At least since the eighteenth century, readers, novelists, and critics have debated the relation of fiction, specifically the novel, to reality and to the ideal. More specifically, they have asked should the main characters in fiction accurately reflect the way people act or the way they should act? In other words, should a protagonist be a hero — someone who embodies ideal humanity — or just a normal person with mixture of strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, and correct moral choices and misguided ones? Eighteenth-century critics who argued that the novel should present ideal characters thought that the purpose of fiction was to provide ideals readers should emulate. Essentially these critics tried to impose the goals of the epic upon contemporary prose fiction. In contrast, their opponents who argued for more flawed characters believed that presenting ideal characters produced foolishly irrelevant figures who both did no good for readers and often alienated them.

Throughout his works, Trollope lets the reader know that his heroes -- what we now call the protagonists -- are rarely heroic. For example, in Framley Parsonage, Trollope's narrator tells his readers that when they observe Lord Lufton's behavior they will think that “putting aside his peerage and broad acres” and handsome face, “he was not worth a girl's care and love.” Readers believe that, he says, “because people think that heroes in books should be so much better than heroes got up for the world's common wear and tear” Admitting that the young man only has what he terms a “moderate admixture” of heroism, he asks, “what would the world come to if none but absolute true heroes were to be thought worthy of women's love? What would the men do? and what—oh! what would become of the women?” The narrator therefore defends the young man, who flirts with Griselda even though he has proposed to Lucy Robarts: "And this, too, was the more inexcusable, seeing that he had never forgotten Lucy Robarts, had never ceased to love her, and that, in holding those various conversations within his own bosom, he was as loud in Lucy's favour as he was in dispraise of Griselda." Trollope knows that his readers, some of whom are periodical reviewers, will object. "'Your hero, then,' I hear some well-balanced critic say, 'is not worth very much.'" To which he responds with two points, the first of which is that he “is not my hero.” (His main character is the equally flawed Vicar, Lucy's brother, Mark Robarts.) More important for Trollope, “a man may be very imperfect and yet worth a great deal.” These are the characters about whom Trollope writes, for, as he explains,

A man may be as imperfect as Lord Lufton, and yet worthy of a good mother and a good wife. If not, how many of us are unworthy of the mothers and wives we have! It is my belief that few young men settle themselves down to the work of the world, to the begetting of children, and carving and paying and struggling and fretting for the same, without having first been in love with four or five possible mothers for them, and probably with two or three at the same time. And yet these men are, as a rule, worthy of the excellent wives that ultimately fall to their lot. In this way Lord Lufton had, to a certain extent, been in love with Griselda. There had been one moment in his life in which he would have offered her his hand, had not her discretion been so excellent; and though that moment never returned, still he suffered from some feeling akin to disappointment when he learned that Griselda had been won and was to be worn. He was, then, a dog in the manger, you will say. Well; and are we not all dogs in the manger, more or less actively? Is not that manger-doggishness one of the most common phases of the human heart?

But not the less was Lord Lufton truly in love with Lucy Robarts. Had he fancied that any Dumbello was carrying on a siege before that fortress, his vexation would have manifested itself in a very different manner. He could joke about Griselda Grantly with a frank face and a happy tone of voice; but had he heard of any tidings of a similar import with reference to Lucy, he would have been past all joking, and I much doubt whether it would not even have affected his appetite. [Ch. 31, “Salmon Fishing in Norway”]

Trollope's conceptions of flawed human nature — and the fiction that represents it —  appear embodied not only in his many flawed male protagonists, like Mark Robarts, but also in both his female ones, too. Thus, immediately after defending her eventual husband, Lord Lufton, Trollope shows that even Lucy, who seems so perfect, has her flaws. Lucy Robarts, we recall, rejected his proposal of marriage not because, as she told him, she did not love him but only because, knowing his mother's disapproval of such a union between a landed gentleman and a relatively poor girl, she did not want to be accused of having married for money and she also refused to come between mother and son and cause a rupture in the Lufton family. Nonetheless, even the pure and uncorrupted Lucy has worldly desires. After admitting that “girls should not marry” and that a “lady who can sell herself for a title or an estate, for an income or a set of family diamonds” does little better “than the poor wretch of her own sex who earns her bread in the lowest stage of degradation” — that is, a prostitute — Trollope confesses

that Lucy did speculate with some regret on what it would have been to be Lady Lufton. To have been the wife of such a man, the owner of such a heart, the mistress of such a destiny—what more or what better could the world have done for her? And now she had thrown all that aside because she would not endure that Lady Lufton should call her a scheming, artful girl! Actuated by that fear she had repulsed him with a falsehood, though the matter was one on which it was so terribly expedient that she should tell the truth. [Ch. 21, “Why Puck, the pony, was beaten”

Related Material


Trollope, Anthony. Framley Parsonage. Project Gutenberg E-text prepared by Andrew Turek and revised by Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D., and an anonymous Project Gutenberg volunteer.

Last modified 1 October 2013