From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A rake is defined as a man habituated to immoral conduct. Rakes are frequently stock characters in novels. Often a rake is a man who wastes his (usually inherited) fortune on wine, women and song, incurring lavish debts in the process. The rake is also frequently a cad: a man who seduces a young woman and impregnates her before leaving, often to her social or financial ruin. To call the character a rake calls attention to his promiscuity and wild spending of money; to call the character a cad implies a callous seducer who coldly breaks his victim's heart.
During the English Restoration period (1660-1688), the word was used in a glamorous sense: the Restoration rake is a carefree, witty, sexually irresistible aristocrat typified by Charles II's "Merry gang" of courtiers, the Earl of Rochester and the Earl of Dorset, who combined riotous living with intellectual pursuits and patronage of the arts. The Restoration rake is celebrated in the Restoration comedy of the 1660s and 1670s. After the reign of Charles II, and especially after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the cultural perception of the rake took a dive into squalor. The rake became the butt of moralistic tales in which his typical fate was debtor's prison, venereal disease, or, in the case of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, insanity in Bedlam.
The rake is often portrayed as a heavy drinker or gambler. An earlier form of the word was rake-hell, a form reshaped by folk etymology to mean someone who stokes the fires of Hell, making them hotter. The actual etymology of the word is from the Old Norse reikall, meaning "vagrant" or "wanderer"; this was borrowed into Middle English as rakel.
Well known fictional rakes and cads include
- Dorimant, the hero of The Man of Mode by George Etherege, based upon the historical Earl of Rochester mentioned below
- Compeyson, the man who jilted Miss Havisham in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- Alec d'Urberville, Tess's seducer in Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
- Rodolphe Boulanger, Madame Bovary's principal lover.
- Harry Paget Flashman, chief character of a series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser
- Don Juan
- Tom Rakewell, the protagonist of William Hogarth's series of paintings, A Rake's Progress.
- The Prodigal Son, one of Jesus' parables.
Historical figures who have informed the stock character include:
- Lord Byron
- John Mytton
- Giacomo Casanova
- Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset
- John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester
- Sir Charles Sedley
- John Wilkes
- Colonel Francis Charteris
- Hellfire Club
- Marquis de Sade
- Francis Dashwood
The stock character of the rake can be contrasted with some others. The town drunk is frequently intoxicated, and impoverished by heavy drinking, but here the focus is on the character's alcoholic state rather than on sexual excess; the town drunk is typically older than the rake. The fop and the dandy spend too much money on clothes and fancy living, but the stereotype would have them less sexually effective than the rake.