The Sensitive Son and the Feminine Ideal in Literature: Writers from Rousseau to Roth

By Petracca, Andrew | Philip Roth Studies, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

The Sensitive Son and the Feminine Ideal in Literature: Writers from Rousseau to Roth


Petracca, Andrew, Philip Roth Studies


The Sensitive Son and the Feminine Ideal in Literature—Myron Tuman's treatise on masculinity's sensitive side, dedicated to Philip Roth—explores how eminent male writers and artists gain a sense of aesthetic appreciation that drives their creativity and their lives. Tuman sees a commonality among these men: they are all "sensitive sons," his own coinage. According to Tuman, the sensitive son is a man who rejects the traditionally masculine path in life because of an intense, idealized view of femininity often instilled by said son's mother. The sensitive son, then, is an aesthetically charged man longing for an ideal he cannot satisfy through actual women, leading him to a life of art, intellectualism, and complicated intimate relationships—or lack thereof. But even with this definition, the concept of the sensitive son feels fluid because that sensitivity affects the behavior of each sensitive son differently and often in ways that oppose the behavior of other sensitive sons. This fluidity seems not like a flaw in the text but a testament to the complexity of the exploration. Tuman juxtaposes the sensitive son with the "alpha son" who, though not analyzed in the text beyond comparison to his sensitive counterpart, also feels fluid, sometimes representing a man who adheres to traditional gender roles and sometimes representing any manifestation of boorishness and toxic masculinity. The way in which Tuman defines and juxtaposes these two sons allows him to embark upon an incredible exploration of sensitive masculinity but, at times, also creates a troubling gender duality.

Tuman claims that the world owes much of its great art to these sensitive sons. The diction of his broader thesis is important: "that the grandest romantic narratives, like those produced by the writers presented here, are products of the most intense erotic longing—a longing, at least for these sensitive sons, that was at once palpably immediate and immeasurably distant" (viii). Here, Tuman establishes two conditions imperative to his exploration: first, that every writer and artist explored is a sensitive son and, second, that his creative work emerges from the "erotic longing" that makes him a sensitive son—that is, that his work emerges from obsession with a feminine ideal because having an ideal enhances aesthetic appreciation. These two conditions also reveal the text's primary strength and weakness: the strength being that it provides new and astoundingly well-researched insight not only into the motivation of eminent writers and artists but also into masculinity itself, the weakness being that its attempts to qualify creative motives behind a specific type of masculinity risks perpetuating harmful gender views—though Tuman aims to celebrate non-traditional gender roles.

Sensitive Son comprises fourteen chapters, an introduction and thirteen subsequent chapters each dedicated to specific writers and artists or to specific flavors of the sensitive son. Bookended with an analysis of Philip Roth, "the one son in [the] study most eager to effect a clean emotional break with his mother" (262), the text explores Proust, Freud, Rousseau, Mozart, Kierkegaard, Goethe, Shaw, Da Vinci, Sacher-Masoch, Fitzgerald, Lawrence, Stendhal, Schopenhauer, Hazlitt, Flaubert, and Turgenev in depth, referring to multiple works from each and referencing other writers and artists when germane. From his analysis, Tuman establishes multiple categories of sensitive son, primarily the adoring son and the uneasy son under which the rebellious son, needy son, ambitious son, narcissistic son, masochistic son, bachelor son, and dutiful son all fall. Though each son shares the broader qualities of the sensitive son defined above, those qualities manifest themselves differently in each different type of son, which attests to the complexity of Tuman's study. Such complexity is also revealed in the monograph's structure. Tuman does not study his writers and artists chronologically nor does he study his sons outside of the context of the other sons, visiting the adoring son in chapters three and thirteen, for example. …

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