Romance is a universal subject. Love stories are found in every country and culture and are appreciated by all genders and ages, but why is there a penchant in literature to end such tales in grief and misfortune? Today, happy romances only exist in trashy novels, romantic comedies and telenovelas. Apparently, there is an unwritten law that modern fictional couples cannot live happily ever after. What provokes that fascination with doomed romances?
A friend that holds a history degree told me that the concept of “romantic love” is artificial, invented by medieval troubadours to earn a living. The idea of “Courtly Love” was based on a simple recipe, a knight pledged his love to a lady, but she had to be “somebody else´s lady.” Based on adultery, this medieval concept of romance was a sin that could only bring tribulations to these involved.
I had to prove him wrong. Romantic love has existed prior to the troubadours. You find it in mythology, universal folklore, even in the Bible. Some of those affairs involved free people, others turned around adulterous couples, but even the latter were allowed to enjoy some happiness. When he sleeps with the much-married Bathsheba, King David is sinning against God and man. To add insult to injury, David has her husband killed. The Lord is angry, the prophet is angry, lots of bad things happen, including the death of Bathsheba‘s firstborn. David makes public atonement, he is forgiven, marries Bathsheba, and they became the proud parents of Solomon, the wisest of kings.
Moreover, if my friend was right and Courtly Love had imposed a tradition of gloomy romances, we wouldn´t have great literary love stories ending in bliss. However, such idyllic romances are not very common in modern literature due to a couple of reasons.
1. Happy endings are an old fashioned ploy
Both, David Copperfield and War and Peace end in images of domestic harmony. We are talking about two pillars of modern literature, yet when I point these examples to cynical critics I get a “yes, but that is sooo Nineteenth Century.” However, not every novel written in the 1800’s included joyful love affairs; just think of Madame Bovary or Thomas Hardy´s works.
|Agnes and David Copperfield, a rare example of a happy marriage in fiction|
But there is some truth in the fact that happy romances fell out of fashion during last century. Whenever love appears in Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway or Edith Wharton novels, we know it will come to heartbreak and parting. Once, I took a course in Modern English Literature just to find the reading list plagued with tales of ill-fated lovers. Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier begins with the words: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The “sad story” being a combination of messy married life, unhappy adultery and suicide. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited begins with “Here my last love died,” and although Charles Ryder is figuratively speaking, his memories depict a man who fails in his search for love and finds solace in religion.
Compared to such tear-jerking novels, The End of the Affair seemed almost jolly. Although as much a Catholic as Evelyn Waugh was, Graham Greene viewed clandestine love with compassion. During World War Two, writer Maurice Bendix has just made love to Sarah, his married mistress, when a bomb falls upon his house and almost kills him. After the incident, Sarah breaks up with him. Two years later, Bendix finds out that fearing him dead, Sarah made a vow to renounce to her lover if God saved him. Sarah is still a Catholic, won’t divorce her husband, but her love for Maurice makes her fall in is arms again. Only death separates them. Yet, Sarah is such a strong character that she comes triumphal at the end. Prior to her death, a series of tiny miracles show her that God is not angry at her weakness, and, after her passing, Maurice accepts the existence of a Divine Presence, which is what she always wanted. I came to think that this novel almost had a happy ending.
2. “Lived happily ever after” endings are no realistic therefore they should exist only in children’s and young adults books.
The 21th century has definitely declared war on romantic love. The scientific community goes through pains to explain that romance is based on physiological reactions, and statistics tell us that marriages are bound to last less than two decades. With such information is understandable that we inhabit a romantically-challenged society where happy marriages and fulfilling love stories are seen as impractical and improbable, at least in adult literature.
We do find some promising love stories in YA Literature. Twilight’s Bella and Edward end up together (plus a daughter), and white magic, goodness and love triumph at the end of the Harry Potter saga. Twilight’s cheerful conclusion brings to mind the last pages of typical “girly literature.” In Victorian classics such as Heidi, Jane Eyre and Louisa May Alcott´s works, heroines’ ordeals are ultimately rewarded with blissful marriages and motherhood.
|Professor Baher is Jo´s reward in Little Women|
But saying that romances in YA fiction must end in harmony would be a false statement. It was certainly untrue of the juvenile literature of my day. When I was a teenager (1970’s) books “for girls” were cautionary tales with brooding finales. Titles such as My Darling, My Hamburger, Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, and Scott O’Dell’s Cathleen, Please Come Home showed the reader that reckless love resulted in unplanned pregnancies, botched up-abortions and forced marriages. Even in the controversial but less dramatic Forever, Judy Blume proved that young love was a bittersweet experience. And the most romantic YA novel I read in my youth, Bette Greene’s The Summer of my German Soldier had me crying buckets before I reached the words “The End.”
