Forgiving Willoughby

The recent Masterpiece Theatre version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility gave the harshest portrayal I’ve ever seen of the character Willoughby, who seduces, impregnates, and abandons a young girl. This leads me to ponder two things: (1) Why, in our era of “tolerance,” does Willoughby suddenly get the shaft?; and (2) Is it important for us, as Christians, to forgive fictional characters?

It’s hard to ignore Willoughby’s harmful actions in this adaptation of the novel, since it starts right off with the seduction scene (which occurs before the novel begins, and which, in the novel, we only learn about when the Dashwood sisters do, more than halfway through). We don’t fully see faces, so only those familiar with the story will guess the identities of the participants; those unfamiliar with the story are left wondering, “Wait—is this Jane Austen? Did I somehow miss PBS and arrive at the Bodice-Ripper Channel instead?”

Since PBS aired Sense and Sensibility in two parts, with a week in between, and since the first half never returned to the topic of the seduction scene, in the intervening week I had a lot of people asking me what on earth was going on. A lot of viewers feared that the scene involved one of the story’s two main characters, sisters Elinor (“Sense”) and Marianne (“Sensibility”) Dashwood, which would indeed be a major departure from the book. I was at least able to lay that fear to rest and explain that, yes, the man was Willoughby, but the girl was a character we don’t even meet in the book and who we hadn’t yet heard about on screen. A girl named Eliza, an orphan, fifteen years old.

Confusion aside, it’s an interesting way to begin. Bringing to the foreground an event that is usually hidden makes it a lot harder to feel any sympathy for Willoughby. It also makes us fear that Marianne Dashwood might meet the same fate, when Willoughby begins wooing her. Then, in the second half, when we actually meet Eliza and her illegitimate baby (neither of whom we ever “see” in the novel or in any adaptation I know of), when we hear her speculating that, maybe, just maybe, if she could see Willoughby one more time, if he could see his child . . . it’s almost unbearable, because we know that he has no regard for her. He’s just engaged himself to a rich young heiress, solely for her 50,000 pounds.

Then there’s the scene in which, as Marianne lies near death from a fever, Willoughby, recently married to his heiress, comes to beg forgiveness for giving Marianne the cold shoulder. As Marianne is ill, he has to make his explanations to her older sister Elinor. And here’s the thing: he isn’t really asking for forgiveness. He’s just trying to ease his own fears, to justify his actions. He does at least convince Elinor that he genuinely liked Marianne (he says “love,” but I think that’s too strong a word, as it’s an emotional attachment not accompanied by any willingness to make sacrificial actions for her). But, as Elinor rightly points out, his conduct towards Eliza is inexcusable. He refers to his seduction of Eliza as an “event,” a “circumstance”—not out of delicacy, but because he’s clearly trying to avoid any responsibility. In short, he comes off as a self-centered cad, and if Elinor had offered him words of pardon, we would think less of her. (I’d like to think that she forgives him later for her own piece of mind, but I certainly don’t want to see her offer him any reprieve.)

This scene plays very differently in the novel and in other adaptations. Ang Lee’s/Emma Thompson’s/The-Entire-Cast-of-Harry-Potter’s 1995 feature film even omits it completely, instead simply giving us a shot (occurring later) of Willoughby sitting on a hill by himself, looking lonely and dejected as Marianne happily marries Colonel Brandon. It’s actually easier to pity him when he doesn’t attempt to justify himself. In the novel and in the 1981 BBC miniseries, Willoughby’s explanation to Elinor is still undeniably self-centered, but you still find yourself feeling sorry for him, though never approving of his conduct. He does seem to be genuinely distressed over his treatment of Marianne, if not of Eliza. When Willoughby asks, “And you do think something better of me than you did?”, Elinor “assured him that she did; that she forgave, pitied, wished him well, was even interested in his happiness, and added some general counsel as to the behavior most likely to promote it.” In typical dry fashion, Austen’s narrator adds, “His answer was not very encouraging.”

After Willoughby leaves, Elinor reflects that maybe she sympathized with him too easily, that “his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess . . .” Re-reading this passage after seeing the Masterpiece Theatre version, I chuckled to myself, because I’d wondered if their Willoughby was so unsympathetic partially because he had the misfortune to be less attractive than Greg Wise, who played Willoughby to Emma Thompson’s Elinor (and later married Thompson, incidentally). However, I think even an ill-favored actor could have made Willoughby charming; Willoughby’s total lack of redeeming characteristics in this version was clearly intentional.

So here’s my first question: Why is a 2008 adaptation harder on a seducer than an 1811 novel? I don’t know. Feel free to offer some suggestions.

