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.