At seventeen, I was a strong believer in rewarding passion and marital bliss, but I couldn´t find it in books targeting my age, so I turned to bodice- rippers. Heroines in Historical Romances underwent rape, beatings, betrayal and other calamities, but, by the end of the book, they had tamed their knights in soiled armors and were ready to start families in castles, manors and cattle ranches. This of course proves right those who claim that …
3. Corny romances belong strictly in trashy literature.
If you define Harlequin romances, and other single-title heirs to the “bodice-ripper” as trash, then indeed love that lasts a lifetime is a trashy ruse. But tragic romances were also present in more mainstream trash. Vera Caspary’s emancipated heroines never found joy in love, Jacqueline Susann´s protagonists were divided between those who died and those who ended up with men who could never make them happy. And in the last stages of Peyton Place, Allison Mackenzie has returned to her hometown after her married boss breaks her heart.
Although romance is present in every genre and subgenre, everlasting love only reigns supreme in the Romance category, a trait that forces the subgenre to be classified as “low literature.” Funny, because Jane Austen´s entire work turned around amorous dealings that would end when the protagonists, having overcome all obstacles, were seen walking down the aisle. Inspired by Austen, Georgette Heyers wrote a series of novels that became known as “Regency romances.” But as everybody knows, Austen is a literary icon, and Heyers a mere a formula-pusher. The only characteristics that bound them together were historical settings, love as the plot´s core, and closing their tales on a merry note. Would Jane Austen be considered a “serious writer” today? I think not.
|Why romantic bliss was fashionable in Jane Austen times and not in Contemporary Literature?|
4. A tragic love story is always more poignant and increases its chances for success.
I have to agree since my favorite love stories of the last twenty years, include two extremely sad bestsellers. John Le Carre is a famous writer of spy novels, but in The Constant Gardener he showed himself a master in the concoction of doomed romance. Although Tessa is killed in the early stages of the novel, her memory and love propels her husband to continue her research, clear her name and avenge her murder.
|Tessa's ghost (Rachel Weisz) comes to comfort her husband (Ralph Fiennes) in The Constant Gardener.|
Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is one of the most poignant love stories ever written, Anthony Minghella’s film version is equally moving. I made the mistake of watching the film after lunch on a working day. I was crying when I walked out of the cinema; sobbed wildly on the cab that took me to school and had to sit in the teachers’ lounge for almost twenty minutes until I collected myself enough to teach a class.
Heartrending as these two examples are, they do not hold a candle to my favorite literary romance of all times, a sample of high literature that dares to end in a hopeful note. Henryk Sienkiewicz is probably the best known Polish author in the world. Prior to the invention of the word “bestseller,” he was writing bestselling historical novels which crossed borders and oceans. His Quo Vadis is now a classic and merited Sienkiewicz the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature. I read Quo Vadis at age nine and have loved it since. It includes two fantastic love stories: that of Vinicius and Ligia (the protagonists), and a secondary but potent romance between Petronius (a historical character) and Eunice, his slave girl.
When focusing on human love, Sienkiewicz is careful to show the transforming and beneficiary power of an emotion that transcends religions and social classes. Ligia not only converts Vinicius, a Roman patrician, to Christianity, but her love rids him of his arrogance and cruel streak. Epicurean and cynical Petronius finds true devotion in a humble slave who chooses to die with him to escape the Emperor’s wrath. Unlike them, Ligia and Vinicius survive Nero´s massacre, and go on to live together happily and forever away from Rome. Would the novel be more “literary” if the protagonists had died or been separated eternally? I think not.
Star-crossed lovers add pathos and realism to a novel, but what about the reader’s needs? It has been established that happy endings represent compensation for past suffering and hope for a better future. Ian McEwen’s Atonement is an example of “high literature” therefore its bitter finale has lovers Cee and Robbie apart from each other and dead. But when Briony, who has caused their misfortunes, writes their story as a novel-within-a-novel, she chooses an ending that has them living happily ever after. She claims it’s a way to compensate them for all their trials. That is the supreme optimistic promise of everlasting love even if it exists only between the pages of a book.
|Briony grows up into a novelist who believes in happy endings|
What is your favorite love story of all times? Does it end in a happy or sour note? Does the ending affect the literary value of the novel? When you write love stories, how do you expect them to finish?