As Princeton professor William Gleason says in this clip from Love Between the Covers, tragic and bittersweet love stories have “tended to grab the high ground” in terms of cultural prestige.  “We tend to think of those as somehow being more pure, being more intelligent, being truer,” Gleason explains.

Why do so many great love stories, past and present, end on a tragic or bittersweet note?  And how have popular romance authors responded to this tradition, revising or critiquing it?  Can an HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now) ending seem just as intelligent, pure, and true, grabbing that cultural high ground?


Tragic love stories often tell us that reason and passion can’t be reconciled.  Yet such stories can be so compelling, we forget the lessons they’re trying to teach.  The love affair of Paolo and Francesca, retold in Dante’s Inferno, is a classic example of this paradox.  Here’s a translation of their tale, along with a commentary explaining the poet’s theological lesson.  Seven hundred years later, which seems more convincing?

Paolo et Francesca by Alexandre Cabanel

"Dante and Virgilio encounter the lustful sinners..."


The myth of Narcissus, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, combines two tragic love stories:  the unrequited love of the nymph Echo for the beautiful sixteen-year-old Narcissus, and of course the impossible love of Narcissus for himself!  This prose translation of Ovid’s Latin verse tells their stories. And here is Caravaggio’s great painting of Narcissus staring at his reflection.  What insights might this ancient myth still hold into the dangers faced by teenagers in love?  Does Caravaggio’s decision to leave Echo out of his painting change the meaning of the story?

“What they love is love and being in love,” Denis de Rougemont says of medieval lovers Tristan and Isolde—which is to say, maybe they don’t actually love each other at all!  In his article “The Myth of Romantic Love,” Catholic writer Michael Novak summarizes de Rougemont’s critique of tragic love stories.

Tristan an Iseult by Herbert Draper

Rendering of Tristan and Isolde by Mac Harshberger


To make up your own mind about Tristan and Isolde, check out the University of Rochester’s “Camelot Project," which summarizes the story and its many retellings in fiction, poetry, and film.  While you read, why not listen to these excerpts from Wagner’s groundbreaking opera version?  Music rarely gets more romantic than this.


Love stories are told all around the world, but different national cultures value different sorts of endings.  Jayashree Kamble grew up on Indian cinema, where lovers “go up against society, and they pay for it in some way.”

Eric Selinger says that the happy ending has a “particular resonance” in American culture, and he looks back to the 1920s and ‘30s as the time when American publishing began to insist on such endings, splitting off from a more capacious British version of romance. 

From Romeo and Juliet, 1968

From Romeo and Juliet, 1968

Why do some people love sad love stories, sad movies, or sad music? Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick’s research suggests sad media encourages us to count our blessings and savor our real-life relationships.
Eric Selinger agrees:  the emotional arc of a tragic love story doesn’t end when the story is over, but rather when we turn to our friends or lovers or family afterwards.

Film scholar Julian Hanich studies the emotional experience we call “being moved.”  His research suggests that simply being moved is itself a positive pleasure, even when what moves us is sad.
Musicologist Ai Kawakami agrees, and attributes that pleasure to our experience of intense “vicarious emotions,” which we can enjoy in safety while we learn about our own emotional depths.

Why do we love sad songs?   Listen to Adele's "Someone Like You" here  . What kind of response do you have?

Why do we love sad songs? Listen to Adele's "Someone Like You" here. What kind of response do you have?

Gleason gives  Bet Me  as an example of a novel that allows us to experience "peril as pleasure" in the lead-up to a happily-ever-after.

Gleason gives Bet Me as an example of a novel that allows us to experience "peril as pleasure" in the lead-up to a happily-ever-after.

What the happy ending allows us to do, if we know that it’s going to end in a way that is satisfying, we don’t have to worry that that’s completely in doubt; we might be able to enjoy the sort of “ups and downs” of that relationship in a way that lets us experience the peril as pleasure.
— William Gleason, The Popular Romance Project

Why the “happily ever after”? Listen to what English professor William Gleason has to say:



The idea that marriage should be based on love is a crazy idea in many cultures. The idea that marriage having started as based in falling in love should then continue to be a romantic enterprise as the marriage endures decade after decade... There are cultures that would look at this idea and just laugh.
— Eric Selinger, The Popular Romance Project

Popular Romance Project advisor Eric Selinger wants to live his life by happy endings—but he won’t dismiss the “centuries of wisdom” in other kinds of love stories:  wisdom about the danger of asking too much from another person, or simply from love itself.  

A depiction of the tragic ending of the story of Layla and Majnun, a 5th century Arabian tragic love story

A depiction of the tragic ending of the story of Layla and Majnun, a 5th century Arabian tragic love story

A depiction of Cinderella, a classic fairy story

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairytale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld— setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.
— J.R.R. Tolkein, "On Fairy Stories"

The romance community speaks of the “HEA” or “happily ever after” ending, which calls to mind the ending of fairy tales.  In his classic essay “On Fairy Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien defends the consolation and joy provided by happy endings:  a joy, he says, that can be “poignant as grief.”  

Romance novelist Suzanne Brockmann often weaves multiple plot lines together, using stories of tragic or bittersweet love to counterpoint the central happy ending.  Is “allowing the readers to experience additional emotions to the ‘and they lived happily ever after’” part of the secret of success?

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To be considered a genre “romance” novel, a book must-- by definition-- end with an HEA or HFN. One queer romance writer, Edmond Manning, was disappointed that his novel was excluded from the romance genre because, the main couple in the novel do not end up in a happy relationship. While the novel is extremely romantic, and as Manning says, has a “wildly happy” ending, there is no promise of the couple being together.
The comments section under Manning’s blog post at Queer Romance Month went way beyond a discussion of his particular book, becoming a long and passionate conversation about the limits of the romance genre.



So if you believe in karma, you believe the universe tilts—the long arc of the universe tilts— towards justice. However, we don’t see enough of it in our daily life. We are at a very short segment of that long arc... All genre fiction is filling that void...
— Sherry Thomas, The Popular Romance Project
Romance author Sherry Thomas

Romance author Sherry Thomas

Romance novelist Sherry Thomas discusses the void that genre fiction fills.  In our daily lives, “we see a lot of crappy things happening  to good people who do not deserve it,” and as a result, we crave justice and fairness.   All genre fiction promises that if you choose what is right over what is easy, you will be justly rewarded.


For an in-depth look at the history of happy, relationship-based love, try Jean H. Hagstrum’s sweeping study Esteem Enlivened by Desire: the Couple from Homer to Shakespeare.  If the roller-coaster of desire is more your style, try Eros the Bittersweet by the Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson: a fascinating reflection on longing, beauty, and philosophy from Sappho to Plato.