Ode to Felix Harrowgate

January 2, 2009 at 1:15 am (Character Focus) (, )

This is really, really long. It’s basically a long ramble where I try to suss out my feelings about Felix, so if you don’t like him this is probably not a post you want to be reading. That being said, this sucker is approx. 4500 words so be prepared.

Topics I cover, in order: Felix’s basic personality, why I don’t ship Felix/Mildmay, Felix’s attitude towards sex and his relationship with Gideon, more on why I don’t ship Felix/Mildmay, some stuff on Felix and his secrets.

Spoilers for Melusine, The Virtu and The Mirador.

After I read Melusine I tried not to pass judgment on Felix because, well, for most of Melusine he’s batfuck insane (to borrow Mildmay’s words) and we really only get a tiny glance of his usual self towards the beginning and the end. In The Virtu and The Mirador he’s much more like his regular wizardy self (“had all his shit together and was sharp enough to cut diamonds” to quote from memory, because I love that line and its context), so it’s easier to get a grasp on him and I think I can finally unload a few thoughts on the matter of Felix Harrowgate.

He is not a nice person. He admits it himself. I would go so far as to call him a grade A asshole. He is not, I feel, someone I should like or want to be around for any length of time. There is enough good in him to recognize his cruel nature and to feel sorry and apologetic for it, but not enough for him to make a conscious effort to change (quote from Dramacon which I read recently as well—“Is that your reason…or your excuse?”)—he seems to have pretty much accepted that he is an asshole and always will be one and as a result he is doomed to fuck up all his relationships ever. It’s hard for me to like him in the face of that, partly because of how defeatist it is and because my sympathies lean hard towards Mildmay and so often, he’s awful to Mildmay, either as a proxy for someone else or because he’s trying to force distance or because he’s just secretive and lashing out in defense. I think he is conscious of the fact that he does not deserve Mildmay, doesn’t deserve Mildmay’s love or regard or quiet service, and the same time he is resentful of Mildmay, for representing the past he wants to escape and rise above so badly, and at the same time he is selfish and possessive and protective of Mildmay because he wants that love. Their relationship isn’t healthy by any stretch of the imagination, my god, I’m trying to think of a single way to make it worse and I’m drawing a blank—no, wait. If they started fucking. That would probably make it even worse. Fortunately, it seems like Felix is unwilling to cross that line, no matter what his cock wants. Nice to see he has some self-control.

Okay, that was kind of mean. But seriously…Felix…he’s not good at thinking about other people. He really isn’t. He can read other people, he knows how to push buttons to get what he wants (even if that’s a screaming row) but he’s seriously not very graceful in dealing with them. He can manipulate, but he doesn’t really know how to interact, if that makes sense. He doesn’t know how to be honest, he’s doesn’t really know how to empathize. He lashes out and tries not to think about the consequences, or maybe he doesn’t quite get the consequences to it (and there I see some of myself in him and wow, isn’t that a scary thought). Felix isn’t good at being honest, even when he’s not lying.

He’s not comfortable being himself, which makes a lot of sense, considering that being anything other than the aristocratic artifice crafted for him by Malkar would probably have earned him a brutal punishment and that facet of the persona is what’s earning him the high life. And anything other than being good and obedient for his Keeper and then his pimp wouldn’t have done him any favors either. Being honest and expressive and appreciative would have been a bad thing for him, a one-way track to pain. So I can see how he might not be good at it. But god, it hurts to see the way he hurts people around him, especially because Mildmay has a hard time lashing back—not because he’s naturally submissive, but because of the rift in their educations and Felix’s utter ability to just be nice. And even when Felix does go up against someone willing to hit back (Mehitabel, and later Gideon when they break up), he can never apologize or admit he was wrong, just keeps on rolling and never really changes though he regrets plenty. Really, when he says he gets tired of the politics of the Mirador in a way he didn’t used to be it doesn’t really ring all that true, because, well. The reader pretty much just has Felix’s word to go on that he’s changed, and he is not exactly the most trustworthy person in the world.

