Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn, the Irish Member, an example of literature of political reform, has been grouped with George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1867), Thomas Carlyle’s Shooting Niagara: And After (1867), and Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869). A portrait of the British government in the early nineteenth century, Phineas Finn has a straightforward plot in which the protagonist during his six years in Parliament eventually acquires the wisdom and courage to act on his convictions. His own character and the particular conflict contribute to his development, in the course of which Trollope is able to make the point that the government is far more dedicated to the status quo than to significant reform.
By novel’s end, the change Phineas has undergone is revealed when he supports legislation proposed by his friend Joshua Monk that will help his native Ireland but simultaneously threaten the political establishment. By doing so, Finn learns that those who act on their convictions and attempt to initiate social change endanger their political careers. Thus, after voting for Monk’s Irish bill, which grants tenants in Ireland specific rights, Phineas loses his seat in Parliament.
Finn’s acquisition of wisdom may be seen as a partial response to those among his acquaintances who seem to hold few personal political beliefs. Barrington Earle, for instance, is opposed to change and despises conviction. It is Earle who encourages Phineas to enter politics in the first place, but when Phineas reveals that he plans to use his vote to serve Ireland and not necessarily the Liberal Party, Earle feels only disgust for him, for he realizes that Finn cannot be immediately useful to him. Earle’s sentiments are echoed by Finn’s countryman and fellow politician Lawrence Fitzgibbon: “I never knew a government yet that wanted to do anything.” For doing nothing, Fitzgibbon is eventually awarded with a secretaryship.
The character who most influences Phineas is Joshua Monk, a member of the cabinet. Monk maintains that individuals should enter politics only as a means of implementing personal convictions. Toward the end of the novel, Monk tells Finn, whose job as an undersecretary has shifted his attention away from Ireland toward North America, that “most probably you know nothing of the modes of thought of the man who lives next door to you.” Monk criticizes his peers for their insensitivity to their constituents. He himself, before proposing before Parliament his Irish reform legislation, accompanies Finn to Ireland and acquaints himself with the conditions of that country.
Other minor characters also serve as Phineas’s mentors. Phineas’s London landlord Jacob Bunce reminds Finn that Parliament has never yet improved the lot of the common people, and this notion justifies Bunce’s taking his views to the streets and finding himself arrested and jailed for standing too near Minister Turnbull’s carriage. Mr. Low, Phineas’s legal mentor, believes that Finn entered politics for the wrong reasons and that he should have first established himself in the legal profession, as Low did before he ran for office. According to Low, Finn does not have a sufficient grasp of the laws of the land to serve his country. Somewhat like Monk, Low asserts that Phineas is out of touch with elements vital to true political effectiveness. Indeed, Trollope’s characterization of Finn as a pleasant young man who knows how to make himself useful in Parliament and who seeks reelection twice because he loves the social life of a politician confirms Low’s observations.
The wisdom that Phineas gradually acquires is also born out of his own conflict between expediency and conscience, between doing what...
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is useful for his party and acting upon what is right. Trollope uses several other characters to illustrate the poles of Phineas’s conflict. Lawrence Fitzgibbon and Barrington Earle clearly stand in opposition to Joshua Monk, who, in contrast to Earle and Fitzgibbon, is a man of conviction. The conflict is also represented by Sir Robert Kennedy and Lord Chiltern. Kennedy, who is married to Laura Standish, is a middle-aged member of Parliament whose reticence reveals not the wisdom acquired through years of political involvement but the total absence of any personal convictions that would endanger his career or party. By contrast, Laura’s brother, Lord Chiltern, a social outcast, is ruled almost entirely by passion and conviction. A “wild” man who has reputedly killed a man with his bare hands, Chiltern refuses to obey his father on almost every issue. He stays out of politics and refuses to give up the blood sports that associate him with the old English nobility and which, to Trollope, seems to be more representative of true masculinity than do the politicians with whom Phineas associates. Phineas develops a lasting contempt for Kennedy, but he respects and befriends Lord Chiltern. This friendship is significant in the development of Phineas’s character, especially considering that Phineas and Chiltern at one point duel over Violet Effingham, but Trollope implies that this act demonstrates conviction, courage, and manhood in both of them.
Trollope also suggests the intensity of Phineas’s conflict through his female characters. Laura Standish, for example, makes a marriage of convenience to Robert Kennedy, who proves to be a tyrant and whom she eventually leaves. Violet Effingham, on the other hand, follows her heart in finally agreeing to marry Lord Chiltern, whom she has loved since childhood. Drawn to the dangerous though masculine side of Chiltern, she refuses a marriage of convenience and seems headed toward a happy life with him. Trollope also contrasts Madame Max Goesler and Mary Flood. Marriage to Madame Max, as she is called, would ensure Phineas access to the most prestigious political circles in London. Eventually, however, Finn follows his heart, rejects Madame Max, and marries his first love, Mary Flood, the most sincere and steadfast female character in the novel.
Phineas Finn, the Irish Member is a satirical, somewhat cynical novel about British politics. In his analysis, Trollope shows that those who wish to retain their political offices must vote with their parties; thus, presumably, they often must vote against their own hearts or convictions. Those who wish to advance socially and politically had best choose marriages of convenience. Finally, those who wish to maintain the unsullied reputations necessary for staying in office might be wise to follow in Sir Robert Kennedy’s footsteps by holding few convictions and saying nothing.