(baby don’t hurt me don’t hurt me no more)
(’tis not hereafter; present mirth hath present laughter)
Gothic love is pretty famously stupid, from the perspective of dull sublunary lovers like myself. If I think too hard about the Bella-Edward situation, I get embarrassed for humanity. And even in truly great works of Gothic romance like Wuthering Heights, the primary relationship is so absurdly intense and metaphysically complicated that it doesn’t take a particularly hardboiled cynic to utter an “oh brother” every few pages.
But this over-the-top, wordless, self-destructive, sublime feeling that overwhelms all sense and reason emerges in fiction just at the time when fictional love was recommended to young readers in extremely sensible and domesticated forms. The marriage plot warns us that the entrancing, mysterious, brooding, sexy sort is probably a dangerous and ultimately unpleasant romantic option. Henry Fielding, for example, describes love in Tom Jones (1749) as “a kind and benevolent disposition which is gratified by contributing to the happiness of others.” He goes on:
[E]steem and gratitude are the proper motives to love, as youth and beauty are to desire, and, therefore, though such desire may naturally cease, when age or sickness overtakes its object, yet these can have no effect on Love, nor ever shake or remove, from a good mind, that sensation or passion which hath gratitude and esteem for its basis.
It’s a beautiful passage, one of my favorites in all of literature. Esteem and gratitude! Kind and benevolent! We so rarely hear these words associated with the feeling of love that it feels (to me) quite refreshing. Fielding recommends that the reader should seek out a partner for life who, yes, is sexually appealing, but also is kind, helpful, and compassionate. That is, in our romantic lives, we should choose, as much as we are able, to be happy.
Gothic love has no such goal. Falling in love in Gothic novels seems to create the same physiological symptoms in characters as discovering a blood-soaked veil hiding something in a secret passageway. They tremble, blush, weep, and can’t breathe. They can’t talk about it or explain it to anyone else, and when they try, it just sounds nuts. They no more choose to pursue it than one chooses to continue falling down a well. It ruins their lives, isolates them from contact with other people, makes them behave strangely. They will put up with all kinds of abuse and violence, either in the name of their beloved, or at his/her hands.
To most adults, this idea of love seems, at best, childish, and, at worst, disastrous. If you imagine a teen daughter of yours falling in love this way, it makes your head spin. And yet, there’s also something in Fielding’s definition of love that may strike us as a bit cold-fish. Even with his allowance for sexual desire, where is the hot, burning, all-encompassing passionate LOVE of one soul tragically and eternally split into two bodies?
Also, is it possible to attempt to enjoy Gothic love as an aesthetic experience, while still thinking it’s a pretty dumb idea for real life? (I say yes of course, and that it’s good for readers to learn to be emotionally flexible, but who can say?)