Caught in a Bad Romance: Love and Tragedy

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Breaking news: tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and I couldn’t care less since it’s a manufactured holiday for the benefit of the card, chocolate and flower industry (wait, flower industry? Is this the professional name for a GARDEN?). If you’re going to spend your Valentine’s Day drinking cheap wine while listening to Adele (or what I call “Fancy Friday”), don’t feel bad, read this article instead! To prepare and put myself in the appropriate mood for writing an article about love, I logged in Spotify, searched “love” and chose the first playlist that popped up. In my mind, love is a playlist of never-ending Celine Dion ballads. Since I studied English literature and I’m somehow expected to make a living out of it, let me just tell you that love is a big deal in literature. Please contain yourselves and don’t be awestruck by what I just pointed out. Love is a recurring theme and is always there, either as a major plot point or a humble sub-plot.

The first thing I learned in my first ever literature course was that in literature NOTHING IS THE WAY IT SEEMS. No, the whale in Moby Dick isn’t just a whale, it’s a symbol. No, colours are never random, they signify something deeper. No, this mug next to the vase of flowers isn’t a mere mug, it’s a symbol of…oh…wait, my bad, that’s actually my mug and now my tea has gone cold…anyway, what I’m miserably trying to say is that in literature a love-related storyline always translates into something more. The lovers are an essential and organic part of their historical, social, political and cultural context. I’m going to briefly mention three examples of literary couples from Renaissance, Victorian and Modern literature. If this is getting too romantic for you I get it, take a break and continue reading in five minutes.

My first choice is William Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet, or the most famous writer in the world and his most famous play. Romeo and Juliet is a timeless love story of two lovers who were separated by the strong hatred between their families. After many eloquent declarations of love, the play ends with both of them dead. Tragic, I know, but that’s not the point! For some weird reason the story of Romeo and Juliet has been romanticized into oblivion, and people forget that Romeo was 16 and Juliet barely 13, but I guess that was okay back then.

Yes, the love between the two lovers is inspiring and moving. Still, Romeo and Juliet presents a kind of love that is also destructive and chaotic. Here, love causes violence, defiance and death. Also, this play, along with the also Shakespearean King Lear, really toys with the notion of fate and how some events are inevitable. The plot is a mess and, at this point, I feel the urge to admit that I prefer Shakespeare’s historical plays…nevertheless, the death of Romeo and Juliet serves two points: first of all, it teaches a valuable lesson to everybody and that is “please make sure that your lover is actually dead before you kill yourself in a teenage outburst of love” and secondly, social order is restored after and because of the death of Romeo and Juliet. Was that really necessary William? Did you have to kill Verona’s sweetheart and her adorable Ken-doll boyfriend?  

Let’s time travel forward: 19th century, Victorian literature, Emily Bronte and, you guessed it, Wuthering Heights! Wuthering Heights is a Victorian classic. You know the plot, Catherine loves Heathcliff, Heathcliff loves her back, but they come from different social backgrounds and they’re both so stubborn I want to somehow find a way to strangle them both. Even though their sexual tension generates actual electricity, Catherine marries Edgar and Heathcliff marries Edgar’s sister and turns into a James Bond villain. Death, pain, violence, gothic setting, baby! , more pain, oops Catherine dies, more violence, gothic setting intensifies, their children fall in love with each other, more death, happy-ish ending and that’s a wrap.

Wuthering Heights is in every list of books you must read. It’s a masterpiece and if you haven’t read it, you really should. Do you think that Bronte’s novel would be that successful if the ending was different, if Catherine and Heathcliff married and lived together until the end of their days? The plot of Wuthering Heights cannot change. The main themes (how destructive love can be, nature versus culture, class prejudice and social stereotypes, how one’s behaviour can be incompatible with his/her gender) are reinforced by the tragedy of the storyline. In Wuthering Heights, the notion of romantic love is sacrificed for the sake of the above themes. The main couple is Heathcliff and Catherine, but the novel is kept together by other, secondary but equally unhappy couples. Here, love is equated to violence and suffering in a sadistically deliberate manner. But why can’t Catherine and Heathcliff have their happy ending?

My last pick is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald describes the roaring twenties, the rise and fall of the American dream and the glamour of the Jazz Age through the mysterious figure of Jay Gatsby. Gatsby loves Daisy and does whatever he can to win her love. Spoiler alert, he dies and Daisy doesn’t even go to his funeral. I can’t believe I dare to summarize the best book of the early 20th century in two stupid sentences, don’t let my idiotic summary of The Great Gatsby make you think less of an overall great book. Anyway, love is Gatsby’s driving force to redefine himself and become the definition of the American dream, he becomes ridiculously rich and convinces himself that his wealth will bring Daisy back into his arms.

In The Great Gatsby love is selfish and, you guessed it, destructive. Daisy is both a positive and negative influence on Gatsby and her only redeeming quality is Gatsby’s love for her (unpopular opinion alert: Daisy was just a victim in a world that moved way too fast. Also, she was too aware of how restricting womanhood can be). Gatsby’s fate is tragic: his wealth cannot fix everything and fate and bad luck cannot be avoided. His death coincides with the gradual decline of a lifestyle of excess and emptiness. Who cares though? The real questions is: why didn’t they just run away together in secrecy and enjoy their love? Your questions will be answered shortly.

