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|But I think Austen meant it to be sincere
Written by Pete
(9/10/2013 9:51 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Good God, Willoughby, penned by Nancy Ann
The issue of him being selfish and self-centered is NOT new and was known to all well before the apology. Maybe it just dawned on folks by listening to his apology, but in fact Brandon admits knowing it for many weeks before the news of Will's engagement to Sophia is known. Austen does not tell us HOW he knows all this about Willoughby, but she has Brandon describe him as expensive, dissipated AND WORSE. Dissipated has the connotation of being self-indulgent, wild, depraved and spent beyond reclamation. It's a pretty strong word. And he says Will is even worse than dissipated. Austen is telling us that even at this point in the story Brandon knows and tells Elinor that Willoughby is an extremely selfish, wicked and dangerous person. And to punctuate his wickedness, Austen has him seduce a teenager, get her pregnant and never taking responsibility. What else could a guy be but selfish to do such a thing?
But...we're talking about the apology.
The first reason I think it was sincere is that she put it in there at all. It seems to me that regardless of his selfishness, Austen wants us to believe he has a sort of "awakening" when he hears that Marianne is deathly ill. So he rushes madly to Cleveland to see how she is, to explain himself. I mean if she didn't want us to think he cared at all, why have him come?
The second reason I think it was intended to be sincere is how Elinor responds. Austen has Willoughby get to hear Elinor say all those concessionary things to him during and at the end of his apology. So regardless of what we, the readers think, Austen would have us believe he left feeling like he's accomplished EXACTLY what he came for. He wanted her to think him less wicked..she does. He wanted a chance to explain and she grants him that. He wants something like forgiveness and she grants him forgiveness. He got all that, and much more. She thinks him less wicked. She wished him well and gave him gentle words of counsel. It doesn't matter WHY Austen had Elinor do all that. What is important is that Austen has Willoughby leaving after hearing that response from Elinor. Regardless of what anyone thinks Elinor said two weeks later, Will doesn't know she says those things, so in his (fictional) mind he's been forgiven by Elinor. Why would Austen have him leave with that understanding if she didn't want it to be sincere?
Austen herself calls his apology a vindication. She has both Elinor and Mrs Dashwood describe it a such. Right after the apology, Elinor thinks what he said was a vindication she didn't want to hear. AND what she delivers to her mother 2 weeks later is heard as a vindication. Again, vindication is a pretty strong word. It has the connotation of removing a lot of his guilt. Austen didn't have to use THAT word...but she did...not once, but twice.
The fourth reasons I think it was intended to be sincere is how it is received two weeks later when Elinor finally delivers her rendition of the apology. Surely she's not still under any undue influence by then, right?
How does Marianne receive it? "She trembled, her eyes were fixed on the ground, and her lips became whiter than even sickness had left them. A thousand inquiries sprung up from her heart, but she dared not urge one. She caught every syllable with panting eagerness; her hand, unknowingly to herself, closely pressed her sister's, and tears covered her cheeks."
Later, Elinor delivers a rendition of the apology to Mrs Dashwood. "Mrs. Dashwood did not hear unmoved the vindication of her former favourite. She rejoiced in his being cleared from some part of his imputed guilt;—she was sorry for him;—she wished him happy."
Even if Willoughby could listen in to their discussions that day, I would think a guy like him would be satisfied at their responses. He would get to see Marianne tremble, weep, pant and clutch Elinor's hand while Elinor talks about him. He would get to hear Mrs Dashwood wish him well, feel sorry for him and rejoice that some of his guilt was removed. So regardless of WHY the Dashwood women were so receptive, they were...and it would have done Willoughby's heart good to know how successfully he persuaded them.
The final reason I think Austen intended us to believe his repentance was sincere, is that she tells us so at the end. She tells the reader "[t]hat his repentance of misconduct, which thus brought its own punishment, was sincere, need not be doubted;—nor that he long thought of Colonel Brandon with envy, and of Marianne with regret."
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