Not so Great Love Stories in Literature

As a young woman, I am well aware of how many love stories tend to be seen as great until you think about them a bit. There are plenty of love stories like this in classic literature which are celebrated romances we wish we could model our lives around. Yet, when we think about them a bit, we realize that these stories pertain to rather unhealthy relationships as well as serve us as a guide of what not to do. Then again, many of these don’t end happily and sometimes it was the author’s intent to show that they are unhealthy but the fandom just doesn’t listen. So without further adieu here are some famous literary love stories that aren’t really as lovey-dovey as they’re cracked up to be. And no, I’m not going to include anything by Nicholas Sparks or Twilight because they don’t really seem to qualify as literature to me. Still, there are good literary romances with the main characters engaging in healthier relationships as exemplified by Jane Austen. I mean Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett may be flawed but at least they manage to grow up and live happily ever after.

1. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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What you remember: Let’s see boy meets girl despite the two being from feuding families and secretly marry. Later on, girl’s cousin kills boy’s friend and boy kills girl’s cousin, then skips town. Girl engages in dangerous plot to avoid an arranged marriage set up by her parents consisting of faking her own death, which leads boy to poison himself. Girl discovers this and stabs herself. Families reconcile, the End.

What you forget: Sure this is seen as one of the greatest love stories of all time. However, aside from Romeo killing Juliet’s cousin bit, you also don’t know that Romeo also kills the guy Juliet’s parents wanted her to marry while the latter was putting flowers at Juliet’s “tomb” (though to be fair, Paris was going to arrest him for breaking exile and into her tomb). Still, Paris isn’t really a bad guy even if his biggest crime in the whole play is simply not being Romeo. Oh, and shortly before he meets Juliet, Romeo was in love with at least one other girl who didn’t care for him. That being said Romeo isn’t the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to date, let alone marry. Not to mention, sure Juliet may be in love with Romeo but you can also argue that she’s taking up with Romeo to rebel against her parents (over an arranged marriage but still) and she’s supposed to be 13 for God’s sake. You can also argue that the whole romance between Romeo and Juliet may be the result of forbidden fruit or intensified infatuation. Not only that, but much of the action in this play takes place in the span of less than a week. Yes, they marry after a few days of meeting each other. Yet, this doesn’t stop people from thinking that this play is the way to have a relationship despite that this play could’ve been used for an episode of The Wire. I mean they did a musical adaptation with this involving street gangs. Also, they both die and perhaps the moral of this could point that it shows how love at first sight and star crossed lovers ideas don’t really work out in real life. Also, that getting into an irresponsible relationship can end very badly. Not to mention, don’t force your daughter into a relationship with a person she may not even like or at least while she’s 13 or she might get into this kind of shit and don’t engage into meaningless violent family feuds.

2. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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What you remember: Other than it being the result of the “Lost Cause” school of history which is known for being rather racist, here’s the following. Southern belle holds on to an old infatuation for years to a guy who doesn’t see her as no more than a friend as well as marries his cousin. All the while when she comes under the affections of a much older, scandalous, and handsomer gentleman who’s willing to fight for a hopeless cause in her honor as well as wait a very long time to get together with her even if it means putting up with her marrying a brother-in-law o the guy she’s infatuated with and her sister’s fiancé. Their relationship is a disaster and disintegrates after the death of their daughter. Girl doesn’t realize that she loved this older man until very close to the end which is too late.

