I think we can all agree that, whether it’s a short story or a novel or something in-between, THE most important thing about any story is this:
- Something has to change by the end—or there’s no story.
Whether or not you’ve ever seen that statement in a book or in an article, you know intuitively that it’s true. Can you recall any story where there’s no change by the end? Thought not.
Now, you may not realize it, but in absolutely every published story the change at the end always relates to some value stated strongly early on in the story, either by or about the main character.
And that early strong value statement is always an evaluation or description related to the main character, or one of the main characters, concerning-
- a trait or characteristic,
- a goal,
- a problem,
- a desire, or
- an opinion or viewpoint.
That’s what I call the old view.On the other hand, the change at the end I call the new view. And
- the new view is always a reverse of the strong old view stated early on.
With that one principle, you can make sense of literally every story ever written and published. And you don’t have to bring in a bunch of literary devices to prove your analysis, either.
However, you should know that there’s a major difference between a short story and a long story, or novel. In a short story, the major support of the old view-new view relationship is the description of the main character, often having to do with descriptions of their feelings, thoughts, talk, and actions, though a physical description can be used to powerfully support the new view, too. For instance, in the first section of his famous short story A Rose for Emily, William Faulkner uses a strongly suggestive physical description of Miss Emily as being like a black widow spider, which obviously supports the repulsive revelation about her at the end of the story.
But in a novel, the major support of the old view-new view relationship in the story is the use of foils.
A foil is a character in a story who serves as a contrast to another character. Usually, the strongest, most important contrasts are with the primary main character or one of the other main characters. And the contrasts usually serve to highlight specific traits of the main character, and thereby reinforces the old view-new view relationship, the change from the beginning to a reversal ending.
Foils are major factors in novels, not short stories, because it simply takes much longer to properly develop a contrast between two or more characters. In short stories, there just isn’t space or time for that.
Before we examine examples of foils, let’s first take a close look at the newness factor, or the old view-new view relationship, in the famously popular novel, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And then we’ll look at how foils in the story are used as a major tool for supporting the new view reverse at the end.
On pages four and five of the story, the narrator presents a strong value statement about one of the two main characters, Mr. Darcy. The townspeople of Meryton acquire a biased or prejudiced opinion against Mr. Darcy, whom they have just met at a town dance:
… he was discovered to be proud… and above being pleased… He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again.
At the dance, Elizabeth Bennett and her mother were rudely spurned by proud Mr. Darcy, and so their prejudiced opinions of him agreed with everyone else’s. On his side, Mr. Darcy had little use for the “country folk,” either, expressing to his friend Bingley that they were beneath him, which is further direct evidence of his pride.
Okay, now that we’ve identified the strong old view statement, on to the new view reversal at the end.
Near the end of the story, Elizabeth discovers that Darcy has rescued Lydia’s reputation and the fragile reputation of the rest of the Bennett family, as well as her own. This allows her to reverse her prejudiced opinion of him and fall the rest of the way in love with him (after she found out the truth about Wickham from Darcy and visited his vast, rich estate and met his amiable sister, she was beginning to be pleased with him and to shift her opinion, but not quite all the way until she found out that he had rescued her own good reputation and the good reputation of her entire family). She expresses her reversed feelings to Darcy almost at the very end of the story when Darcy presents his marriage proposal a second time, which Elizabeth accepts gladly, based mainly on her growing respect and appreciation for his character.
With Elizabeth’s engagement to Darcy, her family also reverses their feelings about him (the town, too, probably, though we are not told so) at the end of the story-a perfect old view-to-new view pattern, a pure new view reverse delight!
To firmly establish the old view of Darcy as proud and prejudiced in the story, Jane Austen supplies Darcy with major foils in the form of Bingley, Mr. Collins, and Wickham. In conversations with Jane, Elizabeth constantly compares Darcy’s arrogant manners unfavorably to Bingley’s courteous, friendly behavior, as well as Darcy’s being “proud and disagreeable” to Bingley’s being “so amiable.” Even Bingley expresses to his friend his disgust at Darcy’s pride at the first dance they attend in Meryton, as well as after the dance.
