Decentring romantic love in literature


Imagine the scene. It’s the week leading up to 14th February and, embarking on your weekly food shop (or daily, there’s not much else going on is there?), you enter Tesco on Marketplace. You’re greeted by a seasonal display of all things romance, and right there, amongst the finest range of Hallmark classics, is that card. You know the one. ‘Mickey and Minnie, Darcy and Elizabeth, Barbie and Ken, Romeo and Juliet, Me and You’. Granted, the sentiment is a sweet one, an attempt to equate you and your loved one to some of the world’s greatest double acts and canon worthy-love. But why are we still so insistent on this idea that romantic love is the be-all-and-end-all? And, seriously, does no one else remember the ending of Romeo and Juliet

Whilst the history of Valentine’s Day is slightly dubious, it has, for many, become a day to celebrate your significant other – or perhaps, to lament your lack of one, à la Bridget Jones. University culture certainly seems to play into this conversation, aided at Durham by the daunting prospect of the infamous 70% statistic. Valentine’s Day has become just as much about reminding everyone else how happily coupled up you are, ramping up the pressure to find “the one” during your time at University so as not to end up in the left-out 30%. Yet what about all the other connections you made along the way? The friends you sit with until the early hours of the morning who know your entire life stories, the ones you call when you’re walking home at night, the ones you live with. This constant quest to find our person seems to diminish the value of finding our people. 

Alcott determinedly subverts the expectation of a match…to centre her novel around a story of sisterhood that outstands all other bonds

It’s not just Durham or University life that is obsessed with an idea of romantic love. If we turn to literature, we see countless examples of the pressure of convention. Even the great Charles Dickens bowed to the pressure of reviewers, who suggested that the original ending of his novel Great Expectations where Estella and Pip part platonically was ‘too sad’, in 1868. Whilst the revised edition remained ambiguous, the famous final line ‘I saw the shadow of no other parting from her’ at least gave hope to a romantic future between the two. 

But literature also has the potential to provide us with some of the greatest examples of non-romantic love. In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott determinedly subverts the expectation of a match between Jo March and Laurie, instead choosing to focus on the deep, knowing friendship between the pair and more widely to centre her novel around a story of sisterhood that outstands all other bonds. The complementing personalities of Sherlock and Watson allow them to overcome obstacles dynamically – not to mention that, without Watson to narrate, there would be no story in the first place. Miss Honey and Matilda overcome all odds to provide each other with stability, safety and a sense of home that each of them lack, completing each other.

Without Watson to narrate, there would be no story in the first place

Perhaps in 2021, a year where all convention has gone out the window, it is time to do the same with Valentine’s. Celebrate all forms of relationship, contact your friends, wherever they are in the world. Acknowledge to yourself that finding your soulmates, romantic or not, is a University life well spent, and know that those relationships will just as steadily see you through the tough times. And, if you insist on being in love, look to this list of friends and families as inspiration for your relationship too – the constant support, care and guidance they all exhibit are probably pretty good foundations. Either way, at least you probably won’t both wind up dead, so you’ve got one over Romeo and Juliet. 

For more on this topic, please check out the Galentine’s Day episode of The Female Gaze podcast, available on Purple Radio


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