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.