Which leads me to the subject of sex. I mentioned that I think the only way his relationship with Mildmay could get even more unhealthy was if they started fucking and, you know, with the obligation d’ame Felix could force Mildmay into sleeping with him. He promised not to, but, well. I truly believe he won’t cross that line, despite what might seem like a hatefest, because I think he is at least a better person than that. Plus, there are his past experiences with rape and compelled sexual interaction (not necessarily intercourse, as The Mirador so kindly demonstrated with the iron dildo oh god), but on the other hand Felix does have a bad tendency to lash out with the obligation d’ame at times and as Vincent, another character in The Mirador points out, Felix tends to have good intentions a lot of the time but is not always very good at keeping to them. I don’t think, as I said, that it’s a line Felix would be willing to cross—partly because he’s been raped before and I do not think he could ever bring himself to inflict that on another person, and partly because he’s very aware that it’s wrong to want his brother and that Mildmay is firmly heterosexual. Which can change, but even then, I’m not sure Felix would be able to bring himself to screw Mildmay and you know, I don’t think Mildmay’s changing his orientation any time soon. Felix admits that Malkar has affected his sexual responses permanently (is that where he gets the tarquin from?); in the same way, I think Kolkhis has affected Mildmay’s sexual responses as well, in that he’s not attracted to men and during sex his impulse is to please his partner and he has little concern for his own. Maybe that was why Felix was so shocked when he learned that Kolkhis had started sleeping with Mildmay when he was fourteen—that was about when Malkar bought and started sleeping with(/raping) Felix, as well, and maybe the age has negative associations for him. Uh. Where was I? Right.

Well, it would be a bad thing if they did end up together (though I doubt it’ll ever be canon) because Mildmay’s right, Felix isn’t really trustworthy and he does use any weaknesses he can find as leverage in fights—Mildmay’s accent and grammar, Mildmay’s comparative lack of education, Mildmay’s unwillingness to love the Mirador and kowtow to its edicts (which he passes off as Mildmay just being stupid, which is patently untrue). Fucking would just be another weapon for him to use. Oh, I don’t doubt that Felix wouldn’t intend to tell anyone, or to use it against Mildmay in any way, but as sure as eggs are eggs the moment he could—in a fight with Mildmay, or just to piss someone else off, whatever, he would. He has that kind of vicious mentality when it comes to fights; Felix pulls no punches. And he’d regret it, definitely, but he’d never really quite be able to bring himself to vocalize his apology and regret and remorse and would just internalize it all as self-loathing. And while Felix might be able to just sail right past it and pretend it didn’t matter or that he didn’t care, Mildmay wouldn’t be able to, and Felix sailing past it would just hurt Mildmay even more, because what is he supposed to think other than he really doesn’t matter to Felix, either as a brother (or else they wouldn’t’ve started fucking) or as a person (because why else would he tell?). It would just be another one of the myriad ways Felix betrays Mildmay, without even stopping to think (and he even acknowledges this tendency in canon, so I’m not pulling this angst out of thin air!). It would not be pretty, for them to cross that line. I don’t think they will, as they’ve said, but it’s happened in fanfic and while I want for them to be happy I do not think fucking each other is going to get them there at all.

And part of that is because Felix, I think, has a weird relationship with sex. By which I mean, it’s not very meaningful to him because it’s sex. I’m not sure how to explain. It’s the powerplay in sex that he’s more interested in. Which, well, given his history as a prostitute and history as a prostitute in what essentially amounts to a brothel that catered at least partially to BDSM and Malkar using sex as a way to hurt and control him, his attitude is pretty understandable. It’s the exchange of power, I think, that he’s more interested in when it comes to sex; sex is a vehicle rather than a goal. It’s a way to establish and strengthen relationships, it’s a way for him to vent his anger. It’s not that he doesn’t physically enjoy it, it’s just that sex in of itself doesn’t mean a whole lot to him in that way. It’s the mental/intellectual/emotional satisfaction that he’s in it for. As I said, it has more to do with power than anything else. Felix says he doesn’t care to be dominated (which makes sense also considering his sexual history prior to breaking the obligation de sang is pretty much him being forced into the submissive position time and time again, against his will), but it’s more than that…it’s that he doesn’t want any choice at all to be taken away from him. He has to be dominate, which doesn’t necessarily mean he has to top. He has to know that he is the one in charge of everything. Of who he’s sleeping with, of access to himself; he can bottom no problem but he would only do it if he knew beyond a doubt that he is still the one who can make or break the affair (Shannon may be an exception, which bears further examination). He needs to have all the power in a sexual exchange. For Felix, power doesn’t necessarily translate into bottoming; he probably has had a lot of experience in what the submissive partner in a sexual exchange can do to make being the pursued a position of power by dint of being desired. Or something.

