L’amour et l’amitiéCours

Love is a many splendid thing which takes on many different forms ranging from simple endearments or transient infatuations to all-consuming passions. It is sometimes mistaken for friendship, an equally, if not more, enduring bond. The line between the two is hard to draw and difficult not to cross, when fonder emotions come into play. It is therefore little wonder that such shape-shifting and complex feelings as love and friendship have been inspiring novelists, dramatists and poets for centuries. As most people enjoy having friends and being loved, they are likely to identify with the characters on the stage or on the page, and to relate to the poet's joyful or wistful outpourings. Love and friendship being very unpredictable and changeable, they provide ideal raw material for spellbinding plots, complex developments and enrapturing verse.
How is this translated into narrative, dramatic and poetic terms through British and American writers' restless endeavours to enlighten people on love and friendship, whilst entertaining them?

I

Romance and love

Romance is all about love. Romance could found in Greek myths. Originally a specific genre in medieval literature, romance nowadays refers to literature that deals with love in all its complexities and intricacies from different point of views. Romance sets the social norms and conventions of men and women falling in love. But romance can also redefine the gender roles. 

A

The impossible definition of love

Love is very difficult to describe, as it is emotions, sensations, but also a concept. Love is a kind of force that is overwhelming, it can be idealized, but it can also be shown in a realistic or pessimistic way.

Love is either described through the various emotions and sensations it provokes, or defined as a concept. Many writers, among whom poets, have sought to get to grips with this elusively protean feeling, which has nurtured their poetic imagination and boosted their creativity. Love can hardly be defined because it can't controlled. It takes one by surprise and makes one fall in and out of it, as it pleases. That's probably why Cupid comes with arrows and a pair of wings. Love can't be explained or conquered, it can only be felt, at one's own expense most of the time. 

William Shakespeare gave his own definition of love in a famous sonnet, which has become a classic love poem, quoted by writers and read on wedding days.

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd."

William Shakespeare

"Sonnet 116", Sonnets

In this sonnet, Shakespeare defines love as an overwhelming force, a safe harbour ("an ever-fixed mark") and a beacon that guides us through life's meandering course, up and down through the rough and smooth ("the star to every wandering bark", "that looks on tempests and is never shaken"). Love, according to Shakespeare, is a spiritual experience because it results from the union of two souls, a "marriage of true minds." For precisely this reason, love can't be subject to changes because it "alters not when it alterations finds," and is bound to last forever, well after the body has died and disappeared ("Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks/But bears it out to the edge of doom"). In other words, it is proof against decay and defeats death ("not Time's fool"). It comforts, soothes and strengthens those who feel it. 

Other writers define love in a more realistic and pessimistic way.

"Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,
if you like.
Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife."

Carol Ann Duffy

"Valentine", originally published in Mean Time (Anvil, 1993)

1993

The poet unexpectedly likens love to an onion whose multiple layers metaphorically stand for its complexity. The heart-shaped vegetable may also be interpreted as a symbol for everything that is unpleasant or painful in love, which may turn a beaming face into "a wobbling photo of grief." It smells, and peeling it – i.e. getting to grips with it – makes one cry. It rots just like flowers wither, warning us of the transience of love which goes as easily and quickly as it was kindled. The onion also refers to more earthly matters, thus emphasizing the physical dimension of love which has been almost entirely obliterated by Shakespeare in sonnet 116: "It promises light, like the careful undressing of love." The light love shines isn't that of a reassuring beacon, but a dazzling sensation of pleasure, as suggested by the tentatively teasing hint at sexual interaction. In Duffy's own view, to love is to accept suffering and to be prepared for disappointments that may or may not be balanced out by the joy and comfort this feeling brings. 

B

From Greek myth to chick lit

The Greek myth of Aristophanes is central in romance, it is the source of the pursuit of love. It has influenced literature, and it has also been criticized. Today, romance is often mocked or seen as a genre only for women. Romance is seen as a specific literature category: chick lit.

1

The myth of Aristophanes 

The myth of Aristophanes is central in romance: it explains that humans used to be made of two halves that have been separated. After that, humans were destined to seek their other half, their soul-mate, to be reunited again.

In Plato's Symposium, the Greek playwright Aristophanes explains that humans used to look like spheres consisting of two halves. Not only did they feel whole and happy, but were also strong enough to defeat the Gods. So Zeus decided to split them into two parts, causing each to be brutally wrenched from the other and to spend the rest of their lives seeking to be reunited. This, according to Aristophanes, is the origin of love and desire, and accounts for men and women's quest to find their soul-mates, this other being ideally-suited to them. This myth is inscribed in everyone's mind and has had a lasting impact on how people conceive of love as a powerful feeling that will make us whole again. What better material for intriguing romance than this life-long quest to find the one person to love in order to be fulfilled? This myth has been used in literature and it has been criticized and described as an illusion.

Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen no doubt knew about the myth and must have had it in mind when she wrote Sense and Sensibility. The novel centres on two sisters, Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, and their love stories which develop parallel to each other, creating contrasting mirror effects that enable Jane Austen to compare both young women's approaches and attitudes towards love. Contrary to her wiser elder sister Elinor, Marianne is an archetypal romantic who believes in absolute love between two perfectly suited people. A passionate soul, Marianne has a very specific idea of what the love of her life should be like. He should be totally enamoured, see the world through her eyes and read her sonnets to her heart's content. Marianne truly believes that there exists such a man, which is why she easily falls prey to Willoughby, an experienced womaniser who has seduced many naïve and gullible young women. As soon as he has figured out what appeals to Marianne, he starts acting like her ideal man, claiming to love poetry and promising everlasting love to her, while in fact only coveting her virtue.

