Now, I’m completely aware this is very much an individual preference. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is opinion on relationships. Literature --- and real life, for that matter --- is full of couples everyone regards and says, “How did that happen? What do they see in each other?” My preferences may not be yours --- you may think the relationships listed are perfection personified. Neither of us is necessarily right. So with that caveat, here’s my very personal take on some literary relationships I was left scratching my head over --- and I’d be interested in hearing your top picks:
- Romeo and Juliet from the eponymous play by William Shakespeare. Yeah, I know... history’s greatest lovers and all that. I may have called it the emo teenager play once or twice when teaching it. They’re in their mid-teens, for crying out loud (the demographic I deal with on a daily basis). Yes, I realize that definitions of when childhood ended and adulthood began were different 400 years ago. But I find both Romeo and Juliet terribly immature and, well, whiny. In the extreme. (Best dialogue in the entire play is Friar Laurence’s furious tirade chewing Romeo out for being such an infantile jerk.) And I have a big problem with the timeline. We’re talking five days here. Five days from “I don’t know you” to “I love you” to “let’s get married” to “I can’t live without you.” That’s not real love, folks, at least not in my books: it’s infatuation. I just wish the play was as great as the film Shakespeare in Love purports it to be.
- Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling. Opposites attract, we’re told. But... really? Smart, independent Hermione and buffoonish Ron? Say it ain’t so, Jo. Surely the poor girl can do better than that. I know the final book says they’re still married, decades later, but... how does she put up with him? And why? They just seem so mismatched.
- Stanley and Stella Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Another mismatched couple, but from a different angle. Stella is so much more intelligent than Stanley, has so much more on the ball, and he... he’s just a brute. Sure, their relationship is strained to the breaking point by Stella’s dysfunctional sister, Blanche, who drops in for an indefinite stay, but her gradual nervous breakdown, exacerbated by Stanley’s vicious behaviours, doesn’t make him act like an animal; it merely brings his behaviours to the fore. Yikes.
- The place of (dis)honour goes to Bella Swan and Edward Cullen in the Twilight novels by Stephenie Meyer. I read the first book when I saw many students reading it because I’m always curious to see what books they’re into. But I confess, I could only force myself to skim the remainder. The Bella/Edward relationship is both creepy (104 year old vampire and 17 year old girl) and terribly unhealthy on many levels --- many people have said it’s borderline abusive in numerous respects, and that Bella’s character is just a hollow placeholder for young teenage girls to insert themselves. And they’re right.
So what’s wrong with these relationships? Well, with Rowling and Williams, it’s not bad writing. And it’s not necessarily the unreality of their situations: after all, as I’ve noted before, people can, unfortunately, make really, really stupid decisions. They get involved in unhealthy relationships; they hook up with people totally unsuited to them --- physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.
But is that what we want as writers for our protagonists? Unless we’re writing tragedy --- but even there, the Romeo thing strains my patience, miserable old cynic that I am. I don’t find Romeo and Juliet poignant... just ridiculous. Some story characters have, and need to have, unhealthy relationships, or we’ve got no story. But I guess what it boils down to is the vision I have for love among protagonists is of healthy relationships between equals, relationships that aren’t codependent --- in short, the kind of relationship we all hope for. (Unless, of course, you’re writing something like Death of a Salesman.) That doesn’t mean the relationship has to be perfect, or both characters have to be brilliant in everything, or pillars of strength 24/7. Each partner in a relationship brings strengths and vulnerabilities that hopefully the other partner complements.
But dysfunctionality on the scale of my list above? You don’t have to agree... but personally, I’ll leave that to other characters.