Virtues Essay, Research Paper
Virtue: A Timeless Characteristic
From a broad perspective an agreement between multiple parties can be compromised on the definition of virtue. However, when approached on the topic of virtue from a personal perspective, the definition can be altered to suit one s own life experiences. This can be exemplified through the perspectives of three ladies, Aprha Behn, Frances Burney, and Mary Shelley. In each of their works the topic of virtue is indirectly expressed through various situations and characters, all unique to each other.
The boundaries for which virtue is illustrated through these texts is creatively shown in different spectrums. Behn depicts virtue as innocence, purity and having a charitable nature. In “The Unfortunate Happy Lady,” Behn immediately begins setting her boundaries for virtue within the first two sentences. She reveals this through her introduction of Sir William Wilding, “I shall conceal the unhappy Gentleman s own under the borrow d Names of Sir William Wilding, who succeeded his Father Sir Edward, in an Estate of near 4000l. a Year, inheriting all that belong d to him, except his Virtues” (Behn.1). From this it is fair to conclude that Behn deems virtue as something that can not be bought nor inherited.
Behn s strongest portrayal of virtue is used through Sir William s younger dear sister Philadelphia. The introduction of Philadelphia is again established with a basis of virtue, ” his Sister Philadelphia, a young Lady of excellent Beauty, Education, and virtue “(Behn 1). Philadelphia would indeed seem just as virtuous during the time of the other two texts, Evelina written by Burney during the eighteenth century and Frankenstein by Shelley written during the Romantic era, as she is during Restoration.
Her virtue is timeless, but never more respected and appreciated than that of her own time. The respect she receives through the other characters in the text reveals this fact. For instance, her mentor or sorts, Lady Fairlaw is so intrigued by Philadelphia s virtue that upon dying she told her husband, “that she had observ d he had a particular Esteem or Kindness for Philadelphia; which was now a great Satisfaction to her; since she assur d, that if he marry d her, she would prove an excellent Nurse to him, and prolong his Life by some Years” (Behn 11). Giving Counsellor Fairlaw the blessing of marrying Philadelphia discloses the fact that Lady Fairlaw confidently believes Philadelphia is innocent and pure.
As the story ends Philadelphia s virtue is rewarded with wealth, honor and power when Counsellor Fairlaw dies. It is soon after revealed that her brother is struggling, having incurred debts during their time apart. Philadalphia pays off his debts despite his selfishness exhibited throughout the text. His response to her charity: “O matchless Goodness of a virtuous Sister! Here are the Mortgages of the best Part of my Estate! O! what a Villain! what a Monster I have been!” (Behn 14).
The “Unfortunate Happy Lady,” exhibits virtue as something that can not be bought, inherited, or acquired like material things. Behn allows her audience to seek their own definition of virtue, using Philadelphia as a model. Her virtue is not based on her sex, origin, or place in society. Her virtue is based on how she responds to situations.
Unlike respect, gracefulness, and other elite characteristics, virtue is timeless and its definition does not change from era to era as seen in the novel Evelina by Frances Burney.
Initially, Frances Burney s perception of virtue seems quite different from that of Behn s in “The Unfortunate Happy Lady,” but by the end of the story their appreciation for the term is very similar. The original perception of virtue is based on several incidents that happen early on with the novel s main character Evelina.
From the beginning Burney introduces Evelina as virtuous through the words of Mr. Villars, who acts as the parent figure during her adolescence. He is writing to Lady Howard who eventually ask for the companionship of Evelina for her granddaughter in London, “I need not speak to your Ladyship of the virtues of that excellent young creature” (Burney 103). Immediately the word virtue is introduced, setting the tone for Evelina.
Burney deals with the issue of society s outlook on virtue. Through the eyes of Evelina we can see what lots of teenage girls deal with in regards to finding their true selves. Which in Evelina s case is virtue. Evelina writes frequently to Mr. Villars about what she is experiencing in London. New to the lifestyle she is being introduced to, her letters exuberate how excited she is, “This moment arrived. Just going to Drury-Lane theatre. The celebrated Mr. Garrick performs Ranger. I am quite in extacy” (Burney 116).