In literature, most of the times love isn’t the goal, but the process. If Heathcliff seals the deal with Catherine, then everything Bronte wrote is in vain. Why would the gothic setting matter if they can actually have their happily-ever-after? If Gatsby drives into the sunset with Daisy sitting next to him, then the pre-depression, roaring twenties Fitzgerald described are just another dull decade. And, if Romeo and Juliet elope, then they’re not star-crossed lovers, they’re most likely heading to a boring post-marital routine. Love isn’t the solution, love is the necessary setting until tragedy occurs.

Fasten your seat belts kids, it’s time for a quiz! Since it’s almost Valentine’s Day, I won’t put any essay questions. Multiple choice! Yay! Circle the correct answer:

1. Do you really think Juliet would have loved Romeo after five years of him always leaving his socks scattered of the floor? 

A. YES! THEIR LOVE IS ETERNAL! ROMEO+JULIET=LUUUUUUV

B. Seriously? They have enough money to hire a maid, what kind of question is that?

C. Ugh, what is it with men and their socks? One day poor Juliet is going to snap and throw a vase at Romeo’s pretty head…

2. Can you picture Heathcliff and Catherine going out for a picnic, no apparitions appearing, no murderous undertones, no class conflict visible?

A. Yes, all these two need is a peaceful picnic. Their love is so perfect, they should rename the novel from Wuthering Heights to When a Victorian Man Loves a Victorian Woman.

B. Their main problem is the lack of dialogue, so a picnic might actually help them alleviate all the negative tension.

C. Yes, and unicorns fart rainbows while Hannibal Lecter vows to become a vegetarian. Seriously? Please give me the essay questions!

3. Hypothetically, Gatsby and Daisy end up together and they get married. Can you even consider the idea of Daisy staying with Gatsby after the Great Depression of the 1930s and the loss of all his wealth?

A. Gatsby gathered all his wealth to please Daisy, so Daisy will in return stick by his side and help him get through it. I mean, they’re in love, y’all!

B. Realistically speaking, their love will go through a test, but I think they might make it!

C. Daisy would drown Gatsby in his swimming pool, make it look like a suicide, take the insurance money and tour Europe.

Have you answered? Good. In this test, there aren’t wrong answers, every answer is acceptable. Except, NO IT ISN’T, this test is unforgiving and so is real life, grow up and get used to it! If you have answered C to all three questions, congratulations, you can realistically predict the future of fictional characters.

It would be lovely and so satisfying for all three couples to find love and have their happily-ever-after. All of them, however, are flawed and they are flawed for a reason. They were never meant to make it! Their loves were disposable, orchestrated to prove a point: love sells more copies when it stays unfulfilled or ends tragically. Also, we’re supposed to focus on the historical and social background of each story.

A happy ending is a Hollywood creation. Take, for instance, The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s story ends in a grim and hopeless way, with Arthur Dimmesdale dead and Hester Prynne forever ashamed, bearing her scarlet letter. What did the geniuses at Hollywood do? They cast Demi Moore and Gary Oldman (three cheers for Gary Oldman) and butchered one of the most fascinating and important stories American Romanticism gifted to the world. In the movie, Arthur, Hester and baby Pearl live happily ever after in a lovely house at the suburbs, they have a Prius, HBO and three golden retrievers. This movie was just wrong, avoid it at all costs.

As readers, we are trained to expect the worst. Whenever I read a book with a happy ending I simply don’t know how to handle it. When Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth got together in Pride and Prejudice, I was kind of expecting a last minute nuclear apocalypse, or at least her getting post-adolescent acne. The bad, tragic endings are more memorable. For instance, why would an author like Hemingway bother with domestic love? It’s better to write the depressing Farewell to Arms. It’s not better for Catherine who bleeds to death after giving birth to a stillborn baby, but it’s better story-wise.

Yes, Hollywood is full of tragic love stories. What? You don’t believe me? I have examples! Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Romeo and Juliet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard in Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (again) in Revolutionary Road, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio in his never-ending pursuit of an Oscar…basically, Leonardo DiCaprio in everything.

What should you keep from this article? First of all, literature is a big fan of love, but is not afraid to make love suffer and KILL LOVE.  The moral of my ramblings is that if your love story is forbidden, painful and tragic, then Leonardo DiCaprio will most likely star in the movie adaptation and not win an Oscar for his performance. Seriously though, literature is a safe place for tragedy to happen. It’s safe because it’s distant. Wuthering Heights is thrilling, but it cannot happen to us. Romeo and Juliet’s love inspires us, but we know how to check for a pulse so we can avoid whatever happened in the last act of the play. Finally, it’s better that Gatsby and Daisy never got back together as I have the feeling that their relationship would be toxic.

Cinematic moments of love declarations in the rain with old-school Enrique Iglesias ballads are simply cinematic. In literature, love is so much more. Go ahead and read the classic love-novels, but always keep in mind that love isn’t just a connection between two people, each author chose love as the way to bring forward historical, social and cultural aspects of each era, to shine a light on the relationship between the sexes and the perception of marriage and to show how the individual relates to his/her feelings and to his/her surroundings. Pretty romantic, huh?

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