Ang Lee's 1996's adaptation of Jane Austen's novels reveals Willoughby's real intentions by showing his purely physical attraction to Marianne right from the start. The two characters meet after Marianne fell off her horse and sprained her ankle. Willoughby comes at the drop of a hat to carry her back home after closely examining her bare leg. But his arms don't so much hold as ensnare her. Indeed, far from rescuing her, he puts her – and her virtue – at risk. Her infatuation proves almost lethal, as no sooner does Marianne finds out about Willoughby than she suffers from a delirious fever. Through her illness, Jane Austen exposes the dangers of passion, which she seems to regard as sick. She demonstrates to the reader that soul-mates are a fallacy. Marianne was blinded by her ideal and deluded by her imagination, which led her to fall in love with an ill-intended man and to oversee more genuine feelings in the person Colonel Brandon. Even if Marianne doesn't love him as he loves her, she eventually marries out of reason, whereas her more sensible and clear-sighted sister gets to marry the man she loves. Jane Austen inflicts a rather harsh punishment on her heroine to warn the readers against passions and delusions. She criticizes romantic love and romance to establish herself as a serious author who writes serious novels. 

2

Chick lit

Nowadays, romance seems to have become synonymous with cheap literature; simplistic overused plot lines resulting in cheesy stories with all too predictable endings. It is called chick lit. Yet, some stories are more complex than they seem to be. 

This brand of literature, which heavily relies on the well-established assumption that all a woman needs is love, typically targets dreamy inexperienced young girls or weary middle-aged women. That's why it's been labelled as chick lit, meaning books for pretty chicks on the hunt for mister right. 

And yet far be it from their authors to explain to women how to find love. More often than not, these books, mostly novels, reflect the aspirations, desires, quandaries and difficulties of today's women. In this respect, they are almost as accurate and complex as Jane Austen's and Charlotte Brontë's novels, from which they actually developed as part of a continuing literary tradition initiated by female writers such as Eliza Haywood and Frances Burney in the 18th century.

Bridget Jones's Diary

Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, published in 1996, reads like a modern-day version of Jane Austen's 1813 Pride and Prejudice. Through the confessions of a 30-year-old Londoner desperately looking for Mr Right, Helen Fielding explores love and loneliness as experienced by young adults in the late 20th century. Bridget's quest leads her from one delusion to the next, leaving her highly disappointed and slightly cynical, but no less resilient. Although single, the heroine finds comfort in the other aspects of her life; her friends, her family and her job. A self-reliant young woman, she makes the most of her economic and emotional independence. As did her Austenian forerunners, Elinor Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet. Fielding shows us how her character gradually becomes less naïve and gullible, as she, along with the reader, learns from her mistakes. Only when forearmed and forewarned against the "Venus fly-trap" does Bridget find true love with Mr Darcy, an up-to-date but no less uptight version of Jane Austen's arrogant protagonist. In Fielding's novel, it is Bridget who makes the boldest move and proposes to him after many twists and turns through which the two lovers discard their prejudices and grow fonder of each other. Bridget teaches the readers that love is not all a woman needs, which is excellent news because a good man, if there exists any, seems hard to find. Because Fielding's novel mocks and questions long-established misconceptions about women, her heroine Bridget has become a role model and feminist icon for many women of all ages. 

English French
To fall in love with Tomber amoureux
To fall head over heels with Tomber éperdument amoureux de
Love at first sight Le coup de foudre
To be in love/to be enamoured with Être amoureux/énamouré de
To be infatuated with Être amoureux de (de manière superficielle)
An infatuation Une inclination pour
To be besotted with Être entiché de
To be soft on/to have a soft spot fo Avoir un faible pour
To be attracted to Être attiré par
To court/woo Faire la cour à
To win over Séduire (positif)
To seduce Séduire (négatif)
A seducer Un séducteur (négatif)
A womaniser/ladies'man/rake Un séducteur/roué
To idealize Idéaliser
To romanticize Romancer/rendre romantique
C

Setting social norms and conventions

Romance is a way to set social norms and conventions. Indeed, love and money are linked, marriage is a way to associate two families. In romance, love ends up in marriage and parenthood. Love must be respectable. 

1

Love and money: the historical and social context of love stories  

Although, by definition, a matter of the heart, love has long been a social phenomenon and economic issue, as reflected by 18th and 19th fiction by Frances Burney, Eliza Haywood, Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell among many others.

British and American literature abound in novels chronicling the social and economic ascension of male and female characters for whom marriage is a necessity or an opportunity. 

"My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish. Secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly – which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. Twice has she condescended to give me her opinion (unasked too!) on this subject; [...] "Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry.""

Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

Although quite ridiculous and resulting from loveless calculations, Mr Collins's demonstration shows that matrimony goes hand in hand with economy. What he says quite truthfully bears witness to women's reduced economic circumstances in Austen's time. 

Women could neither earn their living, nor inherit property, and were therefore forced to find a husband who would support them, a fact American novelist Edith Wharton's female characters were also well aware of. 

