Opinion: boyfriend characters in many novels can show women how a potential romantic partner's toxic behaviour should act as a warning

Women's literature can provide a valuable service to female readers by embedding life lessons within the text. Indeed, in the opening chapter of her seminal book Loving with a Vengeance, American cultural critic Tania Modleski charts how mass-produced fiction for women has historically provided an outlet for women to explore women’s fears about men and to subvert the societal expectations we often find thrust upon us.

This has resulted in many female-authored novels becoming a safe space for women to warn each other against certain dangers. For instance, a novel can show us which of our potential romantic partners’ behaviours should serve as red flags.

But for this to be effective, we need to recognise the dangers present on the page before us. Unfortunately, research has indicated that an attraction to toxic fictional characters, like classic romantic heroes Heathcliff and Mr Rochester, can prompt readers to seek out similar traits in a partner, which can lead to tragic results. To help us avoid falling into this trap, here are five of the most toxic boyfriends in literature.

Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

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Heathcliff is the absolute worst. Yes, he has an intense relationship with Cathy but, after overhearing Catherine tell Nelly that she plans to marry their rich neighbour, Edgar Linton, Heathcliff runs away instead of speaking with Catherine. Upon his return several years later, he dedicates his life to destroying the lives of those around him primarily because he didn’t get the girl. And for those who still think that he’s just misunderstood, never forget that his wedding present to his wife Isabella was to murder her dog.

Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

When they first meet, Rochester pointedly treats Jane as an equal rather than her employer. However, this is undermined by his behaviour towards Jane when his aristocratic houseguests come to visit. After intentionally hurting Jane by feigning an interest in marrying Blanche Ingram, Rochester eventually declares his love and proposes to Jane. The problem? He’s already married, and his wife is locked up in his attic.

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To make matters worse, when his lies become apparent, he tries to convince Jane to abscond to Europe with him knowing that this would destroy Jane’s reputation thereby preventing her from ever finding employment or a respectable husband. In this era, the loss of both of these options would leave Jane destitute if dumped by Rochester.

Jack Foley in Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends

Country girl Benny seems to hit the jackpot with boyfriend Jack who she meets at UCD. Popular and handsome, Jack appreciates Benny for who she is. However, things go south when the sudden death of Benny’s father sends her home to help with the family business. Feeling left out, a drunken Jack is seduced by Benny’s best friend Nan to trap him into marriage thereby legitimising her pre-existing pregnancy. Nan gets the lion’s share of the blame from Binchy’s readers, but Jack’s actions earn him a place on this list. Thankfully in the novel, unlike the film adaptation, Benny rejects Jack’s apologies and does not settle for a life with someone who betrays her during one of her lowest hours.

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Connell Waldron in Sally Rooney’s Normal People

Yes, the TV show turned Paul Mescal into a sex symbol and GAA shorts into a global trend, but don’t let this obscure how toxic Connell’s behavior is in the text. He hides his relationship with Marianne from his school friends because he is afraid that they will make fun of him. He compounds months of sneaking around by telling Marianne he loves her and then asking someone else to the debs. Then, when they get back together in college, he is too embarrassed to have a conversation with Marianne about his financial situation, so he breaks up with her instead.

Connell does have poor mental health and seeks help for it, but this is not an excuse for his behavior. Instead, Connell teaches us that we can sympathise with a character without condoning their behaviour or hoping to find a boyfriend who reminds us of them in real life.

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Paddy de Courcy in Marian Keyes’ This Charming Man

On the surface, handsome politician Paddy is charming and charismatic, but this masks his horrific behaviour. Throughout the course of the novel, we are introduced to several of de Courcy’s past love interests and learn the ways in which he has emotionally, physically and sexually abused them (his calling card is burning the palms of his girlfriends’ hands with a cigarette). De Courcy’s victims include a depressed teenage girl turned drunken housewife, a Hollywood actress, a stylist and an Olympic athlete.

Paddy de Courcy proves how success can sometimes conceal violence. The range of different women he abuses represents the variety of women who can find themselves in an abusive relationship. Reading This Charming Man reminds us that anyone an find themselves in a potentially abusive situation and that there is no shame in looking for help if it happens to us.

Honourable mentions go to Jane Austen’s two bad boys Mr Wickham and Willoughby who delight in telling lies and breaking hearts in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility respectively.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