The Charming Hunter: The Role of the Male Sexual Predator in Austen's Sense and Sensibility

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The Charming Hunter: The Role of the Male Sexual Predator in Austen's Sense and Sensibility
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  The Charming Hunter: The Role of the Male Sexual Predator in Austen's  Sense and Sensibility 18 th METU British Novelists Conference: Jane Austen and her WorksAyşegül Kuglin AltıntaşBilkent Faculty Academic English ProgramJane Austen's novels are known to readers mostly as novels of courtship. Since the heroine, whois in the foreground, is generally young, and her search and choice of a partner stand for her searchof a place in society, they are also coming-of-age novels. My focus today is on a character type inthose novels that is crucial to the plot, undeniably interesting for the casual reader, but oftendisregarded in literary analysis: the rakish, seductive and dangerous young man for whom theheroine falls initially, most notably Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility . I argue that this character,that I will shortly call the “male sexual predator,” actually makes the education of the heroine possible. He is all that a liberal-minded single middle-class woman living in the nineteenth century(like the heroines of novels of this kind) is not but would, secretly or openly, like to be: rich,mobile, powerful, able to live his life as he wants without being ostracised, and in psychoanalystKaren Horney’s terms, “expansive” - aggressive, selfish and unreliable (Horney: 1950, 194-95).Thus he may be said to embody, the heroine’s idealized image, “an image of what the [person] believes himself to be, or of what at the time he feels he can or ought to be” (Horney: 1945, 98).The reason why he triggers the heroine’s education is that when the heroine Marianne recognizesthe male sexual predator as the irresponsible egotist that he turns out to be, this leads to the collapseof the dream-world she experienced with him, and to severe suffering. When she recovers from thissuffering in a metaphorical rebirth and rejects him, she also sheds an unwholesome part of her self,the part that aspires to be like him, and is ready to embrace a more mature and principled type of self. In Horney's terms, this is the “self-effacing” type of self that is the polar opposite of theexpansive type: examples of this type, who glorify duty and gentleness, are to be found especially  among female characters in literature up to the 19th century since the idealized attributes of thistrend correspond directly to those of the ideal wife and mother.Although the male sexual predator is portrayed in great detail and with convincing realism, andalthough he is a major character as he marks an important turning-point in the heroine’sdevelopment, he is never a focalizer, but only presented through the eyes of others, of the characters(mostly the sober Elinor) and the narrator. This intensifies the effect of the implied author “takingsides”: the reader's identification with the heroine and with her choice of finally rejecting the malesexual predator is encouraged, and the condemnation and punishment of the predator shown to be just by the novel’s rhetoric, by which Paris means “all the devices an author employs to influencereaders’ moral and intellectual responses to a character, their sympathy and antipathy, their emotional closeness or distance” (Paris 1997, 11).The call upon the reader to identify the male sexual predator as a villain and reject him isdependent on the fact that the male sexual predator's thoughts and feelings are not known, that he isan example of Iser’s concept of the blank which the reader is called upon to fill in. Since for thereader as well as the heroines, his mind and motivations are only to be guessed at by his actions, hisselfishness and destructiveness become clear gradually, contrasting with the initially favourableimpression he makes. Once his real nature becomes clear to the reader, the narrator as well as thecharacter who represents the self-effacing self that is the polar opposite of Willoughby's, Elinor, become very open and clear in their censure of him, so that the condemnation of the male sexual predator and the values he represents is complete.The rhetoric of  Sense and Sensibility presents the rake Willoughby as a dashing, spellbindingfigure from the very beginning. While other characters are introduced by the narrative voice whichoutlines their character traits, Willoughby makes a “dramatic entrance” into the story, according to“the dictates of romance” (33), as Mooneyham points out: he miraculously happens to step up justas the heroine Marianne Dashwood falls down, and carries her to her home. This motif of themysterious young man, who appears out of nowhere to save the lady from a fall, bandits or any  other mishap, has been used countless times in popular romantic literature.The hero introduced with such an exciting scene appears to gain the affections not only of theheroine and her family. Even the narrative voice, otherwise so sober as to credit Marianne withhaving a face “so lovely, that when in the common cant of praise she was called a beautiful girl,truth was less violently outraged than usually happens” (Austen 45), praises him almost as much asthe Dashwood family, so that Willoughby is presented as both charming and honest: Elinor and her mother rose up in amazement at their entrance, and while the eyes of both werefixed on him with an evident wonder and a secret admiration which equally sprung from hisappearance, he apologized for his intrusion by relating its cause, in a manner   so frank and so graceful  , that his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms fromhis voice and expression (Austen 41, italics added). According to Iser, what is read is continuously compared to what has been read before, so thatnew information shows the previously read one in a new light (115). In that sense, the narrator’s praise of Willoughby will remind the reader of the half-hearted admittance of Marianne’s beautyfew pages before, and the reader