The Custom of the Country

The insufferably shallow but cunning Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton goes out of her way to marry into high society and climb up the social ladder. She only has her best interest at heart and can think of nothing else but rank, money, parties and expensive dresses. She marries, divorces and remarries as one good match leads her to another, but is never rich or distinguished enough to her liking. Contrary to Elizabeth Bennet, Undine Spragg's pride lies in her ability to find men best suited to her fancies and ambitions. Far from judging or punishing her heroine, Edith Wharton points out that women too are ambitious and can turn an institution that has constrained and restrained them for centuries to their own advantage. Despite her economic dependence on men, Undine is a free woman in so far she acts to serve her aspirations and achieve her social ambitions, regardless of whether her family or friends might approve or not. In this respect, she is the mistress of her own destiny. 

Marriage was also a way out of poverty for women with neither name nor money.

Vanity Fair

In Vanity Fair by Thackeray, Rebecca Sharp (Becky) is an orphaned girl in reduced circumstances who dreams of becoming as wealthy as her boarding-school friend, Amelia. A very clever and artful seductress, she does her utmost to make her dream come true and climb up the social ladder, going as far as gambling with other people's emotions for the sole purpose of increasing her wealth or securing her social position. The author seems to vindicate her heartless heroine because her place in society was initially determined by birth, not talent, which forced her to go all length to lead the life she wants and become her own woman.

2

Marriage and parenthood

Love means marriage, and marriage means parenthood. This expectation is a social norm that is dealt with in romance.

It is a truth generally acknowledged that people who have been involved in a love relationship for some time should want to tie the knot and make it official. Getting married isn't only about pledging love and assistance until death does you part, but also means asking for society's moral seal of approval. Indeed, only married couples are deemed legitimate loving each other and having children, which they are duty-bound to do without delay. Marriage is not so much about celebrating love than about creating social norms and expectations. With stakes so high it is little wonder marriage should be at the centre of so many love stories, from fairy tales to some of the latest novels. 

Jude the Obscure

In his controversial, path-breaking novel Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy challenges marriage as a moral and social norm by exposing the dire and tragic consequences of both marrying and "living in sin." It is marriage that causes the protagonists' downfall. The main character, Jude Fawley, aspires to an academic career well beyond his reach as a lower-class orphan. He first marries Arabella Donn, after she had him believe she was pregnant with his child, which causes him to give up becoming an Oxford professor to take up odd jobs and feed his family. No sooner have they married and settled under the same roof than they split up to go their separate ways. Jude is left bankrupt. He nonetheless decides to try his luck in Oxford, where he meets and falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead – note her foreboding surname –, a free-thinker and agnostic very averse to marriage. This will bring him no nearer to achieving his ambitions, quite the opposite. After some considerable time, she and Jude decide to live together and pretend they are married, a lie hardly anyone believes wherever they go with their children, born outside wedlock. Sue and Jude end up rejected and ostracised and their offspring mere pariahs. With insufficient income and no stable home, the two outcasts find themselves in such a bad way that their eldest son commits suicide after taking his siblings' lives. The reader can't but feel that they are being suppressed as cumbersome abnormalities because born in sin. This heart-wrenching radical outcome throws light on the terrible consequences of transgressing moral and religious norms. Jude and Sue's tragic love story shows us how society, through morality and religion, directs the course of people's lives and limits their freedom to choose the life they want to lead and the person they want to love in their own terms and conditions. 

3

 Love and respectability

To marry is also to become respectable, but to be fit to do so, wives and husbands to-be have to prove they are worthy of their other half.

This mostly applies to women, who have to be modest and dedicated, and not morally dubious or flirtatious, which would bring shame on their spouses. Couples' plans to get married being thwarted or delayed by doubts cast on the bride's morality and chastity are a common theme in comedies by Shakespeare or Marivaux. It gives playwrights opportunities to question and ridicule the social pressure, constraints and obligations forced upon women. 

Much Ado about Nothing

Shakespeare's play Much Ado about Nothing humorously deals with jealousy, morality and trust. Hero and Claudio are engaged to be married, but their engagement is abruptly broken off by rumours spread by a jealous suitor accusing Claudio's betrothed of being promiscuous and unfaithful. The astutely named Hero – who will prove the more heroic of the two – is publicly rejected, humiliated and abused by Claudio, who was fooled into believing the rumours without even giving her the benefit out of the doubt. Claudio's rash reaction was probably prompted by prejudice and the common assumption that women are lustful and weak and therefore prone to being seduced. Through his character's complete lack of critical judgement and empathy, Shakespeare doesn't test Hero's but Claudio's trustworthiness, and reveals his – men's? – inability to trust his own heart and the woman he claims to love. He turns out to be the more dubious and unfaithful of the two, after all. To punish him, Hero fakes her death, which enables Claudio to inquire and find out he should never have doubted her. It is a triumphantly alive Hero that emerges from her grave to be reunited with Claudio, who has learnt to think better than crediting rumours and stereotypes. Mozart, the genius composer, taught audiences a similar lesson in his opera Cosi Fan Tutte, which means "they [women] all do it" in Italian. 

The Piano

The Piano (1993) by feminist film maker Jane Campion is the story, set in Victorian times in New Zealand, of a married woman and talented musician who trades her body in exchange for her piano, left on a beach after her arrival on the island. She becomes physically and emotionally involved with her lover and transgresses all the strict moral rules of her time to become a disreputable but free woman. She gets punished, but manages to escape, thus being justified in choosing her impulses, her heart and her music, which define her as a full-fledged individual, over a respectability that would force her to be someone she is not. 

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© Wikimedia Commons

English French
A love match Un mariage d'amour
To climb up the social ladder Gravir l'échelle social
To improve Améliorer
The rank Le rang social
To go out of one's way Se surpasser
To do one's utmost Faire de son mieux
To go all length Ne reculer devant rien
Wealthy Aisé
Clever Intelligent
Cunning Malin
Artful Calculateur
Gender roles Les rôles des hommes et des femmes
Prejudice Les préjugés
D

Redefining gender roles

Literature has always served as a means to establish or question traditional gender roles and (mis)conceptions.

