The theme of love has been a recurrent one in the history of literature. Love is an interesting subject in literature because love, unlike other themes, has many twists and turns and many different endings. Love has been present in early works of literature, such as Greek and Roman mythology, and has continued through Victorian and contemporary times. Love is unique in that it is a constant: while it goes on through different decades and different centuries, the elements stay the same. In addition, love is used in literature in a way to complement other themes, such as violence or sadness. It is useful as it gives common ground to otherwise unrelatable individuals. Many times, literature exhibits love in an unrealistic manner, usually portraying a happy ending, but it has been said that this occurs as the author wishes to exhibit to the reader what love would look like in a perfect world.
It has been said that early medieval writers and poets used the term "love" to suggest "moral, ethical and social phenomena which were deeply connected with friendship and the development of morals." In the 12th century, love is seen more as a bond between the genders and an emotional force. It has been suggested that by this time, writers were using love as a way of exhibiting freedom from enemies of that time and to show that there was now a "leisure class" who could enjoy the pleasures of love.
William Shakespeare (1564--1616) was an English poet and playwright who used love in the context of all angles. He suggests that lovers are not bound by space and time or the surrounding world. In The Merchant of Venice, he writes: "Lovers ever run before the clock, quite unaware of what others think of them as people committing mistakes." Romeo and Juliet, a love story between two star-crossed lovers, is the classic tragic romance. It has been said that Romeo and Juliet is the ultimate symbolic example of the story of young love and doomed love. Shakespeare interestingly breaks from traditional courtship views of his day with Romeo and Juliet, as Juliet does not adhere to the "rules of the day" that a woman should be shy and modest but rather, after knowing each other for just one night, the couple confess their love for one another and make plans to marry. Shakespeare did not always applaud love though; he is quoted as saying, "Love is merely a madness."
The New York Public Library has published a list of some of the top love stories of all time. The following are a sample of these:
Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) is the story of the lovers Heathcliffe and Catherine. Their love story has been described as one that expresses the idea of "giving oneself unreservedly to another and gaining a whole self or sense of identity back, to be all-in-all for each other, so that nothing else in the world matters, and to be loved in this way forever." They are described as soul mates, as Heathcliffe declares after Catherine's death, "I cannot live without my soul."
Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare) -- see above for description.
In Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) love is used in several ways. It is used both positively and negatively in the central character's life. Anna Karenina does not have love within her marriage so she seeks it elsewhere. However, this in turn leads to her committing suicide. The book also explores the duality between the love for family and romantic love.
Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen) uses love to exhibit that love does not come without some discomfort. While the main protagonists end up with happy endings, they endure sadness and tragedy in the pursuit of love.
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) explores the theme of love by exhibiting that love is not always a primary ingredient for marriage. Instead Austen suggests that love is a "privilege" and not something that marriages are based upon. Instead, marriage is built upon economic necessity. She opens Pride and Prejudice with the following line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."