9 Classic Books With Toxic Male Characters — And What To Read Instead
Every summer, I make it a goal to include at least one or two classics to my summer reading list. They don't have to be from a different century — modern classics and even young adult novels make the cut all the time — but they do have to be considered popular books that were important to their particular zeitgeist in some way. This year, while I was making a list of the possible titles to include — Wuthering Heights, because I can never get enough of the Brontës, Portnoy's Complaint in honor of Philip Roth's passing, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone because, well, no explanation necessary — I couldn't help but notice each book shared one frustrating trait: the inclusion of toxic male characters.
From the cynical man child to the manipulative love interest to the emotionally abusive "hero," toxic male characters show up in an overwhelming number of classic novels. They are the kind of men who view women as conquests, creatures to compete over, sex objects that need to be conquered not understood. They're often violent, cruel, sexually aggressive, and either entirely unemotional or incredibly emotionally volatile. They are also in so many incredibly popular, bestselling, and classic books that it feels like their toxic masculinity is unavoidable — but don't worry, it is totally avoidable.
If you want to create a balanced summer reading list, here are nine classic books with toxic male characters — and what to read instead if you're looking for a little less misogyny and volatility.
Instead of 'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Brontë, Read 'The Essex Serpent' by Sarah Perry
There are few books I love as much as Wuthering Heights — the dark atmosphere, the tumultuous love affair, the dramatic setting — but there are few romantic heroes I find more toxic than Heathcliff. Rather than reading Wuthering Heights, pick up Sarah Perry's gorgeous novel, The Essex Serpent. Set in the late 19th nineteenth-century England on the rocky coast, it follows the newly widowed Cora Seaborne as she attempts to create a new life for herself and her son, out from underneath the control of her domineered husband, and get to the bottom of the 300-year-old myth that haunts her new community.
Instead of 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Read 'No One Is Coming to Save Us' by Stephanie Powell Watts
One of my favorite summer reads, The Great Gatsby, is considered a classic for a reason: it's a rich and vibrant story about dreams, redemption, love, jealousy, and so much more. But it is also one of the clearest examples of toxic masculinity: Jay Gatsby is a manipulative liar who stalks and harasses his true love, Tom Buchanan is an abusive philanderer, and don't even get me started on George. Instead of rehashing all of their volatile relationship drama, try reading No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts's unique Gatsby-inspired novel about family, black identity, and the American dream.
Instead of 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov, Read 'Tampa' by Alissa Nutting
There is no question that the central male character of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial classic is anything but toxic, but that doesn't stop readers from reaching for it year after year. Instead, try Alissa Nutting's Tampa, a similarly sexually explicit novel about a 26-year-old middle school teacher's seduction of a 14-year-old student. But instead of masquerading as a twisted romance, this shocking and satirical story tries to unearth the difficult truth behind student/teacher relationships, why such troubling things can occur, and how our society reacts to them. It's smart, it's funny, it's so deliciously dark, you won't be able to put it down.
Instead of 'The Count of Monet Cristo' by Alexandre Dumas, Read 'An American Marriage' by Tayari Jones
Oh Edmond Dantès, you troubled, toxic fool. While he starts out as a loving, honest, and intelligent man, the tragic hero of The Count of Monte Cristo spends most of the narrative with little more than bitterness, anger and fear in his heart. Instead of reading about his revenge plan — which includes deceiving people he claims to love, manipulating the emotions of those around him, and slavery — pick up Tayari Jones's phenomenal An American Marriage. Like the Alexandre Dumas classic, it tells the story of a man arrested for a crime he did not commit, and the wife he left behind while in prison. A beautifully wrought narrative about love, hope, pain, and letting go, this highly acclaimed novel is well on its way to becoming a classic of its own.
Instead of Reading 'Portnoy's Complaint' by Philip Roth, Read 'The Boston Girl' by Anita Diamant
The world lost a literary legend when Philip Roth died in May, but the work he left behind will always be remembered as true classics, including Portnoy's Complaint. Although it's a critically acclaimed novel about "a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor," the main character's behavior fits the definition of toxic masculinity. Instead of reading about a self-centered dude with intimacy problems, spend some time with Addie Baum, the unforgettable young Jewish girl at the center of The Boston Girl. A remarkable novel that recounts the complicated life of its 85-year-old heroine, this inspirational story will sweep you off your feet.
Instead of 'Twilight' by Stephanie Meyers, Read 'Fledgling' by Octavia Butler
There is no denying that Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books helped rejuvenate the young adult genre and inspire countless of readers and writers to explore the complex world of children's literature. There is also no denying that her series' blood-sucking hero, Edward Cullen, is incredibly toxic. Sure, he doesn't feed off of humans — at least, not anymore — but he did start off his relationship by stalking Bella and watching her sleep, only to later attempt to control every aspect of her life, including who she talked to and where she lived. Luckily, there are plenty of other vampire novels out there that aren't so misogynistic, including Octavia Butler's Fledgling. This unique sci-fi mashup follows Shori, a 53-year old member of the vampire-like Ina species, who looks like a young African American child. It's a powerful exploration of class, race, gender, sexuality, and identity that will remind readers that vampire novels have a lot more to offer than brooding bad boys and damsels in distress.
Instead of 'This Is How You Lose Her' by Junot Diaz, Read 'I Want To Show You More' by Jamie Quatro
Considered a modern literary classic, This Is How You Lose Her is a short story collection that follows the romantic ups and downs of one fascinating but incredibly toxic young man: Yunior. Far from the perfect boyfriend, or even a decent guy, Junior is guilty of everything from infidelity, dishonesty, and emotional manipulation to straight up misogyny and sexism. (And, of course, the book's author, Junot Diaz, has recently been the subject of multiple sexual harassment and abuse allegations.) Instead of journeying through Yunior's relationships, open up Jamie Quatro's I Want to Show You More, a collection of 15 linked stories about spirituality and sexuality in the New American south. A truly powerful debut that handles the modern relationship and all of its problems with deft and nuance, it's a must-read for short fiction lovers.
Instead of the Harry Potter Series, Read 'Children of Blood and Bone'
I know, I KNOW. The Harry Potter series is an absolute classic, one that is near and dear to my heart, but it is also a book series with more than a few toxic male characters in it. Instead of getting caught up in the complicated and potentially abuse nature of Severus Snape and Ron Weasley, crack open Tomi Adeyemi's remarkable new book Children of Blood and Bone. The first in an exciting new West African-inspired fantasy series, it's an social justice-focused, action-packed YA brimming with magic, danger, and adventure. It also stars an unforgettable cast of characters that you'll never want to say goodbye to. Sound familiar?
Instead of 'Gone With the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell, Read 'Jubilee' by Margaret Walker
Gone with the Wind may be a classic, but it is a problematic one a best. One of its many issues: the brooding romantic lead, Captain Rhett Butler, cruel, selfish, and cowardly man who struggled with his breed of Southern toxic masculinity until the end. Instead of reading about he and Scarlett's bumpy romance (again), try Margaret Walker's Jubilee. Considered to be the African American counterpart to Mitchell's Civil War saga, it tells the story of Vyry, the daughter of a white plantation owner and one of his black slaves. A powerful and moving novel, it's an epic page-turner you won't want to put down.