From Steinbeck and Orwell to Margareis Weis and Orson Scott Card, literary greats and genre fictionistas have long been crafting tragic romances. Whether they ultimately succeed or fail is of little importance, the meaning lies in the journey that these characters undertake together.
Given that the field of literature has broadened so deeply as to now include genre fiction which had previously been discarded by the ivory tower and the academy as lesser work, it seemed appropriate to draw titles into the fold which may traditionally escape the lit reading list. Without further ado, let us explore perhaps the five most tragic romances in contemporary fiction.
5. Issib and Shedemei, as written by Orson Scott Card (Homecoming and Harmony Sagas)
Written as a near-Mormon sci-fi saga, OSC’s Homecoming and Harmony Sagas encapsulate the entire gamut of human emotion — betrayal, faith, brotherhood, and sexuality are fully explored and tested to their very limits. Called by a mechanical Oversoul from a distant planet to return to Earth after an apocalyptic war, these pilgrims eventually pair off into mating pairs. The “remnants”, a crippled Issib and a plain Shedemei, are left to each other.
This means that the foundation, early on, of their relationship is already quite bitter and spiteful — both see each other as living proof of their own lack of attractiveness with little to offer the opposite sex; In fact, Shedemei even coldly reacts to Issibs wounded pride with regards to lovemaking at the outset.
The narrative continually hints at Issib’s feelings of inadequacy — a softness which is often abused in a harsh and hypermasculine society such as the ones the pilgrims instantiate — and Shedemei’s resentment which continues unabated for some time.
This problem is rectified with gentle care in the following pages, and their love does begin to bloom, but not without many struggles against their respective handicaps.
After all, who wants a giant circuitboard from another planet reaching into that play-doh you call a brain and forcing you to mate with one another? Sounds like the plot of “Barbarella meets Johnny Mnemonic” to me.
4. Ethan and Mary Hawley, as written by John Steinbeck (The Winter of Our Discontent)
A thoroughly depressing book (both in its portrayal of increasingly existential banality, materialism, and selfishness), The Winter of Our Discontent is often offered up as a failed book which sold well by Steinbeck, with many dismissing the tepid tone of the narrative without grasping that precise point.
In early to mid twentieth century Long Island, storeclerk Ethan Hawley and his wife live with their two children in a state of arrested development, working to middle class and almost completely unremarkable. These facts sting the family, as Ethan comes from a line of influential townsfolk and aristocrats – all persons of note and history which seem to dwarf the kindly and timid Ethan as the latest in lineage, much to the chagrin of his wife and family.
Despite constantly working hard and being honest, Ethan never rises to prominence precisely due to this fact – while other townsfolk and businessmen are engaging in the extortion of labor or capital from other men, Ethan refuses to sink to this level. His family becomes increasingly agitated by his lack of material ambition and success and continually leech him for more; it is clear that Mary herself is losing interest both romantic and sexual in her husband as his “failure to launch” seems to be a permanent state of being rather than a temporary one.
Emblematic of problems which would later emerge in our own society – rampant materialism and selfishness, corruption of the principles of honesty both within marriage and within a larger social context, and a total lack of interest from romantic partners when economic gain and increase in social status fail to be achieved – Steinbeck’s work reminds us of the shallow nature of love between certain people and how deeply it can wound the unrequited party.
Ethan flees his house at night, attempting suicide in a seaside culvert. There is some small note of redemption and hope when he finds his daughter’s talisman thrust into his pocket, replacing the razor blades he had placed there, and he desperately attempts an uncertain escape from death.
3. Raistlin Majere and Crysania, as written by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (Dragonlance Saga)
Though some describe the genre fiction work of Weis and Hickman as juvenalia, the line blurring young adult literature and format literature seems to be continually blurred. The one-sided and completely manipulated love between the cunning yet weak archmage Raistlin Majere and the pure and naive priestess of the good god Paladine is almost a classic tale of tragedy.
Raistlin is a frail and physically vulnerable mage who thirsts more than anything else in the world for more power – there is no limit to his ambition nor is there a limit to the power he would eventually wield, including over the heart of Crysania, a beautiful and noble priestess who falls in love with the tortured magic-user.