Stereotypically, men are the strong and authoritative bred-winners also in charge of political, economic and intellectual affairs. Women are often portrayed as gentle, meek and vulnerable, ideally-suited to raise the children and manage the household whilst remaining attractive enough to please their husbands or partners. In other words, women have the looks, whereas men have the brains. Not every reader or writer is willing to endorse and promote these stereotypes. Shakespeare is one of them, as is very shrewdly demonstrated in his play The Taming of the Shrew. 

"PETRUCHIO.
(Enter Katherina)
Good morrow, Kate- for that's your name, I hear.

KATHERINA.
Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing:
They call me Katherine that do talk of me.

PETRUCHIO.
You lie, in faith, for you are call'd plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But, Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation-
Hearing thy mildness prais'd in every town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded,
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs,
Myself am mov'd to woo thee for my wife.

KATHERINA.
Mov'd! in good time! Let him that mov'd you hither
Remove you hence. I knew you at the first
You were a moveable.

PETRUCHIO.
Why, what's a moveable?

KATHERINA.
A join'd-stool.

PETRUCHIO.
Thou hast hit it. Come, sit on me.

KATHERINA.
Asses are made to bear, and so are you.

PETRUCHIO.
Women are made to bear, and so are you [...]

PETRUCHIO.
Come, come, you wasp; i' faith, you are too angry.

KATHERINA.
If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

PETRUCHIO.
My remedy is then to pluck it out.

KATHERINA.
Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.

PETRUCHIO.
Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?
In his tail.

KATHERINA.
In his tongue.

PETRUCHIO.
Whose tongue?

KATHERINA.
Yours, if you talk of tales; and so farewell.

PETRUCHIO.
What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again,
Good Kate; I am a gentleman.

KATHERINA.
That I'll try. [She strikes him]"

William Shakespeare

Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene 2

1594

This play starts with a rich Italian man called Baptista's wish to marry off both his daughters, Bianca and Katherina (Kate). While the former is eager to get married, the latter dreams of remaining single. Their father decrees that Bianca shan't marry until Kate finds herself a suitable husband who will be rewarded with money for marrying his shrew of a daughter. An ambitious but penniless man named Petrucchio is baited by Baptista's generous dowry and decides to take up the challenge of winning over Kate. 

Petruchio starts wooing Kate, but soon ends up vying with her, as she makes it a point to dismiss each of his hyperbolic compliments as ridiculously irrelevant. A clever, witty and sharp-tongued woman, Kate delights in puns, witticisms and syllogisms. She is anything but submissive or soft-hearted, but is as argumentative and defensive ("she strikes him") as a man determined to gain ascendancy. No sooner has Petruchio finished speaking than she curtly fends him off with her sarcastic sallies. Indeed, she seems to have waged a verbal war on her clumsy suitor, whose clichéd rhetoric ("the prettiest Kate”/”Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded") appears to be ineffectual. This cat and mouse game escalates, as Kate and Petruchio playfully antagonise each other, fuelling their lustful anger. Kate's relentlessly belligerent attitude and offensive rhetoric strike the spectator as more defensive than aggressive. Kate indeed seems to regard men as threats to women's bodies and freedom, which is probably why she tries to swap gender-roles with her suitor: ("Asses are meant to bear and so are you"/"Women are meant to bear and so are you").

English French
To get married/to wed Se marier
To marry someone Épouser quelqu'un
Husband and wife Mari et femme
Marriage L'institution du mariage
Wedding La cérémonie du mariage
Matrimony État d'être marié
Engagement Fiançailles
To get/be engaged Se fiancer/être fiancé
One's beloved Son/sa bien-aimé(e)
One's bethrothed Son/sa promise
A fiancé Un/une fiancé(e)
Outside wedlock Hors des liens du mariage
Sinful Qui relève du péché
To live in sin Vivre dans le péché
II

Impossible loves

Impossible love is a recurring theme in world literature, not least because tales of "star-crossed lovers" are associated with intrigue, suspense and excitement. Their often complicated stories take readers through thrilling twists and turns, and often serve writers and playwrights to question and challenge the norms and conventions that interfere with love to limit, suppress or forbid it. Impossible loves are forbidden loves, transgressive and rebellious loves or tragic loves that end up with death. 

A

Forbidden loves

Forbidden love are the love stories that are condemned by society because of class prejudice, religion or race. Some love are considered immoral and shocking. 

1

Class prejudice and religion

Social and/or religious differences often conflict with love, making it very difficult for lovers to continue loving each other peacefully.

Their feelings for each other soon become an issue when their families or communities decide to meddle, forcing the protagonists to face excruciating dilemmas. It is at this stage that the love story actually begins, with lovers torn apart between the person they love and their duties, beliefs or prejudices. 19th century fiction provides good examples of love thwarted or marred by class or religion. 

