overlooks that the young girl has just been removed from her family and home—sent, without ever agreeing, to a foreign place inhabited by unknown people. Willingly blind to Fanny’s evident discomfort and isolation, Mrs. Norris persistently monitors only her niece’s gratitude, ensuring that Fanny shows thankfulness for, ironically, changes that she detests. In this way, Mrs. Norris recalls the modern gratitude décor: painfully negligent of context, she has only one feeling to inculcate—thankfulness.

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As Austen scholars like Claudia L. Johnson and Susan Greenfield have emphasized, "Mansfield’s" characters repeatedly insist upon Fanny’s gratitude, often compelling her not only to feel but also to act against her will. When Fanny rejects a marriage proposal from a wealthy man she neither loves nor trusts, Fanny’s uncle accuses her of not appreciating her privileged upbringing and the opportunities it provided her to advance socially: “You do not owe me the duty of a child. But, Fanny, if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude—,” he sharply remarks. Similarly, when Fanny’s family mistreats, neglects and excludes her, they require that she nevertheless show gratitude for the mere opportunity to live among their rank. Indeed, any resistance to her family’s unkind and often unjust demands is perceived as an act of insubordination, or a display of ingratitude, as Mrs. Norris explains: “but I shall think her a very obstinate, ungrateful girl, if she does not do what her aunt and cousins wish her—very ungrateful, indeed, considering who and what she is.” Gratitude, Austen shows, requires Fanny’s unquestioned obedience to her family, whereas any resistance—or any time she listens to her own feelings—reveals her “obstinate, ungrateful” nature. Here we see Austen acknowledging the problems with gratitude (which forces Fanny to accept and appreciate her family’s corruption and tyranny) while applauding Fanny’s “ungrateful” but honest assessment of her own happiness and inner moral code.

Despite these occasional moments of resistance, though, Fanny largely internalizes her family’s decrees to feel thankful, as seen in Austen’s recurring use of the words “gratitude” or “thankful” to describe Fanny’s reactions. Yet while Fanny fails as an ideal ingrate, Austen nevertheless emphasizes the problems with Mansfield Park that Fanny should have noticed and repudiated: Fanny’s family not only physically exploits and emotionally neglects her but also sustains itself economically through slave labor in Antigua. Rather than rejecting the injustices made manifest in the novel, Fanny learns to accept and feel grateful for them; Austen’s thankful protagonist acquiesces to Mansfield’s corrupt status quo, suppressing her own moments of anger or indignation and instead heeding the call to feel constant gratitude.

"Mansfield Park" by no means endorses its protagonist’s acquiescence; rather, the novel encourages readers to denounce both Fanny’s uncaring and demeaning relatives, who maintain their lifestyle through the suffering of others, and the skewed sense of gratitude that they instill in her. Far from a grateful endorsement of the status quo, "Mansfield Park" ardently promotes a politics of ingratitude: It insists that we interrogate our feelings and not feel compelled to express or, worse, internalize a persistent sense of gratitude, particularly in the face of injustice. Question your world critically, "Mansfield Park" tells us, and, when necessary, be “obstinate, ungrateful.” Perhaps that decoration I’d buy.

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Kevin Stevens

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Books Jane Austen Mansfield Park Thanksgiving

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