Fleetwood’s Upbringing and Its Effect on Making Friends
In William Godwin’s novel Fleetwood, readers are introduced to a character who is predominantly solitary and is socially inadequate when he is within society. This is due to the fact that he grew up as the only child of a father who was withdrawn from the social world when his mother passed away. Being raised in Merionethshire, he grew up with very little social interaction and instead was raised in nature and, arguably, by the wilderness itself. This plays a significant role in the subsequent events in the novel, as his solitude growing up makes him socially inept, especially in his relationships with women. As this novel is also titled Man of Feeling, readers are able to see how Fleetwood’s journey allows him to discover conventional men of feeling and how his character challenges this idea. Since he grew up in solitude, his journey is drastically different as his character is not aware of how to act in society. It is clear that Fleetwood’s lack of friends while growing up impedes him from having proper social relations, having decent morals and ideal traits to become a proper ‘man of feeling’; his status feeds into his egoism in the sense that he does not realize other individuals have feelings that cannot be read from outer appearance alone.
In this paper, the focus will be on chapter 11 of volume 2 from pages 229-234. In this chapter, Fleetwood feels incredibly lonely and distant from the world he is discovering. Since the death of his father, his travels have left him feeling empty and lonelier than ever. He even states, “My education and travels had left me a confirmed misanthropist. I have seen nothing of the world but its most unfavourable specimens” (215). After meeting some people from a literary club, he decides to go across the continent to search for a cure for his ennui. Ennui, defined as a “feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of excitement” (Dictionary.com), is a feeling that he claims is taking over him, and a feeling that he longs to get rid of. It seems that the experiences he has thus far has made him feel emotionally drained; his encounters with the Countess and Marchioness have left him feeling devoid of happiness. His encounters with society have left him feeling out of place because he simply is not used to being in a social environment, especially when growing up with nature was all he ever really knew. Moreover, his negative experiences in university caused him to distance himself from society even more; he witnessed the bullying of a boy passionate about classical literature who eventually committed suicide and the other students who lacked kindness and sincerity. Even while in university, he did not know how to act as he was new to being in the social world. He grew up in solitude with nature and his father rarely had guests over, thus making him unable to interact with others in a meaningful way. Because he was unaware of how to act in society, he was unable to make the friends that he wishes to make. On page 229, he states, “But what sort of a friend is it whose kindness shall produce a conviction in my mind that I do not stand alone in the world?” He has witnessed a lot of good men – his father, his father’s friend Ruffigny – yet he claims that in his entirety of living he has not met a friend that has made him feel less lonely.
Fleetwood describes his ideal friend as one that could feel what he is feeling – in his moments of grievances and moments of happiness. He seeks someone to aid in his loneliness, and someone that would feel something if he were to die. However, the issue with Fleetwood is that he lacks the ability to integrate with society. This is the sole reason he does not find the friend he is looking for – he simply cannot have a healthy relationship with individuals. Because of his lack of companionship and friends while growing up, he does not realize that certain things arise when being in a relationship with other people. For example, when he gets into a relationship with Mary further in the novel, he does not realize the importance of communication – he feels as if he can ‘read’ Mary through her outer appearances rather than simply communicating with her. When he finds a love letter written from Kendrick placed on Mary’s desk, he believes that she is cheating on him rather than confronting her outright. Because of this lack of communication, and because he does not realize that feelings and thoughts are not always clear as they seem, their relationship falls apart for the duration of this novel. This brings the readers to realize that due to his lack of friends while growing up, he lacks the ability to have relationships with other people and integrate in society. Although he travels around the world, he still cannot find a person to call a friend – this is for obvious reasons.
Another aspect of how a lack of friends affects Fleetwood’s life is that his egoism most certainly gets in the way. For example, on pages 229-231, he discusses what he wants in a friend, but all the qualities he seeks are not found in himself. He wants a friend that will care about him if he were to die, and constantly mentions that. He wants a friend that will have of all of these qualities and do all these things for him, and care for him in such a way that if he were to pass away it would greatly affect the life of that individual, yet he does not say anything about what he would do for his friend. All he talks about is himself, and what he wants: “I require that my friend should be poignantly affected by my death, as I require that he should be affected if I am calumniated, shipwrecked, imprisoned, robbed of my competence or my peace. He may be considerate and kind; watch by my bedside” (231). He idolizes his potential close friend, but when he meets someone like this later in the novel (his wife Mary), he does not treat her with the sort of care she needs and requires as all he thinks about is himself. All he mentions throughout this passage is his self interests and what he wants. He also states that there is a man who claims that there are a hundred men who would die for him, and it seems that Fleetwood admires that since he states, “No wonder that such a man should be buoyed up with high spirits!” (233). In other words, it seems that what he is looking for is not necessarily a ‘friend,’ but someone who will look up to him and die for him.
