Valentine's Day: 10 literary lessons in love

Everyone loves a love story. But how seriously should we take fictional tales? Can literary plots really be blueprints for our own love lives? Jack Murnighan and Maura Kelly say yes. In their book 'Much Ado About Loving,' they gather some of the love lessons offered by literary classics.

1.The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood, heroine of Sylvia Plath's book The Bell Jar (a work widely regarded as autobiographical) starts to date a Yale University student named Buddy Willard, whom she's liked for years. But as soon as they're together and Buddy starts to like her back, Esther begins to dislike him more and more, and when Buddy wants to marry her, Esther can't think why she ever liked him, musing to herself that he's "an awful hypocrite." Murnighan and Kelly note that Plath's father died when she was only eight years old, and they surmise that this may make her not want to get too attached to anyone. In some cases, the problem in your relationship may not be the other person – it may be you, say Murnighan and Kelly, and your intimacy issues.

Great Expectations

In Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations, the young orphan Pip falls in love with the beautiful Estella. Pip is sure that if he can become rich, Estella will finally take notice of him and his life will be perfect. Pip gets one of his wishes when he comes into a windfall of a fortune is elevated above his lowly status. But, Murnighan and Kelly say, you need to ask yourself: If you think that your life will be wonderful if another person falls in love with you, do you really want to be with that person, or do you just imagine that being together would somehow magically solve your problems? Would this person really cure everything in your life? Pip eventually realizes that his problem is feeling inadequate and that Estella has never really made him feel happy.

Pride and Prejudice

In Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane are excited to meet their new neighbor Mr. Bingley and his friend, Mr. Darcy. Jane and Bingley instantly fall for one another, but Lizzy is put off by Mr. Darcy's rudeness – until he learns to get over his arrogance, at which point Lizzy falls in love with him. But Murnighan and Kelly say that there could be a problem with the message that some readers may take from this novel. The idea that anyone who acts like a jerk is probably just misunderstood, they say, is a dangerous one. Even if someone seems to have changed, say the authors, you should require a lot of evidence before you believe it. And if someone's mean to everyone else and nice only to you, that could be the sign of a manipulative character.

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte classic Jane Eyre includes one of the most famous romantic twists in literature. The young, friendless Jane comes to work as a governess at the house of the wealthy Mr. Rochester, and the two fall in love. But on their wedding day it's revealed that he's still married – to a woman with a mental disorder whom he keeps hidden in the house. Rochester asks Jane to live with him as if they were married – telling her that in his heart she would truly be his wife – but Jane, who lives by principle, says she can't. Murnighan and Kelly say that sometimes you have to sacrifice values for love. If a situation is dangerous or you feel like you're betraying yourself, that's one thing. But they advise that you shouldn't let yourself get hung up on societal ideals that are proving an impediment to your happiness.

The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby follows protagonist Jay Gatsby (whose real name is Jimmy Gatz) as he transforms himself into a member of New York's 1920s jazz-era upper class. Gatsby hosts parties at his mansion but his real hope is that Daisy Buchanan – a woman he once dated but who is now married to someone else – will show up one night. This book is the go-to example of a character who is pining for someone else. But, ask Murnighan and Kelly, is it really healthy? Building your entire life around someone you're not even in a relationship with is unrealistic and means you're focusing entirely on them and not on what's best for you. And, as for Daisy, if you're the object of an obsessive affection like Gatsby's, wouldn't you always be worrying about measuring up to the impossible ideal that he's created over the course of years?

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen's first published novel, tells the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who both face romantic problems. The younger and more emotional sister, Marianne falls in love with a man named Willoughby who disappoints her and breaks her heart. Marianne eventually marries Colonel Brandon, a more serious, older man who is very much in love with her. Kelly says she was initially dubious about the pairing because Marianne hadn't been attracted to Colonel Brandon when they first met. But after looking at research, Kelly says she found evidence that couples who become slowly attracted to each other over time often have longer-lasting relationships than those who are attracted to one another right away.


Herman Melville classic Moby Dick tells the story of Ahab, a whaling captain who is fixated on hunting down a single animal. Murnighan and Kelly say that in today's world, Ahab would be called a workaholic – and that makes him a poor romantic prospect. If someone literally has no time for you, the authors point out, even if other things about the relationship work, that may be a bad sign. Workaholics very rarely change and are unlikely to permanently alter their behavior simply because they're in a relationship.

Anna Karenina

Tolstoy's great novel Anna Karenina follows the story of Russian aristocrat Anna who embarks on an affair with a dashing young officer. Murnighan and Kelly say that the lesson that Anna's story teaches is to think before jumping into an extramarital relationship even if it seems to you to be perfect and able to solve your problems. Think about the feelings you would hurt, say Murnighan and Kelly, and realize that your potential lover may not be on the same page as you, particularly if you think you're going to be with this person forever. It may seem exciting at the time – but that excitement can wear off.

Bleak House

Charles Dickens classic Bleak House features the Bagnets, a married couple who have been together for decades. In the Bagnets, say Murnighan and Kelly, Dickens paints a portrait of a couple who obviously know how to make a relationship work. In the novel, the authors say, Dickens offers hints as to what helps to keep a marriage sweet: offering frequent compliments, learning to trust your spouse's opinion, and working to make things as pleasant as possible for the other person. In "Bleak House," that's as simple as Mr. Bagnet trying to make a fuss for his wife's birthday, and Mrs. Bagnet, in return – despite knowing that her husband is going to buy subpar meat and then cook it poorly – sitting quietly and refraining from interfering.

Revolutionary Road

In Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road, married couple Frank and April seem, on the surface, to have a happy life in a 1950s suburb, but actually they are discontent. Frank, who is not fond of his children, gradually falls out of love with April. Frank also hates his job and thinks he's meant for a higher purpose – higher than that of their neighbors or his co-workers whom he regards with disdain. Murnighan and Kelly say to beware people like Frank who say they're dissatisfied with life but won't do anything about it. Often it's because they're afraid of facing up to their own mediocrity. If they can't be truthful with themselves about their own lives, they may have trouble with truth in other areas as well.