The tragic love story (pt. 1)

From Romeo and Juliet to Dil Se, tragic love stories wrench our heartstrings. So why do we tell them? Why do we want to read and watch them? Scholar Eric Selinger says unhappy endings serve emotional and social needs very different from those of the romance’s HEA.


What is the appeal of the tragic love story? (Part 1)

There are two, I think, profound appeals to the love story that ends unhappily. On the one hand there is an appeal to the heart. We finish that kind of a love story, whether it’s in a book, whether it’s in a poem, whether it’s in a film, we finish that kind of love story, potentially at least, profoundly moved, and in a kind of open and vulnerable emotional state. You leave a film like—Dil Se is a great Hindi film, Bollywood classic, right, a tragic love story. When you leave that film, it’s wrenching and beautiful and heartbreaking and you feel those emotions coming out of the film, but that’s not the end of the experience; you come out of that film with your family, with your friends, with the people around you and in a sense the completion of that emotional arc is your turn to them, your embrace of them; and your sense that love is something that is big and powerful and extraordinary. So there’s an emotional satisfaction.

There is also a kind of social regulatory function that goes on. That in many cultures, including many cultures that have highly elaborate, highly developed cultures of romantic love and yet these stories and these poems are of tragic love stories. Part of the reason for that is that it enables you on the imaginative level to distinguish between the story and your life. These are the emotions, these are the behaviors of people in love in a romance: Don’t try this at home! Alright? Trained lovers on a closed track, and look what happened to them! So it gives you the opportunity to experience the extraordinary highs, the extraordinary lows, the extraordinary bursts of passion, whatever it might be without the potential of confusing this with how you live your marriage, with how you live your life with the ordinary folks that you interact with day to day on the street.

Remember, this is an argument that has been made against the romance, whether we’re talking about love story romance or whether we’re talking about romances of chivalry. The argument that has been made for five-six hundred years has been: Be careful! These stories will confuse you! You’ll try to live your life this way and you’ll get yourself in big trouble. Whether you’re Don Quixote driven mad or whether you are the female Quixote from the British novel of that name back from the early 18th century, I think it is. You’ll really mess up your social life by reading these romantic stories. The tragic love story marks a clear boundary that death tells you that the attempt to live these emotions is a dangerous thing. That may in fact be true.

The happy ever ending story tells you the attempt to live these stories and these emotions is difficult but it can be managed; it can be done. That is both an extraordinarily optimistic implication and potentially a really problematic implication. So that’s part of the distinction, I think, between them.

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