Great (?) Literature’s Worst Boyfriends: Part One

May 15th, 2014 | By | Category: Columns, Eileen: This is Your Brain On...

In this terrifying and uncontrollable world, it’s calming to look upon the great authors of our time as bastions of wisdom and grace: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Angela Carter, Brandi Glanville…and with classic authors such as these comes classic romances–of which nothing comes to mind because they are all horrible. Someone either ends up dead (The Great Gatsby, Romeo & Juliet), abandoned (Gone with the Wind), abandoned and then dead (Doctor Zhivago, Mill on the Floss, The Woodlanders), nearly dead and almost abandoned (Jane Eyre), or both of the lovers are just horrible people (Wuthering Heights).

But maybe I’m wrong. I am after all, a woman. So let’s forget about love, that mighty emotion that creeps up on you like indigestion from eating seven Doritos locos tacos. (No regrets.) This column is about boyfriends. Terrible boyfriends. The greatest, terrible boyfriends in (great?) literature.

The Early Classics

Jane Austen immediately comes to mind when one thinks about romance and literature. Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies), is the template for “the big misunderstanding.” And Mr. Darcy took his shirt off! Yowza, history came ALIVE in so many ladies’ pants in 1995.

People may also bring up Sense and Sensibility or Clueless as examples of classic great boyfriend behavior. Those jerks never bring up Mansfield Park. Mostly because the female protagonist, Fanny Price, is a Bible thumper.  Let’s face it, devoutly religious people aren’t all that fun unless they’re on LSD or Tom Cruise. Her BF Edmund is a bit of a drag as well. He’s studious and plans to be a clergyman. Nothing wrong with that! Clergyman can be sexy. Edmund as played by Jonny Lee Miller in Mansfield Park is definitely sexy. Edmund as Edmund is like eating glue when you were in 7th grade. You thought, “hey, I’m curious and kind of hungry, this might be a good idea.” But in the end, you just end up with boring hallucinations centered around ducklings trying on doll clothes. Just like Edmund: cute, but useless.

Jonny Cakes Lee Miller in Mansfield Park, Emma and Prime Suspect. What? Prime Suspect is a great show! How dare you say it's not relevant.

Blurry Jonny Cakes Lee Miller in Mansfield Park, Emma and Prime Suspect. What? Prime Suspect is a great show! How dare you say it’s irrelevant.

Even though it’s apparent from the start Edmund and Fanny should date, he falls for the vivacious liar-face Mary Crawford. He thinks she’d make a great clergyman’s wife–or maybe he’s just imagining how she’ll look in his clerical clothing after business hours. It’s pretty clear in the novel that Mary likes to do things not fit for a clergyman’s wife: like go outside or have opinions. Indeed, it is her thoughts on Edmund’s sister (she of Slut Isle who dares to run away with an unmarried man), that gives Edmund a moral stroke and he leaves Mary, quickly realizing that Fanny is the dull-as-dishwater darling of his dreams.

Overall, Edmund is too uptight and too nice. Like my first boyfriend, Don T. Recall. He played bass in a band called I Forget.

The problem with a lot of Early Classics boyfriends is they are largely ineffectual to do anything that helps the heroine. Sure, Angel from Tess of the D’Urbevilles makes an attempt to save his girlfriend from hanging. Honestly, it’s the least he can do as his earlier rejection of her caused such a dire endpoint, but ultimately he fails. (Sorry if I spoiled the ending of a 100-year-old novel for you.)

However, the clear winner of helpless buffoonery is Edith Wharton’s male protagonist: all of them. Each one is a walking guide for “Perhaps That Wasn’t a Good Idea” and “Let’s Go Sledding Another Time.” Take Lawrence Selden (House of Mirth). Lawrence is the secret boyfriend of the beautiful Lily Bart. However, Selden is not a rich man and Lily is looking for an advantageous marriage. By the end of the novel, she is poverty-stricken. It isn’t until she’s dead that Lawrence “I Abandoned You For Europe” Selden reveals his love for her, in the greatest example of “A Little Late?” in literary history.

Boring judgmental boyfriends, wimpy boyfriends, but what about stupid boyfriends? Dickens has a lot of them. Oh sure, more often than not they do the right and noble thing (Sydney Carton), but in the case of Richard Carstone from Bleak House, the right thing involves thinking, “Any day, any day now I will get my inheritance. Sure, all the lawyers have told me it’ll never happen, but I’m going to hope so hard and make my perfect wife’s life miserable and we will live in poverty because I have to go to court all day and listen to people argue about holographs or holographics. Whatever! We’re going to be RICH! That sweet sweet cash is coming our way, baby. Any day now, you and I are going to move out of this hovel because Jarndyce and Jarndyce is all ours. Sweetface, I’m kind of parched from quitting all my apprenticeships, would you mind flavoring my mug of muck water with that rat tail over there? You are so pretty, thanks.”

Get a job, Richard.

Get a job, Richard.

Other times, Dickens goes right for the creepy boyfriend. I think we all know this guy pretty well. Maybe you’ve dated him, maybe your friend has or your dad’s uncle (maybe the creepy boyfriend IS your dad’s uncle). He’s the dude who always tells inappropriate jokes, providing his own laugh-track and people just stare at him, hoping he’ll disappear like James Franco’s self-awareness. John Jasper (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), is that man. Sure, he’s employed and well-respected in the community, but he uses this power to unleash his lust on Rosa, incorrectly presuming she is hot for teacher. And, like most men who are initially rejected, he starts to harass her. Let’s be frank, all women who say “No, thanks!” really mean: “Dear Jasper, this delicately perfumed note is confirmation for you to stalk me. Preferably in the dead of night when I am sleeping. I hope you enjoy listening to me breathing. Please smell my hair a little. Tempestuously yours, Rosa.”

And of course, in these Early Classics, there’s the all around arrogant jerkface boyfriend. This guy is played to a T by Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. Higgins is a pompous, insensitive rhesus monkey butt in a necktie. Higgins admits to Eliza Doolittle that he “treats everyone the same,” but she gets the brunt of his abuse in the play.

However, the greatest insult of Henry Higgins is his metamorphosis from Shaw’s clever take-down of the upper British class, to a romanticized figure in later adaptations on stage and in films like My Fair Lady. Supposedly, even Shaw’s audience clamored for a romantic ending between Higgins and Doolittle. Because what’s more romantic than ending up with a guy who bosses you around and insinuates that you’re not good enough (and that you smell. You smell bad).

Sorry, but like the majority of women out there, I already have a man who tries to tell me what to do: his name is Dad.

Next month: I will whisper sweet empty promises to the terrible boyfriends from Hemingway, Woodiwiss and others.

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