And to the second, more abstract question: Whether or not Elinor offers Willoughby forgiveness, is it important—or even possible—for readers and viewers to forgive a fictional character? Of course, Willoughby has done us no harm; but if we know someone in real life who has acted like Willoughby, will practicing forgiveness towards a fictional character help us to forgive the real person? Even if we don’t know such a person, is it somehow beneficial to forgive Willoughby anyway, in the way that Elinor (in the novel) does? Is this part of how reading—or even watching a film—can help us grow in charity?

Again, I don’t know the answers to my own questions. Part of it hinges on the difficulty of defining, in the abstract, what forgiveness means. Certainly forgiveness doesn’t necessarily entail approval of the guilty party’s actions, though it does involve wishing and praying the best for him, and the novel’s Elinor displays this distinction very well. Maybe the Masterpiece Theatre version leads us to condemn Willoughby because our current culture is generally unable to make this distinction, to understand that it’s possible to (pardon the cliché) “hate the sin but love the sinner.”

Just a thought.

About Carrisa Smith
  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    To your first question, I suspect that Austen treats Willoughby’s character more gently simply because while overt misconduct was certainly frowned upon, there was still more of a sense that such was the way of things. That boys will be boys, after all. That the seduction of young women, while not to be approved, is understandable—especially when perpetrated by eligible young men, presumably either of the Try before Buying mentality or just sowing oats that are wild, and later able to chalk it up to Youthful Indiscretion. Up until recent changes in the social status of women, American/British treatment of women (especially those in Eliza’s position) has been, well, less that equitable.

    In our current age, Willoughby’s actions may be seen more gravely, betraying in him a deep-seated misogyny. No longer is the seducer of the young merely seen as someone who uses others for his own ends. Now we add, and probably rightly, the accusation of hatred of his victim. Whereas before, identifying one as a cad would garner perhaps some finger-waggling, Tsk-tsking, and maybe a little quiet admiration (e.g., the mythos of Errol Flynn), today’s cad is seen to actively hate women, showing nothing but contempt for them as people, preferring to see them solely as tools for gratification and reputation.

    To your second question, I think that yes, we should be willing to forgive fictional characters so long as they seem repentant. In this case, Willoughby shows some degree of repentance in Marianne’s regard, but brushes Eliza under the rug.

    So, I suppose, we forgive him for Marianne but not for Eliza.

    Part of the difficulty of stories is that we rarely get to see the end of the matter and we do not get to communicate our concerns to the party of interest. Strictly speaking, I wonder if it is even our place to forgive. Case in point, is it my place to forgive Brad Pitt for divorcing his wife for Angelina Jolie? After all, the only affect his action has on me is that I sometimes see things about it at the newsstand. Should I forgive King David? I don’t know. I tend to think not. And if not them, then probably not Willoughby either.

    Still, I think it always pays to see things from the other person’s side, to engage their perspective and attempt a little empathy. In the end, I think we’ll see how little different we really are in the end.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Carissa – p.s. I’ve enjoyed your posts. You have a different sort of focus that your cohorts and it’s appreciated.

    Also, I think this was an interesting follow-up to the discussion about adaptations, as Austen is pretty variously adapted. One of my favourites of tail end of the ’90s crop was one of the least faithful: Mansfield Park. Purists tend to hate it, but I always find it rather enjoyable.

  • Carissa Smith

    Yeah, I do wonder if we even can forgive an action that has no effect on us or those close to us. Willoughby’s actions, even the most egregious, may cause an outraged sense of justice in me, but he hasn’t harmed me. Yet, when recently I found myself wishing that he had been turned into a mouse and eaten by an owl (a wish brought on by reading a short story by Susannah Clarke in which two Regency-era cads meet this fate), I began wondering if my outraged sense of justice was going too far.

    I’m extremely fond of that Mansfield Park adaptation, in part because it addresses those questions that so many people have upon first encountering Austen characters (i.e., “Don’t these people do anything for a living?” “Where does their money come from?). Answer: no, they don’t do anything for a living (except the occasional parson), and their society’s economy is based on colonialism and slavery. The film shows you that–it doesn’t dwell upon it, because it’s not knowledge that would have been accessible to Fanny Price–but at least shows you that. And it does so without implying that there’s somehow a lack in Austen’s novel or that she should have addressed these issues herself. I think it does go a little too far in comparing enslavement of Africans to oppression of women, but that’s just my own belief that it’s usually a bad idea to compare different sorts of suffering.

  • Carissa Smith

    Speaking of Austen adaptations, I recently heard that there’s going to be a hip-hop musical version of Emma.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Carissa – How was The Ladies of Grace Adieu (I presume that’s where the two owl-bitten gents made their appearance)? We’d read and enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but I wasn’t aware she had written anything else—I think I just sort of assumed that with a book so long as JS&MN she’d never wish to write anything ever again.

