What makes love in literature compelling? Too often, fiction focuses on romantic relationships that are difficult, tragic, unrequited or even obsessive. The types of relationships that fit these categories can seem uniform: romantic, intimate, and commonly featuring an end goal of marriage. The love that characters might feel for family or friends, on the other hand, is frequently relegated to a footnote or diversionary subplot. However, in literature, as in real life, love that is not romantic can be just as challenging, doomed and ultimately captivating.
Although the focus in The Great Gatsby is Gatsby’s unrequited love for Daisy, it is Nick’s devotion to Gatsby that ultimately prevails. The homoerotic undertones of Nick’s narration have often been discussed, but even if Nick’s feelings are read as purely platonic, the extent of their depths are undeniable. When Nick writes that Gatsby believes in the green light, we feel the warmth with which Nick believes in him.
Reading about characters in horrifying circumstances can also tell us a lot about their relationships with loved ones. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, a mother’s love for her daughters is portrayed with unflinching, sometimes devastating clarity. The after-effects of slavery on a family are shown physically through the “tree” of scars on mother Sethe, and the supernatural presence of a young woman, known only as “Beloved”. The use of ghosts in this novel show in harrowing detail the lengths that a mother will go to for her children, as Sethe mourns the death of one daughter, and struggles in her relationship with her surviving daughter, haunted all the while by the mysterious “Beloved”.
A similar presentation of familial love occurs in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which follows the protagonist Theo after his mother’s death in an explosion at a museum. Rather than the ghost in Morrison’s novel, the haunting grief and love Theo feels for his mother is represented by a physical object. Theo leaves the rubble in a daze, clinging to a small picture of a chained bird: Fabritius’ The Goldfinch. For the rest of the novel, the memory of his mother is tied to the stolen picture, which could be read as metaphorically switching places with her in the life-altering instant of the explosion. At one point, Theo looks at the painting and considers the “slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint but also feather and bone”. The small, shackled bird has transformed Theo’s own isolation, and the hope of freedom which it offers becomes the last talisman of his mother’s love.
A picture stands in for love again in The Picture of Dorian Gray, this time in the guise of narcissistic self-obsession. For Oscar Wilde’s Dorian, a portrait of him in his youthful prime represents all that he holds dearest: beauty, sensuality and immortality. As Dorian’s vanity grows more destructive, however, the picture begins to register its devastating effects. The changing portrait embodies narcissism, revealing it to be one of the most powerful and dangerous types of love.
It is no surprise that all of the books mentioned involve some form of tragedy or heartbreak. Reading about love is most interesting when the characters involved have something to lose. But the qualities that so often make a love story great – risk, obsession, grief, and devotion – apply to non-romantic relationships too, and deserve the same recognition. If more attention is paid to the love that might not feature on a Valentine’s Day card, a greater diversity of writing can be discovered.
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