Eventually her excitement catches up with her and receives a crash course in adolescence. While attending a ball Evelina finds herself in an unfamiliar situation, while dancing with one fellow she refuses the hand of another, an apparent no-no at this particular assembly, “I have only danced at school, – and so giddy and heedless I was, that I was not once considered the impropriety of refusing one partner, and afterwards accepting another” (Burney 126). Through this Evelina uncovers the harshness of society s rules and expectations, but all in all remains virtuous and grows from her experiences.
Evelina s true virtue is never more revealed than during the most humorous part of the novel. As a senseless act of humor Madame Duval, a rather cranky woman, has been kidnapped and tossed around by Captain Mirvan, who detested Madame Duval. Evelina, other than servants, is the only other person accompanying Madame Duval. As Evelina runs to console Madame Duval Evelina explains, “she hit me with a violent slap on the face! I retreated from her with precipitation and dread and she then loaded me with reproaches, which, though almost unintelligible, convinced me that she imagined I had voluntarily deserted her” (Burney 260). Evelina s reaction: “I was so much surprised and confounded at the blow, that, I suffered her to rave without making any answer; but her real suffering, soon dispelled my anger, which all turned into compassion” (Burney 260).
Through all the blunders Evelina still comes out virtuous by the end of the novel. Mr. Villars still delighted with Evelina writes, “Every wish of my soul is now fulfilled – for the felicity of my Evelina is equal to her worthiness!” (Burney 553). Evelina s virtue much like Philadelphia s roots from how she reacts to situations. As we drift into the Romantic era we encounter yet another female character used to portray virtue. Much like Evelina and “The “Unfortunate Happy Lady” Mary Shelley uses a female character to portray virtue.
Victor Frankenstein is actually the main character of the novel. However, many would agree that he is by no means a man of virtue, others may disagree. Elizabeth, his cousin and wife, exemplifies all possible definitions of virtuous. She is most definitely Frankenstein s virtue as he so many times eludes in the text, “While I admired her understanding and fancy, I loved to tend to her, as I should on a favourite animal; and I saw so much grace both of person and mind united to so little pretension” (Shelley 66).
Throughout the entire story, Elizabeth proves to be the binding glue for the family.
When Caroline, Frankenstein s mother and Elizabeth s aunt dies, Elizabeth was there to help ease the pain as Frankenstein informs here, “She consoled me, amused her uncle, instructed my brothers; and I never beheld her so enchanting as at this time, when she was continually endeavouring to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself” (Shelley 73). Each time that Frankenstein falls ill from exhaustion Elizabeth s letters greet him to cheer him up and give him the motivation to regain his strength. All the way up to her death she did everything to make Frankenstein happy, ” wherever I am, the soothing voice of my Elizabeth will be ever whispered in my ear” (Shelley 234). Although the main character in this novel did not display virtue as did Evelina and Philadelphia, it does not mean that virtue played a minor role in the novel. If you take away virtue than you have taken away Elizabeth and without Elizabeth there would not have a Victor Frankenstein.
Reading all three of these texts revealed that virtue has not noticeably changed dating back from Restoration, through the eighteenth century and up to the Romantic era. In fact, virtue still remains the same today. Virtue, may in some ways change depending on one s station in life, but that was not apparent in the three text modeled here. Virtue does not remain constant for everyone, it can easily lost and difficult to recapture. Those that have it are without a doubt as special as the characters in these texts. Did these texts change improve us in some way? Of course, literature such as these are to strong and overwhelming to be unfazed by them. Virtue was thought to be a simple characteristic easily defined, but it turns out that three authors easily proved us wrong.
Behn, Aphra. “The Unfortunate Happy Lady: A True History.”
Burney, Frances. Evelina. Ed. Susan Kubica Howard. North America: Broadview
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Ed. D.L. MacDonald and Kathleen Scherf. North
America. Broadview Literary. 1999.