God help and forgive me for much of what you’re about to read, but I am here to tell you that the most satisfying method I’ve developed for deciphering my recent reading relies on a slightly gross concept originally made popular in erotic fanfiction. Specifically, I’m talking about the Omegaverse: a theory which has the potential to be applied to most literature, and which I personally have had great pleasure applying to the western canon.
Let me explain. The Omegaverse depicts a kink-heavy and cheerfully problematic society based on a wolf-style hierarchy where everyone is either an alpha, an omega or a beta. Alphas are typically dominant and have the ability to “knot,” which plays with dog dick biology to include a swelling “bulb” at the base of the penis that locks them inside an omega after climax. Omegas, the natural match for alphas, tend towards submissiveness and can get pregnant regardless of their gender (yes, for omegas without vaginas or uteruses, this involves self-lubricating assholes). Betas, the normies of the group, follow standard human biology. Explicit and often grotesque anatomical detail is integral to the omegaverse, distinguishing it from basic dominant/submissive dynamics found in other kinds of erotic literature. It also comes with a bunch of associated details, including scenting (lots of pheromones at play when literally everyone can get wet), biting, and cycles of heat (for omegas) and rut (for alphas), also known as uncontrollable horniness.
Omegaverse texts tend to follow normative heterosexual patterns (a male alpha, a female omega), yet the universe itself originated in “Supernatural” fan fiction that portrayed the CW show’s two male leads as lovers. There’s still a hefty portion of gay male romance in the Omegaverse, as well as many practitioners of the form working to subvert tropes with female alphas, dominant omegas and more. But at its core, the Omegaverse asks the question: what if instead of categorizing people by gender or even sexuality, each person was simply a top, bottom or switch, and their anatomy reflected that? For some people, this is a massive turnoff. For others, it’s a compelling fantasy. For more still, it’s just great fun.
In the Omegaverse, roles are assigned based on sex characteristics, but ones which are completely divorced from the reality of human gender and sex, which is what makes the whole framework so entertaining and oddly freeing. It’s also why it’s especially fun to apply it to classic literary texts, which generally exist within worlds of fairly rigid gender norms and social hierarchies. By supplanting or complementing these structures with the Omegaverse, we can enliven a classic text by infusing it with a sexy and ridiculous dynamic — while also elevating and enriching the omegaverse itself.
Through the lens of the Omegaverse, we can look past traditional identity markers and categorize literary characters based on some other faint but unmistakable essence. In the same way that we all decided unanimously one summer that Rihanna has big dick energy, some characters are just full of big knot energy. Crucially, it’s impossible to be right or wrong about these judgments because they’re based on a mix-and-match box of traits with no concrete definitions — despite my bone-deep certainty that Sherlock Holmes is a beta, plenty of people on popular fanfiction sites disagree with me. It’s all based on readers’ gut feelings and what they think a character is like in the sack. It’s gleeful and pointless.
Let’s take Mr Darcy, one of the most charming omegas ever committed to print, as an example. Undoubtedly a sub, there’s also something distinctly omega-ish in Darcy’s shyness coming across as rudeness in public, his obsession with and loyalty to Pemberley (did I mention that omegas love building nests?), and his quasi-maternal dynamic with his sister. Also, maybe his asshole gets wet when he’s turned on, and that’s why he’s so weird about dancing. Who can say! And don’t be fooled by blasphemy like Darcy’s Omega; Elizabeth Bennet is a friendly alpha through and through.
There’s no need to be trapped by, uh, Omegaverse-normativity either; classic literature isn’t just full of alpha/omega pairings like Elizabeth and Darcy, or Rochester (an alpha) and Jane Eyre (one of the most well-satisfied omegas in literature). Heathcliff and Cathy are two alphas determined to claim each other or else burn down the world when they can’t, while Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw are star-crossed omegas who finally get the chance to build a nest together. Russian classics are filled almost exclusively with omegas in power struggles; E.M. Forster wrote alpha heroines until he got the chance to write the omega hero of his dreams in Maurice.
If the Omegaverse is silly — which of course it is — there’s also something joyfully liberating or even revealing about its application to classic texts. Take the common cultural understanding of Ernest Hemingway as a machismo writer invested in misogynistic gender roles. Under the Omegaverse lens, it becomes clear that Hemingway wrote compulsive, anxious omega heroes over and over. Sometimes Hemingway’s omegas find omegas of their own, as in the fragile romance of For Whom The Bell Tolls where Maria and Robert Jordan’s gentle omega4omega romance blooms under the indulgent alpha eye of Pilar. More often, he pairs an omega hero with an alpha heroine, ranging the gamut from sweetly stern (Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises) to genuinely terrifying (Catherine Bourne, from the underrated and sexy Garden of Eden). Reading Hemingway heroes as omegas doesn’t remove the misogynistic undertones of his novels, where female sexuality is treated with suspicion and occasional disgust, but it does complicate them by providing a universe where that sexuality is newly dangerous because of its power. Rather than a man obsessed with masculinity whose relations with women are guided by a superiority bordering on contempt, a Hemingway hero as omega becomes someone desperate to be fucked without losing his social power or agency — his existential struggle rooted in repressive sexual politics amps up another level.
And why restrict ourselves to older texts? The Omegaverse can be joyfully and hilariously applied to modern fiction as well. Sally Rooney’s novels contain wall-to-wall omegas, ranging from the faintly-cross-about-it variety to a desperate-to-please good Catholic boy who does his best to emulate alpha behavior. Torrey Peter’s Detransition, Baby depicts a fascinating alpha/beta/omega love triangle. Raven Leilani’s Luster could have been subtitled An omega’s quest, as poor Edie entangles with beta after beta in an attempt to have a satisfying sexual encounter — Beautiful Alpha, Where Are You?.
But in my experience, the Omegaverse is at its most satisfying when applied to a certain swathe of famous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels. This probably has a good amount to do with the lack of actual sex within their extremely sexy pages: though the sexual tension between Emma and Mr. Knightley (a classic Alpha4Alpha situation) is thick, we never actually see them get down to business. It leaves a speculative lacuna in the heart of any novel that the horndogs amongst us can’t help but wonder about. Sex reveals a lot about characters, which is why good sex scenes can do so much for a book (see both Leilani and Rooney). But in its absence, it’s funny to imagine poor Darcy’s emotional and sexual dismay when artful omega Wickham comes sniffing around Elizabeth.
The Omegaverse is indulgent and mildly offensive, and, now and then, often by accident, it’s quite sexy, making it as good a lens as any to add to literary criticism’s toolkit. But in its inherently comical framework, it also offers subtler appeal: returning the idea of fun to sex and power. If we’re stuck with both of them, the Omegaverse suggests, we might as well have a good time.
Mikaella Clements is an Australian writer currently based in Berlin. With her wife Onjuli Datta, she is the co-author of The View Was Exhausting, a modern love story about power, fame and privilege (it's alpha4alpha).