When I was at the UK Asexuality Conference, I was frequently asked about a reading list of Ace characters. A major discussion point revolved around representation in media and what that should look like. In my mind, there is such a drought of Ace representation that I would gladly take whatever that form that representation should come in. But I can understand the rationale some people might have when saying they would rather have an Ace character in a less abstract genre than a sci-fi or fantasy narrative or that any Ace character must announce their Aceness. But those concerns are things that should be brought up to critics and authors. I am a researcher. So while my research may provide a foundation for author or critics going forward, my primary concern is in generating a canon of already existing literature. By expanding that area we might enhance our representation as a community in media by reclaiming a lost dimension to a character that has long been held as straight simply because of heteronormativity. So without further ado, here is a reading list of characters that can be read as Ace. Should you think of any you would like to add to the list, let me know.
Jughead Jones – Archie Comics
Jughead is something of a go-to when it comes to asexual representation in literature. When Chip Zdarsky’s run of Jughead confirmed what many had been speculating about Jughead for decades, it was an important moment. Not only was there now an canonically asexual character in a major media franchise, but his coming out was unique, as well. He did not come out so much as it was simply mentioned in passing, as if the entire Riverdale-verse not only knew Jughead was Ace, but that his asexuality was not his defining trait. Zdarsky did a great job of showing the world that sexuality is a dimension of an asexual’s persona, a dimension among many. That is some strong, relatable representation that warrants recognition. It’s quite a shame the show deliberately chose to erase that incredibly important aspect of Jughead’s personality when they adapted the character for television.
Sherlock Holmes – Sherlock Holmes series
Many people are familiar with the exploits of Sherlock Holmes and his partner Watson. What is often ignored, perhaps due to the nature of Ace visibility and the character’s portrayal in media, is that Holmes is Ace. Like many of the characters on this list, Holmes was created at a time when asexuality was not a sexual orientation. There was no term for it. So characters who are asexual have to meet certain criteria in order for us to consider them Ace. And perhaps no other character in the whole of literature meets the criteria quite as nicely as Sherlock Holmes. Among other reasons, his lack of sexual and romantic activity gives the modern reader a suspicion that he may be asexual and aromantic. But if that were not enough, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the various Holmes stories, described his character as finding romantic and sexual relationships banal. Unfortunately, portrayals in the media,like that of Robert Downey Jr., often sexualize and romanticize Holmes in a way that either calls into doubt his Ace qualities or blatantly erase them all together.
Sir Galahad – Le Morte Darthur
Not many people would look to Medieval Literature as a source of representation of Ace characters. But that is exactly what Megan Arkenberg did. She analyzed Thomas Malory’s work and discovered that Galahad exhibited Ace qualities. For example, knightly deeds are portrayed a trade for a knight taking a vow of chastity. A knight’s legacy lives on, even though his lineage will not. This juxtaposes the two concepts and makes them interchangeable. Hence the romantic and sexual connotations involved with the damsel in distress trope. There is also the sexual connotation of men thrusting swords into one another. The phallic imagery is without question one of homoeroticism. But in this area, Galahad stand alone, quite literally. He does not participate in knightly deeds. He avoids combat at all costs. He does not partner up with fellow knights. His sole desire is to find the Holy Grail in service to God, so he may die. Which, of course, he does. His quest is not one of creating a lineage or legacy, but of ending them. When that is considered, Galahad’s chastity is not one of choice. He is asexual and aromantic. That is his natural state which is what makes him so adept at seeking the Grail.
Candide – Candide
Voltaire is an Enlightenment writer from the 18th century. He was perhaps the most prolific writer of his time. He was steeped in the practice of philosophy, and anyone who has studied philosophy will know that philosophers do not shy away from discussing any and every topic they can. So it is not odd for Voltaire to have explored the topic of sex. In the Candide, our titular character spends the entire narrative of the novella questing for his beloved Cunegonde. He is attacked, robbed, enslaved, and nearly murdered on more than one occasion. At each turn he is beset by obstacles, but always believes Pangloss’s, his teacher’s, philosophy that no matter the outcome we are in the best of all possible worlds.
This philosophical debate between Optimism and Realism results in essentially every character Candide encounters relating their tragic tale, testing Candide’s resolve. Needless to say, these tales often involve rape. In fact, women are generally treated as objects and commodities to satisfy the male sexual desire in every instance. However, Candide does not participate in this sexual economy. It is true that his sole motivation is to find his love Cunegonde, but at no point in the narrative does he pursue her sexually. He only occasionally remarks on her beauty. It is also important to note that in a narrative so infused with sexual events, Candide only has sex once. And that instance occurs when he is drugged and robbed in what we today would call date rape. Given all this, it stands to reason that Candide is actually asexual, attempting to navigate himself through what to him appears to be an overly sexualized world.
