The Four Feathers
In The Four Feathers, A. E. W. Mason weaves a story that gives a glimpse into the history and culture of England in the late 1800s. Throughout the sprawling British Empire, military service was held in high regard, and heroism was a quality expected of a true Englishman. Cowardice was unthinkable.
Mason introduces two characters that illustrate a divergence in the psychological effects of these societal expectations. John Durrance is the stereotypical Englishman, a stolid man who knows his duty and does it with little fanfare. The assumption that every Englishman is a hero seems to be all he needs to act the part. His friend, Harry Faversham, although from a line of soldiers famous for their brave service in the Army, has a secret that has plagued him since childhood--he is terrified of being a coward.
The pressure to be courageous weighs down on him, and he is determined to avoid cowardice at all costs. He goes so far as to resign his commission right before his regiment is sent to Sudan so he can stay out of battle altogether. However, when three of his friends send him white feathers, a public declaration of cowardice, he realizes that his fear of being afraid has become self-fulfilling, the very catalyst of the outcome he had so carefully tried to avoid. Worst of all, his fiancee, Ethne Eustace, adds a fourth feather when she learns of his decision and subsequent shame.
At his lowest point, Harry talks to his mentor and comes to a conclusion; he must do everything in his power to prove that the feathers were unwarranted, and that his accusers must accept them back from him, thus disproving the accusation of cowardice. What heroic act of bravery would be sufficient to change their minds? Harry sets off for Sudan by himself, determined to discover and perform such an act for each of them, hoping that this would be enough for Ethne to take hers back as well. Harry’s departure from England also marks his departure as the main character.
We begin to follow John Durrance, who goes to Sudan and, after being involved in battle there, is sent back to England because of a permanent injury. The story begins to center around Durrance and Ethne, while still giving glimpses of Harry through others’ perspectives. This shift in protagonist creates a dilemma for the reader; who is the true hero, Harry or John? When the narrative switches back to Harry, there remains a question about how the story can end without one of the two men, who are both honorable and easy to admire, finding happiness at the expense of the other.
The classic story of the hero getting a second chance after a brash mistake is muddled by an equally attractive character--one who carefully considers his choices, showing wisdom and character, yet still gets the short end of the stick because of circumstances beyond his control. Whichever character the reader might identify with more, it is agonizing to think of the other coming to ruin in the end. Here is where the final theme of the book shines through--that of sacrificial love. Without giving away the ending, which is a tremendous crescendo of all the captivating characters that have been developed through the book, I can say that I was both inspired by the resolution and reminded of friendships in my own life that have this quality: someone willing to give up their own happiness for yours, and getting joy in the end through it.
If you enjoyed the ending as much as I did, I also recommend the 1939 version of the movie based on the book; it captures the themes and characters quite well without losing many plot points (unlike the more well-known 2002 version).