Welcome to Ross Douthat’s Book Club

by Sarah Marian Seltzer

Notoriously mansplaining Times columnist Ross Douthat made a foray into literary criticism this weekend when he cited Adelle Waldman’s novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P as evidence for why fathers with daughters may, and should, tack conservative. Let me elucidate. In the dating milieu chronicled (astutely) by Waldman, women are vulnerable to shagging slightly misogynistic dudes like protagonist Nathaniel P. And these women are presumably someone’s daughter. Thus, Douthat’s “Daughter Theory” goes, fathers naturally hearken back to a more conservative society where they could be assured that their daughters lacked encouragement to date and sleep around, and were therefore no longer liable to have their feelings hurt ever, by anyone, particularly not by fictional character Nathaniel P.

I get it! Nate’s (slight but persistent) chauvinism is not the main threat to women in a novel devoted to dissecting subtle chauvinism. Rather, sex itself is the threat. What a bold analysis. What a brilliant jump from page to politics! I’m getting such a “tingle” from this, that I must extrapolate to wonder how, using a similar lens, Douthat would interpret other important works of contemporary and classic literature. Here goes:

George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The heroine’s plight exemplifies how encouraging women to appreciate culture and beauty merely gets them into trouble. Case in point: Dorothea’s being “enamoured of intensity and greatness” leads her into the vise of the cruel Mr. Causabon while her sister Celia, who merely likes cute animals, ends up happily situated. As for Dorothea’s religious pretensions, her so-called “austere” gray dress throws her finely-formed beauty into relief, attracting Will Ladislaw’s attention and a whole lot of messiness. And then there’s her interest in Ladislaw himself, his nice face, his singing voice, and probably his breeches. Nary a thought to his lack of funds. Dorothea’s lofty and unladylike yearnings should never have been coddled by those around her; embroidery would have been a better pursuit.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Brontë’s novel presents a surprisingly strong argument for barring women from monetary work. Social mores of the time did allow women of some education to be “hired out” as governesses, a big loss for chastity and decorum. Working for pay, after all, is the very thing that puts poor and obscure young Jane in the path of predatory Byronic boss Mr. Rochester, who breaks her heart when she discovers he’s a bigamist. If only Jane had not placed a job notice in the newspaper and had simply stayed on at that nice school with the Christian headmaster, none of the trials she later faced would have happened.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In the book’s opening pages, Ms. Woolf strolls solo on the banks of the river near “Oxbridge” and when she tries to enter a famous library, she finds its doors closed to unaccompanied women. This renders her frustrated and angry. Yet imagine if women were forbidden from walking alone in public, period. She would never have been denied by the library, ergo no manifesto needed. Surely Woolf’s father only ever wanted to protect her from such crushing exclusion and the lesbian-tinged resentment that would ensue. Thats why he didn’t give her a formal education. To protect her.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Thank goodness this novel was rediscovered, as it delivers bruising blows against both pornography and environmentalism. Janie Crawford has the misfortune of witnessing a bee pollinating a tree in a “ love embrace” and “ecstatic shiver.” As a result of this “vision” she gets the radical idea that she should be able to enjoy herself in a relationship. Thus she ditches not one two financially sound and respectable marriages which offer her safety, opting instead for a turbulent affair with a man who has a silly nickname and who literally becomes rabid at the end and drives Janie to murder. Keep women away from oversexed afternoons in nature, and you’re protecting them from a whole lot of misery.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. This popular novel demonstrates the folly of immigration reform by showing how a young man straddling two cultural traditions gets straddled by a series of American girls. Eventually, he marries a nice young woman from his parents’ Indian background but unfortunately, this wife (having obviously been influenced by American promiscuity) leaves him for another man because she claims to be “restless” and “unhappy.” Apparently border-crossing and cultural blending is analogous to casual bed hopping: no good can result. Better to not encourage it at all.

Next week: the case of Romeo and why his existence proves that teenage girls should not attend parties.

Previously: My Late Adolescent Poetry, Translated Into Plain English

Photo via jorisbe/flickr.

Sarah Marian Seltzer is a writer, mostly of prose, in New York City. Find her at @sarahmseltzer orsarahmarian.tumblr.com.