This is where, I think, his relationship with Gideon goes wrong. Because I don’t doubt that he loved Gideon, but his love for Gideon had nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with Gideon’s mind and intelligence and curiosity and maybe even a subconscious remembrance of Gideon’s kindness during the time when he was mad. The sex was a way for Felix to maintain their relationship and reinforce it; he made Gideon bottom because he could (which sounds mean, but on the other hand this was a relationship post-Malkar-breaks-his-mind and post-St.-Crellifer’s so I think Gideon understood why Felix was doing it.). It didn’t really matter to him so much as long as he had the power, and having the power meant he could make Gideon bottom all the time, so he did. The choice was in his hands, just like the choice of whether or not to follow when Gideon took initiative, which was not often but was followed through at Felix’s discretion. Gideon couldn’t really make him do anything he didn’t want to, which is the way Felix likes it, I think. But like I also said, Felix is bad at empathizing, and Gideon’s views on sex between men were very different—Gideon views sex as one man submitting to another, and that to submit is, hrm, not necessarily a good thing and also not always desirable, but it’s the way things have to go. For him the bottom is always the weaker and more vulnerable one (not necessarily the feminine one, though to be honest we never actually see anything from his POV and now we never will so we don’t actually know that Gideon didn’t code sex into terms of top=male and bottom=female. Felix mentions Gideon viewed top/bottom as the same as dominant/submissive and his views are influenced by his school of wizardry, which is never explicitly stated to have female members. So perhaps his views of sexual power dynamics between two men weren’t coded along gender lines at all, maybe. Maybe more like predator/prey.).

But Felix knows that that’s not how it is; to bottom is not necessarily to lose control over the situation. And as I’ve also said before, he’s not good at empathizing. He gets Gideon’s point of view in an intellectual sense, but he doesn’t quite get how that colors Gideon’s perceptions of sex between men and Felix’s near-refusal to bottom for him at all. Gideon’s views are kind of joke to him I think. He doesn’t quite get that being made to submit all the time and enjoying it is like a blow to Gideon’s ego and character even though no one except him really cares. I think in Gideon’s view sex between men is either a case of domination of one by the other, and when the relationship is constituted of equals (such as himself and Felix) it’s like a trade; it’s about equality and letting the balance tip for just a moment so both parties can enjoy themselves. But reciprocation would be expected, you know? I think that’s what Gideon’s feeling, especially since he’s now living in the more permissive and liberal environment of the Mirador as opposed to the Bastion. And I think Felix doesn’t get that being made to bottom all the time is hurting Gideon because, in this POV, it’s making him feel like their relationship is one-sided; all he does it give, all Felix does is take (which is kind of true of any relationship where Felix holds the upper hand; see: Mildmay and the obligation d’ame).

It’s true that maybe Felix’s view of power and sex is the more nuanced (sophisticated?) view, but that doesn’t give him the right to dismiss Gideon’s view altogether. Which is exactly what he does.
And Felix only makes it worse because he allows Isaac Garamond to top him (allows is very much the right word). He doesn’t know that Isaac is a spy for the Bastion, but he’s not very good at being faithful. Which makes sense, given that the closest he’s ever come to monogamy was that twisted thing he had with Malkar, and then the five years he had with Shannon Teverius before Shannon betrayed him and left him out in the cold around the time Felix went mad. Plus there’s the thing that allowing only one person sexual access to him is just, well, it’s a meaningless concept for him. Sex is not special; he’s been a prostitute, he knows you can buy a blowjob or a ten-year-old virgin the same way you can buy, say, a hit of drugs. It’s a commodity, it’s a social interaction the same way arguments and trade are social interactions. Monogamy as a concept is not exactly important to him (which I guess makes his five year relationship with Shannon even more special, and just makes the betrayal hurt even more). So—back to letting Isaac Garamond top him. Even though he does, Felix knows he’s the one with the power. He knows that Isaac doesn’t like that he wants Felix, but he desires Felix anyway, and Felix knows how to use that. I really think Felix only let Isaac top him out of the petty knowledge that it would hurt Gideon if he found out, even though Gideon doesn’t know and never knew, just knew that they were sleeping together.