    So you enjoyed Mansfield Park. I actually enjoyed your reasoning there, with the exploration of British colonialism and its place in society. (Apropos of last week’s podcast as well, I found Mansfield Park‘s uses of nudity worthwhile and helpful to the story.)

    Did you take as kindly to the alteration of Fanny Price’s character from one wholly meek (as I understand it—I haven’t read the original in this case) to one who is rather introverted but contains an inner strength and fire? Some time ago, I was involved in discussion with a couple avid fans of the author who took to Patricia Rozema’s version not at all (see comments for discussion). I was wondering how this fits in with your desire for the adaptation to represent accurately the theme of its source despite the acceptable change of particulars. (Or was that more Ben’s perspective than your own…) Or do you see the alteration of Fanny Price as being less consequential to the tale’s theme than those who are horrified by the film?

    p.s. sorry to take this away from Willoughby (as handsome as he is…).

  • Carissa Smith

    Yes, the owl-and-mouse incident is from the title story of The Ladies of Grace Adieu. I actually like it better than Jonathan Strange so far (haven’t finished yet). I enjoyed JS & MN but felt it didn’t live up to its mythic promise. The stories are much more evocative of Faerie.

    I may have to abstain from that particular Mansfield Park question, since, according to a “Which Jane Austen Heroine Are You?” quiz, I AM Fanny Price.

    Seriously, though, I’ve never seen the novel’s Fanny and the movie’s Fanny as incompatible. I think part of the brilliance of the novel is that Fanny’s inner strength is partially hidden from the reader, as well as from the other characters. That technique isn’t going to work as well in a movie, so more of her internal character has to be revealed. I’d also say that I don’t have a problem with the alterations in the story and characters because it does say, at the very beginning of the film, “based on Mansfield Park and Jane Austen’s letters and juvenilia” (or something to that effect).

    It is interesting that we’ve arrived on the topic of Mansfield Park, because I remember that the experience of reading it the first time led me to feel more charitably towards someone I disliked. I began trying to see this person as Fanny Price rather than as Mary Crawford (my natural instinct), and it helped. In my experience, anyway, identifying people with fictional characters I already like does help me to forgive them. That’s a little different from my original question, but related.

  • http://www.kyriosity.com Valerie (Kyriosity)

    “So here’s my first question: Why is a 2008 adaptation harder on a seducer than an 1811 novel? I don’t know. Feel free to offer some suggestions.”

    Either…because in 1811, Jane Austen’s readers didn’t need a whack-upside-the-head picture of how wrong fornication is, and in 2008, we do.

    Or…because in 1811, nice clergyman’s daughters like Miss A. didn’t major on the salacious details of fornication, and in 2008, not-so-nice filmmakers consider it de rigueur.

    Not having seen the adaptation and not knowing anything about it, I’m not sure whether the hopeful or the cynical guess is closer to the mark.

    “And to the second, more abstract question: Whether or not Elinor offers Willoughby forgiveness, is it important—or even possible—for readers and viewers to forgive a fictional character?”

    I don’t think it’s technically possible to forgive a fictional person, because there’s no actual sin to forgive. And if there were actual sin, it wasn’t actual sin against you or me. But that doesn’t mean we can harbor resentment against him, either, as if he’d done us some personal harm. What we can do is to be warned by his example not to engage in similar behavior, to refuse to consider ourselves immune to that category of sin, and to be willing to forgive real people who have committed real immorality.

    A more difficult question, of course, is whether I can ever forgive The Dane for the heinous crime of liking Rozema’s MP. ;-)

    Valerie (Kyriosity)’s last blog post..‘Tell Me the Gospel’

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Carissa – That’s an interesting take. Now you just have to be able to identify any person with a literary figure that you like and you will be a forgiving machine.

    I really enjoyed JS&MN, but then I hadn’t been led to expect anything from it. I bought it because of the cover (being one who frequently judges books by their jackets) and was pleasantly surprised. I can definitely see how her style could be more easily appreciated in more digestible chunks though, as JS&MN was rather drawn out.

    @Valerie – One day, perhaps. Hey, did you ever finish watching Rozema’s version? If I remember rightly, you only saw about 15 minutes of it at last count. I’d be interested in what you thought of the film, approaching it with the knowledge that it’s a different kind of interpretation than your own and, with that knowledge, being perhaps able to divorce the film from its source.

    Besides, at least one fan here who isn’t me didn’t find the change to be that great an alteration of Miss Price’s character.

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