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The Noble Savage in Literature

Updated on June 13, 2015

The book...


Heroes and anti-heroes

Many years ago, I sat in a crowded cinema, enjoying Ang Lee’s 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, based on the novel by Jane Austen. Like the other females in the audience, I practically swooned as John Willoughby (Greg Wise) scooped the fallen Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) in his arms, and returned her to her family. Marianne falls very much in love with her handsome young rescuer, who is well versed in poetry and literature. However, his subsequent dissolute behaviour illustrates what an unsuitable match he is for her. Eventually, she marries the devoted Colonel Brandon, less cultured than Willoughby but in behaviour, a perfect gentleman.

In Austen’s Persuasion, the gentle Anne Elliot remains steadfastly in love with Captain Wentworth following her giving way to peer pressure to turn down his proposal of marriage. Almost a decade later, he returns from the Napoleonic wars, in possession of the many naval prizes that have made him a rich man. Throughout the story, the author contrasts his manly career with those of Anne’s foppish, decadent and very socialized relatives. In the happy ending reserved for all Austen heroines, Anne succeeds in winning his love again.

The eponymous heroine of Emma dissuades her friend, Harriet Smith, from marrying farmer Robert Martin because he isn’t socially elevated enough. When the dashing young Frank Churchill arrives in the neighbourhood, Emma tries to fall in love with him because, she perceives, he is “right” for her. The novel’s first hint that it won’t be wedding bells for Emma and Frank is when she discovers that he has hurried post-haste to London to avail of a fashionable haircut. Eventually, Emma marries the solid, gentlemanly George Knightley, while Harriet is reconciled with Robert Martin.

In Northanger Abbey, the landed General Tilney rejects middle-class Catherine Morland as a match for his son, Henry, because he believes that her family are desititue. However, his belief is the result of the very inaccurate information fed him by the vain, arrogant and uber-educated John Thorpe. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen turns the tables by casting the imperious and very privileged Fitzwilliam Darcy as the unsocialised, hard-to-conquer hero. Meanwhile, it is George Wickham, his virility expressed in a military career, who proves to be the villain that all but ruins Lydia Bennet. This episode is the exception; across the Austen board, the pattern is repeated; the heroes are gentlemen farmers, military and ex-military men, and naval officers, while the fops, fools and downright scoundrels are the highly-educated clergymen and lawyers.

Austen’s narratives reflect her own life. Her brother inherited an estate, leaving herself, her mother and her sister to amble along in shabby gentility for all of their lives. Work was anathema in a world where the lower middle classes sought and fought over well-paid employment. Being in possession of an estate lifted the subject out of the competition. Edmund Bertram, the rather insipid hero of Mansfield Park, does aspire to the clergy but as a member of the nobility, his career is one of choice rather than necessity. In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars becomes a clergyman, but only because he has lost his fortune through noble behaviour. And it is Colonel Brandon who offers him the post, which allows him to marry Elinor Dashwood, sister of Marianne. In Austen's other stories, the less educated gentleman farmer was ennobled by possession of land while soldiers and sailors defending the realm were absolved of the accusation of work. And the nobleman was simply – noble. What was the genesis of Austen’s untamed heroes?

The natural man

In 1754, Jean-Jacques Rousseau laid out his theory of natural man in his paper Discourse on Inequality. He asserted that man is most virtuous in his natural state, free of the corrupting morals of society. He held that the “savage” state, in between the primitive brute and the decadence of extreme sophistication, was the one in which man was most effective. Incidentally, writers have attributed Rousseau with the expression “noble savage", though playwright John Dryden first used it in The Conquest of Granada, in 1672.

In 1719, Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe. The eponymous hero is stranded on a Caribbean island for over twenty-eight years. During this time, Crusoe witnesses the horrors of cannibalism and rescues a “savage” from this dire fate. He names the man Friday, teaches him about civilization and converts him to Christianity. At one level, the novel acts as a parable against the dangers of weak governance. The author pushes this point in the (highly improbable) episode where Crusoe and Friday save a ship’s captain and his mate from a group of mutineers. In doing so, Crusoe wins freedom from the island and a trip back to England, civilization and society.

Austen’s untamed heroes would seem to stem from Rousseau’s embrace of the natural man theory. A little civilizing is a good thing, but the best men remain uncorrupted by society. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, natural man featured prominently in literature. In 1818, Mary Shelley published the seminal Frankenstein, the tale of a scientist who created a being from the funerary remains of other men. This book was almost certainly the earliest work of science fiction (inform me) and the story traces the havoc that the naïve “monster” creates in a world that he does not understand. In Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1861), Abel Magwich confesses to hero Pip that his criminal traits arose because of his lack of connection to society. Meanwhile, Pip has wrestled with his own demons since being lifted from his lowly job as a blacksmith and into the life of a “gentleman”. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte, 1847) concerns Heathcliff, a homeless boy who grows into a handsome man and evokes emotional turmoil in the family that adopted him. In Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte, 1847), the wealthy, brooding Mr Rochester betrays a cavalier disregard for the feelings of the eponymous heroine. He buries his dissolute past and places the innocent woman at the centre of his affections, resulting in her heartbreak. In the best tradition of romantic fiction, Jane is given an opportunity to reform Rochester, and they live happily ever after.

Overall, I would leave the noble, savage hero on the pages of fiction, where he can do least harm. But in dreams, I will ever be in the arms of John Willoughby.


Sense and Sensibility



Pride and Prejudice

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


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    • skip55 profile image

      Skip Murray 2 years ago from Somerville, MA

      Perhaps marriage was something that did not interest her, just as it did not seem to interest Emily Dickenson. Some people, writers we may as well talk about here, marry one, two, three times, in disaster after disaster after disaster. Maybe her thinking was she will have it all or nothing and nothing is what happened for her. Many great books, however, and we are glad for that.

    • Mary Phelan profile image

      Mary Phelan 2 years ago from London

      Thank you all for the comments.

      In my opinion, Jane Austen never married because she was too busy writing. And at the height of her fame, she developed an (undiagnosed) illness and died.

      This is a hub that I will definitely add to.

      Thanks again, and best wishes.

    • lyoness913 profile image

      Summer LeBlanc 2 years ago from H-Town

      You write very eloquently. I always have to wonder why Jane Austen never married, as she was so in love with the idea of 'love.'

      What a nice read,


    • skip55 profile image

      Skip Murray 2 years ago from Somerville, MA

      Thanks for these views inside. Taking a look at characters, conflicts and such, and then discovering as a result, is a wondrous experience. And, done well, as this hub is, these looks we take along with us.

    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 2 years ago

      This is seriously the best Hub I have read in months.