Chivalric Love versus The Dumb Kind

The ultimate poor-me romantic!
I love romance; I also have standards. For one, I've never been partial to the Romeo & Juliet type of romance--I'm soooo in love that I'm going to get stupid. One can easily imagine Romeo and Juliet twenty years later blaming each other for the hovel that they live in, their estrangement from their families, their lack of friends, etc. etc. etc. Frankly, I always thought Lancelot and Guinevere deserved to be executed. And I have no great opinion of the main characters in The Illusionist.

The best reality-check for "but luv solves everything!" thinking is Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility (you go, Austen!). Willoughby is that guy who always thinks something else would have made him happy. Once he gets the cash, he starts to think that maybe romance was the way to go. But Elinor easily and correctly deduces that if Willoughby had gone for the romance, he would have regretted the cash. In Persuadable, I have Mr. Elliot meet up with Willoughby and deplore the other man's fulsome and pointless regrets (a good con artist knows when to let go and collect).

Anthony as a great example of a romantic character.
Having made the above statement, here's my caveat: I adore romances where characters are absolutely loyal to each other and (even) sacrifice themselves out of loyalty. I consider Anthony (Scarface) one of the best characters in Person of Interest--and boy, was he paid off in a stellar fashion! (He was also paid off in a way that explained a great deal about Elias's personality and background.)

I don't necessarily agree with Anthony's morality--I will do everything for my boss--anymore than I necessarily agree with the morality of starship crews who agree to follow their captains into any situation. Elementary's characters, in comparison, have more complex moral codes with Watson, in particular, putting her personal integrity first: I'll do everything for you . . . to a point. 

Even though I don't agree with Anthony's morality (what I call chivalric loyalty), it doesn't bother me the way Romeo and Juliet romance bothers me. I've tried to parse the difference and came up with the following:

Grant's Devlin puts himself at risk for Bergman's Alicia:
chivalry at its best; after all, he doesn't rescue her
until the case is completed!
1. First, the difference isn't the romance. Anthony is about as romantically attached to Elias as a person can be. And many romances (Dorothy Sayers's Wimsey and Harriet come to mind) bear a far closer resemblance to chivalric loyalty than to Romeo & Juliet nonsense. That is, a romance doesn't HAVE to be Romeo and Juliet. (See Hitchcock's Notorious.)

2. Chivalric loyalty depends on the giver's values, not the taker's. Anthony decides to serve Elias because of his own personal code. He isn't badgered into serving (Elias wouldn't trust him if that were the case). In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth decides to love Darcy because she realizes that her values match his, not because he overwhelms her emotionally. Likewise, in Jane Eyre, although Jane is overwhelmed emotionally by Rochester, her eventual decision to rejoin him is based on what she wants to have happen, not what she has been pushed into wanting. Even in Bronte's writing, there is a kind of cold objectivity at work--the characters act; they don't simply react (oh, I can't help how I feel--blech!).

3. Chivalric loyalty is about serving the other person, not about living through him or her

Sayers tackles this problem directly in Unnatural Death. She argues against partners trying to find happiness by subordinating their wills to the other partner's needs. Sarah Caudwell, another British mystery author, makes a similar argument with her book The Sibyl In Her Grave though from a slightly different perspective. Sayers describes the harm that people can cause to themselves and others when they try to live through someone else--the wife who tries to achieve happiness through her husband's fame as an artist ends in "consuming" both him and herself: nobody is happy.

Caudwell emphasizes the sheer destructive power of a person trying to live through others, reminding the reader of the adage "crazy people make even sane people crazy."

Amanda Sketches
C.S. Lewis presents an excellent example of this adage in The Great Divorce. A woman meets her husband in Purgatory. Throughout their married lives, he would put on a martyred air whenever she didn't do what he wanted. He even resented her being happy and getting along with their neighbors because he wanted her moods to always reflect his own. This mindset has become so much a part of him that in Purgatory, he is depicted as a small man walking around holding the chain to a hyperbolic actor. The wife attempts to speak directly to the small man; in the end, he refuses to hear her and disappears. The wife is allowed to get on with her (after)life: she is no longer held hostage to her spouse's (perceived) needs. 

In sum, characters who sacrifice themselves thinking, "I must make someone else happy!" or "Someone else should make me happy!" don't make for good narratives (at least, not narratives that a person doesn't want to throw across the room--you know, anything by E.M. Forster).

Characters who sacrifice themselves for a belief or a person out of their own belief or love make for good narratives.
  • Sam sacrificing himself for Frodo: good narrative.
  • Bones kicking Booth out of the house for gambling, then taking him back when he shows a desire to reform: good narrative.
  • Beatrice and Benedict writing letters of mutual approbation (and Benedict never actually following through with Beatrice's desire that he kill his best friend): good narrative
Any character anywhere giving up a job or a hobby or a belief system for the sake of another, not out of the everyday need to compromise but out of the mistaken belief that the so-called noble sacrifice will save the relationship: stupid. 
The difference may seem subtle on the surface. How deep the difference goes! 


FreeLiverFree said...

I'm pretty sure Shakespeare knew that Romeo and Juliet were behaving stupidly. I am also pretty sure the play was really more about the futility of the cycle of vengeance. That is probably the difference between him and, say, Stephenie Meyer. Still, not my favorite of his plays.

I think that if the play was not used by high school theater groups full of hormonal teenagers it might not be as famous as his other plays like Hamlet or MacBeth.

I tend to prefer if the love interests are at odds with each other. It gives them some place to go. Also, this means they have to establish an actual working relationship than if magically just happen.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I've always wondered why high schools don't teach Shakespeare's comedies! Well, not wondered so much because teaching comedy is hard . . . Still, Much Ado About Nothing is way more relevant to high school life than Romeo & Juliet: sibling rivalry, gossip, note-passing, trying to set up one's friends, sudden crushes, scatological humor, jealousy, "will you ask her for me?" pleas . . . what high school student can't relate to all that?!