will fill in the blank, the unformulated comparison, to understandthe hint that Willoughby’s handsomeness is very striking. Austen also implies that he may beespecially trying to be fascinating: “he then departed, to make himself still more interesting, in themidst of an heavy rain. [  sic. ]” Marylin Butler also claims that “his entrance, like that of the‘preserver’ of the heroine in a romantic novel, at once gives him a superficial glamour” (186).This portrait of the captivating young man who bursts into the lives of the ladies is remarkablysimilar to the description of the narcissistic type in Horney’s theory, who “is often charming indeed, particularly when new people come into his orbit. Regardless of their factual importance for him, he must  impress them.” (Horney 1950, 194, emphasis in the srcinal).In his confession scene later in the novel, Willoughby actually explains that he began hisrelationship with Marianne only to satisfy his ego: “I endeavoured, by every means in my power, tomake myself pleasing to her, without any design of returning her affection” (Austen 308).Although to the reader he might appear to be too good to be true, Willoughby is at first a perfectmatch for Marianne, whose preferences in a partner have been indicated pages before Willoughby's  introduction. During her sister’s courtship with Edward Ferrars, Marianne criticizes Edward for lacking qualities like charm, spirit and taste, which are those she wants in a partner, and can barelyimagine her sister being ready to forgo in her future husband: His figure is not striking; it has none of that grace which I should expect in the man who couldseriously attract my sister. His eyes want all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtueand intelligence. And besides all this, I am afraid, mama, he has no real taste. Music seemsscarcely to attract him . . . I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every pointcoincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music mustcharm us both (Austen 17). Marianne wants a partner with spirit and fire; moreover, she wants a partner whose taste should be the same as hers. She appears to be looking for a male version of herself: for the same type of  personality with more masculine attributes. She seems to have found the perfect match inWilloughby, whom Butler terms her “ alter ego ” (187, emphasis in the srcinal). Willoughby notonly shares Marianne’s values and tastes, thus her sensibility; he at first appears to be a means of realizing her preferences. What Marianne is after, though not consciously, is nothing less than whatHorney describes as the vicarious experience of mastery that the self-effacing person attemptsthrough the expansive partner: “to merge with him, to live vicariously through him would allow [theself-effacing person] to participate in the mastery of life without having to own it to himself”(Horney 1950, 243-44).Marianne is introduced in the very first chapter of the novel as being well-intentioned, butinclining to be reckless and irresponsible: “She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything...She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent” (Austen 7). She thusshows expansive tendencies, which are manifested in her wanting free enjoyment of art and sexualfeelings without the restriction of social rules and the lack of money, following the example of Willoughby who becomes her idealized image.The carefree, passionate life Marianne thirsts for seems to open up before her with the arrival of Willoughby: with him, she experiences a period of attempting to enjoy extravagances, disregardingsocial rules, and giving way to sexual feelings. When Willoughby offers to present her with a horse,  she cares only about “the delight of a gallop in some of these downs,” not about the difficulties thatthe gift would entail since her mother “must buy another for the servant, and keep a servant to rideit, and after all, build a stable to receive them.” Although a horse is a very expensive gift, she alsodoes not heed her sister’s doubts about “the propriety of her receiving such a present from a man solittle, or at least so late known to her” (Austen 56). She wants to enjoy the luxury, withoutconsidering the financial or the social responsibility for it.Marianne shows her contempt of social conventions most clearly in Willoughby’s presence.While she says nothing about the “horrible insensibility” (Austen 34) of Mrs Jennings and her family who do not listen to her performance at the pianoforte before his appearance, she is clearlyuncivil during social interactions after his influence is felt. She preserves a “determined silence”(Austen 193) towards Mrs Jennings, which is arguably as rude as a heroine can get in Austen. Shedances only with Willoughby during balls, and she also has no qualms visiting his house alone withhim, again persuaded by him, because “Mr Willoughby wanted particularly to shew me the place[  sic. ]” which, as Elinor remarks, would be socially unacceptable even if the couple were formallyengaged (Austen 66).The social rule against being alone unchaperoned is, of course, grounded in a danger of seduction, and the clearest rebellion against social norms that Marianne shows during her relationship with Willoughby is the erotic character of that relationship. Austen shows in the novel,as openly as possible without breaching the same norms herself, how Marianne gives way to her sexual feelings. The eroticism is a blank easily filled in by reader: the most important erotic scene,in which Willoughby cuts off a strand of Marianne’s hair, kisses it and pockets it, demonstrates thedanger of actual seduction that she finds herself in. McMaster, for example, regards the hair-cuttingscene as indicative of sexual seduction, “an emblem of things possibly to come”: The tumbled hair, the reluctantly granted boon, the kissing and triumphant appropriation of thelock, all suggest that Marianne might yield to seduction. . . It is eventually [only] the discoveryof the last seduction that terminates [Willoughby’s] next attempt (69).
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