Romantic notions: does fiction warp our thinking about love?

The complexities of love and marriage have sustained novelists from Jane Austen to Elena Ferrante. What do they tell us?

According to Anthony Trollope, “There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.” The marriage plot is considered one of the oldest narrative structures in literary history, originating with the troubadour poets and extending to contemporary novels and modern popular culture.

A line from François de La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t ever heard love talked about,” forms the epigraph of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. Similarly, Alain de Botton quotes the same epigraph from de La Rochefoucauld in a New York Times article, using “that brilliant observer of human foibles” to strengthen his point: our style of loving is, to a significant extent, determined by what the prevailing environment dictates.

The complexities of marriage have provided ample fodder for novelists from Jane Austen to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Here are some of them.

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton


The Course of Love is a very welcome return to the subject of amour. De Botton first put it under the philosophical microscope in the mid-1990s with Essays on Love, a delightful mixture of novel and non-fiction that forensically examines the nuances and subtexts of a date, from the initial delirium of infatuation to the lows of suicidal despair brought on by a relationship blip.

In The Course of Love, Rabih and Kirsten are a very believable pairing for de Botton to subject to his philosophical and psychological microscope. Rabih is half-Lebanese, half-German, a little dreamy and insecure and through his job as an architect shakes hands on a construction site with the feisty Scottish Kirsten. Romanticism has influenced Rabih and over coffee with Kirsten, Rabih feels certain “that he has discovered someone endowed with the most extraordinary combination of inner and outer qualities… someone with whom he wants to spend the rest of his life”.

Throughout the novel, de Botton explores what it means to stay together over time, the continual need to feel wanted in a marriage and the dangers of sharing the contents of our sexual imagination. He also examines all too common fraught emotions such as inadequacy, guilt and love encountered in parenthood, which reveals “another thing about love: how much power we have over people who depend on us and, therefore, what responsibilities we have to tread carefully around those who have been placed at our mercy”.

In his New York Times article, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, he writes that romanticism has been unkind to us and this harsh philosophy has made a lot of what marriages entails seem appalling and wrong. De Botton preaches an accommodation to “wrongness”, striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners.

Interviewed by Richard E Grant for a Penguin book podcast, de Botton makes the point that fiction usually concentrates on the obstacles to finding love and only explores long-term love if something dramatic or tragic occurs in the marriage. The Course of Love is an attempt to redress this imbalance and look at a relationship over many decades – one that is a "good-enough ordinary" one, but no less colourful for being so.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

“To start with, look at all the books.” From the opening line of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, it is clear that this novel is about other novels, the people who read them and seek life’s truth in them. The novel is as much about books as it is about marriage; as much about literary criticism as it is about coming of age.

The first paragraph introduces us to the female protagonist Madeleine Hanna through an omniscient narrator, bringing us on a forensic tour of her library: “There was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.”

It is clear that Eugenides is illuminating Madeleine’s character by showing us her reading material and setting her up as a devotee of the old traditional novel, as yet unscathed by the forces of 20th-century literary criticism. These traditional novels had their genesis in the 18th-century novel Pamela or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, who avoided an episodic plot by basing his novels on a single action; that of a courtship.

Ian Watt’s The Rise of The Novel attributes the growth of Pamela and similar novels to the demand for entertainment by women, who had been freed from the tyranny of domestic chores and had leisure time to fill with reading.

Madeleine is like an Austen heroine. She has spent her college years in pursuit of The One, engaging with marriageship: "the cautious investigation of a field of eligible males, the delicate maneuvering to meet them, the refined outpacing of rivals, the subtle circumventing of parental power (his and hers), and the careful management, which turns idle flirtation into a firm offer of marriage with a good settlement for life".

Madeleine’s relationship with biology major Leonard Bankhead has recently broken up, but she hasn’t given up hope of reconciliation as she had been planning on moving to Cape Cod with him where he has a fellowship to study. As befits a woman of Madeleine’s sensibility, she briefly contemplates giving up on the exhaustive plan of trying to win Leonard back and moving home to her parents’ house and becoming a “spinster, like Emily Dickinson, writing poems full of dashes and brilliance”. She has also alienated her male fan Mitchell Grammaticus, whose old-man attire, stability and obvious interest in her makes him a lot less alluring than the brooding, enigmatic Leonard.

Eugenides has set the stage for a romantic tussle between Leonard and Mitchell in a contemporary novel which has at its heart a marriage plot, in a world where Madeleine’s professor Saunders declared that “marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel”. The character of Mitchell is imbued by the author with the values and mores of the Old World and is pitched by the author against the postmodern gothic figure of Leonard. A battle is begun between the old vanguard of traditional literature and the new forces of deconstruction theory.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

In The Marriage Plot, Madeleine’s Prof Saunders complains that contemporary life has been a disaster for the novel. He argues that “in the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?”

