Trollope's Characterization: The Description of Felix Carbury from The Way We Live Now, 18-19.

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Trollope's characterization of Felix -- surely one of the most loathesome characters in literature -- employs both physical description and psychological and moral analysis. As you read the following long paragraph and the one that follows, note several things: (1) the way the narrator combines characterization with other aspects of fiction, including indirect discourse (creating the effect of our over-hearing a conversation about the character), exposition (which tells us of Felix's earlier history), and a range of cultural codes (including those based on class, moral theory, and conceptions of male beauty) that convey or reinforce the novelist's judgment of his character:

It is hardly possible that any training or want to training should have produced a heart so utterly incapable of feeling for others as was his. It seemed as though he lacked sufficient imagination to realize future misery though the futurity to be considered was divided from the present but by a single month, a single week,--but by a single night. He liked to be kindly treated, to be praised and petted, to be well-fed and caressed, and they who so treated him were his chosen friends. He had in this the instincts of a horse, not approaching the higher sympathies of a dog. But it cannot be said of him that he had ever loved any one to the extent of denying himself a moment's gratification on that loved one's behalf. His heart was a stone. But he was beautiful to look at, ready-witted, and intelligent. He was very dark, with that soft olive complexion which so generally gives to young men an appearance of aristocratic breeding. His hair, which was never allowed to become long, was nearly black, and was soft and silky without that taint of grease which is so common with silken-headed darlings. His eyes were long, brown in colour, and were made beautiful by the perfect arch of the perfect eyebrow. But perhaps the glory of the face was due more to the finished moulding and fine symmetry of the nose and mouth than to his other features. On his short upper lip he had a moustache as well formed as his eyebrows, but he wore no other beard. The form of his chin too was perfect, but it lacked that sweetness and softness of expression, indicative of softness of heart, which a dimple conveys. He was about five feet nine in height, and was as excellent in figure as in face. It was admitted by men and clamorously asserted by women that no man a ever been more handsome than Felix Carbury, and it was admitted also that he never showed consciousness of his beauty. He had given himself airs on many scores; -- on the score of his money, poor fool, while it lasted; -- on the score of his title; on the score of his army standing till he lost it; and especially on the score of superiority in fashionable intellect. But he had been clever enough to dress himself always with simplicity and to avoid the appearance of thought about his outward man. As yet the little world of his associates had hardly found out how callous were his affections, -- or rather how devoid he was of affection. His airs and his appearance, joined with some cleverness, had carried him through even the viciousness of his life. In one matter he had marred his name, and by a moment's weakness had injured his character among his friends more than he had done by the folly of three years. There had been a quarrel between him and a brother officer, in which he had been the aggressor; and, when the moment came in which a man's heart should have produced manly conduct, he had first threatened and had then shown the white feather. That was now a year since, and he had partly outlived the evil ; -- but some men still remembered that Felix Carbury had been cowed, and had cowered.

It was now his business to marry an heiress. He was well aware that it was so, and was quite prepared to face his destiny. But he lacked something in the art of making love. He was beautiful. had the manners of a gentleman, could talk well, lacked nothing of audacity and had no feeling of repugnance a declaring a passion which he did not feel. You he knew so little of the passion, that he could hardly make even a young girl believe that he felt it. When he talked of love; he not only thought that he was talking nonsense. but showed that he thought so.

1. To what extent does Trollope's characterization of this character (and hence his whole conception of people) depend upon romantic theories of sympathy and moral imagination? What does his emphasis upon Felix's lack of imagination imply about Trollope's view of the method and purpose of fiction?

2. Are you surprised that Trollope devotes so much attention to explaining a mode of physical beauty? How do the novel's views toward male-female relationshsips, human value, and society relate to this cultural code of beauty, particularly male beauty? Do you think Darwin's writings have any effect on this passage? Where?

3. What components of the idea of the gentleman can you extrapolate from this description of Felix?

4. Compare this passage to examples of characterization in Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, and any other writers you've read. In what ways, if any, does Trollope differ?

5. On the basis of this passage, see if you can sketch out a biography of Felix thus far. What will happen next? What do you think will happen by novel's end?

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Last modified: 5 March 20001