Most people probably don’t realize the extent to which their expectations about love have been shaped by romance novels.
It is virtually impossible for anyone to think about what constitutes love without having specific characters and scenes from various works of literature come to mind.
You would be hard-pressed, for instance, to find a person who can think about romantic forms of love without thinking about the doomed affair of Romeo and Juliet, the titular characters of what is perhaps William Shakespeare’s most famous play.
This coming Valentine’s Day is a perfect opportunity to reflect on what love means, in all its forms and complexities. Here are five novels, old and new, from around the world that have given millions of lovers buffets’ worth of food for thought. They have been among the most influential works in shaping the way we view romance.
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina (Russia)
Widely regarded as one of the greatest works of fiction, the book tells the tragedy of the title character Anna, a married woman, and her affair with a rich count. In addition to being a tragic romance, it also serves as an examination of social values in imperial Russia. Its in-depth study of faith and meaning, in particular, have helped established it as “flawless as a work of art”, to use the words of Tolstoy’s contemporary, Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (England)
Heathcliff and Catherine, who enact the central romance of this classic work of Western literature, are arguably one of the world’s most recognized fictional couples. The tumultuous love that develops between them, which spans from childhood to adulthood, has captured the imagination of popular audiences and literary critics alike, resulting in countless artistic adaptations and scholarly papers.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer: This Earth of Mankind (Indonesia)
Aside from being a deeply political novel about the evils of colonialism, This Earth of Mankind also tells of a doomed romance that transpires between a native-born Indonesian everyman and a wealthy half-Dutch woman. It explores the social dynamics and complications that arise as a result of being in an interracial relationship within a caste-based system. What, it asks, does it mean to be in love with someone you’re not supposed to be in love with?
Nicholas Sparks: The Notebook (America)
Millions may find it one of the most cringe-inducing modern-day novels around, but no one can deny that The Notebook has had a strong impact and following among today’s generation of young women.
A massively successful 2004 film adaptation only made Sparks’ love story even more firmly entrenched within
popular consciousness, to the point where Urban Dictionary, an online dictionary of slang words and phrases, defined the movie adaptation as “the world’s greatest example of a chick flick”.
Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood (Japan)
Alienation is a common theme in 20th century literature. Few writers have more imaginatively explored this topic and its connection with love and loss than the Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, who encapsulates these ideas in Norwegian Wood.
Its story and themes, set against the backdrop of 1960s Japan under civil unrest, resonate with international audiences; especially its examination of the lonely and often detached nature of the relationships people had during that era.