Primarily the character of rake is defined and recognized for his/her sexual desire and the specific mannerism that he/she adopts to depict this nature of his/her character and they are generally men especially in the literary works after the Restoration Period until the nineteenth century but in some cases women characters have also set good examples as rake figures like Lady Booby from Joseph Andrews and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.
The concept of rake characters is derived from the society of the Restoration period in England. Many of the courtiers of Charles II such as John Wilmot the second Earl of Rochester and Earl of Dorset were renowned rake figures of their time; they were known for being debauch aristocrats but yet intellectuals and learned men of the society. They had a vital role to play in the promotion of art and literature but they mainly served this through their power of seduction and popularizing the sexual pleasures in the society.
The rake figures are often the stock characters, who were conceptually applied in the works of literature after the period of Restoration in England, in order to represent the ironical extravaganza of human morals and values that would cost the round characters a thorough development in themselves and these rake figures also instigated an intellectual growth within the minds of those who had been indirectly involved with the plot.
Different English writers after the Restoration period have used a rake character in their novels to portray a certain aspect of the society that had the power to instigate life and energy within the rest of the round or flat characters. And throughout the span of these centuries the writers have applied these characters to function according to the demand of the era or to serve any of their own ulterior purpose. They would often resolve a disputed action or a conflict within any other character or situation.
The character of John Willoughby in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and the character of James Harthouse in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, are the two examples of rake figures that were conceived with a difference of about half a century and from different genders with two different perspectives. Austen conceives Willoughby as a typical flirtatious young man from the era that is witnessing a social revolutionary cusp between neo-classicism and Romanticism. And Harthouse is rather a typical depiction of a Victorian political debauch who had the capacity to mesmerize the mind of a woman to an extent to crumble a complete school of thought that had designed and defined her personality. Thus the power of Harthouse’s seduction was potent enough to change the state of mind and perceptions of his victim and also the ones associated with them.
In The Restoration Rake-Hero Harold Weber explains,
Most rakes possess little identity outside of the love game, their lives responding largely to the rhythms of courtship and seduction, pursuit and conquest, foreplay and release.
This definition can be applied to the character of John Willoughby. He is a kind of a character who would seduce a woman for a momentary pleasure but his commitments are with his materialistic and selfish motifs, as he harmlessly seduces Marianne in the beginning of the novel through his gallant heroism and then he deserts her to get married to the wealthy Miss Grey. He depicts the double standards and fickle behavior of the young upcoming elite class or those who desire to become the aristocrats of their time. He also reveals Austen’s limited range of perception for exploiting the characteristics of a rake figure and the kind of impacts and impressions that he can cause to bring diversification in the plot.
Willoughby’s character conveniently serves the perimeter of a domestic plot that has to merely relate people for leisure, pleasures, delights, marriages, funerals, deceit, heartbreaks, repentances; after all Willoughby has to be capable enough to affect a woman (Marianne) who is a just aware about a few miles around her which is connected with few families and their limited activities and she is totally ignorant about the fact of ignorance about the world beyond her perceptions. Although Mr. Willoughby doesn’t have a great magnitude of action in the novel yet his rakish character suitably rises and then resolves the conflict within Marianne’s mind and this limited impact of his flirtatious yet penitent character justifies the “sensibility” of Romanticism.
Harold Weber’s second interpretation of a rake’s figure says,
The rake is too complex and enigmatic a figure to be reduced to a sexual machine: his love of disguise, need for freedom, and fondness for play all establish the complexity of the rakish personality…The rake’s sexual desires can be seen as a call for freedom and a break from social order. He balks at the idea of marriage and family in pursuit of personal gratification.
This can be applied to describe James Harhouse of Hard Times, whom Dickens has created as a rather much more potent stock character, who being a political debauch had enough strength to seduce Louisa till the extent to disintegrate the components of her character that was based on a philosophy of Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind believed in rationalism to such an extent that he devoted his life to breed a generation based on this school of thought but his entire effort of years just crumbles into fragments when Louisa confesses in front of him that she likes to be with Harthouse and doesn’t love her husband who was a rich old man.
In Hard Times, Dickens has focused more on the psycho-emotional dichotomies that had emerged due to the socio-economic imbalance and how the Industrial Revolution had brought the human values into shamble and pessimism prevailed in every circle of life. Therefore the rake figure of a Victorian literature proves to be more influential in affecting his victim. Harthouse may have very little action in the novel (like Willoughby) but the impact of his seductive characteristics was potent enough to challenge the set beliefs and values and also to rule the mind of Louisa through the charm of sexual pleasures.
His character as a debauch is capable enough to overrule a philosophy. Dickens perceives Harthouse’s role to instigate the truth out of Louisa which she had been denying willingly to sustain as a product of a philosophy that she had only believed but never questioned. Harthouse’s intervention in her life made her aware of the reality of her desires which she silently yearned for many years and after knowing what she exactly wanted out of her life she learns first to question and then to deny the set beliefs and values.
Another aspect that can possibly be associated with the character of Hart house is the crumbled morality of the Victorian era. This was the time when England had witnessed one of the most bitter irony of the socio-economic scenario and this irony of unjust distribution wealth and resources had introduced rebellion, crimes and sins as the only easy way out for those who were the ultimate handicap of this social disorder. Thus rake figures are one of the successful tools applied by writers to cause the feeling of unrest within the silent volcanic characters of the suppressed class. And that is one of the reasons that Harthouse character aptly justifies his seduction to be worthier than the thought of being rational. He makes the body rule over mind.
In both the novels the function of the rake figure can be identified as the one who resolves the conflict with the round female character, who are victims of their false perceptions and through the power of sexual seduction or experiencing the different versions of pleasures and sadness they manage to resolve their conflict and can decide on their own.
Weber, Harold. The Restoration Rake-Hero: Transformations in Sexual Understanding in Seventeeth-Century England. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1986.