5 Literary Couples and the Crazy Things They've Taught Us About Romance

This article was written by Chris Ciolli.

From childhood on we’re fed dangerous half-truths and misconceptions about love and romance via literature, cinema and mainstream culture. I love-hate fairy tales, romance novels, and so-called chick flicks. They’re a guilty pleasure that cause many adults, myself included, pain in the form of ridiculous comparisons and expectations and too often provoke unhealthy cravings for drama and/ idealistic love based on the crazy things that literary couples have managed to convince us are romantic.

Lesson 1: Suicide is Romantic–Romeo and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

In one of Shakespeare’s most criticized, but but best known plays we learn that when your latest crush is killed in a ridiculously preventable, but tragic turn of events, it’s okay to commit suicide—what’s more, death is the only “liveable” option if our young lovers can’t be together. Heaven forbid, cue dramatic gasp here, that either one live to love another. After all, Romeo wasn’t seriously infatuated with Rosaline at the beginning of the play , married to Juliet in the middle, and dead at the end, all of this taking place in the span of less than a week. No sir, hearts aren’t fickle, and feelings never change….especially when you’re talking about teenagers hyped up on hormones in an era when marriage was a necessary step on the path to tumbling into bed together for well-to-do-youth. So there it is, now we know, when things don’t work out with our significant others, however short-lived the commitment, we can always mix up some poison or whip out a medieval dagger….and hope to be immortalized as lovers that were star-crossed enough to go that extra mile.

Lesson 2: Love is Cruel–Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Not willing to give up marrying for money to be with the one you love and lust after? No problem, justhook up with the well-off guy and torture yourself and the one you really love with all of your energy until your dying breath, not to mention making everyone else in your immediate vicinity unhappy forkicks. How tragically romantic! How or why the level of dysfunction and cruelty in Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship still has the power to make me (or anyone else for that matter) sigh like alovesick adolescent, I don’t know, but it does. I adore Wuthering Heights even if Heathcliff is way past verging-on psychotic and Cathy is a greedy, superficial and annoying indecisive harpy and the mentally healthy part of my brain argues that their selfish and unkind behavior shows the absence, not the presence of true love.

Lesson 3: Great Romance Means Great Sacrifice–Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer.

We all know that love and relationships require some degree of sacrifice, but apparently, true love means leaving behind your life as you know it, your friends, your family and even your humanity. Who’d’ve thunk? In the real world, Bella and Edward’s all-encompassing obsession for each other might land them in a mental institution and has little to redeem it as a realistic example of a long-lasting loving relationship even if they’ll conceivably live forever. In the first few books Edward acts like a stalker, and Bella’s obsession with him is seriously self-destructive. That said, if I’m being fair, I, a real person, not a character in a book, did leave behind friends, family and the life I knew for love, but on the bright side, I didn’t have to become a vampire. Of course who says being undead is any worse than having people refer to you as an expat?

Lesson 4: Lies and Attempted Polygamy Don’t Rule Out a Happy Ending–Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

You’ve got to hand it to Charlotte Bronte. She somehow manages to convince us that it’s “romantic” for a crusty old guy to take advantage of his superior experience and socioeconomic position and seduce the untrained, innocent, and fairly clueless hired help. After all, Jane is plain, and Mr. Rochester wants to marry little ol’ her! No matter that he’s her boss, and has a deranged wife that wants to kill them both and almost succeeds in marrying Jane while still married to her craziness, up in the attic. Forget that he consistently tricks, manipulates and lies to Jane. When his wife burns his mansion to the ground and leaves him blind, somehow time apart, plus Mr. Rochester’s unhappy circumstances equal happily ever after for the unlikely pair.

Lesson 5: True love conquers all–Odysseus and Penelope in The Odyssey by Homer.

Odysseus and Penelope are often used as an example of love overcoming all odds. Of course if those odds include distance, an extended absence (20+ years) and your husband sleeping with a goddess and a sorceress while you’re stuck on the island fending off suitors that are eating you out of house and home, most of us were unlikely to stick it out, even for a wily adventurer like Odysseus. Penelope had over 100 suitors. We’re expected to accept that she still held out for her hubby, and took him back, no questions asked after over two decades away from her. For most modern readers, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Maybe Penelope was intended as some sort of ancient archetype of the loyal wife…because it may not be very romantic, but today’s relationships rarely stand up to extended absences, distance, or infidelities, and definitely can’t take all three.

Jumping to a Less Romantic Conclusion

Just because I’m picking on the couples that lead so many of us astray doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy their stories, the skillful writing used to describe them or swoon over them a little or a lot—it just means for me, the takeaway doesn’t make for realistic expectations and general emotional well being as regard love and romantic relationships.

In the end, the point isn’t to stop reading stories that teach us whacked out lessons about love….it’s to have a grip on reality in our own relationships that allows us to enjoy our lives without constantly comparing them to the things that happen in the wild scenarios writers come up with to entertain us.


A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

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  1. Susan Sundwall

    Ah, but doesn’t it make you crazy glad not to be any of them? We can look down from the high plain of our own excellent and healthy love relationships and feel so – Whew! That’s so not us! Love your post.

    1. Chris Jean Ciolli

      Yup, I do feel better sometimes by examining the “crazy” that so often passes as “romantic.” Good point and thanks for reading!

  2. Anonymous

    Thoroughly enjoyed your view on the “great” lovers in literature. As an old married woman myself, I often look and characters (in both books and movies) and wonder why in the world they don’t get a clue and walk away. I guess it is kind of like the clueless characters in horror flicks. If you’ve been experiencing strange happenings and/or repetitive slaughters in your home and there is a strange noise in your basement, barn, attic, etc., don’t go check it out… just leave town. Some characters just never learn, but we keep on reading and watching.

    1. Chris Jean Ciolli

      Love the parallel about horror books and movies, and I don’t know about you, but sometimes I watch to see if my predictions come to fruition. There’s something about being able to predict that’s so satisfying!

  3. T. Lloyd Reilly

    Great read! Another look at what most people just take as romantic. It is refreshing to read something that shows the real world reality about classic love and the practical explanatiopn on why it is called…fiction.

    1. Chris Jean Ciolli

      Thanks for reading and commenting, T. Lloyd! I’m honored, as I love your posts here. Fiction is one of my favorite escapes. The key is being able to differentiate, and sometimes I’ll admit I have trouble myself 😉

  4. Love as a Forest: Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso - Read.Learn.Write

    […] A while back, Chris Ciolli wrote a piece about literary couples and what they have taught us about love. I’d like to think Ariosto would have appreciated her take on the topic. Surely, he would have laughed and nodded his head, because love is a funny business. We need people who can see the strange humor in it and who aren’t afraid to show us how we’re acting in an elaborated, drastic way. […]

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