One of the great joys of reading is that it enables us to experience situations and emotions on the safety of the page that we may not have the chance—or the inclination—to experience in life. That’s how so many bluestockings fall in love time and again with fictional characters whose romantic trials stir our souls, touch our hearts…and teach us to live and love more wisely after we’ve closed our books and returned to the real world. In honor of Valentine’s Day on February 14, Bas Bleu’s editors have put together a list of fourteen love lessons that we’ve learned from some of our favorite literary classics. As always, we welcome your additions and suggestions in the comments below!
Emma, Jane Austen: The irrepressible Miss Woodhouse is graceful, charming, good-hearted…and nosy and snobbish and a know-it-all. And no one knows her better or loves her more than her Mr. Knightley. Yet even as he cherishes Emma’s effervescent shenanigans, Knightley doesn’t hesitate to censure her if she behaves irresponsibly or treats other people poorly.
Love Lesson #1: The right romantic partner should appreciate your quirks and love you for them…but be willing to call you out on your bad behavior.
The Odyssey, Homer: When Helen, the beautiful wife of King Menelaus, runs away with Paris of Troy, Odysseus of Ithaca is among the Greek kings obliged to join Menelaus in retrieving her. Odysseus leaves his wife, Penelope, behind with their son Telemachus on what becomes a twenty-year “business trip” to the Trojan War and back again. In his absence Penelope—who doesn’t know if her husband is dead or alive—must run an island-nation, raise a future king, and stave off proposals from a legion of suitors. When Odysseus does finally return, he does so in disguise…only to find his wife has remained faithful to him the entire time.
Love Lesson #2: Keep your eye on the long game, resist temptation, and be prepared to make some tough choices; eventually you’ll find your way back to each other.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë: Devoted to one another since childhood, Heathcliff and Cathy are soul mates in every sense of the word. But the same fire that fuels their passion ignites anger and resentment, leading them to hurt a lot of people—Edgar, Isabelle, Hareton, Linton, Nelly, and young Catherine—in their battle of hearts and wills.
Love Lesson #3: Passion is wonderful…unless your pursuit of it damages you or the people around you.
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens: Orphaned by his parents, young Pip is loved and mentored by his sister’s husband, Joe, who hopes the boy will one day become a blacksmith like him. But Pip loves the wealthy, beautiful Estella, so when he comes into a mysterious inheritance, Pip abandons Joe to become a gentleman worthy of the woman he loves. But in Estella’s eyes, money won is no match for money born: She abandons Pip to marry a rich nobleman with the right connections and a terrible temper.
Love Lesson #4: Money can’t buy you love.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë: With the exception of her school friend Helen, poor orphaned Jane Eyre has been unloved throughout her life. So when she captures the heart of brooding, wealthy Edward Rochester, it feels like a miracle of epic proportions: an offer of love and protection from a charismatic man who respects her keen mind and can save her from a life of miserable poverty. But when Jane learns Mr. Rochester’s hand in marriage isn’t his to give, she listens to her conscience and marches right back into loveless poverty rather than abandon her integrity. (Hint: It all works out in the end.)
Love Lesson #5: Never sacrifice your values for security.
Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand: Cyrano is a skilled fighter, poet, musician, and all-around awesome guy. But for all his charisma and achievements, he’s terribly self-conscious about his large nose—so self-conscious, in fact, that he decides he’s too ugly to warrant the love of his beautiful cousin Roxane. For her part, Roxane is keen on the handsome but dim Christian, whom Cyrano agrees to help woo his lady love to make her happy. Through letters penned by Cyrano, Roxane falls deeply in love with the man she believes Christian to be…not realizing the words and feelings are those of her dear cousin and friend. By the time she finds out, it’s too late.
Love Lesson #6: If you’re not willing to take a chance on love, you’ll miss out.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling: In the modern-but-already-classic Harry Potter series, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger spend their formative years helping Harry battle Voldemort’s dark forces. Together Hermione and Ron weather danger, despair, and the deaths of their allies—not to mention the myriad trials of adolescence—while trying to convince themselves they’re too different to ever be more than friends. He’s goofy and athletic; she’s intense and brainy. Ultimately a battle for the fate of the world brings them to the brink of death…and finally into each other’s arms.
