Whether you’re in a relationship, on your own, or somewhere in between this Valentine’s Day, it’s not difficult to find some solace in the triumphs and defeats of great romances from across the Western literary canon. A brief survey course:
In ancient Greece, Odysseus and Penelope were reunited against all odds after twenty years apart — though Odysseus didn’t remain exactly faithful during those years. Some more recent interpretations of the Odyssey muse that Penelope’s avoidance of her suitors’ advances could have had much more to do with politicking than devotion (see Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad), but Penelope is traditionally celebrated as an icon of marital fidelity.
Achilles and Patroclus are perhaps the most tragic pair in Homer’s chronicles of the Trojan War. Though never specifically identified as a romantic couple in the Iliad, they’re generally accepted as a classical example of homosocial or homosexual love. In her (modern) poetry, Louise Glück argues that it was Achilles’ love for Patroclus, rather than his heel, that doomed him to mortality after Patroclus’ death:
[…] In his tent, Achilles
grieved with his whole being
and the gods saw
he was a man already dead, a victim
of the part that loved,
the part that was mortal.
Fast-forwarding a few thousand years through the courtly romances and star-cross’d (i.e. doomed) pairs we know so well (Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo and Juliet, etc.), we’ll stop at the English lads and ladies that frequently top the best literary couples lists: Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy, (Emily) Brontë’s Cathy and Heathcliff, and (Charlotte) Brontë’s Jane and Mr. Rochester. On closer examination, they’re all a bit dysfunctional (cartoonist Kate Beaton hits some home runs in this category) — or downright creepy, as Kate Bush highlights so well in her classic homage to Wuthering Heights.
Edging into modern literature, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando might be the most interesting romantic figure of all, living hundreds of years as both a male and a female. At one point Orlando declares herself nature’s bride, bypassing the rest of humanity entirely.
On to America, where Scarlett and Rhett are always a popular couple, but also fall quite solidly into the dysfunctional category ("I loved you but I couldn't let you know it” is always a nice line to throw out there). If you’re in the mood for a good cry over a deserving pair of ill-fated lovers, Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain features one of the most heartbreaking duos in contemporary literature (and film).
Modern couples across the Pacific seem to have just as much trouble finding happiness; Haruki Murakami specializes in this field. For a quick read, check out his “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning,” which concludes with “a sad story, don’t you think?...” For a longer version, dig into 1Q84, which chronicles the paths of the central pair, Aomame and Tengo, over nearly 1,000 pages.
I won’t ruin the accomplishment of reaching that ending, but I will say that there’s good reason to put in the effort to get there: characters move forward, together, but without a conclusion in the traditional sense. Which is actually perhaps the greatest type of love to encounter in literature, and elsewhere — not burning out tragically, but finding and loving another (dysfunctionalities and all) without the sense of an ending.