I was thinking about the nature of love triangles after penning yesterday’s post and I realized that every relationship is a love triangle. You have the guy, the girl…and, if there is no other rival, at very least you have the status quo for conflict, pulling one’s heart in the opposite direction.
Because that’s what a relationship is up against. It’s a question of whether you abandon what you already have–your singlehood, your complete independence, and your ability to be available should something better come along–for the sake of committing to this one man or one woman. And, if there are human rivals, then it becomes a square: pick Guy A, pick Guy B, or stay single?
Even in literature of the past, this has been a very real question. Early in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett is faced with the dilemma of choosing Mr. Collins, with his annoying personality but stable living conditions, or remaining single with the hopes that something better will come along (since she assuredly doesn’t want to live with her mother and any unmarried sisters for the rest of her days).
She is pulled in different directions, just like a heroine in a traditional love triangle, and even Mr. Collins notes that no other offer of matrimony may ever come her way (as part of his proposal, no less), hinting that her choice is either marry him or stay single forever. Her friend Charlotte later accepts Mr. Collins, shocking Elizabeth by choosing him over single existence.
This also comes up in Little Women. Amy is prepared to marry Fred Vaughn, even though she doesn’t love him, because he is rich and because being poor and single has no attractions for her. She’s determined she has no great genius in art, and so her only path to fortune is through marriage. (And while she later rethinks this, she still ends up marrying a man who is wealthy…just slightly less wealthy and whom she actually loves.)
Her sister, Jo, is stuck with a similar problem because she doesn’t necessarily want to marry anyone, yet being single at that time provided less freedom and less companionship than being married. I think she really chose Professor Bhaer, not just because she loved him, but because he would give her freedom in marriage, while Theodore Laurence would want to be her constant companion and confidante and smother her too much with his care and attention (More on this in this post).
Overall, I think this is an untapped area of conflict in many novels. We examine the pros and cons of a particular match–whether the characters really love each other, trust each other, are compatible, etc.–but we need to remember to show what the romance is up against. How bad is singlehood? What struggles does it offer? Has the guy just worn the girl down, getting chosen not because he’s ideal but because she’s tired of being alone (as in A Portrait of a Lady, and, arguably, part of why Jo chooses marriage at last)? Is the girl making marriage look better than bachelorhood, to where the guy is blindly willing to commit? Has she made it impossible to go back with his reputation intact?
And, just as I noted in the post on love triangles, we have to make this conflict believable, to where it isn’t decided by us, the authors, even though the “singlehood vs. relationship” decision is a choice we’ve had to make in our personal lives, and even though we undoubtedly have an opinion about which is better. We have to show what’s at stake for the characters, within the world of the story, and the more tempting singlehood is, the harder the characters will have to fight (and pursue) to make the romance work…which can lead to a more interesting plot.
Photo by MGMboston, Creative Commons