Rorschach/Walter Kovacs – Watchmen
The case of Rorschach is a rather curious one. He is quite militant in his perception of sex. I think a strong argument could be made that he is not asexual, but anti-sexual. His distaste seems to come from his past as a young boy realizing he is quite possibly the offspring of a prostitute getting pregnant during a trick. His mother treats him with disdain and Rorscach ultimately projects that animosity on all sexual encounters.
His argument is not on its head a fallacy. There is a school of thought that any sexual encounter that exists inside a power dynamic is on some level a form of rape. To be true, this is a rather extreme view of the subject, as essentially all sexual activity occurs inside a power dynamic of some kind or another, but Rorschach is himself an extreme figure. It makes sense for his views to be similarly extreme.
Lady Trent – A Natural History of Dragons
Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons is a fantasy novel that takes place in a fictional world resembling the Victorian era. The main character, Lady Trent, is a well born woman with a talent and passion for naturalism. He particular specialty is in dragons. However, she knows that she must one day marry, as her station in life requires. Yet despite the number of suitors, she never truly finds any of them attractive. It is only until she meets a fellow naturalist who would be willing to let her continue her studies as his wife that she is willing to accept her fate.
There is never a sexual attraction to speak of. And there is never really a romantic attraction that you would expect from a similar novel attempting to mimic Victorian era novels. I think it is safe to say that Lady Trent does feel love for her husband, but I believe that is the extent of it. It may not be the love we anticipate from a novel like this, but it is love. Based on that, we can presume that Lady Trent is an asexual demiromantic. Further to the point, there are several characters throughout the series that exhibit qualities on the Ace spectrum.
Enjolras – Les Misérables
Enjorlas is an absolutely fascinating character to study. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo being a rather weighty work, there is a great deal of opportunity to dig into the various qualities of any number of characters. In the case of Enjorlas, we are examining his sexuality. There are several times in the story where he exhibits and, to be rather to the point, announces his love of France as we would expect a love to announce their love of a woman. This is in particular contrast to other characters who do the same with the women they love. That distinction is made, thus offering us an opportunity to examine his character through the lens of being asexual. The question that then follows is, “Do we view his relationship with France as a literal romantic love for his country, or a figurative use of hyperbole used to illustrate his devotion?”
Dorian Gray – The Picture of Dorian Gray
For those of you who have had the esteemed pleasure of reading Oscar Wilde’s seminal work, you will undoubtedly know that Dorian Gray is no asexual. He is quite literally the embodiment of sensualism, leading a life so libertine it would make many blush. In the novel, Gray finds a way to transfer all his sin to a painting. While he engages in all manner of sexual exploration, the sin is transferred to the painting so Gray may retain his youth and good looks for all time. Throughout these various sexual encounters, Gray never exhibits what would be described as romantic attachment. In fact, that is quite a point of contention for him and his colleagues, resulting in the prime conflict of the novel. So, while Gray is at the far end of the allosexual spectrum, he is also quite arguably aromantic. A fascinating read of Gray would be to perceive him as a victim of circumstance, placed in a world of rules he neither sees as applicable to him or useful in any way. Were Gray born into a society without sexual taboos, he would not be placed in a position where the tragic ending of the novel would occur.
Nagisa Kaworu – Neon Genesis Evangelion
Anyone who know me personally know that I am a lover of anime and manga. I will die on the hill of defending Neon Genesis Evangelion as the greatest anime of all time. Much like Watchmen, Eva has a depth to it that encourages an exceptional amount of reflection. One of the aspects that is most mysterious, in the original series as well as all of the subsequent adaptations, is Nagisa Kaworu. The character only appears for a single episode at the end of the original series, but his impact is perhaps the most enigmatic of a series known for enigmatic moments. This perhaps in large part due to the brevity of his appearance, but that does not limit our ability to analyze him. He befriends the main character, Shinji, with ease and eventually expresses such a strong connection with him that the ultimate confrontation between the two tears Shinji’s already fragile psyche a part.
That connection alone, would verge on the romantic. However, considering the sexual overtones that Shinji has with each character in the show, both male and female, it seems odd that his relationship with Kaworu, as brief as it is, is not one mired in eroticism. Whereas other characters directly refer to the sexual connection between them and Shinji, even using it as leverage over him, Kaworu does not. Kaworu seems to genuinely care for Shinji and does not attempt to manipulate him for his own benefit, making this relationship a unique one worthy of consideration.
