west elm willoughby
west elm caleb, willoughby, heterosexual ghosts
Sense and Sensibility has been on my mind a lot in the wake of West Elm Caleb. If you are not online—what wise life choices you make—then you probably have no idea what a West Elm Caleb is. It is not, unfortunately, a variety of bookcase no matter how it sounds. West Elm Caleb is the moniker attributed to this guy who was dating and ghosting a large contingent of women in New York, who all found each other by way of Tik Tok. It quickly became less about a particular dude and particular women and, as is common on the internet, became more a set of handy projections with which to vent feelings about the state of dating in the world today.
There is a particular West Elm Caleb—tall, with a mustache, wears various knit caps, has a kind of heterosexual gay guy vibe, rustic metrosexuality by way of Tumblr. This Caleb is, reportedly, a designer for the company West Elm. If you don’t know, West Elm is kind of like Crate and Barrel for people your media friends probably gossip about, which is to say slightly richer media people. The aesthetic is modern, kind of industrial though they do throw in, from time to time, “midcentury” furniture, which I take to mean the usual angular Japandi furniture in various semi-hard woods. I own two of their bookcases and recommend them. Caleb ghosted women. He dated women simultaneously without their knowing. He sent unsolicited dick picks (allegedly). He pretended to be interested in people when he was not actually interested in those people—which I think is only bad if you get caught. But that West Elm Caleb engendered conversations about the platonic West Elm Caleb in whom resides all West Elm Calebs in all their iterations. The fuckboy beamed out of our collective unconscious. Anyway, there are many ongoing conversations about dating, about the nature of gossip, about whisper networks, about the ethics of exposing shitty behavior, about what is shitty behavior, about simply what it means to stand in relation to other human beings.
I find it all very boring, of course, in the way most discourse is boring. One of my Twitter mutuals, Nylah, said it best, reacting to a recent pivot in the Extended West Elm Caleb Discourse Universe:
We either pathologize shitty behavior or moralize it to death, it’s honestly hell.
I mean, what started out as an essentially amused yet baffled response from some women who realized they were being played by the same dude and articulated to their followers quickly transcended its native context and attained a terrifying velocity as it moved through the culture. As always happens, the rhetoric about the thing became more intense than the thing itself, and what we had on our hands was a real matter of people talking about people talking about people talking about people talking about West Elm Caleb. Naturally, it all mutates in the transmission, becomes something a little grosser and a little worse than it perhaps is. And then you get the galaxy-brained tweets wherein people were implying West Elm Caleb fatigue was tantamount to attacking women.
Or the galaxy-brained tweet that brought me here in particular. Someone said: “The sharing of West Elm Caleb stories is an excellent modern example of how women have long used gossip to share valuable information with one another, and the demonization of gossip serves largely to preserve and perpetuate the patriarchy. In this essay, I will”
The response: “See Jane Austen, for another example.”
Friends, I lost it. Now, I am willing to say that the first tweet’s ironic tone does imply that the author of the tweet is being tongue-in-cheek. Yet, that construction, “In this essay, I will” is a noted meme of varying degrees of irony. It can mean that the author is parodying bad galaxy-brain takes. Or that the author is self-mockingly engaging in a galaxy brain take. And anywhere in-between. I do not know their heart. I cannot say. But the response? That is so earnest. And also wrong.
I mean, first of all, Jane Austen’s novels often illustrate the dangers of gossip and the ease with which gossip can be misunderstood. Her novels often display with breathtaking clarity just how easily misinformation moves through social networks and impacts the lives and fortunes and choices of those involved. Gossip is what makes Darcy convince Bingley to give up on Jane. Gossip, or the fear of gossip, is what makes Lydia’s family force her marriage to Wickham. Gossip is what makes Lady Catherine show up outside of Lizzie’s house to demand she refuse Darcy. Gossip is what makes Lizzie reject Darcy in the first place. Gossip also drives the plot of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, driving the characters’ actions and opinions of each other.