The plot centers around the necessity of a force of good to shield Raistlin from harm as he enters the Abyss to do spiritual and magical battle against the God of Darkness, the Dragon Queen, Takhisis. A mere mortal with extraordinary powers, Raistlin uses Crysania’s love for him to convince her to come with him on this journey to “strike down darkness”, though he does not tell her that his motive for doing so is to supplant the Dark Queen and take her place.
During their journey within the bowels of the Abyss, Crysania is struck down by demonic forces, saving Raistlin’s life. She pleads for Raistlin to stay, but he turns his back on her and plunges deeper, towards his destiny, abandoning her.
Though she would survive (blinded), the act itself was their final farewell and the breaking of Crysania for a great time, with Raistlin himself showing minor notes of regret as the tale spins on.
2. Montag and Mildred, as written by Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)
In a near-future where teens amuse themselves with lethal street races and consumed cruelty and books are burned by firemen tasked with cultural cleansing, Ray Bradbury succeeds in producing an omen which shows us the road to avoid if we’d prefer a free society. The romance between the pages, however, is as squalid and still as a bog – Mildred and Montag may be married on paper but they share no passion and no empathy and no love. While Montag struggles with this fact, his wife lives a life of superficiality and drug-induced state of tranquility that would put a Buddhist monk to the test.
The tragedy of this relationship mostly comes along with the parcel of Mildred’s spiritual defeat. She is meant to represent the death of intelligence and criticism – she refuses to discuss anything of import or of consequence with Montag, immediately changing the topic to her favourite reality TV drama (her most constant demand is for Montag to install a ‘fourth wall’ sized television so that she can be completely encapsulated in sensory overload provided by her advertisers).
Silence is unbearable to her (the implication being that silence forces the mind to create and criticize on its own), she even wears a buzzing headpiece to bed which drowns out the words of her husband as easily as any other intrusive and perhaps stirring thoughts. Her life is on autopilot, and Montag is beginning to wake up.
He begins to hate his wife and her inability, indeed refusal, to think for herself. Her friends, all matronly elitists with little time for Montag’s subversive and disturbing antics, constantly dismiss or ridicule Montag in front of Mildred, embarassing his wife deeply. During one of their thrilling reality shows, an ultraviolent car race, Montag stands to recite poetry. The women are horrified at his gall (for poetry is clearly subversive and thus illegal) and some are so traumatized that they are driven to tears, or to flee.
All in all the contrast between willing sheep and resistant flame and the death of any love (platonic or romantic) between them not only stands as a symbol for romantic couples in our own time and place, but also the alienation between individuals who are unable to conform to an increasingly superficial world.
1. Winston and Julia, as written by George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, or 1984)
One of the most depressing dystopian fictions also hosts one of the most depressing romances to ever grace the page. An initial flourish of lust and love between the sex-repressed Winston and the Anti-Sex League poseur Julia allows the two to linger in paradise for a brief period of time between the pages. However, when the shopkeeper they are renting their lovenest from turns them in to the Inner Party and, accordingly, Big Brother, things quickly go south (and not in the good way).
Winston and Julie represent burning passion and the resistance of the human spirit against tyranny, both sexual and social. They find love in each other’s arms and a completion of their souls that is not present in their lives beforehand. The state, however, manages to twist their love with torture and starvation until they finally betray one another, wishing a plague of biting rats upon their lover in a plea to save themselves.
After their respective “state re-educations”, the two are re-united as they return to their parent culture. The following scene is perhaps one of the most insightful views of the death of love.
“I betrayed you”, she said baldly.
“I betrayed you”, he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
“Sometimes”, she said, “they threaten you with something — something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.”
“All you care about is yourself”, he echoed.
“And after that, you don’t feel the same toward the other person any longer.”
“No”, he said, “you don’t feel the same.”
No matter what your opinion on romance might be, there can be no doubt that dystopia provides an excellent setting for tragedy between lovers. Whether it’s abandonment at the gates of hell or a figurative boot stamping on a human neck, forever — love hurts, scars, and drives readers to great heights of exhilaration and perhaps even depression as the characters they have imagined suffer the slings and arrows of the heart.
We welcome your discussion on these works. Do you have other suggestions for the most tragic love stories in modern fiction? Let us know in the comments below.