Unrequited Love

By Poison Ivy,

I went to a movie in which a romantic teenage girl in the boondocks falls hard for a worldly older boy from the big city. She’s been waiting all her life to meet her true love, and she decides he’s it. So she daringly sends him a love letter. The very next day, he rejects her, coldly saying that she’s way too small town for him. She is totally humiliated. Worse, at a big party he flirts with her sister. Her sister enjoys it, but her sister’s fiance is hurt and furious. He fights with his best friend from the big city, and one thing leads to another, and the worldly boy kills him. Cut to a few years later, and the worldly boy is older, sadder, but a not a lot wiser. When he sees the girl at a fancy city party, now a socialite and married to a rich older guy, the worldly boy tries to seduce her. She loved him before, right? Why not now, now that she is glamorous? But she tells him to forget it. She won’t betray her husband. Even though she admits she still loves this boy she had recognized years ago as her one true love. He is totally humiliated. She is heartbroken.

And it ends that way. Nobody is happy, the best friend is long dead, and who even knows what happens to the sister! But people love this story. They loved it when it was a poem in novel form by Alexander Pushkin over 170 years ago, and they still love it as an opera today (yes, it’s “Eugene Onegin” and I saw it at a Metropolitan Opera simulcast at a big movie theater). Versions of this sad tale of unrequited love have been retold all over the world for more than a century, including various actual movies.

People who like romance, a type of story devoted to happy endings, also like to see suffering. They like to see the risk involved in getting to a happy ending, and the pain that results when two people’s hopes are not in perfect alignment. At the end of this story, the heroine Tatiana says that she and Onegin had a chance when they first met. They could have experienced true love. But instead, he threw it away, and their chance (what we now like to call a window of opportunity) ended. Although she never cites the fact that he probably ruined her sister’s life and that he killed another man (in a duel, which was legal enough in tsarist Russia), it is implicit in her rejection. Onegin didn’t just crush Tatiana’s love. He did other things that could never be taken back, never erased. Although he sees a hope of recapturing his earlier innocence by recapturing Tatiana’s love, she has taken her own permanent step beyond the moment when she loved him. She has married another man. (And by the way, no, she couldn’t have gotten a divorce, but in that society she could have had an affair with Onegin with few social consequences.)

At this point in a conventional romance, the hero works on the heroine’s will, shows her that he has changed significantly, helps her solve a dire problem, or otherwise redeems himself and wins his way back into her arms. By contrast, in a conventional opera, people die. Friends, relatives, enemies, and even wars interfere, and the hero and heroine realize that the force of destiny is against them. (There’s an opera by that name, “La Forza del Destino.” By the end, every main character is dead.) But in “Eugene Onegin,” the story concentrates on the feelings of the hero and heroine, comparing and contrasting their out-of-synch personal realizations. The result is the greatest possible amount of misery they can each suffer while still living to be miserable another day. In a romance, after a suitable period of enjoying the hero’s repentance, the heroine allows herself to forgive him. That way they can both be happy. In “Eugene Onegin,” love does not win. Onegin realizes too late what he has lost.

Oh, the aching beauty of such suffering! The power and beauty of love, even unrequited and badly-timed love, are what make this story timeless. For a general audience, evoking these feelings, unrequited as they are, is sufficient. For a romance audience, not so. In a romance, the main characters have to end up happy and with each other. That is the enduring requirement. The resolution must be more than understanding how love went wrong. It must actually fix things.

Of course the very insistence on a happy ending is why romance is a genre, as murder mysteries are (after all, they insist that the real killer gets revealed). In real life, many people love and their feelings are not reciprocated, or their situations do not allow them to be together. By touching on what happens in real life, eliciting suffering consonant with real life miseries, romances gain important emotional depth and believability. But in a romance, the probabilities are organized so that the lovers find their way to each other. By the end of a romance, all difficulties are swept away, and a rose-petal-strewn path lies ahead.

Since audiences know that a romance will end happily, why should they suffer along with the hero and heroine, worrying about unrequited feelings? And romance audiences do suffer. They shed tears as the heroine sheds tears. But why do they? It’s not mere suspension of disbelief. Romance audiences want to feel these painful feelings, but in a safe context, a context in which the ache of unrequited love will go away. By the end of the story, they don’t want to be weeping and thinking that nothing ever works out, that life is cruel, that one’s youthful hopes will all be crushed, that it’s stupid to have dreams, and so on. They want to believe the very opposite.