Gossip can often be a tool of social control used by those with power against those without it. Yes, gossip, particularly whisper networks, are a way that people keep themselves safe amid difficult, exploitative conditions. Gossip is also a way of stealing back power from the oppressor. You can’t strike at someone who has the whip in their hand, but when you gossip about them, you take away a little of their power. You steal it for yourself. For the span of your gossip, their fate is in your hands and not the other way around. But that is not entirely limited to the underpowered and marginalized. That is just the acceptable context in which we enjoy gossip. But gossip, like all social tools, follows the gradient of power. Its only loyalty is to the person wielding it and only for the duration of that wielding. Gossip has no master. No inherent moral vector. It is always a means of stealing power and exerting control.
Anyway, I was thinking about West Elm Caleb and his propensity for sleeping with women or texting them and then disappearing. And when that person tweeted about how Jane Austen’s novels are all about how women support women by way of Gossip, I lost my mind. And then I thought of Sense and Sensibility, which for the longest time was my favorite Jane Austen novel—a title now held by Persuasion—owing chiefly to the irony of the tone and the speed of the plot. It’s a romp, funny even by Austen’s standards, and even in its most tender moments, it sends up its characters in a way that you don’t quite see in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.
There is something prickly and a little mean-spirited about the novel, which I really enjoyed when I was a little younger, a little wilder and meaner in my own life. When strong opinions and reading for filth were the only things I had to buttress my fragile self-worth. There is, too, a meanness in the way Austen arrays her characters. This novel is full of fools, and while they come to their fates honestly, those fates are still inherently comedic ones. Ironic ones. And one might sense that Austen is having a little fun at their expense, having given the little fools what they wanted and hinting that if they had only wanted a little more, they might have received a measure of true, worthy happiness, but in the end, we’re all fools in love.
It also occurred to me that Sense and Sensibility is also a novel about being ghosted. A brief summary of the novel: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood leave the comfort of Norland Park when their father dies because their brother John and his wife Fanny are jerks, but not before Elinor falls in love with Edward Ferrars, the brother of the jerk sister-in-law. This connection is apocryphal to Fanny, especially because she has just contrived to make Elinor and her family utterly penniless. At Barton Cottage, they enter the society of a distant relation John Middleton and his wife and her family, along with the mysterious Colonel Brandon, about thirty-five. One day, Marianne, young and fiery and full of passion about art and life, falls down a hill and hurts her ankle but is rescued by the dashing though dastardly Willoughby, who charms the Dashwood women, especially Marianne. However, Willoughby is forced to leave their company and it is revealed later that he is to be married to a wealthy young woman, which breaks Marianne’s heart and sends her into a spiral. We also discover that Edward Ferrars has seduced a young girl named Lucy, who befriends Elinor, and much gossip and confusion happens, including Marianne almost dying from having her feelings hurt and dreams crushed. But all is well, and in the end, there are weddings.
Edward Ferrars is dreamy and kind of hot once you get to know him, so says Elinor Dashwood:
“Of his sense and his goodness,” continued Elinor, “no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough to engage him in unreserved conversation. The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent. You know enough of him to do justice to his solid worth. But of his minuter propensities, as you call them you have from peculiar circumstances been kept more ignorant than myself. He and I have been at times thrown a good deal together, while you have been wholly engrossed on the most affectionate principle by my mother. I have seen a great deal of him, have studied his sentiments and heard his opinion on subjects of literature and taste; and, upon the whole, I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure. His abilities in every respect improve as much upon acquaintance as his manners and person. At first sight, his address is certainly not striking; and his person can hardly be called handsome, till the expression of his eyes, which are uncommonly good, and the general sweetness of his countenance, is perceived. At present, I know him so well, that I think him really handsome; or at least, almost so.”
He’s rich, family-oriented, and he likes to read. We find out from the narrator that he also has no ambition. No sense of drive. And during his long stay with his private tutor in another part of the country, he fell in love with and proposed to his tutor’s daughter, Lucy Steele! And set out on a secret engagement with her before returning home and then later going to Norland Park with his sister. Of course in the end, he marries Elinor, but let’s take a closer look. He, while staying with his tutor, a person he was employing, got involved with a girl younger than him. He proposed. And then dipped.
