Love. It’s the tale that keeps on telling. Over the course of our lives, we ingest hundreds of love stories. The sheer volume of literary input begs the question: how do these stories inform our concept of love? How does literature say the human love story should go?
To find out, I analyzed sixty relationships from literature’s most famous love stories. Here are the trends I found:
How should you fall in love?
Literature offers up three possibilities.
Some characters get off to a “rocky start.” One or both characters take a strong dislike to the other. Blood boils and sparks fly, but eventually, often to the characters’ surprise or against their will, dislike gives way to romantic interest. (Liz Bennet and William Darcy, Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe)
Other characters are “just friends” for a long period of time. Importantly, these characters enter into the friendship without any romantic motives. Only through years of shared experiences do they find that they can’t live without each other. (Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley, Katniss Everdeen and Gale Hawthorne)
Finally, a lucky few characters fall in “love at first sight.” They are immediately focused on each other and think of each other in idealistic terms. External circumstances might prevent them from acting on their feelings immediately, but they are bound to try to find a way to be together in the end. (Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters)
Of course, some relationships introduce a bit of ambiguity to the equation. In these situations, I tried to evaluate the emotional arc of the story and decide which emotional state directly preceded the characters falling in love. Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger and Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe have similar stories. Both relationships get off to a rocky start, which is followed by a period of friendship, which yields a romantic relationship. However, I decided to classify them differently. I classified Gilbert and Anne as a “rocky start” because romantic feelings are present as soon as they come out of their initial turbulent phase. Gilbert is clearly smitten with hard-to-get Anne, and their friendship is just a way to explore that romantic potential. Ron and Hermione, on the other hand, have no inklings of romance when they come out of their rocky start. They just become friends…and stay friends for years. Their romance emerges from those years of familiarity and trust, not from the early days of butting heads.
So which of these three options–rocky start, just friends, or love at first sight–does literature favor?
Good ole love at first sight. Over half of the literary relationships I considered were kicked off by love at first sight. The “friend zone” came in second, and rocky starts came in last place–which I find surprisingly realistic.
Of course, there’s more to love than falling in love, so I decided to continue my investigation by considering what happens after characters fall in love. What makes the relationship tick?
How should your love work?
This time, I found four major relationship types.
First, there are the characters who “balance each other out.” These characters are total opposites. Sometimes their differences drive each other crazy, but the rest of the time, they can use their differences to cover each other’s weaknesses. Their sum is greater than their parts. (Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, Lara Jean Song and Pete Krasinski)
Next, there are characters with “crazy sexual tension.” They just…um…can’t seem to get enough of each other? (Bella Swan and Edward Cullens, Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky)
There are characters who seem to be “made for each other.” They have similar personalities, backgrounds, values, interests. Let’s be honest, they probably even have matching robes and slippers. (Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, Cathy and Heathcliff)
Last but not least, you have your “unrequited” lovers. (Eponine and Marius, Alaska Young and Miles Halter)
Which type of relationship gets the most literary nods?
Couples who were “made for each other!” In keeping with the sentimentality of “falling in love at first sight,” characters who have strikingly similar personalities and an innate understanding of each other steal the limelight in literature.
One last question occurred to me. If two characters fall in love at first sight and have similar personalities, are they guaranteed a happily ever after?
How should your relationship end?
The three possible answers to this question are fairly self-evident.
Some romances degenerate into “disaster.” For this study, I defined disaster as A) someone dying as a result of the relationship B) someone going insane as a result of the relationship C) the characters hating each other for the rest of time. It has to be pretty grim to qualify as disaster. (Lancelot and Guinevere, Humbert Humbert and Lolita)
Other romances fizzle into a casual “friendship.” The characters still feel good will towards each other and value the memories formed during their romance. They may even have learned some big life lessons from the relationship. Ultimately, though, it didn’t work out. (Theodore Decker and Katherine Barbour, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist)
And some romances reach the holy grail, “happily ever after.” The characters remain together until death does them part–and if death does them part, it’s a gentle goodbye. (Eleanor and Park, Ron and Hermione)
Not surprisingly, “happily ever after” comes out on top, with “disaster” lagging not too far behind.
So there you have it.
According to sixty of literature’s top-rated love stories, this is how your romance should play out: meet someone who is basically just like you, fall in love with them at first sight, and live happily ever after!
If that doesn’t sound achievable, don’t fret. That’s the beauty of literature. Even if one story is the most popular, thousands of other stories are available for you to consider. Or you can ignore them all and write your own story. In the end, you decide how much you are influenced by what you read.