Introduction to Popular Culture Studies

Character Analysis: Henry and Vienna

Posted by ernestalba on March 6, 2008

How do you do a character analysis of soap opera characters? How do you do a literary analysis of this particular type of text? Plot must wither away, first of all; the characters’ feelings and interactions take precedence. These interactions and feelings must then be placed within the context of characters’ histories – their personal histories and their historical relationships with those around them. The first task of leaving plot alone in favor of character is possible for a student who has only recently started watching the soap. The second task of placing these characters in a historical context is nearly impossible. These people have developed outside of most newbies’ experiences, and have a rich history that applies to the character’s actions in ways newcomers to the soap can’t hope to perceive. Given this shortcoming on my part as a newcomer, I would nevertheless like to attempt an analysis of Henry and Vienna.

I do know a little bit about these characters, and of all of the relationships on the show, I am particularly interested in theirs. Vienna wears her lust on her shoulder. It becomes evident perhaps as soon as when Gray first invites her for a drink in the hotel and she accepts that she is following down the inevitable road to “dehabilitation” from her addiction to money. The bitter irony is that Henry was able to give up his gambling addiction for his love of Vienna, but she was unable to give up her addition for him. The so-called scandal with Kit was merely the final excuse to fling herself back into her old lifestyle. Why else would she immediately go back to Gray instead of waiting for an explanation from Henry? One might say she wanted leverage against him when he confronted her, but if she loved him, why would she want leverage? The only reason she would want to have something to throw in Henry’s face is so that she can justify her attachment to Gray and his money.

Poor Henry is in his own bind. It is his fault (from his perspective) that Vienna ran to Gray. She would not have had sex with him had he not gone through with the plan to seduce Kit, though one can certainly argue that Vienna eventually would have gone to Gray, anyway. He is now faced with the huge burden of knowing she had sex with him, knowing it’s his fault, and knowing that she thinks she is justified in doing so because of his affair, an affair he knows never happened.

At the same time, these are complex characters. Vienna does feel the pain of separation as evinced by her contorted expression after she leaves Henry in the hotel. Henry is obviously hurt, but still prideful. When he has the chance to tell Vienna the truth, he chooses to sarcastically say that he indeed wants to be with Kit. Neither of these people is willing or perhaps even capable of facing their flaws and admitting their shortcomings. They are too selfish to face their flaws – Vienna’s addiction to luxury, and Henry’s pride – which they otherwise might be able to deal with honestly, fruitfully, and most importantly, together. Knowing each others flaws, feeling each other’s vulnerability, they would be able to lead their hearts back to one another.


10 Responses to “Character Analysis: Henry and Vienna”

  1. jenn said

    Ernest, you make some interesting points, about a couple that I find myself enjoying more and more each week. And it might be because of that that I find myself disagreeing with your characterization of Vienna. Perhaps this shows how intricate character development can really be, when people are able to read so much into characters’ emotions and actions and disagree.

    While I love Henry, I don’t think that he is as perfect as you seem to have portrayed him. He hasn’t given up his gambling addiction – not really. He simply has no money right now with which to gamble. He also has no diner to put at stake anymore. If he had really been “giving up gambling for love,” he wouldn’t have been in the poker game losing the diner to Gray in the first place.

    As for Vienna…I think that her flaw is that she is impulsive and hot-headed…a characteristic that leads itself to some of the pride you saw in Henry. She “caught” Henry cheating, and so she impulsively decided to retaliate by sleeping with Gray. But if we paid attention to the expressions running across her face as she was in the limo with Gray, she was pained and devastated – not happy to be the rich and handsome man. I don’t think it is inevitable to her character that she would sleep with Gray, as you feel, unless you simply felt it was an inevitability that the writers would throw the two in bed to provide some sort of resolution to Gray’s pursuance of her. While she liked the money and the gifts, I don’t think that she actually found herself attracted to Gray, and instead fell victim to her own temper, and the consequences of such.

    I feel that more than the word “selfish,” the word “proud” describes both of Henry and Vienna, too proud to admit their mistakes, thus driving them apart for the time being. I wonder how long this storyline will play out.

  2. ernestalba said

    You point out some additional parts of their personalities: hot-headedness/impulsiveness. I don’t think that these are necessarily flaws. Those can sometimes be good or useful – especially when you want to get things out in the open. But their fatal flaws – gambling addiction and lust for money – are never good. After all, like you point out, Henry’s gambling addiction lost the diner – what Vienna loved most about her new life. And Vienna’s addiction cost her the love of her life – Henry.