Now, Edward Ferrars is not the worst West Elm Caleb in this novel, but he is a stunning example of one. He seduced a young girl! His employee’s daughter! They were letting him in their home! It’s not hard to imagine why she fell for him. I mean, he’s older, he’s rich, he’s from out of town, and he reads books. He comes into her life imbued with the charge of some social world in which adults move in mysterious ways. You almost want to imagine that she’s using him as much as he is using her, that she’s just seized upon him and done all this projecting, and that he probably just went along with it. After all, Lucy Steele is very annoying and very irritating and she forms an obstacle between Elinor and Edward and we all know that we want Elinor and Edward to be together. But I’m not so sure we can side step Edward’s behavior. He made promises. Ones he now regrets but is willing to follow through on, yes, but still, promises he made to a young, impressionable girl whose honor he will ruin if he abandons her. Yet he did abandon her. If Lucy had never reappeared, he would have gone about his life probably. Yet she did reappear. She almost wills herself back into his life. And then he says he will act honorably, but you can’t help but to think that if he hadn’t been forced to act honorably, he would not have.
Now, Lucy Steele is one of the most delightfully irritating characters in all of Austen’s novels, but that fact does not mean that she deserves to have been led on and led astray! Promises were made in the name of love! He requested a locket of her hair! But it was only when, under the influence of his terrible mother and sister, that he failed to follow through! He’s a loser! Lucy later dumps him for his brother when he gets disinherited.
The real West Elm Caleb of this novel though is John Willoughby, who not only seduced and impregnated a young girl and then acted like nothing happened, he then went on to seduce and abandon poor Marianne Dashwood. Not just that, but he ghosted her! Up and poofed! Vanished! But not before giving her lingering hope of his love. When she is in town, she writes to him constantly, begging for some word of him. Some note. Some scrap just letting her know that he still feels for her as she feels for him. And he repays her by pretending not to know her at a social gathering and then writing her this shitty letter as he returns all of her letters and the locket of her hair he begged from her:
I have just had the honour of receiving your letter, for which I beg to return my sincere acknowledgments. I am much concerned to find there was anything in my behaviour last night that did not meet your approbation; and though I am quite at a loss to discover in what point I could be so unfortunate as to offend you, I entreat your forgiveness of what I can assure you to have been perfectly unintentional. I shall never reflect on my former acquaintance with your family in Devonshire without the most grateful pleasure, and flatter myself it will not be broken by any mistake or misapprehension of my actions. My esteem for your whole family is very sincere; but if I have been so unfortunate as to give rise to a belief of more than I felt, or meant to express, I shall reproach myself for not having been more guarded in my professions of that esteem. That I should ever have meant more you will allow to be impossible, when you understand that my affections have been long engaged elsewhere, and it will not be many weeks, I believe, before this engagement is fulfilled. It is with great regret that I obey your commands in returning the letters with which I have been honoured from you, and the lock of hair, which you so obligingly bestowed on me.
Marianne’s anguish at this betrayal is one of the very best scenes in all of literature:
That such letters, so full of affection and confidence, could have been so answered, Elinor, for Willoughby’s sake, would have been unwilling to believe. But her condemnation of him did not blind her to the impropriety of their having been written at all; and she was silently grieving over the imprudence which had hazarded such unsolicited proofs of tenderness, not warranted by anything preceding, and most severely condemned by the event, when Marianne, perceiving that she had finished the letters, observed to her that they contained nothing but what any one would have written in the same situation.
“I felt myself,” she added, “to be as solemnly engaged to him, as if the strictest legal covenant had bound us to each other.”
“I can believe it,” said Elinor; “but unfortunately he did not feel the same.”
“He did feel the same, Elinor—for weeks and weeks he felt it. I know he did. Whatever may have changed him now, (and nothing but the blackest art employed against me can have done it), I was once as dear to him as my own soul could wish. This lock of hair, which now he can so readily give up, was begged of me with the most earnest supplication. Had you seen his look, his manner, had you heard his voice at that moment! Have you forgot the last evening of our being together at Barton? The morning that we parted too! When he told me that it might be many weeks before we met again—his distress—can I ever forget his distress?”
