The evolution of love through popular media and literature, tells its own story

By Jade Perez: Literature Columnist

Across media of the twenty-first century, attitudes towards love have been cynical. Try to find an article on the modern couple where divorce rates aren’t highlighted in bold and the question ‘what’s the point?’ is not flimsily answered with a nonchalant sense of doom.

This begs the question – how is it that love is the cornucopia which beholds the greatest literature throughout history? From Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, concepts of love are the driving force behind each character, whether that be in Greek myth or a Waterstone’s paperback. The romance genre is the highest grossing literary genre by far, as well as the least critically acclaimed. Yet, this dismissal of the romance genre is ironic, since the most respected works of literature are often asking the same questions. What is love, and what does it mean for us?

The Greeks had various words for love, as well as myriad patrons and embodiments of its different aspects. The most famous symbol of love in the modern world is undoubtedly the Olympian Aphrodite. She is attended by Erotes, their leader being Eros, god of physical love and desire. Equally interesting are Anteros, patron of selfless, unconditional love; Himeros, embodiment of impulsive, imprudent love; and Pothos, personification of longing. These aspects of love are most often the cause of confusion, intense emotion or conflict in literature. It is no coincidence that the husband of Aphrodite is Ares, god of war, and at first it seems that the two are forever entwined.

Why is it that two youths from waring families fell in love? Plot is probably the answer – but Romeo and Juliet’s untimely end is not due to family problems but the inability to communicate. It is their intense passion, their complete devotion to Eros, which blinds them of the reality in front of them and the beautiful opportunities that could have arisen if they had exhibited patience and frankness, learnt to deal with pothos and eventually found anteros.

Shakespeare’s Benedick and Beatrice share a similar love-to-hate trope, as do Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Both couples showcase the opposite of love at first site. It is a dance of intellect and wit which occurs between these sets of lovers and it is the mind rather than the body which is key to their make or break.

These mind games surely originate from the classic tale of Pothos, Homer’s Penelope and Odysseus. They are equally matched in cunning and intellect. It is brains not brawn which allows Odysseus to survive his ten-year voyage and return home, as it is Penelope’s idea to weave and un-weave the tapestry each night which keeps her free from her suitors.

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“…to gain some real affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken.”

Yet it is this cunning which presents the danger of Odysseus and Penelope not ending up together after all.

Odysseus enters Ithaca in disguise in order to test his wife’s faithfulness and successfully destroy the suitors living in his home. Both hide their true emotions and thoughts behind a changed exterior, and are distrustful of the other. Penelope does not believe the words of the beggar, Odysseus in disguise, and asks him to prove his identity. It is only when Penelope lets her emotion show through in a speech of longing for her husband amongst floods of tears, that Odysseus drops his distance which is propelling the conflict onwards:

In ending the battle between openness and concealment, anteros is finally felt again. Just as important as letting go of pride is giving yourself due respect. Brontë’s Jane Eyre is first introduced to the reader as an alienated and abused girl, desperate for love:

“…to gain some real affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken.”

As the novel develops, Jane learns to respect herself and gain love without making sacrifices of her health and disposition. Only once they are equals confident in their own selves are Jane and Rochester able to marry. Jane declares,

“To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude as gay as in company. We are precisely suited in character – perfect concord is the result.”

Aristotle’s declaration wraps up the crux of literature’s love: “all friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.” When Jane accepts her past and truly begins to value her being, she is able to wholly and painlessly love Rochester. Likewise, it is when the sarcastic, quippy Beatrice and Benedick and Bennett and Darcy shed their insecurities and learn to speak their truth rather than diminish others, that they are able to see from another point of view, not only about the world around them, but about themselves. It is in coming together with a person who challenges them to become a better version of themselves that the lovers of literature showcase a poetry between two minds. By focusing on this side of their stories we can begin to accept love in our modern lives again, and open ourselves to the occasion.

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