There is perhaps no other theme in world literature as prevalent, provocative, diverse—and perennially compelling—as that of love or its absence. An integral part of the human experience in its various forms, love is also a key if highly complex component of what writers and critics have tried to express for their readers. Exploring different kinds and consequences of love in literary works can thus serve to define what it means as a theme within particular cultural contexts and genres as well as in our lives. But a distinction must first be made between the word love’s common usage (as in, “I loved lunch”) and its deeper, more intense and abstract meanings with which we are primarily concerned here.
Among the most common kinds of love depicted in literature is that between family members. Marriage, a familiar ending of many comedic plays, tends either to be the culmination of romantic love (discussed below) or a matter of convenience, such as money and social status, often by parental, political, or economic arrangements. Jane Austen’s novels, such as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, are prime expositions of the theme of tensions that can arise between the two marriage motives, one love-based and the other not. Sustained lack of love in a marriage can lead to estrangement, separation, divorce, or extramarital affairs (adultery, considered a sin in many religions), in which one spouse seeks out the love, affections, or opportunities denied by the other elsewhere, frequently tragically. The misadventures of Emma, the namesake character of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, are a case in point. A second kind of familial love, that between parents and their children, usually differs greatly depending on the genders, personalities, and cultural circumstances of the individuals in the relationship. Motherly love is generally described as being boundless, tender, and attentive, while paternal love, in contrast, is commonly depicted as unemotional and contingent, and it often has to be earned. In the psychologist Sigmund Freud’s analysis of Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, such stereotypes of parental love lead boys to seek out women like their mothers and rebel against their fathers (or father figures) later in life, and girls to see their mothers as competing for their father’s love; by extension, this makes all women jealous of their lovers’ attentions. Many literary works follow these basic patterns, purposefully or not.
Sibling love between brothers and sisters is not only used literally by writers and critics; it can also be a metaphor for specific kinds of relations between characters unrelated by blood. The relationships between the two twin hobbits Merry and Pippin and between Frodo and Sam in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings draw attention to the similarity between biological and nonbiological sibling love. Big Brother totalitarianism in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a satirical extension of brotherly love, often overly protective. Fraternal love, on the other hand, develops through bonding experiences among men of all ages, as with certain of the teenagers in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Sisterhood is likewise not limited to the love between biological sisters but is a thematic term also applied to close and affectionate relations between women friends—as, for example, between the sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or the sisterly bond among the women of the older generation in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Another kind of love quite unlike familial love is that which characters and people can have for the nonhuman, whether animals, things, or ideas. Pastoral works of poetry and fiction, for instance, celebrate the relationships between farmers and their animals or shepherds and their flocks, while other narratives focus on the love between pets and their owners, as in John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. Some of the most cherished children’s stories, such as A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, use love and affection between animals to reflect on their human equivalents. Love of money, maybe more accurately described as an obsession, as well as of other tangible things—from cars and clothes to places—frequently plays pivotal thematic roles in life as in literary works. The main character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is so enamored with the idea of his youth and beauty that he debauches his life in preserving them, as others have sacrificed theirs for ideas and ideals such as nation, freedom, and loyalty. Philosophy, it should be remembered, literally means a love (philo) for or friend of knowledge (sophia). As a primary thrust or secondary incidental occurrence in literature, however, it may be safe to say that no theme is as ubiquitous and variously treated as romantic love. For example, the theme of courtly love, or passion between two members of the nobility, began circulating in Europe as early as the 11th century, and by the 19th century, it was an object of ridicule in fiction in some circles. Still, certain elements within the theme of romantic love are constant and unchanging, as in its progressive stages. First comes the discovery of one lover by the other or both at once—hence the expression “lovestruck,” as when the war-injured Henry meets the nurse Catherine in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The second stage is courtship, when one potential partner attempts to woo or seduce the other. Some of the best-known examples of this are contained in the large corpus of chivalric poetry, in which knights euphemistically persuade ladies to accept their overtures, ostensibly without losing their virginity or “virtue.” If the courtship is successful on both ends, then the third stage is consummation; if it is unsuccessful, then there is rejection by one or the other, or unrequited love.
Thus, romantic love as an emotion must be distinguished from love as activity, just as love as a biochemical process must be distinguished from love as thought. The thematic process of romantic love is everywhere circumscribed by the identities of its participants and the cultures in which their escapades take place. Forbidden love, sought after by participants but scorned by others or the culture, is epitomized by that between the title characters of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as their meeting, courtship, and tragic consummation take place against the backdrop of their feuding families. Racial, national, and class disparities between potential or actual lovers have proven to be considerable cultural obstacles that they can or cannot overcome. Pederasty, the love and mentorship of older men for younger, was commonplace in ancient Athens but would now be considered pedophilia. It is in this context that the notion of platonic love, so named after the philosopher Plato, came to be a spiritual and intellectual union rather than physical, considered base within this paradigm. Love between two people of the same sex, or homosexual love, is depicted without hesitation in the fragments of the ancient Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos, but its trials and tribulations in more contemporary times are made clear in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. A final kind of love to be mentioned here is that which is sometimes called “universal love,” an acknowledgment of the value of all life and commitment as being unconditionally benevolent. Religious texts such as the Torah, Bible, and Quran equate this kind of supreme love to that which the Deity holds for believers and vice versa, and which enables believers to love others in the same way.
It is in these senses that love is sometimes said to be blind (that is, in overlooking the faults of others) or that individuals are instruments of an independent force of love, not the other way around. But thinkers and writers such as the Russian Leo Tolstoy and the American Ralph Waldo Emerson have also described equivalents to universal love that do not require religious foundations, although they are free to have them. In an allegorical sense, then, no matter which kind of love a character or person experiences, it ultimately brings him or her closer to, or makes them more a part of, this ultimate theme of universal love.
See also Augustine, Saint: Confessions of St. Augustine, The; Bambara, Toni Cade: Salt Eaters, The; Bradbury, Ray: Martian Chronicles, The; Brontë, Charlotte: Jane Eyre; Brontë, Emily: Wuthering Heights; Chekhov, Anton: Seagull, The; Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, The; Faulkner, William: Sound and the Fury, The; Fitzgerald, F. Scott: Tender Is the Night; Gay, John: Begg ar’s Opera, The; Hardy, Thomas: Jude the Obscure; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: “Birth-Mark, The”; Hesse, Herman: Siddhartha; Keats, John: poems; Kundera, Milan: Unbearable Lightness of Being, The; McCullers, Carson: Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The; Milton, John: Paradise Lost; Morrison, Toni: Tar Baby; Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita; parenthood; Proust, Marcel: Remembrance of Things Past; Shakespeare, William: Hamlet; Othello; Tolstoy, Leo: War and Peace; Wharton, Edith: Age of Innocence, The; Yeats, William Butler: poems.