Relationship advice from 19th century novels

There’s no doubt about the fact that art influences the way we experience reality. In fact, art is so influential that it affects the way we understand reality. Literature, Hollywood flicks, advertising or pop songs change our perception of love and what to expect from our partners.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was famously meant to be a parody of sorts. “These violent delights…” It is a cautionary tale as to how dangerous can be for us to idealize a romantic partner, how perilous it is to give up on everything for them. Yet people find the pair’s death as “romantic.”

Another example? The Great Gatsby. People upload quotes from this novel everywhere, as if the love story between Daisy and Gatsby is romance at its finest. It’s not. Daisy does not love him as much as he does her. Also, this so called “love” corrupts Gatsby to the point that he is nothing without her. Everything he does, it’s because of her.

Is this what we’d truly want from love? Is this what we understand by love?

But all this pales in comparison to the manner in which “love” was defined by 19th century novels. Let’s take a look at some of these novels and the way in which they define relationships.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

There is but a lesson in this novel: telling your crush how you feel will just make you look desperate — to him and everyone else you know. Seriously. This is what happened to Marianne. She falls in love with the man of her dreams, and she doesn’t hesitate to make her availability to him quite clear — she flirts, casts him longing glances, and even writes him. Practical, reserved Elinor falls in love as well, but maintains the detached demeanor of a friend toward the object of her affection. Guess who gets her happily ever after?

Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

Isabel Archer wants to remain independent and unwed to enjoy her freedom. Unfortunately, she quickly abandons this principle when she meets the dapper Gilbert Osmond and marries him. Huge mistake. Soon she’s shackled to a cold, arrogant jerk who makes her life hell. Touring Europe alone with your massive inheritance seems like a much better idea. Lesson? Once you let someone charm you, you risk losing freedom and happiness forever.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Ah, Mr. Rochester. The tortured romantic hero who inspired a million girls to hold out hope for that adorable, brooding guy a grade above them who tortures them with snarky insults and always seems to be dating the most popular girls in school. What do his comments really mean?? He’s probably just afraid to admit what a profound connection you have. Yup, that’s it. I mean, Jane Eyre ended up happy with her confusing, hot-and-cold beloved, so why not you? Lesson: A guy might have many reasons to treat you badly, but this doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

If Tess had kept her past “sexual experience” (that is, her sexual assault) to herself, she’d have gotten to remain married to a stand-up guy who enjoyed hypocrisy and shaming rape victims, and the tragic events of the novel’s second half need not have happened at all. She may have thought his confession of a sexual indiscretion as a younger man indicated that he would be open-minded about her not being, technically, a virgin, but somehow, he saw her lack of virginity as far more significant than his own. Double standards, anyone?

What have you learned about dating and relationships from the books you’ve read?


5 thoughts on “Relationship advice from 19th century novels

  1. I disagree on some things. Rochester is not a nice guy. He is actually a mean person and this meanness turns away Jane. It is only when he humbles himself does she accept him. However, a better ending would have Helen Burns have lived and Charlotte spend her days with her.

    Also “Sense and Sensibility” is not a good way to explain attraction. We can flirt with someone or be with their friend. The problem is women are expected to act demure. But, Austen may not also like directness completely. She makes Mr. Knightly also a friend and makes Elizabeth turn down Darcy when he is too direct. However, I feel some people expect you in this day and age to be a bit more direct.

    I agree with your reading of Gatsby. In the new film, Nick is shown to have somewhat queer feelings towards him. That is more genuine love than Daisy has felt for Gatz. problem with Daisy>? She wants to fix things with her husband. A husband who is a loser. She should have accepted Gatz.

    Romeo and Juliet is a parody of youthful, reckless obsession. It is not a romance. It is meant to be a cautionary tale.

  2. Horrifying, isn’t it? I found Great Gatsby very irritating to be honest…

    This post made me crack up, so thank you for this great list and “useful advice”. I need re-evaluate my love life i think 😂

  3. All of these are works of fiction, though depicting to a certain extent the way people expected love to be, about how men and women were also expected to act in courtship and romance. But still, they are fictions and fantasies.Good ones, thought provoking ones, amusing or shocking ones. There’s not much foul proof recipe in courtship and love; one must learn to handle love by itself. Truthfulness, respect and constant gardening is what I can leave here as a piece of advice from my own personal experience. I wish you all to find your love and get immersed in it. It’s worth every minute.

  4. I remember arguing with my high school English teacher about The Great Gatsby. I dislike the novel then and still do now. He couldn’t understand my disdain for such an “American Classic”, as he put it. My defense was that these are horrible people playing such cruel and alluring mind games with one another that the acts are almost criminal. This is not a story about love, but rather a story about how love can be used to destroy love.

  5. You made some interesting points here. I find it interesting that younger me found Romeo and Juliet so romantic while older me now agrees that it is was meant to warn young fools about infatuation. I may be one of the few women on earth who doesn’t think Mr. Rochester is an evil villain. Sure he’s not the nicest but I can’t help but feeling a little sorry for him and think that his past has caused him to put up barriers against falling in love. Which Jane plowed right through.

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