For a moment or two she could say no more; but when this emotion had passed away, she added, in a firmer tone,
“Elinor, I have been cruelly used; but not by Willoughby.”
“Dearest Marianne, who but himself? By whom can he have been instigated?”
“By all the world, rather than by his own heart. I could rather believe every creature of my acquaintance leagued together to ruin me in his opinion, than believe his nature capable of such cruelty. This woman of whom he writes—whoever she be—or any one, in short, but your own dear self, mama, and Edward, may have been so barbarous to bely me. Beyond you three, is there a creature in the world whom I would not rather suspect of evil than Willoughby, whose heart I know so well?”
So complete was the deception that she couldn’t even accept it. She ends up in a dead swoon because she can’t cope with the idea that Willoughby might have betrayed her so deeply. That’s the thing about Willoughby though. He makes sweet speeches about wanting to live outside of crude bourgeois norms and mores, but in the end he is powerless to resist them. He is as caught up in the strictures of society’s rules as the people he and Marianne mock for being conventional and unfeeling. In the end, we glimpse him, hollowed out, devastated at having lost Marianne and forced to read to the spiritually dead but materially prosperous marriage he’s always been destined for.
There are only just fates in Austen. The people get what they deserve though not always what they want. But this novel gets me thinking also about gossip. One might say that gossip is the subject and object of the novel. After all, much is relayed by way of Mrs. Jennings, the mother-in-law of Sir John Middleton who takes a liking to Elinor and Marianne. She brings them under her wing and chides them and clucks at them. She teases them about being in love and gossips furiously at almost every moment. Gossip is her reason for living. And gossip flows to and through her to Dashwoods, bringing them news of the Edward, Willoughby, and their own brother, John Dashwood. One reads Sense and Sensibility with a soft, tickling whisper in one’s ear. The whole novel seems to rise on a wave of such whispers. Glimpsed encounters retold and reshaped in the telling. Lucy telling Elinor about Edward. Mrs. Jennings telling Marianne and Elinor about Willoughby. Indeed, right at the first encounter between Marianne and Willoughby, she seeks to know him by way of asking Sir John about him. Indirect means of acquisition. Trying to know someone by way of the tales told about them. Perhaps this is how we first know all the people who become important to us. In little snatches of information stolen from the larger living legend of a person among all the people to whom they are known.
Gossip bares its more insidious fangs, too, against Eliza Sr, the woman who Colonel Brandon loved so fiercely that losing her deformed him spiritually and emotionally. She married Brandon’s elder brother, but fell in scandal and divorced. She ended up in a debtor’s house of ill repute and begged Brandon to take in her daughter, also named Eliza. Her life was ruined by ill social fortune. Gossip. Things said about her. The accrued density of her legend. A similar thing befalls Eliza Jr when she is seduced and impregnated by Willoughby. The greater danger is that this will become known broadly in society and her hopes of a secure future with good things is thrown violently into question. Not so much what has happened to her, but what people will say about it. There is, too, the danger of what might happen to Lucy Steele if people discover her engagement to Edward, and what might happen to Edward if it is known.
In Sense and Sensibility, the real tension is between what is known by the social collective and what is not known. The tension between the private life, where infirmity and moral lesions might be forgiven, and the public life where they are not. I think it has probably always been the case that there are people who live in both worlds, the public and the private. Maybe we all do, to varying extents. But no matter how large the portion of the public self becomes, one hopes that the private self is always larger. Put another way, that as public as you become, one hopes that there remains some vast, unaltered terrain of the self that belongs to you and just you. But I think Austen is right to point to the danger of what happens when the public self overtakes that private self. The stakes are always higher in front of all those eyes.
Austen is one of the great novelists of ideas when it comes to the power and importance of the private life, the inner life. She understands, too, the allure of the broader social life. Her novels are filled with brilliant people who shine at parties and who come most fully to life in relation to others. But her novels are also full of moments of quiet reflection. Moments of lonely brilliance, when the imagination and discernment of her narrators turn inward. Into some deep, abiding self. I think it’s possible to consider Sense and Sensibility a novel about gossip. But a novel about gossip is ultimately a novel about the power of society, who has it and who does not, who wields it well and who wields it for selfish reasons. It’s also a novel about useless himbos who come into your life and then disappear after they say they like you a lot and after you give them a piece of yourself. Their leaving, ghosting, is painful and bad, but I am not certain it constitutes actual violence.
