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Character & Characterization: Austen Heroes

Austen Heroes.jpg

Here we are in the second post in my series on Jane Austen’s characters. Today the focus is all on Austen's heroes. Let’s be real, when I say Jane Austen, how many of you automatically think: “Mr. Darcy!”? It is true, Austen has written some great male heroes in her work, but what is it about them that makes us love them all these years later?

If you read last week’s post, you’ll know that Austen heroines feel so real, so much like women I might know, because they are good people with very human flaws that are capable of recognizing their faults and changing for the better. Unsurprisingly, this character pattern is reflected in the male counterparts to Austen’s heroines.  

Austen's heroes are, much like the heroines, generally good people of strong moral character. While they may have faults or shortcomings, they are upstanding men. They ultimately do what is right, even when it is difficult. For example, Edward Ferrars maintains his engagement with Lucy Steele because he gave her his word. Despite the fact that it means sacrificing a happy future with Elinor, Edward remains steadfast in his commitments.

In addition to being men of good character, they are men of position and respectability. Fitzwilliam Darcy comes from a good family and is a large landowner.  George Knightley too is part of the landed gentry and a pillar of the community. There are heroes like Edward Ferrars, Edmund Bertram, and Henry Tilney who come from good families, but are not vastly wealthy. Instead, they enter the clergy and have a career that not only provides an income, but additional moral strength and position within their communities. Then there is Frederick Wentworth, who is something of a self-made man, building his fortune and reputation through his military service. All are stable and can offer a comfortable situation for the Austen heroines.

Hark, a vagrant: 120  by Kate Beaton

Hark, a vagrant: 120 by Kate Beaton

That said, they are not perfect. Yes, even Fitzwilliam Darcy. Darcy, for all his wealth, makes such a poor impression upon the people of Hertfordshire, the ladies at the assembly decide that "... not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend (Mr. Bingley)." His faults also match Elizabeth's; both exhibit pride and prejudice, though in different ways. Not all heroes have the same faults as their heroines. For example, Knightley is honest to a fault and has a nasty habit of chastising Emma, whose stubbornness and vanity gives him no shortage of missteps to criticize. By making their faults complement each other, the heroes and heroines help bring about change in each other. They literally make each other into better people.

Even so, the change exhibited by Austen's heroes is sometimes more subtle than the change of her heroines. Emma makes some real mistakes which result in painful consequences for both her and her friends. Knightley scolds her for them thoroughly; in his own words, he tells Emma "I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it."  While Knightley acknowledges that he has been overly critical, his change is less drastic. He is a good judge of character and, as a landowner in his community, his advice is valuable, he merely needs to learn to temper it. Similarly, Edward Ferrars doesn't fundamentally change much throughout the story. He frees himself of his family's influence and the burden of a bad engagement, but otherwise is still a loyal, kind, and open-hearted person.

So, what is it about these heroes that we still love and connect with years later? Personally, I think it is that they are so steadfast and, frankly, heroic. They do the right thing, they are kind and respectable. Of course, it also helps when you have Colin Firth dive into a pond in a white shirt. All joking aside, Austen's heroes are the perfect counterparts to her heroines and seeing them fall in love is something timeless and magical.

Next week, this series will wrap up with Austen's villains. As much as we love her heroes and heroines, there are plenty of villains we love to hate that add tension and conflict to the stories. See you all next week!

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