Whatever generation you come from, there is a good chance that your favourite fictional character is a shit. In “Gone with the Wind”, Rhett Butler commits spousal rape. In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Randall P McMurphy has been arrested for statutory rape. And the less said about James Bond the better.
Post-Weinstein, with Bill Cosby convicted and an ever-growing list of prominent men being publicly shamed, the issue of men’s sexual misconduct is hotter than ever.
Fiction is a field that has long revelled in breaking taboos. Incest? Jean Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles”. Infanticide? Anton Chekhov’s “In the Ravine” or Walter Scott’s “The Heart of Midlothian”. More recently, it was shown that BDSM has mass-market appeal with the commercial success of “50 Shades of Gray”.
Most of us get used to reading about people with loose morals at an early age. Rumpelstiltskin abducts children. Bestiality is hinted at in “The Frog Prince” and “Beauty and the Beast”. The so-called hero of “Sleeping Beauty” appears to be a graduate of the Cosby school of seduction.
Sensitive material requires skilled hands. Just as to tell a joke about a taboo subject like, say, racism, one probably must be a professional comedian. For ideas on how it can be done, below are examples of some of the greatest writers of all time taking on the issue of men who, for one reason or another, just can’t keep their rocket in their pocket.
“Little Louise Roque” by Guy de Maupassant
In “Little Louise Roque”, Guy de Maupassant sympathetically portrays a rich, powerful man who rapes and murders a schoolgirl.
Monsieur Renardet is the mayor of Carvelin and largest landowner in the district. He is also a grieving widower: “He had suffered at not feeling her dress brush past him.”
Maupassant gets into the psyche of his character: “He had a chaste soul, but it was lodged in a powerful, herculean body, and carnal imaginings began to disturb his sleep and his vigils. He drove them away; they came back again.”
However, Maupassant is not squeamish about describing what Renardet has done, and it does not make for an easy read:
“He felt himself pushed toward her by an irresistible force, by a bestial transport of passion, which stirred his flesh, bewildered his mind and made him tremble from head to foot.”
“There below, under the trees, lay the body of the little girl gleaming like phosphorous, lighting up the surrounding darkness.”
Overcome with guilt, Renardet plans to commit suicide but struggles to go through with it:
“A thousand recollections assailed him, recollections of similar mornings, of rapid walks on the hard earth which rang beneath his footsteps, of happy days of shooting on the edges of pools where wild ducks sleep. All the good things that he loved, the good things of existence, rushed to his memory, penetrated him with fresh desires, awakened all the vigorous appetites of his active, powerful body.”
Good fiction can question the boundaries of normality. Two of the greatest films of 1960, “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom” are about likable men with a dark compulsion that they cannot control. The British tabloids would no doubt describe Renardet as a monster, but with a touch of greatness, Maupassant furnishes him with some disturbingly convincing shades of grey
“A Story by Maupassant” by Frank O’Connor
In “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”, Jon Ronson writes about people whose lives have been ruined in front of millions of strangers for reasons ranging from an ill-judged joke on Twitter to appearing to disrespect a war memorial on Facebook.
One chapter is about the release of the client list at a brothel in Kennebunk, a quiet community in Maine. While most of the subjects in Ronson’s book eventually achieve forgiveness and redemption, the sixty-eight men on this list receive something better – near total indifference.
There are campaigners such as feminist journalist Julie Bindel who fight for all prostitution to be criminalized. But if you are reading this article you are probably living in a time and place where attitudes toward sex work are fairly relaxed.
Frank O’Connor and the characters in his fiction did not. This is at the heart of the central character’s trajectory in what I think is the greatest short story ever written, “A Story by Maupassant.”
The narrator begins by explaining that only people who grew up in a provincial town could appreciate how much Terry Coughlan meant to him. Terry is a refined, handsome boy who excels at everything: “he taught himself French and German in the time it taught me to find out I could not learn Irish.”
Early on, the narrator explains his fondness for Guy de Maupassant, but Coughlan uses his superior intellect to argue him down, explaining how Maupassant’s work completely lacks poetry. As time passes, Terry begins to develop some bad habits: “Terry was drinking all right, but he was drinking unknown to his mother and sister. You might almost say he was drinking unknown to himself. Other people could be drunkards but not he.”
Coughlan’s behaviour deteriorates to the point where he does something that causes the local policeman to say he was astonished that an educated man could sink so low. He visits a prostitute. The narrator reacts: “If he had told me that Terry had turned into a common thief I couldn’t have been more astonished and horrified.”
