Lit’s Ten Most Sensitive Guys

Terence Stamp as Billy Budd

Terence Stamp as Billy Budd

In Lake Woebegone, all the women are strong and all the men good looking. Last Monday I listed my ten favorite strong female characters in literature—or strong women that I thought were my favorites until readers mentioned several I had missed, such as Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lucy Snowe in Villette, Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Betsey Trotwood from David Copperfield, Countess Ellen Olenska from Age of Innocence, and some I didn’t know.

In balancing out the genders, I decided I’d better not go with good-looking men because then I’d have to include Wickham. So instead I focused on sensitivity. By sensitive I mean strong sensitive, not hypersensitive (like Holden) or morbidly sensitive (like Alceste in The Misanthrope) or crazed sensitive (like the narrator of “The Telltale Heart”). As with the women, there are plenty of very interesting characters who are not in the running. Sherlock Holmes is famous for his insensitivity, as are the Byronic protagonists in novels by the Bronte sisters. I’m also struck by the fact that I couldn’t think of anyone in Shakespeare. Hamlet came to mind for a moment but I quickly realized he had too many strikes against him (his treatment of Ophelia, of Rosencranz and Guildenstern, of his mom).

Again, I offer my choices in no particular order. And again I’m counting on readers to chime in with obvious oversights:

Edward Ferrars – More than any male character in Jane Austen, Edward is sensitive to the needs of women.

Alyosha Karamazov – Alyosha cares about his fellow human beings in a deep way and knows how to talk to them about their anxieties (witness how well he talks to Kolya, the young and brittle prodigy). He’s may be my favorite male character in all of literature.

David Copperfield  – There’s a reason why everyone is always confiding in David, even when he’s a child. He knows how to listen.

Sonny – The jazz musician and younger brother in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” gives his uptight older brother a way to open up.

Tom Jones – Tom isn’t the most prudent of characters and can be oblivious to plots against him. But when it comes to caring for the feelings of others, Tom always shines. He even cares for his villainous stepbrother Blifil.

Nick Carraway – Nick is on this list because he’s the only person who gets Gatsby.

Jesus (in Paradise Lost) – It’s probably unfair to have Jesus on the list but he obviously cares a lot about Adam and Eve.

Billy Budd – It’s not every day you see such good-natured innocence. Billy is positively Christ-like. Which of course brings out the dark side of Claggart.

Jim Casey – I left out Ma Joad (from The Grapes of Wrath) last week so I better not omit Jim Casey. This friend of the poor is another Jesus figure (as signaled by his initials).

John Grady – The protagonist of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Grady is the poster child for principled integrity. He loves humans and he’s also great around horses.

Again, send your own selections and feel free to question any of the ones above.

This entry was posted in Austen (Jane), Baldwin (James), Dickens (Charles), Dostoevsky (Fyodor), Fielding (Henry), Fitzgerald (F. Scott), McCarthy (Cormac), Melville (Herman), Milton (John), Steinbeck (John) and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Robin Bates

    Dana, a high school teacher, had trouble posting so e-mailed me the following comment about today’s post and last week’s post on strong women:

    I’m wondering about Jane Marple, one of Agatha Christie’s recurring characters. She doesn’t have the resources or connections that many other murder mystery protagonists do, but she pursues the truth with a quiet stubbornness that (to me) seems particularly feminine.

    Today’s post made me immediately think of John Thornton [in North and South]. In many ways he’s a lot like Fitzwillian Darcy, with the awkwardness and misunderstandings. But Thornton, as a factory manager, tries to run his business in a principled way. He isn’t soft, letting his workers have whatever they demand, but neither does he pursue profit at any cost.

  • Dana

    Actually I meant John Thornton from North and South… ;D

    *fingers crossed* let’s see if this works on the desktop computer!

  • Robin Bates

    Ah, that makes more sense, Dana. I’ll go back and change your message. My apologies.

  • Kester Woodseaves from Mary Webb’s “Precious Bane”. He is strong, kind, and has a deep and abiding love for all nature and natural beauty. He is able to see beyond the surface of things to their true nature, which means he sees Prue’s true worth, despite her facial disfigurement.

  • Robin Bates

    I LOVE this character, Amanda, along with the book. It was also the favorite book of an author friend of mine, the Appalachian writer May Justus. Great choice!

  • I have a soft spot for Osborne and Roger Hamley from Wives and Daughters 🙂

  • Donna Raskin

    Inman from Cold Mountain.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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