Skepticism in romantic literature (Why I'm over it and you should be, too)

I took a Shakespeare and Film class in college. We were studying Much Ado About Nothing (a personal fave) when a student asked how to know if a play is a tragedy or comedy. My professor gave a definition that blew my mind in it’s simplicity: Typically, a tragedy will end in a death and a comedy ends in wedding.

As simplified as it was (it was a general ed class with maybe two english majors other than me), it’s not a bad way to differentiate. He also said that most people prefer tragedies because they mimic real life. It’s nice to stop at the wedding before anything else bad can happen. It’s nice to distract from the realization that all of our plays will eventually end as tragedies. As I get older, though, I appreciate those comedies more and more. Here’s why.It’s easy to create characters and make them doomed because don’t most people already believe they’re doomed? It’s harder to effectively convince the reader that this one might make it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a sucker for cheesy romances and getting my heart ripped out by an occasional Nicholas Sparks novel. Everyone secretly loves for things to work out in the end. Oftentimes, in writing, this is the easy out. Something about studying literature forces you to sort of stop expecting things to work out well, maybe even gets you angry when things work out too well. Why? We want real. We want raw. We want complete. We don’t want to be given what we want.

Enter this anthology.

I was assigned My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, about three months ago. I was to split into three reading assignments while reading several other collections that were relatively similar. What I’m saying is I’M READING A LOT OF LOVE STORIES RIGHT NOW. Like, 119. This is my life now.

Spoiler alert: Most literary love stories don’t work out. They’re about fleeting affairs, crumbling marriages, fun stuff like that. I’m gonna tell you something that I didn’t know. Stories about love don’t have to be about falling in love. Eugenides puts it perfectly in the intro when he says that, “Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.” Especially when they’re curated by Eugenides himself, author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.

I read the intro and felt reinforced by this. I, an elite student of the arts, would not be fooled by convenient endings and hoaky tricks. My responses to the first couple months of reading the anthology followed suit with this attitude. I’d thought I was immuned to happy endings because satisfying is easy and art is best when it imitates real life, right?

And then I thought of something funny. Aren’t I in love? Aren’t most of trying to fall or be or stay in love? How can I be so sure that I know everything about how a love story ends and also think I know anything about my own love story? Is there a caveat for this, where you can be skeptical and aloof and also head over heels? I don’t think so. Love doesn’t exist singularly. The human condition does not exclude this for the sake of our own pompous taste.

Eugenides has another million dollar quote in that intro. He says, “I’ve read ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ countless times over the years and my interpretation continually changes. When I was younger (and more sophisticated), I was sure the ending was ironic. The emotional deadness of the lovers’ marriages was sure to infect their own new relationship in time. Reading the story now, older (and more innocent), I couldn’t help finding in Chekhov’s last line a glimmer of optimism. The story seemed to me, this time through, to be about the miracle you come across every once in a long while: two unexceptional people, for no demonstrable reasons, being exceptionally in love.” Reading these sentences slowly infected my view of love stories as I read.

I didn’t notice this change until I reread my first critical response paper to prepare to write my third. As I was rereading my response to one ending, I thought to myself that the ending implied hopefulness. Then I continued reading. Just two months ago, I had said the exact opposite!

I had found myself more drawn to the stories in the last chunk of reading that ended with the sort of “glimmering optimism” Eugenides made seem possible. I will acknowledge that this may be due to the fact that I was drowning in bleak love stories, but I think it’s something else. Don’t you think it’s sort of bold, and maybe even brave, to present a realistic and flawed love and allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to think it might just work out? A well written love story makes the reader face the things in their own life that seem necessary to ignore sometimes. Most of them won’t work out, just like statistically, only half of our marriages will work out.

But don’t we keep trying anyway? And isn’t that kind of beautiful? I’m so love storied out that I’m starting to see dooming the love as the easy way out. It’s harder to convince the reader that, through everything else, these two might make it. I think I will amend my previous judgement and say that what a love story really needs is complexity. Everything else is fair game.

If you want to feel all the feels you have in you and be affirmed that love is ABSOLUTE GARBAGE and still worth writing about, I would wholeheartedly recommend this collection to you.

xx, Tab

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