George Emerson – A Room with A View
George Emerson is one of the more intriguing characters to make this list. He is certainly allo-romantic. However, the narrative leads the reader to believe that Emerson is, in fact, asexual. The plot revolves around Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman who struggles between the love of two men. Cecil, representing the Classical philosophy, and George, an avatar of the Romantic philosophy. Cecil very much interacts with the world around him in a physical way. He essentially sees Lucy as good breeding stock. While we get very few narratorial expeditions into the mind perspective of George, what little we do shows us that his interaction with the world, and Lucy in particular, is entirely based on the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, as Wordsworth might put it.
George’s physical space is itself inhabited by emotionally charged language. We never get a good description of what he looks like. What little observation the author does make about his appearance is typically influenced by George’s mood at the time. George will have sorrowful eyes when he is depressed. His body will be glowing with youthful vigor when he is happy.
There is also the subversion of the Death Drive that is of keen interest. Cecil is very conscious and influenced by the Death Drive. He must reproduce with a woman of reasonable background so he may produce heirs that will have his good qualities and hers. George, on the other hand, never makes mention of children. In fact, he is often described as being youthful in spirit. While this might simply be attributed to his relatively young age, there is the very real likelihood that Forster wrote Emerson this way to specifically subvert the Death Drive by co-opting what Edelman would describe as the idolization of the Child simply by virtue of being in touch with his inner child. George is not influenced by the Death Drive because he is the Child himself.
In addition to all of the textual evidence, which I barely glossed over, there is also a litany of meta-textual evidence. E. M. Forster’s private letters and journals reveal startling revelations about his life when he was composing A Room With A View. There are significant connections between the characters in the text and the real life of E. M. Forster. While utilizing that kind of evidence on its own would be a specious claim to say the least, when coupled with the textual evidence, there is little doubt in my mind that George Emerson is asexual.
Lady Adeline – Don Juan
Lord Byron was by no means Aspec. He was as allo-sexual and allo-romantic as they come. Byron has a vast compendium of literature. He is most well known for his poetry, but with that fame came a lot of scrutiny, especially of his sex life. Eventually he was forced to exile himself overseas after a particularly scandalous affair with his half-sister. I only mention this to emphasize that Byron was a very allo person. But my interest in his work is primarily related to the character of Lady Adeline.
Lady Adeline appears toward the very end of Byron’s unfinished great work, Don Juan. Those familiar with the story will know that Don Juan is involved with many women over his travels. In Byron’s version, Don Juan is less of a womanizer and more of a man of passion who is so desired by women that he is essentially accosted and harrassed at every turn. There are only two exceptions to this device throughout the entire poem. First is his mother who quickly leaves the tale. Secondly is Lady Adeline.
Lady Adeline is defferent than all the other women in the story. Not only is she not attracted to Don Juan, but she is not attracted to anyone. She “loved her lord, or thought so; but that love/ Cost her an effort, which is a sad toil,/ The stone of Sisyphus, if once we move/ Our feelings ‘gainst the nature of the soil.” She is described as having a “vacant heart.” Lady Adeline clearly loves, but it is not the romantic love we are accosutmed to seeing. It is a love that subverts our expecations of love as both the poet and Don Juan fail to adequately understand her sensations.
We, however, have access to the Split Attraction Model and a variety of discourse that has since codified the description we have of Lady Adeline as Aromantic. There is, of course, a great deal of speculation about what Byron was setting her up for. Many believe she would eventually be the final love interest of Don Juan in the culmination of the unfinished poem. But there is little evidence to support that hypothesis when we discount hetero-normative and allo-normative assumptions.
While reading fiction is the primary focus of my research, I must also read a great deal of non-fiction. As some of you may be keen to learn more, I thought it would be useful to compile a list of non-fiction for you to peruse in the event you wish to engage scholastically yourself.
-Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive
-Arkenberg, Megan. “‘A Mayde, and Last of Youre Blood’: Galahad’s Asexuality and its Significance in Le Morte Darthur”
As a rule, I think it is best to avoid speculation about a real person’s sexuality. It is dangerous and leads to errors. When considering literature, we have the benefit of working with an art form. It is designed to be interpreted. But when dealing with real people, you run the risk of making inaccurate assumptions. It is especially complicated when we consider that asexuality was not recognized as an orientation until the mid-20th century. So please keep in mind that I am in no way declaring that these authors are asexual. I am merely indicating they exhibit a history that may indicate asexuality or aromanticism. The truth is, we will never know for certain. But, it does offer us an opportunity to view their works through the lens of asexuality.