Middlemarch

In George Eliot's Middlemarch, the heroine Dorothea Brooke loses her first husband Casaubon half-way through the novel and is free to remarry whoever she chooses – or so she and the reader think. Her late husband, being very jealous and a bigot, had had his will altered to make sure his wife wouldn't be able to wed his rival, a painter called Will Ladislaw, of obscure origin and untoward religious beliefs. Indeed, should she decide to marry him, she would lose the property and money she had inherited after his death. And this is not all; not only would Dorothea become destitute, but she would also become a social pariah because the people within the village close-knit community would surely disapprove. Rumour and prejudice were quick to brand Ladislaw, who is an outsider making deals with the dodgy local banker, as dodgy and therefore unsuitable. Through this story, Eliot highlights the fact that to choose to live according to one's heart might prove a very hard decision to make. Being free sometimes results in alienating one's community or family, and being rejected. Fondly as two people may love each other, their feelings may not be strong enough to overcome these difficulties and their relationship is quickly put an abrupt end to. Not so Dorothea's and Will's, as both characters tie the knot, ignoring the concerns and warnings voiced by her closest relatives: "Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done − not even Sir James Chettam, who went no further than the negative prescription that she ought not to have married Will Ladislaw." Dorothea Brooke chose to be her own woman and to marry the man she loved against society's supposedly better judgement. Ladislaw's claim that "poverty may be as bad as leprosy, if it divides us from what we most care for" never rang truer than in the reduced but happy circumstances the young couple find themselves in at the end of the novel.

2

Race

Religion, reputation and rumours are not society's only weapons to hinder or prevent love relationships deemed inappropriate according to established standards. Race may be another major obstacle dividing people in love.

The question of race is at the core of the novel The Human Stain by Philip Roth.

The Human Stain

Philip Roth, known for his controversial and provocative novels shaking conventions to fight political correctness and social hypocrisy, tells us a similar though darker story in The Human Stain. When the novel begins, the protagonist, university professor Coleman Silk, has been forced to retire from his job after being unjustly accused of racism for using the word "spook" to refer to absentee students. This misunderstanding seems to turn into an unpleasant farce when the reader finds out that Coleman himself is black, and that it is skin colour and social origin that divided him from the woman he loved. Indeed, her family never approved of their relationship, which forced them to eventually break up. Their impossible love can be interpreted as symbolic of how difficult it is to come to terms with a turbulent history that created deeply scarring differences and inequalities. The bitter irony resulting from this absurd situation through which Coleman, initially a victim, becomes a perpetrator of racism, throws light on the harmful hypocrisy of discourse which tells people what not to say or do. As demonstrated by Roth in his novel, nobody feels free today to say something without checking themselves to avoid offending those who have unduly suffered from hatred and abuse. The book title refers to the label of shame that will stick for ever on Coleman Silk's skin, because he is not like everyone else and doesn't think the same way as them. 

Interracial marriage was only made legal in the US in 1967 after the Supreme court ruled that a mixed-race couple who had married illegally in 1958 should be considered legal spouses. Their story was adapted to the screen by Jeff Nichols in 2016.

In his 2016 film Loving, entitled after the real-life protagonists of the Loving vs Virginia case which allowed interracial marriage in the US, Jeff Nichols shows the young couple's struggle to force a still deeply racist state and society to accept love between a white man and black woman.

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© Wikimedia Commons

3

Immoral and shocking love

Even more controversial and taboo are stories of infidelity, same sex relationships and incest which sent shock waves when they first appeared and keep outraging prudish readers and conservative critics.

Immorality in love, as dramatised by playwrights and novelists, often serves to challenge norms which repress individuals' desires question, or even threaten, an established social order. 

Lady Chatterley's Lover

D.H. Lawrence's story of a dwindling aristocrat's wife, Lady Constance Chatterley, who is having a secret affair with the gamekeeper and is thoroughly enjoying it, is quite scandalous. The title itself, Lady Chatterley's Lover, must have been shocking back in 1928. By brazenly drawing attention to a married noblewoman's infidelity and sexuality, Lawrence indeed seems to vindicate his heroine's misdemeanour and to invite every woman to follow suit. What struck people as immoral at the time was probably not so much the fact that a woman should be unfaithful as the author's daring use of explicit language to give fairly graphic descriptions of her erotic outings in the forest with her lover. Lawrence also shifted the perspective to focus on the heroine's emotions and sensations, as she explores her own body and desires. What felt so inappropriate and disturbing was that women should be shown to have the same needs as men, who had so far been the focus of novels in which sex plays an important role. Constance Chatterley and her lover only meet in the woods belonging to Lord Chatterley's estate, a way for Lawrence to suggest that their affair comes as a natural thing, since the two lovers act according to their mutual desire. Instead of representing male and female characters striving to resist their impulses, the author presents us with a man and a woman enjoying a happy and healthy existence after allowing nature into their lives and bodies. Lawrence reminds readers of the nature-side in them which shouldn't be repressed. 

Stories about incest are very shocking, Lolita provoked a debate when it was released. 

Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov must have shocked even more readers than Lady Chatterle. It relates the very unconventional love story between a mature literature professor called Humbert and his step-daughter, the eponymous Lolita aged 12. The opening lines of the novel give reader a spicy taste of what they are going to read: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child." Nabokov's novel tends to suggest that love is as wayward as it is lawless and transgressive. 

English French
Inappropriate  Déplacé/inapproprié
Lawless Sans foi ni loi
Disturbing Dérangeant
To repress Réprimer
Misdemeanour Comportement immoral/mauvaise conduite
Graphic Explicite
Prudish Prude
To send shock waves Envoyer une onde de choc
An affair Une aventure/une liaison
B

Transgressive and rebellious love

Transgressive and rebellious loves can take the form of love stories including more than two persons, or strange fantasy. 

When thinking of people in love, one quite spontaneously pictures a happy couple under the same roof. Literature has proved that this might a little too idealistic, since couples often consist of three enamoured people. Love triangles may not sound new to today's readers, but was deemed quite subversive in the Brontës' time of strict moral standards. 

