One kind of romantic love leads to life–to marriage, fruitful sexuality, children, family, virtue. The other kind of romantic love leads to death–to sin, sterile sexuality, abortion, family destruction, ruin.
These two kinds of romantic love are explored in one of the most morally illuminating books of literary criticism I have ever read: Love in the Western World by the Swiss Christian scholar Denis de Rougement.
A romance novel will often set up a triangle in which a woman has to choose between two suitors: One is a good guy who cares for her, whom her parents like, and who would make a good husband. The other is nearly a villain, an “anti-hero” who sometimes mistreats her, is a social outcast from her circles, and who even seems dangerous. Young adults novels are often built around the same pattern, with the choice between an all-American popular boy and a troubled, misunderstood, passionate “bad boy.” Many literary novels have been about a happily married man who is lured away from his angelic wife by an exotic, sensual, forbidden beauty.
Sometimes the characters make the right choice in committing themselves to the good person. But, more often than not, they choose the one who is bad “in society’s eyes,” but who offers them excitement, passion, and the thrill of transgression. Romance and young adult novels often stop when the choice is made, imposing a “happily ever after ending.” But honest works of literature, like Anna Karenina, show what happens next, with the forbidden love resulting in ruin, despair, and even death.
More importantly, the pattern keeps asserting itself in real life. [Read more…]