Explaining himself, Terry describes a conversation that he had with a prostitute, having visited her home where she kept an 18-month old child. He recounts something she had told him: “Oh if it’s poetry you want you don’t go to Maupassant. You go to Vigny, you go to Musset. Maupassant is life, and life is not poetry. It’s only when you see what life can do to you that you realize what a great writer Maupassant is.”
It is an age-old sin to consider one’s own transgressions to be minor compared to other people’s. In decades to come, the moral pendulum may swing back to judging the likes of Terry Coughlan, and the 68 men in Kennebunk, more harshly. Still, like all good storytellers, O’Connor is non-judgmental.
“A Nervous Breakdown” by Anton Chekhov
The plot of “A Nervous Breakdown” revolves around a group of guys visiting a red-light district. The main character is the most reluctant. Others try to persuade him: “No philosophizing, please. Vodka is given to us to be drunk, sturgeon to be eaten, women to be visited, snow to be walked upon. For one evening anyway, live like a human being!”
He disagrees with his friends’ behaviour but admires them personally: “He envies his friends: ‘They are both poetical and debauched, both soft and hard; they can work, too, and be indignant, and laugh without reason, and talk nonsense’.”
He cannot fathom why otherwise good people engage in such behaviour: “How could they fail to understand that vice is only alluring when it is beautiful and hidden, when it wears the mask of virtue.”
He also cannot grasp what makes the women tick:
“And he began gazing at the women with strained attention, looking for a guilty smile. But either he did not know how to read their faces, or not one of these women felt herself to be guilty; he read on every face nothing but a blank expression of everyday vulgar boredom and complacency.”
“Were real people living here who, like people everywhere else, felt insulted, suffered, wept, and cried for help.”
Chekhov is never didactic, and makes the story a genuine page-turner as the reader wants to see whether he goes through with it, but the issue is questioned from all angles:
“One of two things: either we only fancy prostitution is an evil, and we exaggerate it; or if prostitution really is as great an evil as is generally assumed, these dear friends of mine are as much slaveowners, violators and murderers, as the inhabitants of Syria and Cairo, that are described in the ‘Neva’. Now they are singing, laughing, talking sense, but haven’t they just been exploiting hunger, ignorance and stupidity? They have – I have been witness to it. What is the use of their humanity, their medicine, their painting?”
A justification is eventually put to the main character rather glibly: “How is it justified? ‘We human beings do murder each other,’ said the medical student. ‘It’s immoral, of course, but philosophizing doesn’t help it. Good-by’!”
As in all good fiction, both sides of the argument are convincing, and the force of antagonism appears to be too much for the protagonist: “That I should have taken my degree in two faculties you look upon as a great achievement; because I have written a work which in three years will be thrown aside and forgotten, I am praised up to the skies; but because I cannot speak of fallen women as unconcernedly as of these chairs , I am being examined by a doctor, I am called mad, I am pitied!”
“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov
Unlike “A Nervous Breakdown”, where there is a relatable central character and a compelling argument from all angles, “Lolita” is narrated by an unreformed predator. One of the greatest novels of the 20th century, it is also one of the most disturbing.
He tries to deny any wrongdoing, lying both to the reader and himself: “I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor.” As the novel progresses, Humbert Humbert’s perversion becomes undeniable:
“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a ‘young girl,’ and then into a ‘college girl’ – that horror of horrors. The word ‘forever’ referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood.”
After the death of her biological mother in a road accident, Humbert Humbert becomes the legal guardian of the object of his perversion. The scene after which he rapes her for the first time in a motel borders on farcical, where he is “forced to devote a dangerous amount of time (was she up to something downstairs?) to arranging the bed in such a way as to suggest the abandoned nest of a restless father and his tomboy daughter, instead of an ex-convict’s saturnalia with a couple of old whores.”
Still, immediately after this and each of the hundreds of subsequent rapes, the little girl weeps for a long time: “Her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep.”
Sensible, self-aware people who are comfortable in their own skin are no good at being fictional characters. They are only good for one thing, being ex-spouses.
Writing about these issues is all very risky. The new call-out culture has unleashed a torrent of rules aimed at binding our imagination and policing our dreams. Still, do not for one second suggest that rebelling against this is “brave”. Bravery is when dozens of women come forward and finally speak out against Bill Cosby.