Because Fleetwood grew up as the only child, he most likely got all the attention and did not realize that everything does not revolve around him. He realizes that society does not revolve around him, and he seems to dislike that fact very much. Later on in the novel, he depends on his mind to read the emotions of other people. In the case of Mary, he assumes she is cheating simply because of small aspects like how she talks to Kendrick. It seems that he is selfish as he disregards the feelings of Mary in favor for his own feelings; he believes that what he thinks is right simply because he relies and depends on himself for information on other people’s emotions. He does not want to be humiliated which is probably why he does not bring up the issue to Mary. Furthermore, his experiences with the boy bullied in his university most likely made him more afraid to be vulnerable and embarrassed like he was – this, too, added to him being a misanthropist. Because of his egoism, he is emotionally limited to find a friend or form a proper relationship – he feels that he should be the centre of attention at all times and, due to his selfishness, his egoism ruins his relationships in the later part of the novel. Another section of this passage shows that egoism gets in his way of making friends. He states, “I met with men, to whom I could willingly have sworn an eternal partnership of the soul; but they thought of me with no corresponding sentiment; they had not the leisure to distinguish and to love me” (230-231). He seeks someone to love him and give him undivided attention, rather than taking the time to slowly form a real relationship with somebody. Consequently, his quest for someone to love him and show him respect while being a misanthropist due to his past experiences lead him to being friendless. Lastly, Fleetwood’s improper upbringing leads him to try to become like the ‘men of feeling’ he meets, but his lack of friends does not allow him to become that way.
After discovering about Ambrose Fleetwood, his grandfather who helped Ruffigny in many ways, and meeting Ruffigny who tries to return the favor to Fleetwood, Fleetwood realizes that there are certain traits that a ‘man of feeling’ should have. A typical man of feeling is one that helps his community, is well integrated in society, and has friends in whom he helps and trusts. Surely, Fleetwood recognizes that these are good men, and surrounds himself with good men, yet cannot achieve their sort of character. This is clearly seen later in the novel when the only ‘friend’ he claims to have, Gifford, is one lacking all of those traits. Later in the novel, Fleetwood states, “Gifford is to me a father, brother, wife, and children, all in one!” (396). Fleetwood lacks the ability to decipher a good friend from another because of his inability to read people and how they truly are. Fleetwood states, “I know not how other men are constituted; but something of this sort seemed essential to my happiness” (231). While the typical man of feeling strives to be a helpful part of the community, Fleetwood seeks a friend simply to aid in his happiness. He does not seek out aiding others to feel good about himself, but rather, he seeks out a friend to make him feel better for himself. In other words, he attempts to seek a friend for his own selfish reasons. He continues by saying, “To the happiness of every human creature, at least in a civilized state, it is perhaps necessary that he should esteem himself, that he should regard himself as an object of complacency and honor. However worthy and valuable he may endeavour to consider himself, his persuasion will be attended with little confidence and solidity, if it does not find support in the judgements of other men” (232). In this section, one notices the lack of ideal character traits shown in Fleetwood. If this is the ‘new man of feeling,’ then Godwin is most certainly challenging the ideas as Fleetwood comes off as rather selfish and does not seem to want to integrate into society in the way the original man of feeling should. While his grandfather and Ruffigny sought out to help others and communicate with the community, Fleetwood seeks out a friend that will respect him in various ways and will find him honorable as he seems to find himself. With this in mind, him seeking out friends is not him seeking out ideal character traits to become a man of feeling, but is to fulfill his own self interest and heal his intense feelings of loneliness.
Ultimately, the passages from pages from 229-234 show how drastically Fleetwood’s upbringing affected his ability to make friends. Due to his lack of friends, he is unable to have proper social relationships, suffers from psychological egoism and distress from its consequences, and lacks the traits and characteristics to become a conventional man of feeling. All in all, his quiet and rather unsocial upbringing causes him to lack what is needed to properly integrate in society and make the friends that he desperately seeks out. He claims that “it is a disease that afflicted me at first but in a moderate degree, [then] grew upon me perpetually from year to year” (233). This can be attributed to the lack of social environment while being raised by a solitary father and nature itself.
Godwin, William, and Pamela Clemit. Fleetwood. London: W. Pickering, 1992. Print.