Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park actually share a number of themes relating to the centrality of land in the formation of eighteenth and nineteenth century conceptions of rural virtue, politics, and property. Crusoe's South American island could not be farther from the staid environs of Mansfield Park, but the same tension between rural virtue and worldly interests permeates both stories, particularly in regards to Crusoe's wanderlust and Edmund's relationship with Mary. Both Crusoe and Edmund are lured by the seeming adventure and excitement of the world outside their rural homes, but ultimately find that the promises offered by this world are unmoored from any genuine moral or ethical system; at different times Crusoe finds himself both slave and slaver, and only begins to develop a moral compass after his shipwreck forces him to relate to the land in a way he has previously never considered. Similarly, Edmund's fascination with Mary is based largely on her worldly nature, and it is only after seeing her response to Henry and Maria's scandal that Edmund recognizes both Mary's amoral character and the supposed virtue that stems from a genuine connection to a particular place. Both characters are essentially punished for their interest in a world outside the ideological bounds of their upbringing, and this punishment eventually causes them to turn away from their own interests in the service of religious, patriarchal authority. By examining Crusoe and Edmund's gradual education regarding the connection between virtue and an appreciation of land, one is able to see how this connection represents a key factor in the perpetuation of conservative, repressive Christian and patriarchal notions of ethics and morality.
In both Robinson Crusoe and Mansfield Park, the function of land in relation to virtue is expressed through the repeated reiteration of a moral dichotomy. In the case of Robinson Crusoe, this dichotomy takes the form of a tension between the sea and the land, with Crusoe favoring the sea from a young age (Defoe 2). That the sea represents a lack of virtue is demonstrated early on due to the fact that in many ways, Crusoe's character is reminiscent of the "prodigal son" from the Bible. Like the prodigal son, Crusoe is too ashamed to go home after his first shipwreck, and so he decides to return once more to the sea (Defoe 12). When he does, he explains his decision by saying, "the same evil influence that carried me first away from my father's house, that hurried me into the wild and indigested notion of raising my fortune, presented the most unfortunate of all enterprises to my view," clearly informing the reader that in this story, the sea represents the worse choice (Defoe 12). This notion is repeated throughout the story, because each time Crusoe sets out to sea he is met with a worse fate.
The dichotomy in Mansfield Park is equally clear, with the amoral adventure of the sea and the virtuous consistency of the land replaced by the social differences between urban and rural life, as embodied by the characters of Mary and Henry Crawford. That Mary and Henry are meant to serve as the avatars of this difference becomes clear when they first arrive at Mansfield and the central issue is whether or not the town will be interesting enough to "satisfy the habits of [people] who had been mostly used to London" (Austen 41). Over the course of the novel, Mary comes to represent to Edmund the same kind of promise that the sea offers to Crusoe, and in both cases, this promise is portrayed in direct opposition to the supposed moral superiority of the familial homeland. In both novels, then, the moral argument revolves around a dichotomy between the larger, expansive world and the individualized, glorified space of land itself, which functions as a kind of metaphorical representation of the complex of ideas that constitute the patriarchy, Christian, capitalist hegemony that permeates both novels.
Though the dichotomy is more basic in Robinson Crusoe, because it is literally between the land and the sea, the dichotomies in both novels concern themselves with the same set of oppositional beliefs or standards. Although there are a number of reasons for this similarity, the most central one is the fact that both novels, though separated by some temporal distance, were produced within the context of a highly-regulated, patriarchal Christian hegemony. Crusoe's similarity to the Biblical prodigal son is only one symptom of the novel's Christian core, and although religion plays a less overt role in Mansfield Park, the social conventions the characters follow (or break) are deeply rooted in Christian ideology. Similarly, that this is a specifically patriarchal ideology is evidenced explicitly in Robinson Crusoe and implicitly in Mansfield Park. It is important to point out and critique both the Christian and patriarchal aspects of the morality that is valorized in the novels, because while they purport to demonstrate some inherent quality in land ownership that generates virtue, in reality they are merely perpetuating a fabricated ideology that actually has very little influence on human happiness. Put another way, the novels, like ideology itself, pretends to describe an objective facet of experience while actually doing their best to reinforce and perpetuate a subjective interpretation of reality based solely on the belief in a magical, all-powerful father figure.
In Robinson Crusoe, the characterization of land as the site of virtue and social acceptability is personified by Crusoe's father, who foreshadows his son's fate in his warning that "if [Crusoe] did take this foolish step [of going to sea], God would not bless [him], and [he] would have leisure hereafter to reflect upon having neglected his [father's] counsel, when there might be none to assist in [his] recovery" (Defoe 4). When Crusoe is deciding whether or not to return home after his first shipwreck, he thinks of his father, because his father represents the idealized connection to home and land that Crusoe flees. This is why the success of Crusoe's plantation in Brazil is not enough to sever his desire for the sea; land alone is insufficient to generate the kind of virtue esteemed by the novel, because that virtue ultimately stems from the connection between land ownership and patriarchy. Appreciating this fact allows one to better understand how Robinson Crusoe functions as an "economic 'myth'" geared towards perpetuating the idea that "the betterment of the human condition" comes from "hard work, saving, investment, innovation and technical change," so long as those activities are performed within the context of a patriarchal, Christianized form of capitalism (Mathias 17, 20). It is only when Crusoe dedicates himself to Christianity, capitalist production, and patriarchal authority is he allowed to return to a comfortable life, free from the wild, verdant, almost feminized difficulties embodied by life on the island.
Similarly, the celebration of rural life contained in Mansfield Park is dependent upon a form of patriarchal capitalism, because this rural life is only made possible through the patronage of a male head of the family, as women were effectively unable to own or control land. The consistency and moral fortitude that comes with rural life and land ownership is intrinsically tied to an image of the patriarch as consistent and morally upstanding, such that the novel implicitly serves to perpetuate the sexist standards of its social milieu. This is why one cannot read Mansfield Park as a kind of proto-feminist text; although with Mary Crawford Austen helps create an image "of wealthy women whose behavior is appealing rather than distasteful," and thus suggests the possibility of a socially acceptable mode of feminine economic empowerment, this image is complicated by the implicit argument that wealthy women "need to find a way to acknowledge and accept the universality of such self-interested impulses while at the same time imagining psychological and social mechanisms that will keep them in check" (Michie 6). In other words, in Mansfield Park, only men can unproblematically control wealth, and because "the family represents the land, and the land the family," patriarchal virtue dictates that the "good" characters are those who give their lives over to both the patriarchy and its land (such as Edmund and Fanny).
Bearing this in mind, one can begin to understand how both Crusoe and Edmund's eventual return to their idealized homes is a symbolic reassertion of Christian patriarchy following their flirtations with alternative ideologies. Crusoe finally returns to England, sells his plantation, and resigns himself to the traditional, patriarchal role his father initially imagined for him:
What might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found, by long experience, was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries, hardships, the labor and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind, and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind. (Defoe 3)
Though Crusoe retires a relatively wealthy man, he only does so after nearly three decades of hardship.…