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