Lecture topic Technique: Character foils Technique: Character foils

Character foil
Beyond being individually interesting, characters often act as foils for each other. A foil is a jewelry term and is used to describe the use of metal to help a primary stone shine more brightly. So, in a literary sense, a character foil is a character who allows another character’s attributes to ‘shine’ more clearly, often through contrast. By situating two characters side by side, we can learn more about each by comparing and contrasting the two. Interesting character pairings that work as foils are: Lenina and Linda, Bernard and Helmholtz, and John and Bernard. This presentation will look at the John and Bernard as foils for each other. Their individual qualities, when compared an contrasted, highlight the differences between them, helping to reinforce what each each character is designed to represent.

John and Bernard: Brothers?
Initially, John and Bernard seem like brothers. They share a sense of loneliness and dislocation, which makes them feel like outsiders in the worlds they individually inhabit. When they meet, there is an immediate connection between the two around this feeling of being on the outside: “Alone, always alone,” the young man was saying. The words awoke a plaintive echo in Bernard’s mind. Alone, alone ... “So am I,” he said, on a gush of confidingness. “Terribly alone.” The mere fact that Bernard is “confiding” in John so quickly is a strong indication of their initial bond. Here they seem very similar and John articulation of his solitude works as a foil for Bernard’s isolation. The feeling that Bernard has it highlighted because it is reinforced by what John is saying here. John effectively shines a light on Bernard’s feeling of isolation and allows him to reflect and articulate how he feels.

John and Bernard: Poles apart?
This brotherhood quickly disappears though and the character foil begins to highlight the differences between these two characters. The technique begins to expose Bernard for who he really is, while reinforcing our sense of John’s high moral values. The first incident occurs when John refuses to come to dinner with Bernard. Bernard is annoyed and eventually feels completely humiliated. His true feelings come out when John approaches him: “Well, I’d rather be unhappy than have the sort of false, lying happiness you were having here.” “I like that,” said Bernard bitterly. “When it’s you who were the cause of it all. Refusing to come to my party and so turning them all against me!” Their contrasting beliefs are highlighted here. John shines a light on Bernard’s selfishness. Even here, he refuses to admit how selfish he is being and rather than apologising, he gets angry at John. And we get a really strong sense of John’s values here too. His moral code is nicely represented in his preference for unhappiness over false happiness, directly in contrast to Bernard. By using each character as a foil for the other here, we get a really strong sense of how superficial Bernard is (angry at the loss of a false happiness) and an equally strong sense of how morally consistent John is. By putting them in direct conflict, it is much easier to recognise their personal truths.

More evidence...
Perhaps the most striking piece of evidence in the character foil situation comes in the incident with the soma. John, almost heroically, takes the fight to the Deltas, whereas Bernard does he best to sneak away. This incident quite strongly highlights John’s courage and willingness to stand up for his beliefs. Here’s John: “Free, free!” the Savage shouted, and with one hand continued to throw the soma into the area while, with the other, he punched the indistinguishable faces of his assailants. “Free!” Here’s Bernard: “Hesitant on the fringes of the battle. “They’re done for,” said Bernard and, urged by a sudden impulse, ran forward to help them; then thought better of it and halted; then, ashamed, stepped forward again; then again thought better of it, and was standing in an agony of humiliated indecision–thinking that they might be killed if he didn’t help them, and that he might be killed if he did.” Again, by essentially placing these descriptions side by side, each attitude is heightened. By placing John’s courage next to Bernard’s cowardice, the courage seems all the more courageous, while the cowardice seems all the more cowardly.

The foil is an effective technique for positioning the reader. Because it heightens both the positive qualities of John AND the negative qualities of Bernard, it really helps us figure our where our empathy should lie. It is Huxley’s way of helping align the reader with John and to buy into John’s attitudes and values. It also quite effectively draws our attention to the role of the individual in society. Both Bernard and John are blessed with individuality, but only one makes use of it in a meaningful way. John embraces his individuality and we admire him for that, whereas Bernard despises his individuality and takes advantage of all opportunities to integrate himself back into the conformist model that everyone else follows. I think you could argue that Huxley believes that with individuality comes a responsibility to embrace that individuality and make use of it in a meaningful way. I think perhaps he is trying to remind us of how much a gift that individuality is and also to expose to us what we become if we give that up - fairly despicable and selfish. There is the sense that he is saying that individuality comes with responsibility, and that responsibility is to use your unique point of view to challenge and question the world around you and to stay true to that point of view. It is something that makes us distinctly human - this ability to have an invididual point of view and to use that as a means of influencing the world around us. By having Bernard and John work as foils for each other, we get a really strong sense of the “right” and “wrong” attitudes towards individuality.

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