    Your example of losing the diner comes prior to when I say that Henry gave up gambling. He didn’t really mean it prior to losing the diner. He had to lose everything to realize that he had a problem. When I say that he gave up gambling, I refer back to a conversation he had with Brad in which he frantically explains that he loves Vienna and she is why he gave up gambling. The way he said it was genuine, in addition to the fact that he didn’t do anymore gambling after losing the diner. You might argue that it is because he had no money, but that usually doesn’t stop people who have a gambling addiction.

    Ultimately, I think it’s more deep than just retaliation for Vienna – after all, she is clearly moved by the things Gray gives her. And if she is just retaliating, why move in with Gray? Why not just break up with Henry? She wants to have the things Gray provides for her.

  3. jenn said

    Maybe Vienna has no place else to go, so she is choosing the easy way out rather than being homeless. Everything she had was with Henry and the diner – what is she supposed to do now, if she doesn’t move in with Gray?

  4. ernestalba said

    Well, Gray offers her whatever she wants. If she wanted her own apartment, he’d give it to her. She made an explicit choice to move in with Gray. As you say, in retaliation for what she believes Henry has done. But retaliating against Henry is a separate issue from her addiction to luxury. Some of her actions reflect her wish to inflict injury on Henry, but other actions reflect her desire for luxury. Accepting just about everything Gray offers her has little to do with Henry – before or after she finds out about his “affair.” His affair merely helped her justify continuing and increasing her indulgence of this addiction. Sometimes her actions have a double intention – sleeping with Gray, for one. Yes, it is retaliation against Henry, but more than that, she wants to “get in” with Gray so that her life of excess is assured. Separating out her intentions is difficult. That is what makes her a fascinating character for me.

  5. jenn said

    Yes, it is retaliation against Henry, but more than that, she wants to “get in” with Gray so that her life of excess is assured.

    I…don’t agree with this at all. Which again goes to show how differently people can interpret a character’s actions. I don’t believe that Vienna has an addiction to luxury. Yes, she likes nice things. What girl wants to say no to a beautiful pair of diamond earrings? If she was so addicted to luxury, she wouldn’t have gone to return the tons of shoes that Gray had bought her. As to her wanting to “get in” with Gray so that her life of excess is assured…it actually really bothers me that you feel she is being so manipulative. Vienna isn’t the type of girl who hides her intentions. She tells it straight. Why did she go to Gray? Because he wanted her. He wanted her, and she desperately needed to be with someone who “loved” her, after seeing Henry with some other girl (which, in her mind, meant that Henry didn’t want her anymore, the ultimate blow). She’s not happy to be the Gray, but she is staying with him because she needs to be with someone who wants her, and who makes her feel appreciated and pretty. Yes, pretty. Girls like to feel pretty. Gray can provide that. And when Henry is being just as obstinate, and throwing her clothing into a pile on the floor, Vienna needs to be with someone who will pay attention to her. It doesn’t so much matter that he can buy her pretty things, because as she said before, all she really needs is Henry.

  6. ernestalba said

    If we are to believe that soap opera is art, it follows that we believe that it can be critiqued more or less objectively. That is, interpretations of art can be different, but they must be intelligently constructed, argued thoroughly, and supported factually. Your interpretation finds little evidence in the characters’ actions and simplifies the complexities of their relationship. Also, you mischaracterize my interpretation.

    What you are doing is reducing Vienna to a one-emotion character. Henry does X, so she does Y because of feeling Z. In reality, Vienna’s relationship to Henry and to Gray is complex. What little simplification that can be done must be done carefully.

    Furthermore, your argument switched. First, you argued that she went to Gray to get back at Henry. Now you say, it is because she needs to feel loved. In reality, these feelings all occur for someone who goes through this situation. Vienna must have felt many emotions like these and several more we haven’t considered. This doesn’t mean that she isn’t capable of succumbing to her addiction anymore. In fact, she is now more likely, because of her anger at Henry, to give in to the addiction. She immediately takes drastic steps, moving out of her and Henry’s apartment and moving in with Gray. These actions should be a signal that there is something going on than just the normal feelings that someone experiences in this situation. She MOVED IN WITH GRAY, for God’s sake. The normal thing to do is to kick Henry out. But no! She kicks herself out and into Gray’s apartment.

    Also, your timeline is really skewed. Vienna returned the shoes BEFORE she found out about Henry. They have nothing to do with the argument that her addiction to luxury is what drove her to sleep and move in with Gray. What one can say about that particular action, returning the shoes, is that she, like Henry before he found out about Vienna and Gray, still felt like she could sacrifice her addiction in order to save their relationship.

