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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

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The Man of Feeling, written by Scottish author Henry Mackenzie, is about a poor aristocrat named Harley, who journeys from his home to London and back again in an effort to improve his financial situation. During his travels, Harley comes up against an "uncaring world," and seeks out those "kindred spirits" he believes still exist. Harley portrays "the man of feeling," who fails financially and loses at love, while at the same time, lives a kind and moral life.

Mackenzie was showing the "hardship of disappointment" in life through Harley. In his introduction, he explains,

When we have been hurrying on, impelled by some warm wish or other, looking neither to the right hand nor to the left—we find [all] of a sudden that all our gay hopes are flown; and the only slender consolation that some friend can give us, is to point where they were once to be found.

The novel was considered an important contribution of "sentimental" literature prominent in the eighteenth century. It is composed of "scattered" chapters that follow Harley on different adventures that attempt to portray the importance of being kind and generous to others.

One important scene comes in chapter 25, when Harley enters a park and witnesses a gentleman talking to a beggar, who was "recounting the hardships he had undergone, and explaining the wretchedness of his present condition." The gentleman shows the beggar compassion, but doesn't have money to help him. Harley decides to step forward and offers his help by giving the beggar a shilling. He says to the gentleman, "Your intentions, sir, are so good, that I cannot help lending you my assistance to carry them into execution.”

MacKenzie uses the scene to put forward his idea that “there is no use of money equal to that of beneficence." He is asking the reader to consider that charity, which is sometimes thought to be "misplaced," helps the less fortunate.

The novel's editor explains that Man of Feeling was not a "dry book" and includes an "index of tears" for "persons of a calculating disposition." The index supports the theme of sentimentality by providing a list of places characters weep or show emotion. For example, on page 44, "I have wept many a time . . . " or page 187, "Tears flowing without control . . . "

MacKenzie's Man of Feeling goes on to influence the next generation of writers, including Charles Dickens, who will continue to write on the theme of charity to help the less fortunate in his novel A Christmas Carol.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1317

One day in early September, a rural clergyman takes a friend from town hunting with him. When they stop to rest, the friend finds some indecipherable initials carved on the bark of a tree. The curate says they are probably the work of a young man named Harley, a former resident of the parish. The clergyman adds that he has a manuscript in his possession that tells the greater part of Harley’s story. The manuscript was found among the possessions of a former parishioner, Harley’s friend. The curate thought the work of no great value and has used the papers for wadding in his gun. Upon request, however, the clergyman gives the bundle of disconnected papers to his friend, who returns to town and pieces together the melancholy story they contain.

Mr. Harley, an orphan reared by a maiden aunt, is descended from a good family among the country gentry in England. The passing years have decreased the family’s fortunes, and by the time he reaches manhood he has only a very modest income from the remaining small estate. The young man, who is extremely virtuous, does not feel that he needs any more money, but his friends insist that with very little trouble he can secure the use of some adjoining lands belonging to the Crown. At his friends’ insistence and because he is very much in love with Miss Walton, an heiress, Harley sets out for London to attempt to obtain a lease to the lands. The lease would handsomely increase his fortunes in return for a low rental fee. He undertakes this mission with reluctance, though, because he is uneasy with the idea of striving for financial gain.

Once in London, Harley has several amazing adventures, partly because he is willing to believe all people are good until he finds them to be bad and partly because he wishes to help anyone who needs aid. These adventures take place over several weeks, for Harley finds that the baronet who is to help him in his suit for the lease is not an easy man to see. On the occasion of one visit to see the baronet, Harley meets someone pretending to be a man about town. Harley wishes to know more about London and spends the evening with the young man, only to learn that the fellow is a former footman who serves as a procurer for wealthy men.

A short time later, an unnamed friend invites Harley to accompany a party to the asylum at Bedlam. There, Harley is much affected by the insane, particularly by a young woman who went mad after her lover’s death; she touches Harley’s heart when she cries out that he resembles her dead lover. As the party leaves the young lady, a gentleman offers to tell Harley about some of the inmates. Harley assents, only to find within a few minutes that his guide is himself a madman who imagines himself to be an Asian potentate.

