You Can Do Better Than Mr. Darcy

Nick Carraway, Gus McCrae, and the 10 most attractive men in literature.

Illustration by Mike Norton

And who are the most attractive female characters in literature? Ask Simon Akam.

I grew up petite and bookish and pale, hidden away from the merciless heat of a desert climate in the cool back corner of the local children’s library. There, settled down into a leaking orange beanbag chair, I first fell in love. It was an awkward and impossible romance, given that the object of my affection was wholly fictional and living somewhere in Nova Scotia around the turn of the century. I knew that Gilbert Blythe, he who taunted Anne of Green Gables with the nickname “carrots” and pulled on her braids, wasn’t real. And yet, I had to believe in the idea of Gilbert Blythe; I was in love with the sheer dream of a boy that falls for the smart outcast and then doesn’t give up. 

Once I emerged from the library and started living in the sunlight again, I realized that fictional boyfriends will always let a girl down—how much can one really squeeze out of an infatuation with a person who lives on a shelf? Real relationships, however messy they may be at any given moment, far outweigh the fictional ones—simply because they can be possessed, owned, molded. I have grown wary of adult women who still swoon over Mr. Darcy and his withholding admiration. Literary boyfriends never change—for a young girl dealing with a swirling cocktail of bullying, puberty, angst, and insecurity, that kind of consistency can be essential. For us adults, it can be more dangerous.

That said, I still find myself drawn to male characters when I read. I’m always searching for some insight into the psyche of the other sex, and I am most intrigued by those men who are deeply flawed but still slick—more Don Draper than Gilbert Blythe. Perhaps we are always replacing one fantasy with another. For now, my current crop of literary Valentines:

Nelson Denoon, the brilliant, isolated, charismatic anthropologist of Norman Rush’s Mating is the ideal—a man so interested in discovering what women want that he goes off to a remote corner of the Kalahari to start a Utopian community devoted to answering that very question. He knocks a die-hard feminist academic off her axis and leaves her questioning everything. 

Ultimately, Murray Thwaite, the grizzled, boozing professor in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, is a terrible man, a blowhard with too many opinions and too little moral fiber. But the way that Danielle feels when she is enmeshed in an affair with him, beauty and pain all mixed together like a soaring aria—we all want to feel that at least once.

Roland Mitchell in A.S. Byatt’s Possession is another scholar (again, I was bookish and pale), this time a romantic. The romance in this novel is born in a library, over hidden words, and perhaps that’s why I keep returning to Mitchell—he is a studious, quixotic man who gets excited by archival materials. Not something you find every day.

Gus McCrae (from Lonesome Dove): Cowboy, whisky-swiller, a man with his eyes on one woman despite his womanizing ways. The essence of a cowboy. Cannot be tamed, cannot be denied.

If you’re drawn to cold, unknowable criminals, then sure, Jay Gatsby’s your man. But I always find myself wanting to spend more time with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, who is so sad, and so soft, and then by the end of The Great Gatsby, so hard. I always want to reach out and hold his hand during his lonely weeknight walk home, when he wishes well all of the rowdy couples who are off to an evening at the theater.

Willy Wonka in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: He owns a chocolate factory and he is hilarious and full of belief in human goodness and is also a genius on the MacArthur level and does not suffer fools, even if they are 10 years old. No more needs to be said.

I admire and despise Edith Wharton’s most famous leading man, The Age of Innocence’s Newland Archer, because he can never fully get his life together despite knowing exactly what he wants: the Countess, not his bland society wife. The impulse to yank Newland out of his obligations and shove him into fulfillment is a strong one.

When Will Ladislaw, the object of Dorothea’s infatuation in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, turns his head, “his hair seemed to shake out light.” Dorothea is willing to spend a lifetime trying to figure out this man with a chip on his shoulder who leaks glitter when he walks and is impossible to pin down.

Perhaps the most attractive gender-bending ambassador-poet-sailor-courtesan of all time, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is an enchanting symbol of self-mythology. Woolf meant Orlando to be a sendup of the genre of biography, but her exercise in gender subversion resulted in more than just a farce: Orlando’s sensuality is so powerful that he/she is attractive and pursued in any gender, and in any country.

Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the moral totem pole against which all other men are measured and found wanting, the marble pillar of goodness and righteousness in literary fiction. As a child, I found him admirable, but dull. Now I find his confidence and optimism thrilling. Maybe the dream of Gilbert Blythe remains—just a bit.

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