And then of course there was the way that Felix would go out and find someone when he was angry, a sub who would let him work out his frustrations and anger when his temper came upon him—the terms he uses are tarquin and martyr; we’d translate that as BDSM—tarquin for the top, martyr for the bottom, both usages seem to quite clearly include pain being inflicted on one by the other. Felix is not faithful, and he doesn’t quite get that his lack of faith hurts the people who expect him to be, who want him to be, and can’t get over the fact that no, they are not enough to make him stick to one person. And really I think Gideon could’ve been enough, except for how their views on sex were so out of tune with each other and they didn’t really know how to communicate with each other except for arguing and sex. I think sleeping with Isaac was only to hurt Gideon because they were fighting, and the martyrs are for him to work off his temper in a way that won’t hurt anyone (anyone important, at least) and, hmm, will bring what he doesn’t understand—his occasional black rages—into terms of what he does understand—sex and power. God, where was I? Right. So, monogamy and Felix are kind of incompatible. He’s not incapable of it, it’s just…not where his instincts lie. And he’s not above using sex as a weapon, even if it means fucking someone other than whoever he’s going steady with (another reason Felix/Mildmay wouldn’t work. Mildmay would expect and would want monogamy; Felix would not be able to give it; Mildmay would understand but be hurt by it and Felix would be catty to hide how much he hated himself for hurting Mildmay by being himself). As he says, his instincts are to wound rather than reconcile.

I think part of why his wanting Mildmay freaks him out so much is because he’s not used to actively wanting anyone. I mean, aside from the incest and how unavailable Mildmay is due to being straight as a ruler. Felix is used to taking advantage of other people’s desire and taking pleasure in the fact that people want him, he’s used to sex being a vehicle for his anger or for hurting someone else or for expressing power. He’s not used to actually wanting someone the way he wants Mildmay in The Virtu. He’s not used to wanting to actively pursue someone and nail them senseless. The last time he wanted someone was Shannon, who rejected him when he needed Shannon the most and never stopped betraying him, so I can see how actively wanting Mildmay would freak him out on the level of fear of betrayal and of how fucking stupid it is to finally be able to want for the sake of wanting and to be lusting after exactly the man he cannot have. In The Mirador his lust for Mildmay isn’t mentioned at all, which might be due to the fact that he has a much smaller role in the book but might also be due to the fact that in the two years they’ve lived there Felix has found a way to work off his sexual frustration on Gideon or through the martyrs he finds in the Lower City, and that the Mirador has given him many shiny ways of distracting himself from Mildmay’s presence. Though on the other hand, he does start drinking more and his tempers get worse and worse (he hits Mildmay and beats a martyr bloody), which you know, might be due to not knowing what to do with Malkar’s rubies and might also be due to the fact that he’s repressing his desire for Mildmay in a big way. I suspect the issue is going to rear its ugly head again in the next book in the series, where Felix and Mildmay are pretty much on their own together once again.

Also, I don’t think his desire for Mildmay is true desire anyway. By which I mean, I think it’s an automatic response generated by his association of emotional intimacy with physical intimacy. All of Felix’s most intimate relationships, good and bad, have had a heavy sexual component (Keeper, Malkar, Shannon, Gideon). In his mind there is an association between the two—and he has emotional intimacy with Mildmay, given the depths of his feelings for his brother (in a platonic, brotherly, non-romantic sense). So I think his body and mind are expecting the physical component to come along, and his desire for Mildmay is the result of that expectation. And I think part of his desire for Mildmay is fear: as I said, his most intimate relationships have involved sex. Without that physical component is he even capable of sustaining a relationship with another human being? He admits that he is bad at relating to people—I think he names magic, arguing, and sex. He can’t do the first with Mildmay, they already do too much of the second, so he defaults to the third—but, as he knows, Mildmay doesn’t want that. So what is there left for Felix to do? And more fear: Mildmay points out Felix doesn’t seem to have much experience for being wanted as himself. He’s used to be wanted as a charming conversationalist, an intellectual equal, a good political connection, a hot piece of ass. He’s not used to being loved as a person, and here’s the thing: Gideon and Mildmay both love him. But they never tell him why. So Felix is aware of their affection but doesn’t know what about him is worth loving. And, perhaps, his sexual desire for Mildmay is his mind and body’s way of telling him that he doesn’t want to lose Mildmay, that he needs to bind Mildmay closer in a way that he has experience with and can understand.

