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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

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In keeping with its strong sense of the interdependence of public and private themes in the fashioning of identity, The Absentee has two endings. The formal awkwardness of such a conclusion may be understood as an expression of the earnestness with which Edgeworth intended to communicate the lessons of her material. In reading Edgeworth’s fiction, it is always relevant to bear in mind her strong pedagogical interests and her pathbreaking work as a writer of children’s books. The dual ending has the effect of making the ideological implications of The Absentee more significant than its aesthetic considerations.

Not only is Lord Colambre in a position to accept Grace Nugent’s hand in marriage, and thereby comply with one kind of narrative convention, but the implications of this union are dramatized in the Larry Brady letter of the peasant to his brother as well. This document, which has the superficial effect of tying some loose ends, articulates the kind of endorsement that Colambre’s union needs and which, as the author tacitly suggests, it deserves. Leaving the last word of the text with Larry Brady is a means of recognizing the responsibility of Colambre in his new role as resident proprietor. The letter supplies the public dimension of Colambre’s journey, and it completes the journey’s fictional, as opposed to documentary, reality by revealing that the objective of the journey was to facilitate the protagonist’s self-discovery. In effect, Colambre negotiates his own act of union, whereby he will attain integrity by integrating himself with the responsibilities which devolve on somebody of his wealth, education, culture, and moral backbone. This dimension of The Absentee aligns it with one of the most important formal departures in the novel during the nineteenth century, namely, the development of the Bildungsroman.

The self that Colambre discovers is not merely more mature and responsible, or rather, its maturity and responsibility are not merely confined to areas that assist in the consolidation of his lordship’s ego. Even Colambre’s ties to Grace Nugent are less a matter of private, romantic attachment than an identification with his heritage in racial and sexual terms. Although Grace is, as her name implies, an embodiment of cultivation and self-possession to a degree which Colambre once believed impossible in a person from Ireland, and is an important influence in his rejection of the bright lights of London, the complications of her background and the inhibitions that they temporarily place in the path of her union with Colambre is an important crux of the novel’s plot. The complications point to the politics of identity that The Absentee investigates—politics which may be contextualized in terms of the formal ideological positions of the day, but which are dramatized in changes of heart that are (for Colambre, at least) revolutionary.

Considered as a novel of manners, a number of characters in The Absentee act as Grace’s opposite. For example, the contribution that Lady Dashforth attempts to make to Colambre’s Irish education only enhances Grace’s moral significance. Viewed in the context of the novel’s fashionable women, Grace can be seen as a yardstick against which the adequacies of others’ experience may be measured. This typification of Grace is central to the work’s schematic nature. Given that its scheme is based on the novel of manners, such typification also suggests that part of the artistic interest of The Absentee is that it manages to be a critique of its ostensible genre.

The other important encounter that Colambre has in his travels is with Count O’Halloran. Though less central than Grace Nugent to the development of Colambre’s social, and therefore moral, sensibility, O’Halloran plays the important role of surrogate father. As such, he reveals to Colambre—or, in effect, to the generation that must now discharge the responsibilities of name, property, and birth—the existence of a certain cultural tradition and a definite code of civilized behavior. The author’s decision to have Count O’Halloran be Grace Nugent’s accomplice in the conversion of Colambre to Irishness is additional evidence of the duality found in the narrative of The Absentee. It also expresses the author’s belief that duality is a pretext for harmony, a belief which sees the humane and the ideological as the bride and groom of civil society.


Critical Evaluation