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From Byronic To Moronic: Literature's Most Addictively Compelling (and Repelling) Leading Men

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LEADING MEN LITERATURE
Focus Features

By Christine Spines via Word & Film


Stephenie Meyer’s decision to produce “Austenland” — a film about a woman so obsessed with the taciturn romantic hero of "Pride and Prejudice", she can’t bring herself to settle for any of the quotidian non-Austen-created bachelors she encounters off the page — is as noteworthy for being her first film project not based on her own fiction as it is for its meta reference to the impact the Twilight saga has had on a nation of love-bitten fans.

At this point, most of us know someone — anecdotally or personally — who has gone down the Twilight rabbit hole, spending hours online hunting for prized nuggets of news and information about Edward and Bella, Meyers’ star-crossed (species-crossed) lovers and the actors who play them — Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson. There are the legions of teenage girls who camp outside theaters in the days leading up to the films’ releases. And, perhaps more discomfiting (and relevant here), there are the thirty-something-year-old and forty-something-year-old women who make up the series’ most ardent, enterprising, and dedicated contingent of fans.

I became interested in the latter subculture when I began hearing about smart, busy women with full lives and families staying up until the wee hours re-reading passages of the books and surfing the web for tidbits. After reading several desperate comments on a Yahoo site from women looking for help kicking their Twilight habit, I decided to write a story for the LA Times about the parallels between obsessive pop culture fandom and full-blown addictive behavior. Not surprisingly, I discovered there was plenty of overlap between the two, including the ruined marriages and neglected kids that often go along with any hardcore habit.

It remains hard to pinpoint the addictive properties contained within Meyer’s stories. Some of it has to do with the simplicity of the pent-up sexual frustration built into Bella and Edward’s tortured love affair: Boy wants girl but can’t have her without devouring her entirely. All this buildup with no payoff is fertile ground for romantic fantasies about chaste new love unencumbered by life’s inevitable compromises and disappointments. It also sets up Pattinson’s character to enter a fugue state of brooding.

It turns out that it’s this second part of the equation that may hold the key to "Twilight"’s hammer-lock on America’s women. This becomes especially clear when taken in the broader context of some of literature’s most potently compelling male characters: the Byronic heroes — men made all the more appealing by their torment over their own imperfect nature.

Jane Austen was a master at crafting these mysterious mensches so stymied by ambivalence and self-loathing they nearly allow the novel’s beloved heroine to slip into spinsterdom forever. Think of Mr. Darcy’s romantic reticence based on his mistrust of the Bennet family’s crass desire to raise its social status through strategic marrying. "Persuasion"’s Captain Wentworth was equally torn between his love for Anne Elliot and his moral outrage at having been initially rejected for being too poor.

Above all, what Darcy, Wentworth, Heathcliff, Rochester — and to some degree, Edward Cullen — all share is a powerful strain of high-minded morality and a stubborn unwillingness to be conniving or mercenary enough to follow (or flout) the social codes of conduct necessary to unite them with the plucky heroine they so desire.

The same could be said of a raft of literary romantic icons (Byronic and otherwise), including Hamlet, Max de Winter, Levin, Robbie Turner, Almasy, and even Jay Gatsby, who dedicated his life to wooing an unattainable (if unworthy) woman.

So what is it about these characters that moves women readers to hold them up as paragons of manhood to which no flesh-and-blood modern version can compare? They are neither virtuous Boy Scouts nor sexy beasts. But I suspect that part of the primal appeal is that each of these men has displayed a monk-like mastery over his own vast and unwieldy desire, holding his moral code above his impulses. In other words: They are the ne plus ultra female fantasy embodiment of bad boy and marriage material.

The characters we’ve mentioned are far from comprehensive. We invite you to add to the list, which is bound to include the likes of Eugene Onegin, Newland Archer, and Andrei Bolkonski.

While we’re at it, we’re equally interested in exploring the flip side of this phenomenon: literature’s most unappealing male protagonists, the kind of characters who are more cautionary tale than obscure object of desire.

Here are a few names that spring to mind: Harry Angstrom, the philandering, ineffectual suburban cad at the center of John Updike’s Rabbit series; Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s hilarious and hyper-intellectual priapic alter-ego; Humbert Humbert, the nymphetically inclined narrator of Nabokov’s "Lolita"; and Frank Wheeler, the arrogant, insecure, and in-over-his-head patriarch in Richard Yates’ masterpiece of suburban ennui, "Revolutionary Road".

Now we encourage you to complete each of these lists with your picks for literature’s most resonant and repellant heroes and anti-heroes. Has there ever been a fictional character for whom you harbored an “Austenland”-like fixation?

Via Word & Film

Image: Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre (Focus Features, 2011)

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