I have finally seen the BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House (2005) and Little Dorrit (2008), both scripted by the very talented Andrew Davies. Although I bought the DVD pack which includes both basically because I wanted to see the highly famed Bleak House, and I had no particular interest in seeing Little Dorrit, I found myself enjoying the latter even better. In both cases, though, I took much pleasure from seeing good men celebrated in the main characters John Jarndyce (Bleak House) and Arthur Clennam (Little Dorrit). No doubt, much of my pleasure derived from the excellent, elegant interpretations of Denis Lawson as Jarndyce and Matthew Macfadyen as Clennam. In these times in which actors are praised for playing evil men (a vogue possibly started by Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar in 1991 for the role of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs), it is rewarding to see that some actors can play good men with full credibility, without seeming too bland or sentimental.

The ten-minute (re)search I did to document this post revealed, nonetheless, that praising good men is not the thing done. A quick check of the MLA using the phrase ‘good man’ threw a limited number of results, most of them dealing with Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story of cynical title “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. In this story, written in 1953, published in 1955, there are no good men at all and, actually, the focus falls on a murderer. The novel by fellow American writer Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (1952), a disgusting and disturbing insight into the worst kind of male mind which makes Breat Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991) look like a fairytale, had already made it clear that good men were gone. I am not sure whether this is an American phenomenon but a few more things made me take a deep breath and reconsider matters. One is that the Urban Dictionary defines a ‘good guy’ as “A male who despite being caring and respectful to his female friends and acquaintances will never become anything more than” (what Borja Cobeaga called ‘pagafantas’ in his 2009 eponymous film). The other is that The Good Men Project (2009), a multimedia resource founded to allow good men to share autobiographical key turning points, was the brainchild of James Houghton and a man whom few (women) define as good, Tom Matlack. From what I read, the project started as feminist-friendly but soon started showing signs of being, rather, patriarchy-friendly.

Back to Jarndyce and Clennam, I found on MLA only one piece related to Dickens’ good men, a positively ancient dissertation (MA or PhD is unclear to me) by one Thomas Richard Hagwood, of whom Google throws no further notice: “Dickens and the Power of Goodness: The Portrayal of the ‘Positively Good Man’ in Dickens” (1976, Dissertation Abstracts: Section A. Humanities and Social Science (36:) pp. 8073A-74A). The MLA database also led me to Naomi Segal’s article “Why Can’t a Good Man Be Sexy? Why Can’t a Sexy Man Be Good?” (in David Porter’s collective volume Between Men and Feminism, 1992, 35-47). The title is a bit misleading as what seems to worry Segal is why female sexual desire cannot be kept alive in a long-term domestic situation when your partner is a good guy (really?). She seems to me terribly confused, even worrying that a good husband (in the feminist sense of the word, a true partner) becomes in the end a ‘wife’. Segal claims she is not defending the sexiness of bad men but there is clearly a problem in an argumentation that cannot see masculinity and goodness as part of the same man.

As I have explained to my students again and again, 19th century narrative relied very much on this combination of features, a combination which we now deem unlikely. Both men and women writers agreed that the good man was an essential part of society: men saw in him the true gentleman and women the trustworthy husband that would protect them from the worst excesses of patriarchy. If you wish, the 19th century good man is defined by his choice not to abuse the power granted to him by the patriarchal system and by his decision to use that power to do as much good as he can. I am beginning to see that good men could (and did) subvert patriarchy in this way and I am sure that masculine goodness is the key factor that allowed children and women to secure the rights owed to them as citizens. Think J.S. Mill. I have, then, no illusions that Dickensian men like Jarndyce, Clennam and certainly John Brownlow are patriarchal but, well, I appreciate their gentlemanliness, generosity and plain human decency, which is a lot to say, particularly in comparison to contemporary male characters.

Contemporary fiction is not fully deprived of good men, though perhaps all of them are implicitly neo-Victorian. Leaving aside the ones that can be found in romance, a genre that I simply do not read (and if any is still found after the unleashing of the monster Christian Grey upon that genre) I have found some examples–all in literature addressed to children and young adults. Harry Potter’s godfather Sirius Black (possibly also Severus Snape), Katniss’ gentle admirer Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games and the most recent addition to my list, Tom Natsworthy in Philip Reeve’s steampunk, post-apocalyptic quartet Mortal Engines (2001-6). Sirius and Tom are British, Peeta American, just in case this means something. Oh, my, I forget Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggins.

Yes, Harry Potter is no doubt also a good guy, possibly the reason why he has so few admirers as a hero (readers of Rowling’s series seem to like the story better than the protagonist). And here is where I am going: ‘sexiness’, in the widest sense of the word, call it ‘appeal’ if you will, depends to a large extend on admiration (doesn’t it?). Men positively ugly are loved by beautiful women as long as they have something to admire in them, whether this is athletic prowess or intellectual ability. What exactly is admired is the sexy bad guy is quite beyond me, though I suppose that what attracts is their power to resist domination and the challenge this entails. Now, the question is that goodness is not seen as admirable, hence appealing, hence sexy. I am sure Dickens would be mystified if we told him that few girls would rush to marry Arthur Clennam but this is the case. Jarndyce is a different matter as he is too old for Esther, the heroine, the very reason why he ultimately gives her up (allowing him, by the way, to marry another good man, Dr. Allan Woodcourt). Amy Dorrit (the quintessential good girl) chooses Arthur, then penniless, imprisoned and prematurely ageing, because he is a good man. Today we find the novel’s resolution sentimental and condemn these two, Amy and Arthur, as either too goody-goody to be believed or too damaged to be truly happy.

Perhaps the central weakness of ideas like the one behind The Good Men Project is that a man cannot step out and declare himself ‘good’. This is for others to do: mainly women but also other men. A man who protests that he is a ‘good guy’ protests too much, for if he were truly good there would be no need to proclaim it. Good men may be hard to find, as O’Connor suggested, but there must be many (some?) worth honouring, whether in real life or in fiction. What I am suggesting is that we need to make them central to the anti-patriarchal struggle to find alternative masculine models. Yes, I grant I sound terribly old-fashioned by vindicating Clennam and Jarndyce and, in general, the Victorian ideal of the gentleman (and look what Stevenson revealed about him with Dr. Jekyll).

Yet, the fact that good men are not our favourite persons and that we celebrate, above all, the powerful man explains why our current civilization is so fundamentally rotten. Doesn’t it?

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  1. There is an interesting article written on this issue from an evolutionist viewpoint: Daniel J. Kruger, Maryanne Fisher, and Ian Jobling. “Proper Hero Dads and Dark Hero Cads: Alternate Mating Strategies Exemplified in British Romantic Literature.” In The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Ed. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. Evanston (IL): Northwestern UP, 2005. 225-43.

  2. Oh, my, evolutionary biology applied to Literature? Uff, I’ll be very wary. I’m working now on a novel by Richard Morgan, Black Man, which makes dangerous arguments in favour of this type of science. I guess the bad guys are chosen as mates because they protect better? More aggressive? Um…

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