And this is where the romance audience and the mainstream audience part company. This is the very crux of the reason why so much scorn is routinely heaped on romances. It’s not the quality of the writing. It’s not the characters or the setting. It’s the happy ending. The determined view that unrequited love and idealistic feelings and all those mushy emotions will lead to happiness, not tragedy, sticks in the craw of people who view life as a vale of tears. The mainstream audience believes in unrequited love.I went to a movie in which a romantic teenage girl in the boondocks falls hard for a worldly older boy from the big city. She’s been waiting all her life to meet her true love, and she decides he’s it. So she daringly sends him a love letter. The very next day, he rejects her, coldly saying that she’s way too small town for him. She is totally humiliated. Worse, at a big party he flirts with her sister. Her sister enjoys it, but her sister’s fiance is hurt and furious. He fights with his best friend from the big city, and one thing leads to another, and the worldly boy kills him. Cut to a few years later, and the worldly boy is older, sadder, but a not a lot wiser. When he sees the girl at a fancy city party, now a socialite and married to a rich older guy, the worldly boy tries to seduce her. She loved him before, right? Why not now, now that she is glamorous? But she tells him to forget it. She won’t betray her husband. Even though she admits she still loves this boy she had recognized years ago as her one true love. He is totally humiliated. She is heartbroken.

And it ends that way. Nobody is happy, the best friend is long dead, and who even knows what happens to the sister! But people love this story. They loved it when it was a poem in novel form by Alexander Pushkin over 170 years ago, and they still love it as an opera today (yes, it’s “Eugene Onegin” and I saw it at a Metropolitan Opera simulcast at a big movie theater). Versions of this sad tale of unrequited love have been retold all over the world for more than a century, including various actual movies.

People who like romance, a type of story devoted to happy endings, also like to see suffering. They like to see the risk involved in getting to a happy ending, and the pain that results when two people’s hopes are not in perfect alignment. At the end of this story, the heroine Tatiana says that she and Onegin had a chance when they first met. They could have experienced true love. But instead, he threw it away, and their chance (what we now like to call a window of opportunity) ended. Although she never cites the fact that he probably ruined her sister’s life and that he killed another man (in a duel, which was legal enough in tsarist Russia), it is implicit in her rejection. Onegin didn’t just crush Tatiana’s love. He did other things that could never be taken back, never erased. Although he sees a hope of recapturing his earlier innocence by recapturing Tatiana’s love, she has taken her own permanent step beyond the moment when she loved him. She has married another man. (And by the way, no, she couldn’t have gotten a divorce, but in that society she could have had an affair with Onegin with few social consequences.)

At this point in a conventional romance, the hero works on the heroine’s will, shows her that he has changed significantly, helps her solve a dire problem, or otherwise redeems himself and wins his way back into her arms. By contrast, in a conventional opera, people die. Friends, relatives, enemies, and even wars interfere, and the hero and heroine realize that the force of destiny is against them. (There’s an opera by that name, “La Forza del Destino.” By the end, every main character is dead.) But in “Eugene Onegin,” the story concentrates on the feelings of the hero and heroine, comparing and contrasting their out-of-synch personal realizations. The result is the greatest possible amount of misery they can each suffer while still living to be miserable another day. In a romance, after a suitable period of enjoying the hero’s repentance, the heroine allows herself to forgive him. That way they can both be happy. In “Eugene Onegin,” love does not win. Onegin realizes too late what he has lost.

Oh, the aching beauty of such suffering! The power and beauty of love, even unrequited and badly-timed love, are what make this story timeless. For a general audience, evoking these feelings, unrequited as they are, is sufficient. For a romance audience, not so. In a romance, the main characters have to end up happy and with each other. That is the enduring requirement. The resolution must be more than understanding how love went wrong. It must actually fix things.

Of course the very insistence on a happy ending is why romance is a genre, as murder mysteries are (after all, they insist that the real killer gets revealed). In real life, many people love and their feelings are not reciprocated, or their situations do not allow them to be together. By touching on what happens in real life, eliciting suffering consonant with real life miseries, romances gain important emotional depth and believability. But in a romance, the probabilities are organized so that the lovers find their way to each other. By the end of a romance, all difficulties are swept away, and a rose-petal-strewn path lies ahead.

Since audiences know that a romance will end happily, why should they suffer along with the hero and heroine, worrying about unrequited feelings? And romance audiences do suffer. They shed tears as the heroine sheds tears. But why do they? It’s not mere suspension of disbelief. Romance audiences want to feel these painful feelings, but in a safe context, a context in which the ache of unrequited love will go away. By the end of the story, they don’t want to be weeping and thinking that nothing ever works out, that life is cruel, that one’s youthful hopes will all be crushed, that it’s stupid to have dreams, and so on. They want to believe the very opposite.

And this is where the romance audience and the mainstream audience part company. This is the very crux of the reason why so much scorn is routinely heaped on romances. It’s not the quality of the writing. It’s not the characters or the setting. It’s the happy ending. The determined view that unrequited love and idealistic feelings and all those mushy emotions will lead to happiness, not tragedy, sticks in the craw of people who view life as a vale of tears. The mainstream audience believes in unrequited love.

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