A few evenings later, Harley goes for a walk through the park. While there, he meets an elderly gentleman who invites him to partake of a glass of cider at a nearby pub. Impressed by the gentleman’s attitude of benevolence to a nearby beggar, Harley agrees. Once in the house, Harley is invited to play a hand in a friendly card game, during which the old gentleman and an accomplice swindle the good-hearted Harley out of a substantial sum of money. Leaving the pub and still unaware that he has been swindled, Harley is accosted by a prostitute who begs him for something to eat and drink. Harley hates to see another human in distress and leaves himself open to severe criticism by taking the girl, a Miss Atkins, to a brothel where she can get some food. When she pours out a tale of seduction to him, he agrees to help her if he can and promises to see her the following day.

The next morning, Harley goes to see Miss Atkins. She tells him she wants only to return to her father, a retired army officer. Just as she has finished telling her story, her father appears. He misjudges the scene and almost becomes violent toward Harley and his daughter. A fainting spell on the part of Miss Atkins gives Harley a chance to explain everything her father, who then forgives his daughter and takes her back.

Harley’s London adventures are cut short by a notice from the baronet that someone else has been granted the Crown lands sought by Harley. The successful petitioner turns out to be the pander whom Harley met at the baronet’s house. Discouraged, Harley takes a coach to return home.

The coach takes Harley to within a day’s walk of his home. From there, the young man sets out for his house on foot rather than wait for a public conveyance. On the way, he meets Ben Silton, a garrulous and wise elderly gentleman, as well as an elderly soldier. The soldier turns out to be a farmer named Old Edwards, whom Harley knew when he was a child. Edwards tells several lengthy stories of his life, conveying experiences that, while utterly alien to the relatively sheltered Harley, nonetheless manifest the virtue of feeling that Harley and Edwards share. Edwards explains to Harley why he is attired as he is: The Enclosure Acts passed by Parliament gave Edwards’s landlord an excuse to move the farmer and his family from a good farm to a poor one. Bad crops further decreased the man’s ability to make a livelihood, and eventually he and his married son were forced to become tenants on a tiny, depleted bit of ground. A press gang seized Edwards’s son as well. The only way to secure the young man’s release had been for Edwards himself, a man of advanced years, to enter the service in his son’s place, after buying off the relevant officials with the little money he had left.

While a soldier in the East Indies, Edwards befriended an aged Hindu, who made him a present of gold. Upon his release from the service, Edwards returned to England, and he is now on his way to visit his son. When he and Harley arrive in Edwards’s old neighborhood, they find that Edwards’s run of disastrous luck has not ended: His son and daughter-in-law have died, leaving two small children. Harley promises the old man a farm on his own estates, and, taking the two orphans with them, Harley and Edwards continue their journey.

Home once more, Harley sees Edwards comfortably established on a small farm. Unhappiness, however, soon overtakes Harley, despite all his accumulation of good deeds. Miss Walton is affianced by her father to a rich man. Although he has never declared his love to Miss Walton or anyone else, Harley is heartbroken. He takes to his bed with a severe, undiagnosed, and inexplicable illness. After many weeks of continued illness, Harley’s doctors and friends fear for his life. Miss Walton hears of his illness and comes to visit him, hoping to cheer up the young man for whom she has a great deal of esteem—more, indeed, than anyone has ever guessed.

A tearful and touching scene occurs when Miss Walton appears at Harley’s sickbed. Harley realizes that he is near death and tells Miss Walton of his love for her. Although she is promised to another, she tells Harley of her own love for him. Then, she faints, and he dies. He is buried near his mother, as he once told his aunt he wished to be. Miss Walton remains single, preferring not to marry after Harley’s death. For many years, she is often seen walking or reading near the place where Harley’s house once stood.

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