Going back to Felix and his inability to commit, I think part of it is trauma associated with exclusive relationships but part of it is also rooted in his need to hide and keep secrets. He keeps a lot of secrets, and one of them is the fact that he has an awful temper. I mean, Mildmay’s got a temper too but Felix’s is worse. And he goes to great pains to hide it, to conceal it; he takes it out of martyrs when he has to take it out on anyone at all. And it’s like—it’s kind of like his way of sparing the people who are close to him, you know? And I think he hates himself for it, for using people like that, for the simple fact that the only way he can make the anger go away is by hurting another person. And I think Felix hates that part of himself because he used to be on the other end of that, he used to be the martyr forced to cater to men who wanted to see him hurt and in a way I guess his unwillingness to reveal where he goes at night—and he goes often enough that everyone knows he does it, though maybe don’t know where exactly he goes or what he’s doing—is part of that, the shame of needing it and of being a tarquin when tarquins (including Malkar) were the ones who have broken him so in the first place. He wants to hide that part of himself because he’s ashamed of needing and because it’s the outlet for his rages which he also needs to hide. As Mildmay so astutely points out Felix can’t bear to be seen as less than perfect, can’t bear to have the fictions he constructs to keep his past away and to keep up his appearance as the perfect society wizard fall apart in any way and both of those fall in that category. Explaining one secret means explaining all the others.

It’s like all his secrets are piled on top of each other, like a stack of turtles. At the bottom you have he grew up in the Lower City and used to be a prostitute. After that you have he used to be a prostitute in a brothel catering to tarquins. After that you have Malkar and exactly what Malkar did to him, used him for. And on top of that you have his terrible temper and occasional blackouts from sheer fury. On top of that you have the fact that he visits brothels in the Lower City as a way of venting that anger. So you see if he explains the top layer to anyone, he’s got to explain the rest. Now, it might be easier to tell Mildmay because Mildmay already knows the bottom layers, part of his past. But Felix is already so hung up on wondering why Mildmay loves him and wants to stick around and on his need to be seen exactly the way he wants to be seen that he never will. And he can’t tell Gideon because he already knows that Gideon’s disgusted by the concept of tarquins and martyrs and to tell him, to admit to the top layer, would be to earn that disgust—and he still doesn’t know what Gideon sees in him that’s worth loving, which I think gives Felix worries about how secure their relationship is (as an aside, I believe Gideon’s feelings and Felix’s feelings were genuine, but badly communicated).

And on top of that he’d have to explain to Gideon all the other layers beneath his visiting the brothels and just, no, he can’t, Felix would never be able to bring himself to do such a thing. So he feels trapped by his own omissions and secrets and lashes out when things get too close to revealing what he wants to stay hidden and that just hurts people who honestly don’t understand what the fuck Felix is going on and think it’s something totally mundane like, Gideon can’t satisfy Felix. And no, it’s more like Felix is fucked up to Hell and back and refuses to let anyone know or to try and fix anything—he’s good at analyzing himself, or at least hating himself, less good at trying to change himself. I don’t even think he can but it’s like…I don’t know, it’s like he needs a way out of the labyrinth he’s made of himself. But he has no sense of direction and can’t find the way out from where he is, and labyrinth he’s made of himself has become who he is; set in bedrock so he can’t really change, not really. He’s scared to death of his truth.

Which is kind of the story of me and Felix, really. I don’t think I want to like him, but by god is he fascinating and interesting to read about and, I guess I secretly do like him, at least enough to want his happy ending. I don’t think he’s someone worthy of my kind regard (arrogant, I know) and I think he’s a grade A asshole. But sometimes, every once in a while, his façade cracks and I see a little bit of himself sans all the layers and layers of spiky armor he has built between himself and the world, and I see a little bit of the awful childhood that had a hand in making him who he is, and I see a little bit of his goodness and his self-loathing and I can’t help but want for him to be happy, somehow, somewhere.

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