In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby gets what he deserves. A loveless marriage to a very rich woman. Colonel Brandon gets what he wants, which is Marianne, a young girl who reminds him of his dead first love, a perpetual virgin. Which, very problematic. Elinor gets what she wants, Edward, broke but still himself, lightly redeemed by his willingness to go through with the marriage to Lucy Steele. Fanny Dashwood gets what she deserves, wich is Lucy Steele as a sister-in-law. John Dashwood gets what he deserves, which is the next fifty years with Fanny as a wife. Sir John and Lady Middleton get what they want, which is a comfortable, happy life, full of hunting and children and throwing dinner parties. In the end, Austen arranges them in a set of appropriate though kind of funny fates, no? Edward is still kind of a loser, but Elinor is happy with it. Marianne ends up with an old guy and a step daughter older than she is. Lucy, Fanny, and the younger Mr. Ferrars, I mean! It’s comedy. And somewhere, Mrs. Jennings is probably leaning over to whisper in someone’s ear.
There is a man who is currently ghosting me and has been for some months. It is not even the first time within twelve months that he’s done it. I keep creating opportunities for him to ghost me. I keep thinking that I should be a good person, that I should be considerate and understanding and maybe I am being selfish or self-centered or unrelenting or not understanding enough of their secret heterosexual man pain. But then, I think, well, okay. At what point do I have to choose myself. Like, at what point do I stop trying to make excuses for this person and their behavior. I think I have to get beyond this place of expecting them to own up to their behavior. I have to get beyond wanting an apology because the apology ultimately does not matter. I think what I have to do is say their behavior is bad. It’s not a crime, it’s not destroying me. But it’s inconsiderate. And I do not have to accept it. And by accepting this person in my life despite their behavior that hurts and bothers me, I am accepting that behavior. And so I have to make a choice to simply say no to all of that nonsense. I have say no to someone who treats me poorly.
But of course it’s hard to say no to people you feel loyal to because you have known for a long time or they have made you feel things that you never quite thought possible. It’s why Marianne reaches for some excuse for Willoughby’s betrayal. It’s why Darcy tries to propose to Lizzie a second time in Pride and Prejudice. It’s the whole plot of Persuasion. And it’s why so many West Elm Calebs and abusers (not always the same thing, often not the same thing) find their way back into our lives. It’s why we forgive and forgive and forgive. So much forgiving in this culture of ours. But it’s not even forgiveness. It’s what Freud describes as subjugating your own narcissism for the sake of the love object. Giving away yourself in order to raise the love object within you. That’s not forgiveness. That’s. Well, that’s Catholicism.
But sometimes, for some people in some circumstances, there arrives a time when a person cannot fuck or love their way into forgiveness. And when you just have to say, okay, we both tried. Enough is enough, no harm, no foul, but we cannot speak anymore. Because you do not respect me or understand me as a person. Because you are not compatible with the life I want to live. And that is okay. I think for myself, I have to let go of wanting to affix a moral judgement to the behavior of people who treat me poorly, and I just have to release those people into the world. Make a joke about it, move on with my life. Get it out of my system.
I think that is precisely what those women were doing when they made those videos. They were just venting. Making something funny out of what had happened to them. Not super hung up on some trash dude, whatever. But then it became a narrative. It existed outside of the particular and specific context of their lives and it became less about what had happened to these women because of West Elm Caleb, and what had happened to all of us everywhere because of West Elm Calebs writ large. It is one of the more curious facets of digital life. The speed at which the personal, local phenomena of our lives, mundane in the extreme, assume meaning in aggregate. We’re all looking for signs in the murmurations of our For You Pages and timelines. It’s no wonder. We’ve got meaning machines for brains and we’ve got an on-demand bottomless of symbols and signs to parse.
In other words: gossip.