You can read self-help books or call in and ask Dear Sugar about your relationship woes, or you can dig into some literary classics to get your head straight about romance this Valentine’s Day. There are plenty of love lessons hidden inside classic literature — and not just the obvious ones like Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, or The Notebook. Maybe that last one isn’t really a highbrow literary classic, but it is romantic — in an over-the-top, life-will-never-be-this-sexy way.
For many, February 14 either means roses and champagne or agony and pain, depending on how cynical you’re feeling that year. Sure it’s a “manufactured” holiday that’s all about consumerism and Hallmark cards, but it can also be about celebrating your own fine self, going out with your friends, or staying in and reading Madame Bovary. If you pick the latter, just watch out for passages like this:
“Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings — a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionizes it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.”
I don’t really want my heart swept into an abyss, but some hurricane-like passion is great, in doses. This is real life after all, not a French novel. Still, you can learn a thing or two about romance from characters like Emma Bovary. In honor of Valentine’s Day, here are 14 love lessons from classic literature.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Love Lesson: Don’t fall for an indecisive commitment-phobe
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was the ultimate brooder. His family was loco so he had plenty of reasons to be consumed with feelings and angst, but come on. Ophelia drowned herself in a brook because of this guy. Stay away from the dark, introspective brooders who can’t give you anything because they’re too distracted by their own baggage. Find a nice Earl or blacksmith instead.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Love Lesson: Sometimes you have to follow your passion, no matter what the neighbors say
Constance Chatterley tried to be true to her injured, humdrum hubby, but the woman had needs. Plus, her husband was emotionally withdrawn and closed off, so Connie had to go off and get hers. Her sexy tryst with the gamekeeper Mellors was passionate and life affirming and… hot. Sometimes following your passion is the only way to go.
The Odyssey by Homer
Love Lesson: Then again, if your true love is off fighting the good fight, might be wise to keep the suitors at bay
Normally I wouldn’t condone waiting around like a fool for someone who has been off sailing around the world for 20 years, but Odysseus’ über-patient wife Penelope did just that, and it paid off. She had suitors galore trying to marry her, but she had faith in her man and she knitted and did her thing until he returned. Good for her. If you have the patience of a saint and your love is true, let Penelope be your guide.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Love Lesson: Don’t act like a diva
Scarlett O’Hara was a stone-cold diva. She flirted, acted coy, married for all the wrong reasons — and she ended up in a tattered dress with mud all over he face, alone. We all love Scarlett, but the woman had issues.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Love Lesson: Watch out for exes
In Rebecca, a painfully shy assistant to a mean old rich lady falls madly in love with the dashing Maximillian “Maxim” De Winter (who is played by Laurence Olivier in the film —hottie). After a whirlwind romance they marry, and she finally gets a name: Mrs. De Winter. Things aren’t so cozy at Maxim’s mansion, though. His dead ex-wife Rebecca haunts their lives — and the creepy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers torments the new Mrs. De Winter by constantly bringing up Rebecca. The moral is: Don’t get involved with someone who has baggage with an ex. It’ll suck.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Love Lesson: Love yourself, first and foremost
In Angelou’s triumphant memoir, she goes from trauma, heartache, and pain to self-acceptance, courage, and love. Learn to love yourself no matter what — that should be what Valentine’s Day is actually about.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Love Lesson: If they don’t love you back, walk away
Hemingway’s protagonist Jake Barnes isn’t exactly a catch — in fact, he has a touch of Hamlet Syndrome. He can’t make a move and he’s pretty mopey. He pines for Lady Brett Ashley, and she, like Scarlett O’Hara, is a stone-cold diva who leads him on and then rebuffs him. Of course, there are many interpretations of Jake’s behavior, but the lesson is: Don’t waste your time pining for someone who treats you like crap. Move on.
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Love Lesson: Do not date anyone with Peter Pan syndrome
Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Love Lesson: Don’t be superficial
If you’re like, “I’ll only date people 6’2” or taller” or “I’m only attracted to people with perfect teeth and an 8-pack,” you need to check yourself. We all shrink and get old and wrinkly. It’s what’s inside that counts, and if they have an 8-pack, that’s just a (temporary) bonus.
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Love Lesson: Don’t settle
Isabel Archer was so strong and independent and feisty. She even turned down some marriage proposals because she was afraid of sacrificing her freedom. But then she goes and marries an egomaniacal American and life quickly starts to suck. So don’t settle for someone just because society says to or everyone else is getting married. It’s better to do your own thing.
Emma by Jane Austen
Love Lesson: Open your eyes!
If you met Emma in real life, you’d probably think she was a prissy, clueless busybody, but she’s also a little lovable. She schemes and scams to get people to fall in love, and little does she know her own true love is right there in front of her face. So open your eyes and your mind. If life is like a rom-com, we’ll all fall for the person who drives us crazy… eventually.
Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos
Love Lesson: Don’t manipulate people just because you’re bored!
Bored, wealthy, elite people play mind games with each other in this fun but WTF story. The end result is pain, agony, and women who run to the convent because they can’t take it anymore. So don’t manipulate people just because you’re bored. Um, just don’t manipulate people, period.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Love Lesson: Absence makes the heart grow fonder (or more obsessive)
Talk about pining for years: Jay Gatsby built his whole life around Daisy Buchanan, even though she’s a married woman and their relationship is long over. But still, distance does funny things when it comes to love. All that time apart can amplify the emotions, so if you really just mildly dig someone, but you haven’t seen them in like five years, you might suddenly not be able to live without them. It’s a tricky equation.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Love Lesson: Don’t read too many romance novels
Emma Bovary believed a little too much in the soaring, bodice-ripping love stories she was reading, and her high expectations lead to her being blinded by her feelings. Not that she deserved a listless marriage, but she got so swept away in the romance of her affairs that she couldn’t see that the dudes were players.
It’s always fun to get swept away in romantic fantasies of being passionately kissed in a snowstorm on Valentine’s Day, so if that’s your thing, have at it. Just don’t get too swept up, like Emma Bovary. Or Jay Gatsby or Mrs. De Winter or Ophelia. You know how those stories ended.
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