My idealizations of men have been a complicated path for me. Often some small social snag occurs between a female friend and a man—partner, coworker, acquaintance, whatever—and I’m asked to weigh in, give some ersatz form of professional advice. They ask me because I have made it my life’s work to study men. Yes, this is in large part because I wanted to be one. But it’s a pseudo-anthropological expertise that has come in handy on numerous occasions, as much as it frustrates: I know that he wants an apology but his masculinity prevents him from asking me for one; I know that he is shutting down because he feels threatened by that feature of the past he feels helpless towards. It’s exhausting to be one slight step ahead of the emotional turmoil a man is experiencing and be utterly unable to say or do anything because that will only explode the situation into an astronomical realm from which I will not be able to retrieve it.
I imagine, after a while of noticing, a lot of women feel this way. The very positioning of women in most social situations with men requires their silence and observation. I find that even working in education—a field dominated by women—the dynamic is often tilted if a man in the room chooses to speak first or longest, or is in a role of power over the proceedings of the conversation. My (in)ability to communicate effectively with men has been an incidental focus of my summer, and something I’ve been working on in therapy. Because I have this half-notion of what’s coming, and a desire to cut through pageantry and stomp on eggshells, I often escalate situations by interrupting or coming across as too brusque or too judgmental. In many ways, it’s probably the very same impulse that many men experience in that urge to “handle it” and move on. And the unimpeachable, yet problematic, self-assurance that they have already concluded what is right, it’s just a matter of asserting that knowledge over the group.
Obviously this unbecoming nature makes me an extremely difficult person to be in love with—or at least this is a narrative I tell myself, because I have felt so grossly unsuccessful in dovetailing the concepts of myself as I am—forward, arguing for sport, highly reactive—and the partners I seem to find myself attracted to—intelligent, emotionally abstracted, decisive. It’s a bit of a volatile combination, deceptive in that in being similar enough in temperament we are quite functionally unstable. Things go wonderfully until they don’t. Some part of me wants to submit my spirit to the desired authority of this other being, but when it comes to that moment of doing so, I just can’t give in to vulnerability the way that I probably should. The way that I probably should for this relationship to go well. Not that I need to self-abnegate to the point of total subordination, but that so often there just isn’t any need for my pernicious, fear-driven will to break into this moment or wrench it back. Sometimes I need to compromise.
There are so few models or representations of women in this particular dilemma. Even literature or film that craves to be about some version of the spirited woman functioning in a loving relationship are extremes of tragedy. I have written previously about Mildred Pierce, for instance. Or, let’s consider portrayals of such women written by women—Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which brilliantly illustrates how a collection of bright college graduates find themselves subjected, for the most part, to disappointment in a society that allows almost none of the potential promised them by their education. Or perhaps the dearly departed Toni Morrison’s Sula, in which a sexually uncompromising woman is a social pariah utterly weakened and deceived the only time she falls into a submissive love for Ajax. Even critically acclaimed shows like Big Little Lies, based the work of Liane Moriarty, seem to do little else but glorify the shitty paradigms women even at the top of the social food chain are expected to endure. In the latest season, Madeline’s marriage troubles are the closest depiction of a woman self-possessed and yet flawed attempting to atone for moral failings in a way that makes her fuller and not flatly nunlike in her contrition. And easily what makes Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels so compelling is not just the painfully raw female friendship thwarted and endured over time, but the utterly devastating mistakes these brilliant women make in relationships, largely facilitated, like McCarthy, by the lip service of feminine equality guaranteed by leftist politics.
As a pitiful student of culture and media, I have a hard time with this. In fact, I find myself returning to a text that is, for many, a far more controversial a source than a tawdry thriller.