What you forget: Seriously, I do love this story, honestly. However, the relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler was based on Margaret Mitchell’s first marriage to Red Upshaw who was an abusive drunk and a bootlegger with a violent temper. If you want to know why Scarlett and Rhett’s marriage turns out as bad as it did, look no further than Margaret Mitchell’s own life. The scene where Rhett takes up Scarlett in an act of questionable consent was based on an incident that happened to Mitchell. Also, at the beginning, Scarlett is 16 while Rhett is 35, which is kind of creepy but not by 19th century standards (though it may show that Rhett prefers women he could control). Still, whether you like her or hate her, Scarlett O’Hara is one of the more realistic examples of a Southern Belle in literature, especially when it comes to Reconstruction, which forced many women of her status in unsuitable jobs and marriages. Not only that, but while Scarlett may be a scheming and manipulative bitch, she can be quite naïve and innocent about the really nasty stuff going on behind closed doors like Ashley Wilkes being in the KKK for instance (this from the book I kid you not). Still, Scarlett’s fatal flaw in the whole story is her emotional immaturity which had a lot to do with her being more or less trained not to care about people and merely becoming a pretty doll supposed to attract husbands as well as devoid of personal emotions and wishes. As a result, despite being very smart, her amazing intellect is permanently twisted and stunted. Also, she’s not really in love with Ashley but with what he represents such as the old South, Tara, and her teenage years and doesn’t seem to allow time to properly grieve for the end of an era and accept that it’s gone. And because she’s so wrapped up in a delusion, she’s basically incapable of having an adult relationship with the man she loves the most (Rhett) and becoming a mother to her children (she has 3 in the book). Also, you have to know that sure Rhett may be a kind of dashingly handsome man as well as loveable rogue, yet he pushes Scarlett down the stairs, possibly rapes her, co-owns a brothel, spoils Bonnie rotten which leads to her death, and is verbally abusive. Not to mention, for a guy from the South, Rhett seems to be completely oblivious that Scarlett’s love for Ashley is more out of emotional immaturity than anything. Yet, at least I have to give kudos that Gone with the Wind doesn’t pretend that Scarlett and Rhett are utterly emotionally selfish people and their relationship is basically dysfunctional. But you don’t really seem to care.

3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

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What you remember: Orphaned boy named Heathcliff is brought to Wuthering Heights and becomes an inseparable friendship/romance with Catherine Earnshaw which ensues in an all-consuming passion. Yet, they are driven apart due to her brother making him a slave and her desires for social mobility which drive Heathcliff to leave Wuthering Heights in bitterness. When he returns, he finds Catherine married to an Edgar Linton, yet they still love each other despite all odds and her death leaves Heathcliff truly devastated.

What you forget: Let’s face it, Heathcliff is a complete asshole who only returns determined to crush entirely those who thwarted his one chance of happiness. This includes swindling control under the now alcoholic Hindley’s nose as well as seducing Edgar’s sister Isabella and later treating her in a cruel and abusive fashion once married and generally scheming to control everything belonging to both those guys. And Catherine’s death (from childbirth in the novel) does absolutely nothing to redeem him but only extends his vendetta to not only destroy his rivals but also their kids. Not only that, but though Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship is passionate, it’s also unhealthy, twisted, and intensely destructive. It also leads to nothing but ruin to them and almost everyone around them. Not to mention, in the end it drives Catherine to insanity and perhaps destroys her identity and personality. Not only that but she marries nice guy Edgar Linton all because she finds Heathcliff “degrading” and that she wants to go to parties, be rich, or have pretty things. In short, she’s a gold digger who ends up with the right guy for all the wrong reasons. Still, the fact that Heathcliff is a possible sociopath who no girl would want to have (as exemplified with his marriage to Isabella, yeah), this doesn’t stop legions of teenage girls and women seeing him as a romantic hero. And the Sir Laurence Olivier portrayal as well as Stephanie Meyer’s trying to glorify the kind of relationship in Twilight Emily Bronte denounced in her book don’t help either. Seriously, a guy like Heathcliff deserves a restraining order or jail.

4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

What you remember: Married aristocratic woman embarks on a passionate romance and later shacks up with a young officer she just met which leads to family dysfunction, slut shaming, sacrificing basically everything to be with each other, and suicide by train.

