A writer friend recently posted on Facebook that he was having trouble not giving his detective hero “too many autistic traits.” This struck me, as I have recently found myself wondering whether Mr. Darcy, hero of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and literary crush of countless women, might have had Asperger Syndrome.
People with Asperger syndrome (“Aspies”) supposedly demonstrate limited empathy, a tendency towards obsessive behavior, and are physically clumsy, at least as children. The diagnosis itself has been eliminated from the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; instead, people will be labeled as having a “mild” form of autism.
Personally I think that the line between “normal” (or “neurotypical” as current jargon has it) and autism is pretty fuzzy. There’s a lot of folks out there who are kind of clueless about people and have their little obsessions. We used to call them nerds. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that quite a few heroes of books & screen popular today seem to land near the autism end of the spectrum.
Consider Sherlock Holmes. He’s obsessive all right; he can identify different soils and types of cigarette ash at a glance. He has very few friends and says of his time at university, “I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year.” He is indifferent to the feelings of others, even his friend Watson. We seem pretty obsessed ourselves with Holmes; there are three avatars of Holmes at the moment, played by Robert Downey Jr. in the movies, Benedict Cumberbatch on British TV, and Jonny Lee Miller on American TV.
Dr. Sheldon Cooper of the hit show The Big Bang Theory is clearly an Aspie. He’s bewildered by other people and obsessive about physics and science fiction. And Mr. Spock of Star Trek is even worse. Any display of emotion is ignored as “illogical” while he pursues the rational course of action.
Those are obvious examples. But what about Mr. Darcy? In Austen’s book, he says “I certainly have not the talent others possess . . . of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns.” Sounds like an Aspie to me.
I’ve been watching the brilliant online “Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” a modern version of Pride and Prejudice set in America and told through various characters’ video logs. Lizzie takes against William Darcy at first because he’s withdrawn and socially awkward, which she interprets as being stuck-up. We later find out that he’s a genius in certain areas. But he can’t read people, and as a result meddles disastrously between Jane Bennet and Bing Lee, which of course also upsets Lizzie. Later, Darcy confesses to Lizzie that “I’m not very good at communicating what I mean.”
Why do we make such people into heroes? When I was much younger, a friend and I made a list of the traits we found most attractive in a movie or TV male character. It was pretty short: dark, tall, with an accent, and aloof or distant. We didn’t like “players,” we liked the guys who pretty much ignored women except for the one exceptional woman to whom they would give their heart forever, as Mr. Darcy gives his to Lizzie. Of course we wanted to be that exceptional woman who inspired such love.
These characters’ aloofness suggests mystery, unplumbed depths that few are privileged to enter – and that may contain hidden treasures. The slightest gesture of respect from one of these people means far more to us than any gushing compliments from people who are always effusive. Watson is wounded in one story. The wound is slight, and he is shaken far more by Holmes’s response – the first evidence that Holmes cares at all for his friend. “For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain.” And that great heart cared for him. it was a moment he never forgot.
Perhaps that’s the hook. We want to believe that these great minds are accompanied by a great heart. We accept that only a privileged few will ever be allowed to see that heart, because we hope to be one of those few.