At the last staff meeting of the school year, one of the retiring teachers was given a moving tribute by his longtime aide. Â Among other things, she called him a “gentleman.”
I heard that word and my writer-mind began to spin. Â What exactly is a gentleman?
I know what it used to mean. Â In Jane Austen’s time, Â it meant being a member of the land-owning gentry. Â A gentleman didn’t have to hold a job because he could live off of the rents paid on his estate. Â Obviously, times and definitions have changed. Â I know in my bones what it means when someone calls someone a “gentleman” — but have I ever tried to explain it in words? Â Could I explain it in words? Â The challenge was irresistible.
So here, in bullet point format, is my best attempt to unpack the word “gentleman.” Â See if you agree.
* It’s fair to say that a gentleman has a code of ethics. Â Gentlemen don’t make shady real estate deals or bilk senior citizens out of their life savings. Â They don’t cheat their way to the top or step out on their wives with exotic dancers named Phantasye. Â They’re honest and trustworthy. Â (That’s one of the reasons we all like them.)
*A gentleman is usually courteous. Â Â He’s not likely to give you the finger when you are, in his estimation, going too slow on the freeway.
* We can probably all agree that a gentleman treats women well. Â I don’t want this to turn into a “should men pay for dinner” or “should men open the doors for ladies” debate (although I will add that my husband exhibited both behaviors on our first date, which made him rocket even higher in my estimation). Â But one thing I’ve come to realize is that seeing women as intellectual equals and acting in a chivalrous manner are not mutually exclusive. Â I think modern gentlemen are able to do both. Â And, even more importantly, real gentlemen care about women having freedom and the chance to be self-actualized. Â This isn’t just lip service; they really believe it.
*Most gentlemen are also, at their core, gentle. Â “Quiet strength” seems to go with the territory. Â You just don’t find gentlemen flying off the handle or exploding into Stanley Kowalski-like brawls, slugging their pregnant wives.
*A gentleman sees the innate human dignity of others, all others. Â Remember in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth goes to Darcy’s home and hears from the housekeeper about how well he treats all the workers on his estate? Â Previously, she had accused him of not being a gentleman, but a testimony like that goes a long way towards altering her initial opinion. Â You can be fairly certain you’re on a date with a gentleman when he is genuinely and unostentatiously kind to the guy who comes Â and refills the water glasses.
Looking back over my list, it seems like a pretty daunting description. Â Is all this just too much to ask? Â I’d say yes, except that I happen to have known a fair number of guys throughout my life who actually have all of these qualities, and who display them most of the time (nobody’s perfect). Â I hope that twenty years from now, the same will be said of my own little boys, too. Â Keeping that end goal in mind is useful when handling the day-to-day decision points of parenting.
And as I wrote this blog post, I had a fascinating realization. Â My faith — the one I was raised in, and which I’ve chosen again for myself as an adult — encourages all of the above behaviors. Â It seems that if you live a life geared towards aligning yourself with God and loving others, you may find yourself being a gentleman without even thinking about it. Â That indeed is good news.
So what would you add to my list? Â Are there gentlemen that you know and love in real life? Â In fiction?
Illustration by C.E. Brock for Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park