Charlotte and Emily Brontë largely owed their slow-coming fame to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, partly because both their novels deal with unconventional love stories that made it possible for them to inquire into the nature and essence of a feeling that is so difficult to grasp. 

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre, the eponymous character-narrator of Charlotte's novel, falls in love with her shady and secretive aristocratic employer who is quick to return her feelings for him. There is more to this than yet another impossible master-servant love relationship, not least because it is the master who becomes infatuated first, long before Jane herself finds out she loves him too. What is most refreshingly uncommon about this story is the fact that Rochester happens to be already married when he proposes to Jane, who accepts him. Charlotte Brontë didn't go as far as allowing her male protagonist to have two wives. She makes sure Jane finds out in due time and does not compromise herself. Indeed, Charlotte Brontë needed her heroine to be morally flawless for her to be a respectable enough self-reliant and free-thinking female character 19th century readers would want to relate to and sympathise with. This enabled her to represent a full-fledged woman as the sole mistress of her own destiny who would never be misled or -guided by her emotions, although she was charged with being "too passionate."

Wuthering Heights

Charlotte's sister Emily appeared to be much bolder and more deliberately oblivious of moral and social conventions. All the characters of her path-breaking novel Wuthering Heights are ruled by their feelings and emotions. This couldn't be more tragically true of Catherine Earnshaw, who couldn't help being in love with both Heathcliff, her obscure foster brother, and Edgar Linton, her husband and social equal. She distinguishes between two very different forms of love, explaining in metaphorical terms that her "love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees," whereas her "love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being." In Catherine's – Emily's – own words, love appears as a protean and multi-dimensional feeling that may change according to the person who inspires it. While Heathcliff is Catherine's soul-mate, Edgar appears to be more of a companion to her. But she is fondly attached to both and can't seem to understand why it is wrong. She will refuse to part with either until she dies, thus rebelling against socially acceptable love, which limits humans to single partnerships. It is only through death that Catherine and her two loves can be peacefully (re-)united. Even if Catherine was never shown being unfaithful or told to be, Emily Brontë's tale of three lovers was a bold transgressive move towards a less genteel brand of realistic fiction.

Dreams and fantasies have fascinated and inspired many writers interested in exploring aspects of love best kept hidden because too embarrassing or distressing. Readers and audiences delight in sharing others' secret desires and aspirations. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream

In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, every protagonist's dreams of love come true on one night spent in a lush forest inhabited by fairies that will work their magic on one another and on four humans who have fled the city to find shelter in their woods. Among these Demetrius and Helena who loves the former but is not loved by him. He covets Hermia, who is in love with and engaged to Lysander. Thanks to Puck, a facetious male fairy who inadvertently gives her a hand, Helena's love for Demetrius will be magically reciprocated. Puck is also commissioned by his master Oberon to play a rather nasty trick on the latter's wife, Titania, the Fairy Queen. As a result of a spell Puck cast on her, she falls in love and has intercourse with an uncouth creature named Bottom and which is half-man, half-donkey. Desire for animals was deemed no more acceptable in Shakespeare's time than it is today. The Queen's lustful interaction with a beast may be interpreted as referring to the animal in each and everyone and to the more basic instincts civilization has curbed but never entirely crushed. 

Whether this is all dream or reality will never be revealed, making the play all the more intriguing and enchanting. Shakespeare's compelling dream-like story seems to have been designed to open up a boundless space to accommodate everyone's most intimate dreams and desires. It projects audiences into their own very private dream worlds and encourages them to resort to their imagination when reality proves disappointing or frustrating. One's imagination is like an inner stage where one is allowed to reinvent oneself endlessly. 

English French
Genteel Policé
Moral standards Les normes sociales
Flawless Irréprochable
Self-reliant Indépendant/autonome
Free-thinking Libre de penser ce que l'on veut
To relate to S'identifier à
To sympathise with Compatir à
A fantasy Un fantasme
Lustful Relatif au désir
Intercourse Rapport sexuel
Intimate Intime
Distressing Dérangeant
Boundless Illimité
C

Tragic love

Not all love stories end well to satisfy readers and audiences with a comforting happily-ever-after ending. Tragedy as a genre always ends with a fatal outcome.

Love gets tragic when it drives lovers to their deaths which becomes the only possible outcome to their ill-fated attachment. It seems all the more tragic, sad and unfair when the two lovers are young, as is often the case. 

Romeo and Juliet

The most famous ill-fated lovers in all literature are almost certainly Shakespeare's Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, fatefully referred to as "a pair of two star-crossed lovers." It was love – and death, although delayed – at first sight when they met at a fancy dress ball in Juliet's house. However, the ongoing feud between their two families is a major obstacle to their being together. What circumstances forbid love will transgress. The two lovers will not renounce to each other, but will refuse their fate and rebel against father and mother instead. They soon get secretly married and run away separately to meet their death instead of each other as a result of a misunderstanding that induced Romeo to think Juliet dead. He kills himself under a misapprehension and so does she when she wakes up to the sight of her dead husband by her side. The lovers' death so near their achieving total freedom from their families' mutual hatred stirs up pity and frightful unease in the audience's hearts. Aristotle defined tragedy as a kind of play intended to cause people to feel pity and awe in order to be purified of their evil thoughts and deeds and be prevented from thinking or perpetrating them again. This process is known as catharsis, a Greek word which means purification. What sort of catharsis did Shakespeare want to achieve with Romeo and Juliet? The lovers' tragic and somewhat foolish death at the end of the play might be understood as a condemnation of rivalry and power games or taken as a warning against youth's rashness and inexperience. 

