So today I’m going to discuss a concept that comes up in literature quite frequently- a “foil.” No, no, not the stuff you wrap food in- a literary foil.
A foil is a character who is either entirely opposite to the protagonist or virtually identical to the character but for certain traits. The point is to emphasize the protagonists traits by highlighting contrasts.
For illustration purposes I will discuss five examples.
1. Jane and Lizzie Bennet
Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are classic example of foils who are virtually identical. Both girls had identical experiences in that the grew up in the same family. Both women are lady-like and have a great sense of propriety and agree that their three younger sisters, especially, Kitty and Lydia, need to be checked. However they have drastically different temperaments. As can be seen throughout the book, Lizzie when not blinded by prejudice is an excellent judge of character by virtue of being perceptive, shrewd, and quite witty, not to mention realistic. Jane on the other hand is a raging optimist, introspective, docile, and judges everything based upon the rules of propriety/ society as well as Christian virtues. This difference acts to check each other’s behavior.
For example, Lizzie sees right away that neither of Bingley’s sisters has much regard for Jane that they would wish her as a sister-in-law. When Jane receives Caroline Bingley’s letter hinting at a possible union of Bingley to Georgiana, Jane reads Caroline’s intent as putting her on guard that Bingley does not care for her as much as she thought. Lizze on the other hand correctly interprets Carolin’s spite after observing her behavior during Jane’s illness. When the engagement does take place, Jane’s eyes are open to her future sister and doesn’t put much stock in her platitudes.
However Jane correctly believes there is more to Mr. Darcy’s treatment of Mr. Wickham than what Wickham says. She points out to Lizze the impropriety of Wickham’s revelation to Lizzie on such as short acquaintance. She also points that that Bingley could hardly be ignorant of Mr. Darcy’s rebelling against the wishes of his father. Lizzie eventually realizes that this impropriety should have caused her to suspect Wickham from the outset.
2. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham
These characters are in some senses identical and in other senses radically different. Both men grew up together. The senior Mr. Darcy cared for Wickham once he became an orphan. They both went to the same schools and no doubt had the same friends. Despite this, Mr. Darcy had all the goodness while Mr. wickham had the appearance of goodness. Mr. Darcy though unpopular in Merryton was a kind, caring, and responsible brother, a good landlord, and a good friend. Wickham on the other hand although very popular and sought after was nothing more than a rakehell who had gone through one fortune and would use anyone to ensure that he did not end up in debtor’s prison.
3. Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax
Jane Fairfax’s character served to illustrate the impropriety of Emma’s conduct. Throughout the whole book it is abundantly clear that Emma is a legend in her own mind and to most people in Highbury. Emma possesses an extraordinarily high view of herself. She has talent to be sure; unfortunately it has not been properly cultivated. She neither sings and plays well, nor does she draw. In short she lacks the normal accomplishments of a woman at her age and position in society. Unfortunately through regular flattery, Emma doesn’t truly recognize her limitations. Well, that is until Jane Fairfax comes to town. Emma as a great dislike for Jane which I believe boils down to the green eyed monster- jealousy. Jane has led the life that Emma could not- a life of style, fashion, and varied society. Jane although a penniless orphan has been brought up by Col. Campbell. She has had all the benefits of fashionable upbringing- namely accomplishments. She has frequented many of the fashionable waterholes of that day and has regularly interacted with the Great. This is in direct contrast to Emma who has lead a country existence waiting on a feebleminded father. She has misses out on life. She really doesn’t know her own insignificance. Throughout the book Jane’s only fault is reserve; she’s hiding a secret engagement. Emma on the other hand manages to insult, demean, and infuriate everyone with whom she has come in contact.
4. Fanny Price and Mary Crawford
These two women are the antithesis of each other in every sense of the word. They grew up in world’s apart. Fanny has had an entirely country existence, while Mary has had an entirely urban upbringing. Fanny grew up with morals and well-defined propriety. Mary grew up in a household filled with vice and has very modern sensibilities. Fanny conducts herself blamelessly throughout the whole book; Mary leaves much to be desired. In the end, Fanny is rewarded for her virtue in marrying Edmund. Mary is left an heiress with £20,000 and no man that could make her as happy as Edmund Bertram.
Now for a non-Jane Austen example.
5. Travis Jordan and Justin Cantwell
Frank Peretti’s novel The Visitation is an exploration of the foils Travis Jordan and Justin Cantwell. Both men were pastor’s kids in the Pentacostal denomination. Both experienced some very hard times in their walk through life. Both went through spiritual darkness because they felt they had been let down by God. Despite the bad, Travis and faith and God’s grace and snapped out of his funk; Justin became very bitter ad joined the devils to make himself a better god than God. Justin used the same tactics as those who oppressed him to oppress and take advantage of others. Travis saw how every difficulty he ever faced was God’s way of teaching him and important lessons that he needed to learn; like prudence, patience, and having God’s love for all rather than high energy emotionalism often mistaken for faith.
Foils are a literary device used to highlight important characteristics of the protagonist. Hopefully you’ve found this as interesting a study as I have and pay attention the next time you read literature. Taking note of the foils will show you the strengths and weakness of the characters and also it shows that the plot really does follow a logical progression to its conclusion.