    Your other points about her relationship to Gray are well-taken. I’m sure she does want those things that Gray can provide: someone to make her feel pretty, to make her feel loved, to pay attention to her. I don’t think wanting those excludes other benefits she wants from a relationship with Gray. I think, however, that you are trying to say that these things are what made her love Henry. So, you say that it doesn’t matter that Gray can buy her pretty things because “all she needs is Henry.” Well, Gray cannot provide Henry for her. All she can provide is himself. And she clearly does not love him. What she does love is what he can provide for her: a way to wallow in her addiction, since she feels she has lost the only thing that mattered more to her than her addiction: Henry.

    Finally, you mischaracterize my arguments. I do not say that Vienna is manipulative. I say that is is complex. Her actions have multiple meanings. In fact, I say the opposite: “She wears her lust on her shoulder.”

    Ultimately, I cannot believe that Vienna’s intentions are so simple-minded as to only want to get back at Henry, or only want to feel loved. She knows there are many more benefits to moving in with Gray (financial ones), and she wants those benefits. And now that Henry has cheated on her, and she feels the relationship is dead, she can now give into her addiction and claim those benefits. So she moves out. And sleeps with Gray. And then moves in with him.

  7. samford said

    Great reading, Ernest, and you convince me at least a little more that there is nuance in Vienna’s character. For me, she is primarily a foil in the continued development of Henry Coleman, who has been one of the best-acted and deliciously written characters on this show in this decade. His foibles, his personality quirks, and his general sidekick status have made him so great when his character is actually featured or thrown in an unexpected situation. This first came to light in the heartbreaking story in which he became a pawn in Katie’s relationship with Mike. Henry suggests marrying Katie as a way to make Mike jealous, but it’s obvious to everyone that Henry loves his “Bubbles.” She goes along with the idea, seeming to give little consideration of what it’s doing to him, and the awkward situation when Mike doesn’t stop them from getting married is strange. Katie ends up having her dream wedding with Henry, but we all know that she doesn’t love him. He wants to make it work. Despite not having sex on their wedding night, they do develop a loving relationship. I remember particularly heartbreaking scenes in which Henry goes off to himself and cries, yet still tries to seem strong in front of Katie.

    He eventually is moved back to comedy sidekick status through a storyline in which he feigns injury to stay with Katie even after she gets back with Mike, and an ensuing ridiculous storyline in which a man obsessed with Katie comes to town, and Henry ends up in cahoots with him. He then remains Katie and Emily’s sidekick for quite a while, with only brief reminders at key moments that Henry will likely never have love because the woman he truly loves always seems to be in love with another man (or, more appropriately, many other men–the ones who seem to be more of an adventure or harder to catch than her dedicated Henry). That’s why Vienna showing up was interesting to me…it was a development for Henry, the potential of moving beyond his heartbreaking love for Katie. I’m still far from convinced that he truly loves her, that he wouldn’t drop everything for Katie once again if he had the opportunity. His leaving Vienna at the altar was a great portion of this storyline playing out, but for me–while men are usually discussed as being the foil for exploring the emotional complexities of soap opera women–it seems to me here that Vienna is doing the exact opposite–giving us a greater idea of what lies beyond the wit and goofiness of Henry.

  8. samford said

    And by the way, an intense discussion re: Vienna. Perhaps we can get into this in class more tomorrow…

  9. ernestalba said

    Thanks, Sam. You are able to provide the context that I certainly can’t, and that casts this relationship in a new light. As I entered the narrative, Vienna seemed as important and dynamic a character as Henry. Certainly, she had no connection to anyone else in Oakdale, which should have served as evidence for her position within the main narratives. But she is honest, beautiful, and charming, and I was charmed. I was touched by her love of the diner. The story of the rich person leaving it all behind for simpler things is an old story, but Vienna’s iteration is a compelling one for me. That she stands to lose not only the simpler things, but what seemed to be an honest joy in these simpler things, makes her story even more compelling. It evolves into a tragedy. That she is a foil in the story gives me hope, then. Perhaps, she will eventually leave Oakdale, leave the show. Her story will end in the ATWT narrative, and I can find some delight in seeing to completion (or as near to completion as you can get in soaps) her story, at least for the reasonably foreseeable future.

  10. samford said

    Well, I have a feeling that they are trying to change Vienna from that one-note character to something more. After all, Henry was a one-note character for a while. Many people liked the actress, and they decided to expand what was intended to be a very short-term role into a contracted part. So, it’s intriguing to see how they are using this storyline to flesh Vienna’s character out more, alongside giving Henry more of a chance to be the star of his own story.

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