What you forget: Don’t get me wrong, Anna Karenina does contain a great love story but unfortunately, it’s not the one you remember. Still, despite Anna being seen as a good kind woman yet with an impulsive streak, I never really cared for her. In fact, I kind of found her pathetic, whiny, unstable, and annoying. Not only that, but despite her love for Vronsky, I don’t get the impression she wants to divorce her pious husband either mostly so she could see their son. Sure Anna’s a victim of double standards, social conventions, as well as spending her life being expected to have no emotions or wishes of her own. Still, Anna constantly fears losing Vronsky which leads to her being quickly disappointed in him as well as totally dependent on him for emotional support. This leads to her self-destruction. I think she should’ve just gone back to Karenin who certainly would’ve forgiven her and taken her back in a heartbeat. He may be an emotionless stiff but at least he tries to do the right thing as well as willing to raise a child by his wife who’s not even his, even if it’s all for self-preservation. Also, despite his faults, you can’t blame him for being deeply upset over his wife’s affair. Vronsky by contrast is a completely self-absorbed prick who flirts with and later rejects a young woman named Kitty who experiences an emotional breakdown. He’s also quite reckless and we’re not sure whether he truly loves her or not. Nevertheless, I think the great love story here is between Kitty and Levin. Sure Levin may prefer farming and hanging out with peasants to fancy balls but he’s a decent guy who really cares about Kitty and at least suffering an emotional breakdown over Vronsky’s rejection gives her time away from home to find herself. And though they go through hardship and a lot of transitions, they are nevertheless happy. Then again, the Tolstoys’ marriage was a lot like this.

5. Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the Opera and Christine in the movie

What you remember: A hideous man named Erik who’s a tortured soul, longing for compassion from another human being, is obsessed with his singing pupil Christine. Unfortunately, she’s engaged to a childhood sweetheart Raoul. So Erik basically proceeds to stalk her, kills at least two people, sabotages a chandelier, kidnaps Christine, blackmails her by threatening to kill her fiancé, and essentially forces a world-renowned opera house to put on his own self-insert fanfiction which he literally inserts himself into. Yet, he lets Christine go with Raoul to live happily ever after as soon as she kisses him.

What you forget: Mostly what I basically said in the plot thanks to the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical such as Erik being hideously ugly (and this role being played by total beefcakes and/or guys with great voices), the obsessively stalking, the killing at least two people, kidnapping Christine and blackmailing her by threatening to kill her fiancé, and the part about getting a world renown opera house to do his own self-insert fanfiction. Of course, the hideous part really isn’t that important as Erik thinks it is but even if you do feel bad for him having a terrible childhood, he’s a bastard nevertheless. Still, that doesn’t nearly get into him having a robotic torture device/death trap, saying that he owns Christine, and the fact that he gets more and more unstable as the story goes on. This guy is a psychotic, jealous, and possessive stalker toward Christine as well as a total control freak with emotional immaturity. Oh, and he also just wants Christine to be his wife so he could treat her like a living doll. Yeah, ladies, being with the Phantom wouldn’t be that great despite how much you tend to ship Christine with him in your fanfiction. You could see why she ended up with Raoul, who may not be that interesting but is a very nice guy who actually cares for her. Let’s face it, fangirls, Erik is in serious need of therapy here. Damn you, Andrew Lloyd Webber!

6. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Dr Zhivago dinner

What you remember: Historic context aside, rich guy falls in love with a raped peasant girl he saw unconscious during a party in 1905. Later he becomes a doctor and marries a girl he grew up with while girl gets together with a Socialist best known as Strelnikov. Later after World War I and during the Russian Revolution, Yuri and Lara meet up with each other again at Yuriatin and have an affair. Yuri gets abducted and forced to serve as an army physician against his will yet he shacks up with Lara when he gets back and starts writing poetry as well as conceive a lovechild. Yet, their happiness doesn’t last when Victor Komarovsky tells the two that Lara’s husband deserts his post and she must leave. Yuri later returns to Moscow and dies of a heart attack after mistaking a woman for his beloved. Their illegitimate daughter is discovered in the end.

