William Gleason, professor of English at Princeton University, explores the idea of the tragic love story. In doing so, he questions the assumption that it has a greater value than the story that ends well.
What is tragic love?
There is a great tradition of what we might call the comic/tragic love story, the one that begins in love and ends in death. Romeo and Juliet is a perfect example. For many years Western culture delivered that story as the core emotional story.
Tragic love puts you on that rollercoaster, and then when it lets you off, you’ve crashed. It does not deliver you a kind of harmonious ever after that the happily ending story does. I don’t know if it’s necessarily from a different culture, because we see this kind of story across cultures. We see cultures wanting, I think, to tell both kinds of stories—wanting to tell stories about love that don’t end particularly well and that tell us something about ourselves: What is it about love that fails? What does a failed love tell us? Is it a failure inside ourselves? Is it about something unattainable? Does it actually make love more appealing to know that it’s not always available to you? I think that’s what cultures can explore when they explore tragic love. I think it’s why many of my students react to examples in the tragic genre—something like Gone with the Wind or Romeo and Juliet—as an incredibly romantic story. It can still carry that charge even though it has ended unhappily.
I think it’s something a culture does for itself. All the stories cultures tell are stories that do something for that culture; they work out some kind of problem or some kind of question that culture has, that might be as basic as “Who are we?” and “Where do we belong?” and “What is our future? What kind of stories will we have?” We don’t actually always know what those stories are going to be in our lives, and the great love stories that end tragically tell us one version of that story, and that’s that version that’s about uncertainty. It’s the version about what we don’t know about ourselves.
They really come out of the same source, which is to explore the power of what that kind of emotional connection means. It’s true that the tragic ones have tended to grab the high ground in literary culture. We tend to think of those as somehow being more pure, being more intelligent, being truer to ourselves, and that’s where I think contemporary romance has something to say back to that kind of tradition.
Again, it’s Jennifer Crusie who has an article about how romance fiction is more real than literary fiction—even though it’s usually accused of being the opposite, it’s just fantasy, none of these stories [are] really true. She says that, in effect, they’re more real because they imagine worlds that look like my world in which I have an outcome that I actually want. Whereas, in many of the stories where love turns out tragically, people behave in ways that they don’t actually often do in real life. People don’t necessarily kill themselves after having intercourse, but that will happen in 19th-century novels, for example.
Romeo and Juliet is a form of culture, a recognizable form of culture that a Jennifer Crusie novel is not. There’s something odd about that. There’s a disassociation there that we need to figure out.