What I mean is, I might be the last person on earth who has sympathy for Mr. Rochester. I first read Jane Eyre in high school and forced myself to picture Rochester as Orson Welles, as he is in the 1943 film, in order to finish the book. (This formative crush might explain a lot of it.) Then I read it again in college, alongside the Gilbert and Gubar criticism. Then I taught it for three years in AP English Literature, closing our book study with a screening of the 2011 Cary Fukunaga adaptation, while all of my high school students cringed at Michael Fassbender, finding this man who I thought to be heart-stoppingly seductive more or less a total creep. My students bemoaned the age gap more than anything. They balked at the truly comical and unfortunate fortune-teller scene. They couldn’t imagine why you would ever want to be with someone who kept a wife suffering from severe mental illness in a secret compartment in his house. Like how could you get past that? Even if he was permanently wounded by and relieved of her simultaneously in a baptism of fire?
I couldn’t say it to them then, but I can say it now: I think those challenges are merely the concerns of the young. Truly, I am heartened that they’re not taken in wholesale by the charm, wealth, and mystery of Rochester the character as I perhaps was at their age. I’m heartened that they aren’t looking to older men as a solution. I’m heartened that they seek partners who treat women better than the mind games Rochester plays with Jane or the deception surrounding Bertha.
However, if we take the novel purely symbolically, as I believe it is meant, then there is an important lesson here: Maybe the perfect man isn’t perfect at all. In fact, maybe he’s just as flawed and broken as you are. Maybe he has a past that might concern you at first, maybe he’s made mistakes that have set the course of his life very differently than he ever intended. Maybe we need to suspend our idealism when it comes to romantic relationships, because it is this very idealism that has never seemed to serve me very well—in fact, it almost always made me unhappy or led me to believe that there was a more platonic version of love out there somewhere and I just hadn’t known it yet, despite doing all the things I was supposed to and making all the appropriate preparations. It was when I more or less gave up wondering or believing that finding a good relationship was a set of criteria to be met that I learned these things through unexpectedly falling in love.
Before even fully realizing, I used to joke that my boyfriend was a Byronic hero: he’s often sullen, withdrawn, introspective, maybe even a little cantankerous. Once, at a conference he participated in a writing exercise where he quipped to some fellow attendees that I call him my Byronic hero but perhaps it’s just because of his hair—dark and unruly with curls, just the thing you’d imagine in a Gothic novel. The joke went over well. When I realized I was falling in love with him, I was terrified. He did indeed have “a past,” as most of us divorced people do: two unsuccessful marriages, one lovely child. An unrealized career in academia. Another failed career between that and teaching—just like me, actually. My fear impulse came from that place of idealizing partners, from believing unrealistically in the need to retain some freshness or tradition or something—what did it mean that he’d experienced these setbacks? Would that impact our relationship, predict our future somehow?
The remarkable thing about the love between Jane and Rochester, the thing that seeks to ease the weirdness of their age and power gap, is that they are equals in spirit. They are united, in a most Gothic turn, through some kind of psychic spiritual connection. Jane, who has felt ugly and depressed her entire life, is suddenly perceived as attractive and intriguing by this man who has also felt ugly and depressed his entire life. It is the first time either has actually felt seen or understood by anyone. Their love arises not from a conscious seduction but from a series of interactions that characterize each as formidable in thought and will. And, most importantly, they cannot be together until each is forced to give up some sense of their pride.
I know that I am over-familiar with Jane Eyre, but I continuously find it a curious companion to this relationship I’m in. There are too many parallels that I don’t even strain to see. I didn’t intend to fall in love when I did; I had some wonderful conversations and merely hoped for a new friend. I was frightened by many of the things he offered me, some of which was a sense of completeness I hadn’t experienced in love. Early on, it was he who noted that we were equals. He admitted he had never been with someone he knew as his equal, and in that moment I realized, neither had I. There are times I feel threatened or concerned about his past lives, his marriages, but I am on more equal footing having rejected one myself. Maybe I just had a soft spot for Mr. Rochester because of Orson Welles, or maybe because I identified with him, or was destined to become him one day. I had no idea that knowing this bizarre character so well would serve as some symbolic template of the kind of relationship I would have, later in my life, when I had lived it, having learned that ideals were unfair in the bounds of human experience, and learned finally that I am not what I have so long told myself I was.