I'm Kate Risheill. Welcome to my blog on writing.

Character & Characterization: Austen Villains

Austen Villains.jpg

Last, but certainly not least, in my series on Jane Austen's characters are her villains. They are the characters we love to hate, the ones that add conflict and tension to Austen's stories. In the same way that her heroes and heroines are complex and compelling, so too are her villains.

If Austen's heroes and heroines are generally good, morally just people, her villains lean in the opposite direction. Many of Austen's villains are libertines and social climbers. There's George Wickham, who tries to coerce Georgiana Darcy into marriage for her money and later runs off with Lydia Bennett, not marrying her until he is paid off by Darcy. Similarly, John Willoughby leads Marianne Dashwood to think that he intends to marry her before breaking her heart by marrying an heiress instead.

Often times, Austen's villains are charming and pleasant. They are excellent company, often much more so than Austen's heroes. That charm, however, can be used to manipulate the people around them to achieve their end goals. Elizabeth Bennett says of Wickham that, "Whatever he said, was said well; and whatever he did, was done gracefully." He is attractive and has all the trappings of respectability without the moral substance. Similarly, Willoughby is described as exceedingly handsome and enters into the story in a very gallant way, rescuing Marianne after she falls during a rainstorm. So, it is no surprise that when comparing Willoughby and the steady Colonel Brandon as potential objects of Marianne's affections, Elinor remarks, "... for what could a silent man of five and thirty hope, when opposed by a very lively one of five and twenty?" Of course, the story comes to reveal that the reserved Colonel Brandon is by far the better choice, especially after it is revealed that Willoughby had previously seduced Brandon's niece. 

However, Austen's villains do not always use their charms to seduce. Frank Churchill is also attractive and outgoing, but his endgame isn't to try to social climb by seducing Emma, though he had plenty of opportunities. Instead, Frank Churchill uses his flirting with Emma to cover his real affection for Jane Fairfax. Though what he does is wrong, the ultimate goal is to marry the woman he loves. For Churchill (and even Philip Elton) the word villain seems a bit harsh. While they are both certainly cads, they do not fit the same mold as Wickham or Willoughby.

In Austen's novels, the truth always comes out. The villain's true natures are always revealed, though the heroines always escape their clutches. Though, that doesn't mean that they have caused no damage. Wickham ultimately kidnaps Lydia and is forced to marry her, and Henry Crawford does break up Maria Bertram's marriage after Fanny Price rejects him. By showing the damage these men have done to other women, Austen impresses on us how narrowly the heroines have escaped. To fully comprehend how well the heroes and heroines suit each other, to emphasize their morality and goodness, we need the negative storylines of the villains. 

Austen's villains often serve as foils for her heroes and heroines, highlighting the contrast between them. These villains also add drama to the story and move the plot forward, allowing there to be some twists and turns before we arrive at the happy ending. Though they are generally not as complex as her heroes and heroines, her villains do show that looks can be deceiving, that immorality and greed may be hiding beneath a pleasing and attractive veneer. Ultimately, Austen's stories would not be the dynamic and memorable stories they are without their villainous characters to add intrigue and excitement to the plot.

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