The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet, Frederick, Leighton, 1855
The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet, Frederick, Leighton, 1855

© Wikimedia Commons

According to Greek myths and legends, love and death are closely linked to each other, especially from a symbolic perspective since loving another person all too often implies losing one's identity, as suggested in Romeo and Juliet.

"JULIET. 
Deny thy father and refuse thy name […] and I'll no longer be a 
Capulet.

ROMEO. 
Call me but love, and I'll be newly baptized.
Henceforth I never will be Romeo."

William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet

1597

Writing about love and death is also lovers' way to conquer or at least come to terms with death, by making their lost beloved immortal through poetic portrayals of every trait and detail held dear. British poet W. H. Auden's offers a very moving poetic eulogy of his late beloved in his famous "Funeral Blues", written in 1938.

"Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good"

W. H. Auden

"Funeral Blues"

1938

This poem depicts an environment devoid of joy and interest for the poet, who has lost the only being that made it worth living in. So deep is the poet's grief that he would like the whole world to stop existing and reminding him of what is no more: "nothing now can ever come to any good." Although very heart-renting, Auden's poem celebrates love as the one thing that gives one's life both meaning and purpose: "He was my North, my South, my East and West." Now that his beloved has passed away, the poem feels out of bearing, as if disorientated. What makes this eulogy particularly engaging is that it invites everyone to sympathise with the poet's suffering: "scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead', "let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves." Yet, some of the vocabulary in the last stanza seems to anticipate a renewal to come with verbs such as "put out", "pack up", "dismantle", "pour away" and "sweep up" referring to removing, cleaning and tidying up, which leaves the reader and the poet on a surprisingly positive note. Even though the poet sounds desperately sad, he may not have given up falling in love again.

English French
Feud Vendetta
Rivalry Rivalité
Rashness Précipitation
To know someone biblically Avoir eu des rapports charnels avec quelqu'un
Attraction L'attirance
Foolish Stupide
Fate Le destin
Ill-fated/star-crossed Né sous une mauvaise étoile
Awe Effroi
Frightful Effroyable
A portrayal Un portrait
A eulogy Un éloge funèbre
Late Feu (décédé)
Devoid of Dépourvu de
Grief Le chagrin
To pass away Mourir
Out of bearing Sans repères
A stanza Une strophe
A renewal Un renouveau
Purpose Un but
III

Love or friendship 

Regarded by Aristotle as the longest-lasting bond between humans, friendship has served as the basis of many stories, mostly but not only destined to teenagers and young adults. While many love stories developed out of friendship or comradeship, other waver in between, since the boundary between the two is not easy to determine.

A

Friends/lovers 

The limit between friendship and love is thin. Some friends become lovers, and some love relationships are platonical, the way chivalric love is.

1

From friendship to love

A lot of stories describe how friends end up becoming lovers.

Teen and young adult fiction very often includes the stereotypical groups for friends who have sworn to remain chums for life, unless more tender feelings creep in and change their planes. Growing up implies falling in love and losing friends in the process, as in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga, when Ron and Hermione, the hero's best friends, eventually admit to being in love with each other in the final volume of the series. More classic fiction also presents readers with ambiguous friendships, as in Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited. 

Brideshead Revisited

Waugh's novel's Brideshead Revisited chronicles, Charles Ryder's – the main character and first-person narrator – years as a student in Oxford, where he makes the life-changing acquaintance of Sebastian Flyte and is sister Julia, two eccentric but melancholic aristocrats. What started as a fascination which drew the inexperienced narrator to the Flytes's circle ends up as half friendship, half love. Charles soon becomes very attached to Sebastian and Julia. Charles's fond feelings for Sebastian borders on homosexuality, as the narrator insists that he "loves" – his very word – Sebastian, with whom he spends most of his first college year partying. As an adult, he gets involved with his sister Julia, leaving the reader to wonder whether it is really her that he loves or just the twin-like resemblance she bears with her brother. The narrator's scarce and subtle references to his most private feelings and emotions increase the ambiguities of love and friendship at the heart of the story. They also suggest that Charles himself may be confused, or even uncomfortable with what he feels deep down. Using friendship as a cover for his actual feelings may also be a way to stay in denial. 

2

Chivalric love in medieval literature and imagery

Chivalric love refers to a very specific love relationship between a knight and a beautiful but unavailable noble woman, in which the male character swears to become selflessly devoted to the woman he loves and worships.

This all too often one-sided form of love can be compared to friendship because it implies chastity, fidelity and support. Like religion, it also requires submission and sacrifice and leads to the man's dangerous idealization of the woman he loves. Chivalric love fascinated Victorian painters, in particular the ones known as the Pre-Raphaelites, who formed a brotherhood in 1848. They used medieval literature and imagery to challenge the polarizing representations of women as either virtuous or promiscuous, and restore the vilified femme fatale into favour. 

"Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.

I met a Lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a fairy's child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gaz'd and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes—
So kiss'd to sleep.

And there we slumber'd on the moss
And there I dream'd, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry'd—"La belle Dame sans mercy
Hath thee in thrall!"

I saw their starv'd lips in the gloom
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing."

John Keats

"The Belle Dame Sans Merci"

1819

Here is a painting by John William Waterhouse illustrating Keats's ballad "The Belle Dame Sans Merci." The poem expresses the pangs of unrequited love through the story of a knight lured into loving a beautiful but pitiless woman who causes him to die of grief. 

