Thursday, September 30, 2010

Point of view and character: The case of Edward Ferrars

Some cold, hard facts about a male character who appears in a Jane Austen novel:

A young man becomes engaged under circumstances where the engagement must remain secret in order to prevent his being disowned and disinherited by his family. Within months of that engagement, the man realizes that his promise was rash -- as he later puts it, "an idle, foolish inclination." The engagement continues nevertheless. About four years later -- with his engagement still unbroken, and still secret -- he meets another young woman, with whom he spends a sufficient amount of time, and to whom he pays a sufficient quality of attention, as to lead this second young woman's family to wonder if she and the young man might be engaged.

Is that an Austen hero?

Just looking at that Joe Friday version of the first few chapters of Sense and Sensibility,* you'd probably say no. You'd say that maybe he's an Austen villain -- sort of a chaste Willoughby, a Willoughby-lite -- or perhaps an Austen buffoon, like the foppish Frank Churchill.

And you'd be wrong.

Over the course of the last few weeks I have had the difficult task of explaining to various people why Edward Ferrars is a good character, despite the not insignificant body of evidence against him. My usual line of argument -- sound as far as it went -- had been to plead his later conduct, which revealed him to be a man who stood to his promises, cost him what it may, and who manfully accepted the awful consequences of his imprudence.

But in arguing that case I realized something. Commendable as Edward's later action was, knowledge of it was not, at bottom, the reason I thought well of him and wished him happiness. My admiration for Edward, my wish that he be happy, my inclination to take his side in argument, were actually founded only upon these two things: First, I had the highest regard for Jane Austen, and great respect for her judgment -- and she, as narrator, evidently admired Edward Ferrars. Second, I had the highest regard for Austen's heroine, Elinor Dashwood, and great respect for her judgment -- and she admired Edward Ferrars.** Moreover, their admiration was quite absolute well before Edward's later action proved just how worthy of it he was. From first to last, their praises of Edward's virtues, and their readiness to cover his sins, ensured that I always viewed him as they did.

That is the awesome extent to which point of view affects character in a story.

* The secret engagement is a part of the man's backstory, which does not come out until many chapters later. I include it in the summary to place his conduct under appropriately critical scrutiny.

** The question: Does Austen admire Edward because Elinor does, or does Elinor admire Edward because Austen does? is an important one, but beyond the scope of this brief note.