Love in Literature

I’m reading a Victorian novel right now (I’ll post a review when I’m done because it’s one of the novels on my Classics list) and there is something very surprising that I found in it: one character really loves another character.

The reason why this is so surprising is that it made me realize that I can’t really remember any other fictional description of love. I have read thousands of novels, but this is pretty much the first convincing rendering of love.

When I say “love”, I don’t mean, of course, the following famous plots that have been sold to us by writers in lieu of depictions of love:

  • I’ve seen you at a distance and have realized that it would be super cool to use you to bug my parents as part of my teenage rebellion. Better yet, why not kill myself altogether? That will stick it to the old folks.
  • I’ve always considered him to be rude and obnoxious but then I saw his huge house and realized he is extremely rich. Now I totally love him.
  • Every single aspect of his personality and every moment of his past annoy me. But if I could have him mutilated, helpless and completely at my mercy, then I’d totally enjoy living with him.
  • I find you provincial, facile, and boring. But after you marry a rich guy and get some fashionable clothes, I realize that now I’m totally into you.

Cervantes ridiculed the way love is usually depicted in novels by showing how Don Quixote denies everything that constitutes the personality of the real Aldonza Lorenzo. He creates an imaginary creature called Dulcinea and adores her. Unlike a real person, Dulcinea is perfect, so it’s easy to worship her. And when she stinks of garlic, it can always be attributed to the spell created by mean magicians.

More often than not, we see characters in fiction loving not so much an actual person, but a concept, an image that might or might not have anything to  do with any real human being. This is why I was so surprised to find a fictional character who seems to be capable of actually feeling love.

Am I mistaken about the paucity of depictions of love in literature? Can you think of characters in love whose feelings rang true to you?

24 thoughts on “Love in Literature

  1. I’ll take it that last description of “love” is a poke at Eugene Onegin? 🙂

    Another “unlove” that’s common is “Oh, you have so many traits that drive me up the wall, allow me to completely change you and make you my dream partner, and we’ll just say it was ‘the power of love’ which changed you, not my gaslighting.”

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  2. Is the 3rd “Jane Eyre”? At least, “mutilated, helpless and completely at my mercy” suits.

    Now I want to read this Victorian novel too. Waiting for review!

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  3. Re: representations of love in literature….You are right that representations of actual love seem few and far between. I don’t think I have ever thought of it that way before. Now I can’t stop trying to think of examples! What a fun question! 🙂 …..So this is a bit of a twisted love but there is a Victorian novel called _Armadale_ by Wilkie Collins…..And I believe that the heroine/villaness Lydia Gwilt is in love with one of the leading men, Ozias Midwinter. (Unfortunately Midwinter is too in love with the title chartacter, Alan Armadale to really care….) Lydia is a bit tortured but I do believe she loves Midwinter…..My second example is a bit unconventional. So there is a lovely lovely Oscar Wilde short story called “The Happy Prince” and in it there is a swallow and a statue that “comes to life.” The statue and the swallow truly truly love one another. It’s sort of a cross between platonic/romantic love. I realize that swallow/statue love is unconventional but it really is such a gorgeous story (and less than 10 pages) and so amazing. Just thinking about “The Happy Prince” makes me cry…………My last example. It’s been years since I read it and so this is my “teenage” self responding. But Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights” sticks out in my memory as true love (as in the speaker loves Nastenka….) Again, I read it when I was 17. And we all know how twisted teenage conceptions of love are! 😉 So I could be very wrong here. But I remember sneaking that book under my textbook during Math class and weeping in the middle of class because I thought it was so beautiful. (Not surpringly, I nearly failed math and got an “A” in English!) 😉

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    1. I’ve never read Armadale. I love Wilkie Collins, so I guess, I should read it.

      ” But I remember sneaking that book under my textbook during Math class and weeping in the middle of class because I thought it was so beautiful.”

      – I used to do the same thing!!! Then, I’d get caught and there was trouble. Just imagine, you and I were sitting there on different continents, both hiding a novel under a math textbook and crying. How amazing is that?

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  4. All the really believable love seems to happen in tragedies. Troylius and Crisseda (which I have probably misspelled) comes to mind. And, for the teenage angst facet of love, Romeo and Juliet. Onesonewu (spelling again) and her beloved whose name I do not recall in Who Fears Death. Alobar and his wife in Jitterbug Perfume might be an exception.

