Tess, He’s Just Not That Into You

About two months ago, my English-instructor roommate and I stumbled onto the subject of toxic romantic relationships in literature. Now, as embarrassing as it is for me to admit, I read a lot of fanfiction.[1] Part of the reason for this is because, hey, it’s free, but it’s also because there are a lot of really good stories out there examining relationships between two adults with grown-up baggage and emotional states. Though obviously slashfic (gay romantic or sexual relationship stories) has a bad reputation, the non-explicit examples of this kind of short fiction often have important things to say about gender roles, power dynamics, and self-identity in relationships. Moreover, most of the best of these stories have believable and realistic happy endings wherein the protagonists acknowledge and deal with their issues and actually communicate with each other. This makes for pleasant and occasionally joyful leisure reading.

Unfortunately, that kind of relationship is hard to find in “serious” literature, or even in non-genre fiction. [2] My roommate is a PhD candidate in English literature. I minored in Comparative Literature. It’s not like we’re not well-read. Yet between the two of us, we could only come up with a scant handful of books (particularly among those considered romantic “classics”) in which the predominant heterosexual romantic relationship was between two adults who, even if they generally behaved badly or made serious errors, managed to “get it right” in the end. Overweening jerks were not invited to apply. (Yes, that means you, Lizzie and Darcy, as much as I love you. Neither of you is very nice.) I argued for honorable mentions for Tess and Angel, because they did sort of try to get it right in the end, but my case for Jude the Obscure’s hopeless striving was, sensibly enough, dismissed.

We initially came up with four:

  1. Jane Eyre
  2. Persuasion
  3. Anne of Green Gables and its sequels
  4. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books

Further discussion with a mutual friend from undergrad (who also has a degree in English lit) produced one more: Jo and Professor Baer from Little Women and its sequels. Taking the question to Twitter produced one suggestion multiple times: the works of Jenny Crusie. Other suggestions were:

  • A.S. Byatt’s Possession [3]
  • Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles stories [4]
  • Laurie R. King’s Russell-Holmes series [4]
  • Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land [5]

Now, if we move into fantasy and sci-fi, I can think of dozens. Heck, Mercedes Lackey has an entire cottage industry built on plucky young protagonists learning how to be in grownup relationships while also fighting evil mages, becoming fairy godmothers, or just generally being fairytale princesses. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Somehow, though, when people talk about the great romances, they tend to refer to horrifically toxic and self- (or other-) destructive relationships like Cathy and Heathcliff, Romeo and Juliet, or even Scarlett and Rhett. These aren’t stories about grownups, or even adolescents learning what it means to be a grownup. These are stories of selfish, petulant, often vicious children in adult or semi-adult bodies. Is it any wonder that Edward and Bella are so popular, when we’ve been told for generations that this kind of toxic melodrama is “love”?

Readers, am I missing something? Where are the stories of self-aware grownups falling in love?

1. Blame the BBC and their licensed Missing Adventures books – once you get used to thinking about what happens to your favorite characters “offscreen,” it’s hard to go back.

2. Genre fiction here is predominantly sci-fi and fantasy, because that’s what we know best, though Western, romance, etc. may have the same issues.

3. Full disclosure: I tried to read this book three times and found it so boring I couldn’t finish.

4. Mystery/crime stories are generally considered to be genre fiction, I know, but the list was so short I felt compelled to keep these suggestions.

5. This one has fantasy-ish/magic realism elements, but it’s mostly about people in the real world, so it counts.

2 thoughts on “Tess, He’s Just Not That Into You

  1. Stories tend to be based around conflict, and writers tend to be lazy. Consequently, if there is a relationship in the story, then usually it’s there because it’s one of the sources of conflict, because otherwise the writer is spending a lot of time on something that isn’t advancing the plot in a narrative sense.

    In the same way if the plot doesn’t revolve around a dangerous or otherwise conflict filled job, authors don’t spend a lot of time talking about what the character does for a living. Writers tend to focus on what’s broken in a protagonist’s life. That’s where the story is.

    1. The thing is, there is a lot of drama to be pulled out of wrestling with one’s demons in order to face the world (and a partner) with clear eyes. But yes, I agree laziness is probably a factor.

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