May 31, 2013
Disclaimer: the following contains plot spoilers and assumes readers’ high- level knowledge of the characters.
The Great Gatsby → Revolutionary Road → Lolita →The Reader →The English Patient
All radiantly hot relationships. All miserably failed or died. Why?
Why does Jay Gatsby or the English Patient enter, continue and obsess over what readers know are doomed relationships?
If art imitates life, what can we learn from all of these repeated patterns throughout literature?
It’s not only for the love they passionately proclaim. Love is just the cliché excuse at the conscious layer. It’s not for the hope or the thrill of the pursuit by these flawed heroes on a journey. Those things are just the side effects.
Theory: people pursue doomed relationships because they are fanatically trying to recapture or change the moment when a key experience shifted their life course.
These characters subsequently spend the rest of their life trying to extend that bliss or rectify the consequences of that moment.
Take Jay Gatsby (1925). The former poor boy dubiously becomes an over-the-top millionaire in order to prove his worth to the superficial Daisy he had to leave behind. The guy buys the mansion across the bay to be her neighbor and throws lavish parties “hoping” she would wander in? Readers may have a glimmer of hope that Jay and Daisy can just leave all their riches behind to run away together, but ultra wealth is just so convenient for empty Daisy.
Frank and April Wheeler living on Revolutionary Road got lost in the suburban American Dream without realizing it (1961). After 2 kids, 1 failed acting career, and an office affair, the trapped couple attempt to recapture that turning point in their life when all their dreams were still possible, when they were not bound with the velvet handcuffs of their responsibilities and upper middle-class conformity. One grasp for liberation via moving to Paris would be met by another swath of fear as we watch their marriage steadily implode like a slow cooker breaking down a pot roast. They came so close to beginning their re-defined life, but the weight of life’s status quo turned their journey into a dead end.
It’s like a bad case of “Lover’s Remorse.” These men and women jumped, were pushed or pulled into a situation, which later tinges with bittersweet regret. The 30-day return policy just does not quite cut it here. All of their energy, resources and life pursuit becomes dedicated to obtaining that elusive hope.
Humbert Humbert loves Lolita to her literal death perhaps, because of the early death of his young childhood sweetheart (1955). Let’s assume readers believe Humbert’s own self-analysis. He concurrently creates his own downfall because Humbert tries to recapture that love from his you years with a 12-year-old nymph. He plots to marry Lolita’s mom, drives hotel to hotel with Lo for a year, and is consumed with holding up this complex façade. It cannot be a coincidence that Lolita’s last name is Haze, like the fog he’s been in the years since the first deflated relationship.
The Reader (1995) is the reverse of Lolita: the educated15-year-old guy loves the 36-year-old illiterate woman over one sultry summer. Michael Berg never gets over Hanna Schmitz for the rest of his life. He spends most of his adulthood connecting with her and trying to reconcile his ambivalence over her tenderness and actions as a Nazi concentration camp guard. How else is his love better expressed than by reciting hours of books and carefully sending the tapes to her prison cell?
Recall The English Patient (1992). Hot people in the hot desert eventually leads to a hot affair. The stars were misaligned from the start: a jumble of nationalities set in World War II, hot tempers, airplanes as weapons for revenge, and no cell phones. While Katherine Clifton feels guilt over the affair, Count László de Almásy cannot escape the series of bad luck to capture that Almost Happy Ending after those few days, post-plane crash. The English Patient ends up dying for the woman through a series of misunderstandings just as Jay Gatsby met his demise covering up for Daisy.
Stupidly dying for the love of your life defeats the whole purpose. What can we learn from these five examples, then?
One must courageously let go…
…to be able to start fresh and,
persist until the next draft gets better.