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    1. “And, for the teenage angst facet of love, Romeo and Juliet.”

      – I’m all for teenage rebellion and hormone-driven casual sex, but there is no love in that story. Those kids would have found new crushes within a few weeks. Which is exactly as things should be.

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    2. I don’t think Troilus loves Criseyde, in either Chaucer or Shakespeare; she may love him, in Chaucer; I don’t think she loves him in Shakespeare. Boccaccio’s Troilo is a player; Chaucer’s Troilus is very young and has a massive crush; Shakespeare more or less goes back to the player image, though with a dose of “I’ve never felt like this before” that suggests maybe he feels something more like love. But if any of the Troilus figures loved Criseyde they’d speak up when the trade was proposed. Reputation should be a lot less important than safety. Criseyde is a different and more complicated question. Chaucer’s Criseyde, I would argue, does love Troilus, but recognizes that love does not conquer all, and that sometimes to survive you have to do things that appear to be incompatible with love.

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      1. I was thinking of Chaucer. I had forgotten that Shakespeare had written a version of Troilus and Criseyde. But I have not read the Chaucer story since the 1960’s. I find myself wondering if I could read it more quickly now. Back then, as an undergraduate, I took about 45 minutes to read a page of Middle English.

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  5. I think the lack of descriptions of true love extends to movies as well. Most of them describe it using something not far from one of the cliches you mention above.

    They also obnoxiously perpetuate some rather nasty dating habits, such as “he’s an asshole, but I can’t help being in love with him because he treated me so badly”, see e.g. “Letters to Juliet” where the lead character dumps her fiancee because he has the gall to have his own life and does not need to be by her side 24×7, only to shack up with an uptight English arse who repeatedly insults here and whose only virtue is, erh, .. uhm, … actually he has no redeeming virtues.

    A perhaps better known example but from a bit farther back is Reality Bites where the Winona Ryder makes an equally bad choice.

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  6. Victorian. Last night I watched the Wide Sargasso Sea movie which isn’t very good, but does remind one of the novel, which is; this caused me then to look up stuff on Jane Eyre, and really dislike Mr. Rochester and also disapprove of him, even more than before.

    So: what’s with Jane’s love for Mr. Rochester, is it real, and/or is his for her; what about love of him from Antoinette/Bertha …?

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    1. I’m not a huge fan of Wide Sargasso Sea, but my reading of Jane Eyre is as follows: Bertha and Rochester are married bu their parents for financial reasons, probably against the will of both bride and groom. Rochester soon starts sleeping around and locks Bertha up, inventing some non-existent madness. He doesn’t, however, lock her up in a far away house he possesses in the woods. He locks her in a place where he will have ready access to her whenever he wishes. That, coupled with her fury against him, makes me think that the entire time she was hidden in Thornfield Hall, he was raping her.

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      1. Well, yes — this makes a lot of sense. Some of the stuff I looked up last night pointed out that at this time in England, there was all this reform in the mental illness field. It was not standard to lock someone in an attic like this. So he’s got a rape camp going, basically. Is it the purity of Jane that reforms him? (Otherwise, he was involved with that cocotte — he just needs a good English girl to set him straight — ?)

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        1. I think that he only gets kind of normal after he is mutilated in the fire. Symbolically, the first wife asserts her power over him and thereby makes him more acceptable and human for the next wife

          My writing is so disjointed because I’m sick.

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  7. Oh, of course you’re right. And he was going to marry that Blanche character, too — he really does make every kind of flaky choice. It’s all just so unfortunate, he has to get maimed to grow human, to become Jane’s equal, etc. – yet I do quite like the way the fire motif is used.

    My thinking is disjointed because I am tired.

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  8. This is a great question that really made me think for a while.

    I can think of a few examples where one character seems to love another one and allows being trampled over for that reason, like in Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That, where a husband does everything for his sick wife. But I am not sure if that is real love.

    Then I was thinking of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. It seems to me well described why the two main characters fall in love with other and believe that they want to spend the rest of their life together. But then their actions say something else, so I have to discard that as well.

    So the only example I have is the Greek myth of Ceyx and Alcyone.

    I am wondering if convincing depictions of love are perhaps so rare because once you analyze a relationship with a clear head, as a writer will obviously do, it is always a little fake, a little wrong, a little unfair. It is based on blind spots, compensations, illusions. Maybe you have to be a crappy writer to write about real love. 🙂

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