La Belle Dame Sans Merci, John William Waterhouse, 1893
La Belle Dame Sans Merci, John William Waterhouse, 1893

© Wikimedia Commons

English French
To become friends Devenir amis
To be friends Être amis
To strike up friendships Se faire des amis (langage soutenu)
A chum/a pal Un copain (langage familier)
To be best friends Être meilleurs amis
To waver  Hésiter
To lure into + N + V-ing  Appâter/leurrer
Pitiless Sans merci, sans pitié
B

A society of friends

Friendship is sometimes seen as a relationship above all else. Friends constitute a kind of society that is sometimes fighting against the rest of the world.

1

Friendship above all else

Friendship is said to be stronger than love, which is why it often helps the protagonists to grow as adults and become the best version of themselves, especially in books for children or teenagers such as, again, the Harry Potter series or Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Friendship is a theme that enables writers to explore relationships between individuals and otherness, and to advocate tolerance, generosity and open-mindedness.

"There are more important things – friendship and bravery."

J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

As Hermione points out that friendship is one of the most important thing. 

Harry Potter

Never did the course of friendship run smooth. This has been confirmed by Harry, Ron and Hermione countless times. Throughout the seven books in which the reader see the three friends meet difficulty upon difficulty and grow up with each new challenge, their friendship is put to the test and threatened by rivalry, love and injustices. But it is never weakened. The three protagonists show us that to be friends is to be stronger and to hold on faster in adverse circumstances. As Hermione points out, friendship is more important. Indeed, it is as united friends that they summon enough courage to defeat the most evil creatures and malevolent characters. It is also thanks to their friendship that they manage to juggle the rough and smooth and get over losses, failures, heartaches to become the sensible and sensitive adults the reader is presented with at the saga's epilogue. These three friends support, comfort and scold one another when needed. Like love, friendship can inspire people to greater heights. 

Huckleberry Finn

Huckleberry Finn relates a young boy's erratic journey in the southern American states during which he befriends a run-away slave who becomes his travel companion. Both friends are described holding on to and helping each other. With this book, Mark Twain probably hoped to change people's mentalities and attitudes towards Black people. He almost certainly expected his younger readers to identify with Huck and thus be induced to see slaves and coloured people in a different light, as their equals. This moving story of an unlikely friendship is a lesson in tolerance and acceptance, which strongly suggests that it is through friendship that people may best learn to relate to and respect one another, regardless of what differentiates or divides them. 

2

Friends versus the rest of the world

Friendship can help change the world by paving the way for a better society, or be a bulwark against a divisive society that sets people against each other. 

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a mildly dystopian novel about clones and cloning, is an excellent example of how friendship helps building a better society in a world that is very dark. 

Never Let Me Go

In Never Let Me Go, the three protagonists, Kathy the narrator, Ruth and Tommy, are clones who grew up completely isolated from the rest of the world in a boarding-school called Hailsham. They have been created to later serve as organ donors to improve the other people's health and life expectancy. The reader finds out at the end that it is friendship – and love – that humanizes these clones in others' eyes and in their own, through their ability to grow attached to other people. Being best friends helps them put up with their terrible fate. They care for each other in more ways than one, not just as friends but also by nature of their specific function in society. Before becoming donors and dying slowly, they have to work as carers whose job, is to help the donating clones recover after each donation and until they breath their last. As a result, these clones prove to be more generous, selfless and empathetic than any genuine human being will ever be. They form a close-knit community, a small-size society of friends united by love and trust, much deeper bonds than self-interest, hubris or progress, which connect most people in this day and age. 

In Edward Abbey The Monkey Wrench Gang, a bunch of self-made outcasts are united to fight the system and the consumer society to protect the environment. They commit themselves to destruction and sabotage missions across the United States.

English French
To stand united Rester unis
To band with Se rallier à
To become allies Devenir alliés
To team up with Faire équipe avec
An outcast/a pariah Un paria
C

Friends and foes

The story of best friends turning out to be worst enemies is very popular. Friendship can turn out to be a competition between friends. 

Friendship can also be viewed as an ideal of peaceful and fruitful relationship between individuals, an ideal that is sometimes challenged by reality and circumstances. Whether friendship is something that exists to support one another in difficult times or a type of relationship that can only develop and last in untroubled times is the question.

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies is considered as Arthur Golding masterpiece. Initially written for teenagers, the novel also appeals to adult readers because, apart from friendship, it tackles power, rules, law and order, and survival. It is a highly political book which questions the tenets of society, proving how fragile and shaky everything it relies on is in times of upheaval, mayhem and catastrophes. A group of young boys whose plane crashed on some desert island in the Pacific – note the author's choice of ocean. They survived the crash, but have to get organised, choose a leader and set rules. They also need to find food and shelter. As fear and despair start taking over after a few days on the island, so do more basic instincts which seem to have been awakened by the threateningly lush jungle around them. The reader witnesses these instincts conflict with human values and civilization in each young boy's heart and mind. What with rivalry and hunger, friends become mortal enemies and get involved in manhunts to survive. Golding's novel offers a rather pessimistic view of friendship, which stops as soon as things go wrong and one's life becomes at stake. The assumption that underpins this book is that "man is a wolf to man," as Scottish philosopher Hobbes claimed in the 17th century, and that humans were never meant to be friends. 

English French
A value Une valeur
Law and order L'ordre public
Upheaval Perturbations
Mayhem Désordre social
Threatening Menaçant