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The 25 Most Homoerotic Friendships in Literature

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March 2015. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.

Homoeroticism refers to same-sex desire, not necessarily consummated. Critics have long found evidence of that desire in some of the cherished close friendships in classic literature. Looking at books this way adds depth not only to our understanding of the original works, but to our understanding of how complex and layered human relationships can be. Here are 25 queer, or queer-seeming, friendships in classics from the 19th century through today. Some are up for debate, and some are obviously more than just friendships — but all share an element of friendship and ambiguity.

Ishmael and Queequeg, Moby Dick

These two seamen share a bed in Melville’s epic, and many critics have found much to unpack: “in there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other . . . . thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg — a cosy, loving pair.”

Jane Eyre and Helen Burns, Jane Eyre

Alll of Jane’s relationships with men are fraught by power dynamics and controlling, but not her girlhood friendship with Helen Burns:

And I clasped my arms closer round Helen; she seemed dearer to me than ever; I felt as if I could not let her go; I lay with my face hidden on her neck. Presently she said, in the sweetest tone —”How comfortable I am! That last fit of coughing has tired me a little; I feel as if I could sleep: but don’t leave me, Jane; I like to have you near me.” “I’ll stay with you, dear Helen: no one shall take me away.” “Are you warm, darling?” “Yes.” “Good-night, Jane.” “Good-night, Helen.” She kissed me, and I her, and we both soon slumbered.
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Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Frodo and Sam, The Lord of the Rings

Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiseling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: “I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.”

Frodo and Sam’s is the loyal fantasy friendship that launched a thousand fan-fictions.

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Photo by ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Olive and Verena, The Bostonians

No one did sublimation better than Henry James. This story of noted New England feminist Olive Chancellor and her protege Verena Tarrant, whom she loses at the very end to her macho southern cousin Basil Ransom, is a painful look at sexual and social politics, and of course a “Boston marriage.”

By Christopher DOMBRES

Sal Paradise and Dean Cassidy, On the Road

There’s lots of pan-sexual promiscuity in Kerouac’s famous novel, but it’s not exactly inclusive, according to Don Romesburg, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies and the queer studies adviser at California’s Sonoma State University: On the Road’s homoeroticism doesn’t affirm homosexuality or bisexuality as much as it shores up the narrator’s and main character’s prerogatives, as Beat but ultimately straight white males, to go where they want and fuck who they want. But it’s all in the service of their freedom, not ours.”

Everyone, Twelfth Night

A great deal of gender-bending and inordinate loyalty make this one one of the more obvious choices from Shakespeare. Sebastian and Antonio have a classic “utterly devoted same-sex friendship” while Orsino falls for his man-servent Cesario who is actually Viola and Olivia also gets the hots for Cesario, who is actually Viola.

Rufus, Vivaldo, and Eric, Another Country

James Baldwin’s complex and ambitious novel of intertwined love affairs and friendships includes a number of same-sex friendships that vacillate between romance and platonic love. Denial is everywhere, from characters denying their own sexuality to denying the racial tension around them.

Michael A. Dean

Huck and Jim, Huckleberry Finn

In Leslie Fielder’s extremely famous work of literary criticism “”Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” the critic argues that American literature, epitomized by Huck Finn and Moby Dick, posits “chaste male love as the ultimate emotional experience” — specifically interracial chaste male love that involves “lighting out” into the wilderness, leaving civilization and its discontents behind.

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Photo by ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Ruth and Idgie, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

After Idgie “rescues” Ruth from a bad marriage, the two women open a cafe, keep house together and raise a son, and it’s generally implied that they’re more than just best friends, in this beloved Fannie Flagg novel about food and family in the South.

Basil, Dorian and Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Declared obscene trash when first published, Wilde’s Gothic novel has delighted readers ever since with its twisted ruminations on art, desire, youth and wickedness. Basil’s infatuation with Dorian, and Dorian’s infatuation with the hedonism of Lord Henry, are the plot’s major motivators, of course.

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Photo by First Look Pics/Bayly/Pare/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton, Mrs. Dalloway

The “most exquisite moment of her whole life,” for Mrs. Dalloway, was one pure kiss on the lips with her old, free-spirited friend Sally Seton. Virgina Woolf possibly drew on her own passion for Vita Sackville-West to create this literary more-than-friendship.

Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, Rebecca

“Danny” is so obsessed with the dead mistress of the house that she stalks and harasses her successor, to the point of trying to scare her into suicide. Generations of critics have wondered about Mrs. Danvers’ over-the-top, almost-campy-if-it-weren’t-so-creepy, fidelity to Rebecca.

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Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Rosalind and Celia, As You Like It

The gender-bending, witty and brilliant Rosalind flees her uncle’s court but is accompanied by her best friend Celia, who would rather suffer in the wilderness than live without Rosalind.

Carmilla and Laura, Carmilla

A succubus and her prey, together forever, in this spooky classic, an early example of Gothic and lesbian fiction by Sheridan LeFanu.

Vinage Books, Knopf Doubleday/ Amazon

Nel and Sula, Sula

A girlhood friendship whose later ups and downs define a town’s fate. A queer reading has often been given to Toni Morrison’s wonderful, slim novel. Nel and Sula are defined in communion and opposition to each other, taking different paths through patriarchy. The novel ends with a thunderous moment of emotion when Nel realizes how much Sula meant to her.

Penguin Classics, Penguin Random House/ Amazon

David and Steerforth, David Copperfield

Steerforth, the self-absorbed older schoolmate of Copperfield, calls David “Daisy”, while David is essentially smitten with this dashing and confident — if not particularly wholesome — mentor.

Back Bay Books, Hachette Books/ Amazon

Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, Brideshead Revisited

Charles’ love for the teddy bear carrying charmer, Sebastian, is said to be modeled on Waugh’s own same-sex affairs while he was at Oxford. It’s a bromance that has captured the hearts of readers and viewers of the beloved adaptations, too.

Nick Carraway and Gatsby, The Great Gatsby.

Why is Nick so fixated on Gatsby anyway? And why is he always hanging around, soaking up his friend’s love life vicariously? There are plenty of readers who get a whiff of attraction when reading Fitzgerald’s classic.

Ilse and Emily, Emily of New Moon

One of L.M. Montgomery’s many pairs of “bosom friends,” Emily and Ilse are mutually devoted through quarrels and ups and downs, and even find themselves entangled with the same men. Nothing like a love triangle to bring out latent homoeroticisim. After a declaration of love and confusion “they kissed lingeringly — almost sadly — among the faint, cold, sweet perfumes of night.”

Penguin Classics, Penguin Random House/ Amazon

Achilles and Patroclus, The Iliad

One of the most famous homoerotic friendships from the battlefields of Troy. Whether it went beyond friendship or not, Homer’s depiction of Achilles’ grief and rage at his friend’s death is unforgettable.

Antionio and Bassanio, The Merchant of Venice

In Shakespeare’s most difficult play, these two are, like Rosalind and Celia, utterly mutually devoted. But there’s also a layer of melancholy and darkness to their friendship, and Antonio’s willingness to sacrifice for Bassanio, that lends it a particularly tragic repressed air.

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Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Celie and Shug, The Color Purple

The gentle romance between these two women in Alice Walker’s treasured novel has taught generations of readers the idea that sex and love between women can heal a world broken and scarred by men.

Art and Arthur, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

“Once in a while I would meet an enthralling man who shook, dimly but perceptibly, the foundations laid by Julie Lefkowitz, and I would wonder, just for a moment, by what whim of fate I had decided that I was not a homosexual,” Art Beckstein explains, during the summer he falls for Arthur Lecomte. Is their summer dalliance a one-time experimentation, a friendship taken to bed, or a moment for the narrator to reckon with who he really is? Or is it simply love? These are some of the mysteries in Chabon’s first novel.

Scribner, Simon and Schuster Books/ Amazon

Gene and Finny, A Separate Peace

John Knowles’ novel about two prep school boys who are rivals and best friends has been banned despite having no sex, because the implications are so strong. Knowles has said, “Freud said any strong relationship between two men contains a homoerotic element…If so in this case, both characters are totally unaware of it. It would have changed everything, it wouldn’t have been the same story.”

Saint Benedict Press/ Amazon

David and Jonathan,The Bible

As the Good Book Says; “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself.” And when Jonathan dies, David says, “Your love to me was more wonderful/ Than the love of women.” Some sages may interpret this friendship as “pure,” but I had my doubts in Hebrew school and I have them now.