by Andrea Martinez
It is a truth universally acknowledged that literature teaches us so much about understanding both ourselves and others, including the one who is sometimes the hardest to understand – our sweetheart. In honor of romance, here is an ode to famous literary couples, who allow us to live our best and worst romantic fantasies through them.
Note: Major spoiler alert!
Marius and Cosette (and Éponine) | Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
Marius and Cosette’s romance in Les Mis is a beam of plain, innocent light that glows dimly in the background of the novel. They are very similar to one another; both are young, naïve, beautiful, devoted to love, and not all that interesting as individuals. However, they are both a source of love, not only to each other, but to people like Jean Valjean and Éponine, who are some of the most interesting characters in the story.Éponine is included in this romance despite her role as an unwanted third party in the love triangle. It is her love for Marius – despite her apparent mental instability — that is brave, grand, and unselfish. While Éponine makes mistakes in trying to get Marius to fall in love with her, she is ultimately the reason Marius sees Cosette before basically almost going to war, preparing to accept death if he does not see her again. Then, she makes the ultimate sacrifice by taking a bullet and dying in his place. While Marius and Cosette represent the romantic joining of ideals to form a perfect union, it is Éponine who presents the power of a love that is both selfish and unselfish and as heartbreaking as it is redeeming.
Elizabeth and Darcy | Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Some people claim Lizzie and Darcy’s romance is problematic because they both have to change things about themselves to ultimately end up together. However, the way I see it, Elizabeth is a realistic romantic like Austen herself; in a society where women’s sovereignty was very limited, both Austen and Elizabeth exercised their autonomy by choosing not to marry for any reason other than love. While it may not have worked out for Austen, Elizabeth finds love in someone who teaches her to not only get off her high horse, but who also respects and cares about her, and does his best to show this to her in whichever way he can. Elizabeth and Darcy do change from being imperfect individuals who were both prejudiced, immature, and proud (duh) to a couple who learned to compromise and be better people by learning from each other. Sure, throw in the convenience of Darcy’s very large wealth and the annoying “Lizzie’s not like the other girls” trope, and the story is tainted by Austen’s recurring too-good-to-be-true themes. However, my favorite aspect of Darcy and Elizabeth’s romance is that it is more an example of compromise – not settling – and companionship than it is of happily ever afters.
Emma Rouault and Charles Bovary | Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
The marriage between Emma Rouault and Charles Bovary is, by far, the worst example of a happy union. Madame Bovary, as she is referred to after her marriage in the novel, is not as devoted to her well-meaning, unambitious husband as he is to her. She therefore strays from her marriage – more than once and with more than one individual – with men who don’t care about her as much as they swear they do, nor who are judged as negatively as she is. Emma seeks the fantastical, passionate romances she reads of in novels and is very discontent with what her actual marriage turns out to be. In this novel, Charles is not much of a character. We know little of him, only that he loves his wife and is oblivious to her unhappiness. He is not a bad person, but that is not enough to make a marriage work. While theirs is not a story with a particularly happy ending, their faulty marriage highlights aspects of the limited range of choices women were given and just how happy their choices actually made them. But more importantly, it is crucial to notice that this is applicable to women today; there are situations in which marriage may seem like a solution for many women, but ends up being more of its own little prison.
Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe | Anne of Green Gables (the Series), L.M. Montgomery
Perhaps one of the sweetest, most likeable pairs in literature (that I have read) is the one made up of Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe. From the moment he calls her “Carrots” in grade school and she swears to be his enemy after breaking her slate on his head, sparks fly for young Gilbert Blythe, who is devoted to Anne henceforth. The relationship between Gilbert and Anne is special because one can see them grow as individuals and as friends, until they ultimately become husband and wife. It is also admirable to see how much they care about each other, even when they are only friends, and how much Gilbert respects Anne’s decision to remain friends despite his affections for her. There is a moment in Anne of the Island, the third installment of the series, where the couple has a falling out after Anne rejects Gilbert’s marriage proposal because she does not feel the same way about him. However, while he says it is too hard for him to bear, he simply maintains his distance and is mostly not-douchey until they resume their friendship when they both feel ready to do so. Fortunately for him, Anne shortly after realizes her romantic feelings for Gilbert, which leads to their eventual marriage. The best part about their romance being detailed in a series of novels is that the reader gets to see them grow old together and live through everything couples experience – from long-distance to outgrowing puppy love to experiencing a tragic miscarriage to hitting a lull in their marriage to always working problems out as a team because, first and foremost, they are each other’s best friend.
Romeo and Juliet | Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Arguably the most famous literary romance – the one even people who have never read Shakespeare know about – is that of Romeo and Juliet. The good: it is mutual, passionate, and told in iambic pentameter. The bad: I’ve heard Romeo is considerably older than Juliet, or that he is about a couple of years older, but the general consensus is that Juliet is in her early teens, which makes her in any case too young to make one feel comfortable with the idea of her falling in love, getting married, and committing suicide all within a matter of days. Cue the feuding families and rash actions and we all know how the story ends. The ugly: Romeo kills Tybalt. I mean, really? You had to kill your girlfriend’s cousin, as if you can’t make matters any worse? Still, one can’t go without giving Romeo and Juliet some credit. While I feel like I cannot personally take him seriously, and that she gets swept away by her emotions even though she is slightly more intelligent than her lover, theirs is a love that has stood the test of time and is alluded to by many other literary works (though the play itself is an adaptation of Pyramus and Thisbe). Not Shakespeare’s best work, but certainly his most famous one around this time of year.
Heathcliff and Catherine | Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Okay, so let me say one thing: this is a very problematic romance. Catherine and Heathcliff are not very good people. In fact, they are not even good to each other. They are both selfish and mean and fairly dark. Heathcliff is a character that is hurt and twisted into the rather malicious and vengeful person he later becomes, while Catherine finds love in Heathcliff but refuses to marry below the societal standards she sets for herself. Unlike most other literary romances, their love is not enough to make them happy. Now that I have acknowledged things I find problematic about this couple, I will say that this is perhaps my favorite literary romance. Sure, they are terrible people who make terrible choices and hurt many people, including themselves, but while I may not like them as much, I just feel like they are a tragic example of how destructive love can be. Romeo and Juliet at least died knowing they would be together, but Catherine and Heathcliff had a lot more going against them, including that they fought for each other at different times. Heathcliff loses Catherine twice: once when she marries Lipton, and again when she dies. This does not somehow magically make him a better person; rather, it draws out even more darkness in him. But the fact that two very twisted, unhappy people are somehow compatible and able to make each other happy is just unusual. Catherine and Heathcliff are no heroes, but I still find myself rooting for them.
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