The Emma that he refers to is Emma Bovary from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This novel sustains de Botton’s theory that love stories affect our relationships and colour our expectations of married life.

Emma Bovary spent her childhood in a convent immersed in heady Romantic fiction, which made her expect that her husband would be a transcendent soulmate, a source of constant intellectual and sexual presence. This sets her up for a fall when she marries the very human Charles, has her first child and finds herself bored senseless by the routines of married life and by the demands of domesticity. Emma is convinced that her life has gone profoundly wrong because of the huge gulf that exists between the actuality of her life and the romantic novels that she gorged on in adolescence.

In an effort to bridge this gulf Emma embarks on an affair with Rodolphe, a louche landowner who is her superior in terms of class and wealth. He is initially full of ardour, but, Flaubert tells us: “Eventually, sure of her love, he stopped making any special effort to please her, and little by little his manner changed. He no longer spoke to her in words so sweet they made her weep, and there were no more of those fiery caresses that threw her into a frenzy. Their great love, in which she lived totally immersed, seemed to be subsiding around her, like the water of a river sinking into its bed, and she could see the mud at the bottom. Refusing to believe it, she redoubled her tenderness; and Rodolphe hid his indifference less and less.”

After this affair ends Emma embarks on another misguided affair, neglects her child and eventually kills herself. Flaubert’s wry wisdom lends the book a didactic air, that to be guided by the falsehoods of romanticism can only lead to unhappiness in a long-term partnership.

Emma by Jane Austen

In a typical Austen marriage, the heroine must examine, study and know her suitor rather than trust her own feelings or – worse – give in to her passion. Among Jane Austen’s many artistic achievements is her adaptation and development of the simple marriage plot into a more variable pattern, which allowed her to show the growth of her heroines. In Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility she used the marriage plot as a convenient structure to showcase her character studies and theme. By the time she wrote Emma she had the skill to subvert the marriage plot and add extra layers of nuance and depth.

Emma, when compared with all the other heroines – Elizabeth Bennett, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot and Catherine Morland – is the most complex, subtle and best portrayed. She is “handsome, clever and rich” and at 21 will be enmeshed in Austen’s web of wrongheadedness, remorse and repentance until she emerges at the end of the novel enlightened with the wisdom of self-knowledge and the prospect of “perfect happiness” with Mr Knightley. Intelligence matters to Austen’s heroines because they crave, above almost everything else, conversation; the kind that requires mutual understanding.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s best-known contemporary novelists, who remains an enigma as she refuses the glare of publicity, preferring her fiction to represent her. In the first of her four Neapolitan novels, the heroine Elena Greco writes of Nino (her soon-to-be husband) that “he said things that I could never have thought, or at least said, with the same assurance, and he said them in strong, engaging Italian.”

A reader of these novels will be able to study the changing landscape of the heroine’s marriage, the cooling of her ardour with time as she develops her own confidence and career. Ferrante explores the dilemma of marital crisis. “What could I do to keep my life and my children together?” asks Elena, a quandary faced by many women in the throes of a marital breakdown.

My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The beauty of Knausgaard’s fiction is its ability to imbue the ordinary with fascination as he recounts life’s minutiae and domestic drudgery. As Eugenides said: “Knausgaard breaks the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel”. Knausgaard is heavily influenced by the romantics when he describes his first encounter with his current partner Linda, whom he met at a writer’s convention. “I looked at her, and there was something about her I wanted, the second I saw her, it was there. A kind of explosion.”

For Knausgaard, the process of falling in love has nothing to do with being seduced by the woman’s mind; instead, her sheer presence has a powerful and mysterious effect on him. In this regard his attitude to love has more in common with Emma Bovary than the more realistic entreaties of de Botton on the fallacy of the romantic ideals.

Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk

Prof Saunders from Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot felt that the availability of divorce and sexual equality was bad for the novel. He hadn’t predicted the rise of the divorce memoir, especially Rachel Cusk’s feminist take on the collapse of her marriage.

Aftermath draws on references to Oedipus and Agamemnon as well as wry observations about having a toothache on the day her husband moved his possessions out of the marital home. In the course of the memoir Cusk writes that “marriage is civilization and now the barbarians are cavorting in the ruins” and that “people overthrow their governments and then they want them back”, which shows the difficulty for a woman of losing an old identity and moving into a new reality.

Gone Girl by Gillian Walsh

Gillian Walsh’s Gone Girl explodes the myth of perfect coupledom that central character Amy finds oppressive. “We’re so cute I want to punch us in the face.” Nick and Amy Dunne co-narrate this thriller and the novel opens on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, when Nick realises that Amy has disappeared. Walsh’s portrayal of a descent from a seemingly perfect marriage into chaos is emblematic of the simmering resentments and betrayals that constitute the topography of betrayal, failure and revenge. What follows is a baffling, disturbing but ultimately delightful read with its terrifying conclusion.