With Mr. Collins, Austen shows the contrast between him and Darcy in their behavior at Bingley’s party and at the manor of Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt. In both instances, and in many more, Mr. Collins’s toadying behavior is constantly on display, as compared to Darcy’s dignified, though arrogant, mannerisms. So Darcy actually comes out ahead in the contrasts with Mr. Collins — Darcy may be proud and not as agreeable as Bingley, and he may even be accused of showing his pride and arrogance toward Mr. Collins, but he’s clearly much more sensible and respectable than Mr. Collins. You have to give him that.
The crucial contrast is with Wickham, whom Elizabeth takes a quick liking to because he confirms her negative view of Darcy. Wickham cements the developing old view of Darcy as proud and arrogant, even more so than previously thought, by telling everyone a story that portrays Darcy as profoundly unjust in his dealings with him. In addition to being seen as a victim deserving of sympathy, Wickham shows himself quite friendly and charming with the ladies, which is a noticeable contrast to Darcy’s arrogant, standoffish behavior.
However, Darcy’s unfavorable contrast with Wickham gets a sharp turnaround, at least with Elizabeth, when she visits her friend Charlotte, then married to Mr. Collins. After Darcy proposes and Elizabeth rejects him with accusations about his gross misbehavior toward Wickham (among other things), Darcy writes her a letter explaining how Wickham tried to elope with Darcy’s fifteen-year-old sister, Georgiana, to get his hands on her inheritance, giving the lie to Wickham’s tale of Darcy’s abuse of him. When Elizabeth returns home, she shares the incident with Jane, her sister, concluding that she now sees Darcy as a good man and Wickham as a scoundrel. Add to that Elizabeth’s visit to Darcy’s rich estate and meeting his sister, who loves him as the perfect older brother, and the old view of Darcy as proud and arrogant begins to dissipate, at least for Elizabeth.
Finally, when she discovers that Darcy went to great trouble and expense to help Lydia and Wickham — a man he thoroughly detests — get married and thereby saved the good reputation of the entire Bennett family, especially Elizabeth’s — she cannot help falling in love with Darcy, seeing him as a person of high ideals, like herself, and one who appreciates, cares about, and loves her. So Wickham as Darcy’s foil actually helps to enlighten Elizabeth about Darcy, finally, by highlighting Darcy’s high moral character and his goodness as a person. That is what has made the new view reversal at the end — the complete reversal of the universal negative opinion of him, including Elizabeth’s, so well established at the beginning — so strong and so satisfying, endearing, actually, to millions of readers for about two hundred years, all over the world.
Now, for Elizabeth’s major foils: Jane, Charlotte Lucas, and Miss Bingley (Mr. Bingley’s unmarried sister).
Elizabeth is closer to her sister Jane than to anyone else, so a contrast there is easy and natural. Elizabeth, herself, often notes the contrast when talking with Jane, envying her sister’s goodness as opposed to her own teasing, cynical comments about people, such as,
Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I can
never have your happiness.
Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas, provides another great contrast by way of her attitude of pragmatism toward marriage, the opposite of Elizabeth’s idealism. That is shown when Charlotte admits to Elizabeth that she would be marrying Mr. Collins for purely pragmatic reasons, not love, which is quite the reversal of Elizabeth’s rejecting his marriage proposal for idealistic reasons, including not loving him. (That fulfills her commitment in conversation with Jane, in which Elizabeth energetically vowed not to marry for money or social advantage, but only for love.) And Miss Bingley is yet another good foil because she is cynical, like Elizabeth, but, more than that, she is also vicious and deceitful, which Elizabeth is not. Each of these foils helps readers to focus on a different characteristic of Elizabeth, and so we know her better because of these contrasting personalities, these helpful foils.
The perfect foil, perhaps — in other words, the perfect contrast or reversal — of the old view about Darcy’s pride and arrogance so well established at the beginning of the story, is Elizabeth’s new view reversal statement when she speaks alone with her father about her love for Darcy: “I love him. Indeed he has no improper pride. He is perfectly amiable.”
As our examination of Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, has shown, foils are a key factor in presenting the old view-new view relationship in novels. Now you will be able to see the foils, old views, and new views more easily in the next novel you read, analyze, and write about in your literary analysis essays.