What you forget: Yuri and Lara are very messed up people who get together as their world is falling apart. If you read the novel, Yuri not only loses his mom at 11 years old but his alcoholic dad commits suicide by train, which is witnessed by a friend. Also, he first sees Lara (in the book) when he’s about 13 and they don’t see each other again until he’s 19 in 1911 when she shoots a guy and faints at a Christmas party he attends with his foster sister and future wife. Oh, and that Lara was raped by Victor Komarovsky (who drove Yuri’s dad to suicide). Still, while Yuri may not be to blame to abandon his family (due to being kidnapped and drafted), he doesn’t seem to do anything to pursue his family after they get deported or even worried about them. Still, Yuri dumps Tonya hard despite being his foster sister, best friend, lifelong companion and confidant, wife, and mother of his two kids. All because she’s not Lara. Oh, and in the book he has kids to three different women. Not to mention, Yuri chases a woman he was infatuated with since he was a teenager and we’re not sure what Lara feels about him. Not only that, but she’s definitely in love with her husband who’s left her behind to join the Bolsheviks and was sexually abused as a teenager. Let’s just say that shacking up because your spouse is away and won’t come back doesn’t provide a good foundation for a healthy relationship, especially during the Russian Revolution. And they’re going to have a musical on this in 2015 or having their image on a wedding cake.

7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What you remember: Jay Gatsby has a fling with Daisy Fay before being sent off to war and carries a torch for her for the rest of his life. Though he gets rich and holds lavish parties, he still wants to win her back even though she’s now Daisy Buchanan and has a kid. Still, he enlists the help of his neighbor (and her cousin) to set the two up at his house. The two seem to hit it off and when everything seems fine and dandy, she hits a woman with a car and Gatsby takes a manslaughter rap for it. He ends up getting killed by the woman’s husband and dies in his swimming pool.

What you forget: For one, while Gatsby is a self-made man, he’s a bootlegger and a crook who left his poor dirt farmer family behind and never came back, but at least he’s a great old sport compared to the racist, philandering, hypocritical, selfish, and abusive Tom Buchanan. Still, this book might as well be called She’s Just Not That Into You. Sure Daisy may love Gatsby but she just isn’t in love with him in love enough to dump Tom for him since it might mean financial insecurity, abandoning her daughter, and the fear of being abused and controlled by Gatsby the way Tom does to her. Yeah, you could see why she won’t leave her husband even if she’s not in love with him. Also, she’s kind of depressed and plays dumb as well as careless and shallow. And it’s her reckless driving that seal Gatsby’s impending doom. Not to mention, her childhood innocence is a major character flaw in that she can’t take responsibility for herself either to better her life or change the way her actions hurt others. Still, even if Gatsby had his way he would’ve never been happy with Daisy for he expected too much from her, wanting (and perhaps forcing) her to be the perfect memory he obsessed over. Nor does he know who the real Daisy truly is. Basically Gatsby’s fatal flaw was that he wanted what he could never have and he’s in total denial when Daisy picks Tom over him and it’s obvious she won’t come back to him. Alas, that poor son of a bitch.

8. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

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What you remember: Girl has hellish childhood growing up with an abusive aunt and a boarding school of horrors. Becomes governess to a rich guy’s kid and falls in love with her boss. Boss reciprocates and they get engaged yet their wedding is cancel because they guy is still married to a mad woman in the attic. She leaves him dates another guy and goes back to find that the house burned down and the rich guy’s wife is killed. They marry and live happily ever after.

What you forget: Jane Eyre should’ve never went back to Mr. Rochester. Seriously, he’s not only several years older than her and her boss, flirts with another well-off woman just to make her jealous, gaslights and sexually harasses her, is already married to another mentally unstable woman he keeps in an attic which Jane finds out about at the altar from someone else, and asks her to become his mistress afterwards which Jane refuses. Yet, that’s all right because Jane goes back to him after Mr. Rochester goes blind in a house fire and his wife is dead. Seriously, what the fuck? If I found out that my fiance kept a mentally unstable wife in the attic while I was just seconds away from saying “I do,” I’d just go bridezilla all over the place, dump the guy, leave the altar in a spectacular angry memorable fashion, and never look back as well as perhaps use the reception for some kind of homeless dinner if I’m paying for it. Let’s just say the Disney princesses are much better role models for relationships than Jane Eyre. I mean finding out on your wedding day that your fiance keeps a mentally unstable wife in the attic is worse than cheating. Then again, she probably married him for the money and that he needs someone to take care of him.

9. Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov

What you remember: Creepy guy falls in love with pre-teen, marries the girl’s mother, and has her killed. Guy takes stepdaughter to use for his own sexual purposes as well as travel around  until she reveals she’s having an affair with another guy. Creepy guy is devastated and goes to prison (or so as he says since it’s an unreliable narrator).

What you forget: Honestly, most of us are familiar that this book isn’t really a love story (except in Humbert Humbert’s own mind as an unreliable narrator) as it is more about pedophilia and sexual abuse, but I think it’s worth mentioning since there’s a group of people who think it is and it has disturbing implications. Yet, it’s because of Humbert Humbert’s unreliable narration that some fans of this book think that young Dolores Haze is a sassy, precocious teenager who wears a lot of vintage 1950s clothes and spends a lot of time eating lollipops, sunbathing, and crushing older men. The girl in the novel is actually an average teenage girl who ends up orphaned, raped, and kidnapped. She has more in common with what many victims would have on Dateline: To Catch a Predator than anything. Yet, this doesn’t stop it from being the inspiration for Lolicon and referring to Lolita as a sexual fetish for underage girls nor does it help that actual child molesters and pedophiles consist of a good chunk of the fan base for this book. Still, it’s because we have fans who sympathize with Humbert Humbert and think this story is a beautiful tragic love story, we have people who think this story glorifies pedophilia which wasn’t Nabokov’s intentions (he wrote it to condemn pedophilia). Rather he just though his readers would be smart enough to see through Humbert Humbert’s attempts at gaining sympathy and realize what a sick, despicable, and twisted bastard he is. He was wrong and probably should’ve written the novel in third person or perhaps through Dolores Haze’s point of view.

10. The Iliad by Homer

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What you remember: Trojan prince Paris says that Aphrodite is the most beautiful goddess during an argument at a wedding so he could have ultimate love, goes to Sparta to see King Menelaus in the guise of diplomatic mission, kidnaps his wife Helen, and starts a war that goes on for 10 years.

What you forget: Say what you want about Odysseus infidelities in The Odyssey, but they were with goddesses which he couldn’t turn down and at least he was trying to get home to his beloved wife he hadn’t seen in years. Sure people may say that The Odyssey doesn’t make a good love story but it does. You can’t say the same about The Illiad in which most adaptations of the Trojan War has the relationship between Paris and Helen portrayed as such. Still, whether Helen left Sparta willingly or not is ambiguous yet it’s no denying that she has a miserable time in Troy filled with loneliness, self-distaste, and regret as well as conflicted. The Trojans hate her by the end of the war and has more respect for Priam and Hector than she does for Paris. Oh, and when Paris dies, she’s sent to be with Deiphobus but this relationship doesn’t last due to the sack of Troy and all. Still, she’s probably much happier to return to Menelaus and Sparta by the end. Paris, on the other hand, is seen by other Trojans as a philandering, cowardly jerk who’s responsible for the war who everyone wants dead. Also, he may not have been nice to Helen either. Nevertheless, I’m not sure if you can say that Paris and Helen love each other at all. Still, there are better love stories in The Illiad than between Helen and Paris which doesn’t seem much. I mean you have the marriage between Hector and Andromache (a guy who’s fighting so his son could live and his wife won’t be sold into slavery) or perhaps the relationship of Achilles and Patrolcus (if you want to see it that way but you really can’t tell with these relationships in Greek mythology. Still, Achilles took Patrolcus’ death hard).

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