Saturday, May 24, 2014

Where Has Edward Gone?

Believe me, every heart has its secret sorrows, which the world knows not, and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad.
                   — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hyperion
I read an opinion once (I don’t remember where) that Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility has a great flaw in that one of the main characters, Edward Ferrars, stays out of the picture for so long. Having just finished reading Austen’s first novel for the second time, I must disagree. For one thing, Edward is “on stage” plenty enough for Elinor’s love to come across as believable. But more importantly, the story isn’t as much about Edward as it is about what people – especially Elinor – think about Edward, and for that purpose, he might as well be gone for chapters at a time.

Austen fills her novels with conflicts between appearance and reality. The idea finds its way into the title of Pride and Prejudice, but S&S has even more of it. Marianne, for instance, can’t imagine that Elinor feels any deep sorrow over Edward’s apparent indecision simply because she doesn’t show it. With that example of misreading the surface involving two characters present on virtually every page, the problem of reading a mostly absent character provides an interesting foil and doesn’t seem like a flaw to me.

And then of course there’s Willoughby, a love interest who appears often and whose mask differs grossly from the villainous character at his core. (I have very little sympathy for Willoughby even after his apology.) Maybe the critic whose identity I’ve forgotten wanted more of Edward simply because he was the love interest that turns out to be a good guy. But I’m not sure that means he’s the hero, the male lead of the story. I guess one could argue that he has to be since Elinor is the main female character. But is that even true? Elinor is certainly the sympathetic character. But Marianne is the one who has to repent, change, and triumph, and C. S. Lewis has pointed out (this one I remember: you can read his views on Jane Austen in Selected Literary Essays) that Austen heroines all repent.

If you’ve read Sense and Sensibility, you know there’s one more love interest who turns out to be a very good guy. But I’ve spouted enough spoilers and don’t want to give away the last page of the book.

1 comment:

  1. The absence of Edward is only a flaw if one is compelled to have a leading male character at all. The critic's opinion reveals more about the critic, in this case, than about the book.
    And S&S is my favorite! Have you seen Emma Thompson's film version?