Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. The stores are filled with flowers and chocolate and those stupid message hearts that taste like chalk. Which, if you’re in a relationship, is great. But when you’re not in a relationship, it can be absolute torture. As if February isn’t miserable enough by itself, you’re surrounded by happy couples and mementos of love. And even CC2K, usually a safe haven for reliably cynical pop culture dissection, is jumping on the bandwagon with a weeklong celebration of all things sexual—which isn’t so great if you’re not having any.
If the aforementioned rant sounds suspiciously familiar, you’re in luck: though television and film and virtually every other medium may be saturated with all things Valentine by February 14, you’ve still got a lot of options within the literary world that remind us—sometimes unexpectedly—that sometimes, it’s good to be single.
Here are just a few examples:
Heathcliff and Catherine of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights may be remembered as one of the greatest literary love stories of all the time, but if you haven’t checked out the book since high school, I recommend reading it again. In actuality, it is the ultimate anti-relationship novel. Selfish, self-absorbed Catherine spurns Heathcliff to marry Edgar Linton, the milquetoast-but-wealthy boy from across the moor. In vengeance, Heathcliff destroys everything and everyone that has wronged him—including, inadvertently, Catherine herself. In the years afterwards, Heathcliff becomes even more obsessed with Catherine, even seeing her ghost, until he mysteriously—and suddenly—dies, alone and unloved. Bronte does tack a happy ending onto the story, involving a romance between Catherine’s daughter and her cousin, Hareton. (Apparently, kissing cousins weren’t a bad thing back then—guess the options out there in the English countryside were pretty limited.) But it’s Heathcliff and Catherine that everyone remembers, and by the time the book ends they’re both dead, destroyed by the very love that consumed them.
The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer: Yes, you read that right. One of the most popular teen romance series of all time is actually a cautionary tale about abusive relationships and the type of all-consuming love that not only kills you, but destroys all vestiges of ambition and personality. The series focuses on the love story of Bella, a normal teenage girl, and Edward, a vampire. Aside from the obvious problems (she’s 17; he’s 104 and undead), Edward leaves a lot to be desired for a girl of the 21st century. He’s controlling, overprotective, and jealous—going as far as having his sister “kidnap” Bella when he is away from home to prevent her from seeing her best friend, Jacob. But what’s worse is Bella’s complete and utter inability to see this: the more of a jackass Edward becomes, the more she loves him. Instead, she sees herself—being weaker, slower, and more fallible than Edward—as inferior. So rather than going off to college and finding her own way in the world, she stays behind and gets married to Edward. She later gives birth to a human/vampire hybrid child in a scene so graphic and disturbing that it could make even the most maternally inclined among us think, “Maybe I’ll adopt instead.” Bella becomes a vampire, and they’re set to spend the rest of eternity together as creatures of the night. And maybe this all sounds romantic—if you’re seventeen. But once you have a few more years (and a few more relationship experiences) under your belt, you realize that the idea of giving up your own dreams and ambitions—and life—for someone else really isn’t romantic at all. century.
As you may recall, there actually was a romance at the center of George Orwell’s 1984. Winston Smith, a low-ranking Party member, begins a passionate, forbidden affair with a beautiful woman named Julia. But they are caught, arrested, and tortured. Now this is point in any romantic novel where love would conquer all, where the lovers would be subjected to the worst kinds of tortures but still refuse to betray one another. But this is why 1984 isn’t remembered as a romance. Julia cracks first, betraying her lover the first day she’s imprisoned. Winston holds on for weeks, clinging desperately to his love for Julia. But when he is threatened with his worst fear—rats, and hungry ones at that—he begs that they torture Julia rather than him. Once the Party establishes that they have complete and utter control over their lives, they are released back into the world—devoid of their desire for one another or to rebel against the Party. And really, isn't destroying one's spirit a worse fate than death, anyway?
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is remembered as many things—but a love story is not one of them. Edna Pontellier is an unhappily married woman in late 19th century Louisiana. Her husband is kind but inattentive, and she feels apathetic toward her children. As she spends a summer with her family at a holiday resort, she begins a process of self-discovery that leads her away from traditional feminine norms. She moves out of her family home while her husband and children are away. She rediscovers a childhood passion for art. She also falls deeply in love with a younger man named Robert Lebrun. But Robert is unable to go against societal traditions, and he leaves her. Realizing that she is alone and that she will never be happy in such a confining world, Edna drowns herself. So much for happily ever after!
And speaking of suicide, let’s talk about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The greatest romance of all time? Hardly! Everyone knows the plot, so I won’t go into that. But let’s look at the facts. Romeo and Juliet knew each other all of about two minutes before they declared their undying love to one another. Romeo was a bit of a player, totally “in love” with a girl named Rosaline—who, since she wanted nothing to do with him, was apparently a little smarter than Juliet—when the play begins. And Juliet herself was all of thirteen when she fell for Romeo. Thirteen. (I dated a guy when I was thirteen, too. He mooned my brother, I slammed my front door on him, and that’s how our relationship ended. Thank God I didn’t kill myself over him—I could have been stuck with “butt boy” for all eternity!) The real tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is that they really are just stupid kids who probably would have gotten over their infatuation in a few months—or when Rosaline came back into the picture, whichever came first. And what the hell kind of a great love is that?
The lesson here: If these are the kinds of endings that relationships bring, maybe we should all stick to pornography and vibrators.
Selected Book Releases, February 9-15
Fool by Christopher Moore—The latest from humorist Moore is a retelling of King Lear.
Lethal Legacy by Linda Fairstein—The latest addition to the Alex Cooper series of crime novels.
The Silent Man by Alex Berenson—Spy-thriller about a CIA agent on the trailer of Russian attackers.
Gladiator: A True Story of ‘Roids, Rage, and Redemption by Dan Clark—Clark, the former star of American Gladiators, tells the story of his battle with steroids.
The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 by Thomas E. Ricks—The Washington Post’s senior Pentagon correspondent tackles the Iraq War under General Petraeus and the implications for the future.