Love Lesson #7: The love of your life may have been by your side all along.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: In his youth, Jimmy Gatz fell for beautiful Southern debutante Daisy Fay. When he ships off to war, she promises to wait…but doesn’t, marrying millionaire Tom Buchanan and breaking Jimmy’s heart in the process. And so Jimmy Gatz reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, making a bootlegging fortune that he devotes to winning back Daisy. He buys the house across the harbor, befriends her cousin Nick and her best friend Jordan, throws extravagant parties to get her attention…unaware until the tragic end that he’s built his entire life around a woman who will never love him the way he loves her.
Love Lesson #8: Obsession isn’t healthy. Sometimes you just have to let it go.
The Aeneid, Virgil: As wars go, the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans sparked more than one lesson in romance. After leaving Troy, heroic Aeneas—who was prophesied to found a great race of people, the Romans—sails to Italy, where the queen Dido reigns over Carthage. Thanks to some epic meddling by the goddesses Venus and Juno, Dido falls hard for Aeneas…who eventually chooses following his destiny over marrying Dido. The devastated queen commits suicide, and Carthage eventually becomes Rome’s great rival.
Love Lesson #9: Heartbreak hurts. But life will go on. Remember how awesome you were before he sailed into town!
Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy: Gabriel Oak is a poor but ambitious young shepherd when he meets Bathsheba Everdene, who rejects his offer of marriage in an effort to preserve her independence. Soon after, their fortunes change drastically, but Fate brings them together again as employer (Bathsheba) and employee (Gabriel). As they endeavor to run Bathsheba’s family farm, their friendship deepens—even though Bathsheba’s romantic attentions are occupied by wealthier and more dashing suitors. It takes a tragedy or two to wake her up, but Bathsheba eventually realizes that Gabriel is the only man worthy of her heart and her trust.
Love Lesson #10: Don’t discount the quiet, steady guy who is always honest with you and shares your interests.
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne: When Hester Prynne conceives a child from an extramarital affair, her Puritanical neighbors in seventeenth-century Boston try her for adultery. Hester refuses to reveal her partner in sin, choosing instead to suffer the town’s censure and disdain alone. When her presumed-dead husband shows up, his only concern is uncovering the identity of Hester’s lover, leaving his estranged wife to raise her daughter in isolation and poverty. Meanwhile, the child’s father grapples silently with his guilt, unwilling to risk his standing in the community by admitting his role in the affair.
Love Lesson #11: Always have a birth-control plan.
Othello, William Shakespeare: A Moor who has risen to the rank of general in the Venetian army, Othello falls in love and elopes with the fair Desdemona, daughter of a powerful Venetian senator. There’s just one problem: Iago, Othello’s ensign, is also in love with Desdemona—but his proposal of marriage was rejected. Bitter that Othello succeeded where he failed, the crafty Iago sets out to destroy the fledgling marriage by convincing Othello his wife is unfaithful. What unfolds is a tragedy of epic proportions, as Iago’s machinations drive Othello to anger, violence, and ultimately murder.
Love Lesson #12: Jealousy will destroy a relationship.
North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell: When a crisis of conscience forces her minister father to uproot his family from their bucolic life in southern England, Margaret Hale finds herself transported to the gritty northern mill town of Melton. There, she clashes with mill owner John Thornton about the rights of workers and his views on unions, even though she secretly admires his success as a self-made man. Thornton falls in love with intelligent, spirited Margaret at first sight, but his pride and her prejudice keep them apart. In a twist on nineteenth-century gender roles, they eventually come together when Thornton recognizes Margaret’s business acumen and she finally sees the soft heart beneath his brusque exterior.
Love Lesson #13: A good partner won’t try to change you but will bring out the best in you.
Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Driven to discover the secret of life, young scientist Victor Frankenstein sets out to create a living man from the body parts of others. He succeeds, but is so horrified by his creation that he immediately rejects the Monster. Not surprisingly, the Monster doesn’t take kindly to being cast out alone in the world, where he is considered a freak of nature. He begs Dr. Frankenstein to create a companion for him, and when he doesn’t, the Monster kills Frankenstein’s fiancée.
Love Lesson #14: Even science can’t create the perfect man. Be realistic!
Happy Valentine’s Day, bluestockings!