I’m writing this post because otherwise the words will explode inside me, injuring innocent bystanders. And also because I am obsessed with the 2016 Discussion Challenge and you should be too. You can find other lovely blogs at Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight.
First of all, let’s talk about the phrase ‘love triangle.’ This is usually a phrase we use to discuss a situation in which two people are in love with the same person. But the two people aren’t in love with each other, so it shouldn’t be a triangle. We should say ‘love straight line with three equidistant dots on it’ or something. Or, in an even better piece of lateral thinking, ‘love straight line with three dots, the outer two of which are placed in relation to the middle one in accordance of how likely they are to be successful in their romantic pursuit.’
Yes, I get that these are very long descriptions. They are also more accurate. And, since despite their ubiquity in today’s YA fiction, love triangles basically never, ever happen in real life, we wouldn’t need to say them that often anyway.
I’ve noticed a lot of blog activity about love triangles recently and it has got me thinking about why they are so popular; even if readers are becoming bored with them, they still persist as a hugely over-used trope. This is, I think, far more true in YA fiction and Shakespeare’s plays than it is in contemporary adult fiction; presumably there is an acknowledgement that grown-ups are too busy paying the mortgage and taking the bins out to engage in such dramatic romantic escapades.
Literary love triangles made more sense in the 19th century. Think about it: you didn’t get to have relationships with as many people as you wanted before choosing to settle down, if, indeed, you chose to settle down at all. Particularly for women, the options were pretty narrow; you got married or you became a servant of some description, either taking care of every single person you were related to, or in somebody else’s household. It was a complete riot. This is why love triangles have more dramatic import in a Victorian novel than in, say, a YA contemporary; your whole future was at stake, rather than just the issue of who you would go to prom with. These decisions, additionally, weren’t just based on who you liked best; financial considerations had to be taken into account and if you wanted to marry someone your family didn’t approve of, forget it.
I’ve been applying my obviously brilliant theory to some of my favourite 19th century novels. Wuthering Heights features a love triangle that persists even after two-thirds of the protagonists are dead; Cathy chooses the sickly, soppy Edgar Linton because he has more money (theory proved! I win.), even if she does claim, somewhat unconvincingly, that her decision is due to the ways in which she’ll be able to help Heathcliff. Heathcliff then complicates the love shape by marrying Edgar’s sister purely out of malice, because he is a lunatic. Love triangles involving dead people links me neatly to My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier, in which the narrator, Philip, ill-advisedly falls in love with his dead cousin’s wife, the titular Rachel. When I took this book out from my school library, the librarian described Rachel as “a bit of a one,” which is one way of explaining how this book shows love triangles, even ones in which your competition is dead, are a bad, bad plan.
Is there a name for a shape with a central point and three bits coming off it? Because that’s what we need Hardy’s majestic Far From the Madding Crowd. Bathsheba Everdene (yes, her surname is Everdene. Suzanne Collins must have known this.) is in a slightly different position, with no family to judge her or make her choices for her, but her situation takes up the love triangle theme, as well as demonstrating how shallow fictional men can be; Bathsheba moves to a new area, takes over her uncle’s farm, sings I’m Every Woman while she becomes a complete boss and, predictably, everyone falls in love with her, although this is mainly because she is beautiful and they have never seen a girl before. Loopy Farmer Boldwood, Sergeant Troy and lovely, lovely Gabriel Oak are very different characters, each of whom represents very different prospects to Bathsheba. While Boldwood has cash and Troy is that annoying kind of cocky that some people find appealing, Oak is the only one who really loves her, but does Bathsheba realise this? No. That would make the book really short, wouldn’t it?
My beloved Elizabeth Gaskell was pretty keen on a love triangle too, with complex romantic entanglements featuring in both Mary Gaskell (again: one girl, one rich but obnoxious dude, one poor but devoted guy) and Wives and Daughters; the latter is a bit more interesting for my discussion, because it involves two young women and a man, which is ground largely unexplored in today’s YA, unless you include The Maze Runner, which I don’t because I haven’t read the third book so I am ignoring it. Wives and Daughters sees stepsisters Molly and Cynthia both seeking the affections of Roger, who, it must be said, is overseas and largely oblivious to everything. Let’s actually call this one a triangle, because Molly and Cynthia actually know each other and are sort of sisters. There isn’t much active competition between the two, so it isn’t the most contentious example. Persuasion by Jane Austen, the most beautiful novel of all time (This is a fact. Don’t argue with me.) also sees a man at the centre of competition between two women, although the divine Frederick Wentworth is far too cerebral to notice such things and Anne, who was forced to reject him as a teenager because her family disapproved (I win!) due to his lack of money (I double win!), is either very passive or extremely mature/resigned to her fate/just too cool to get involved to get up in his face about it. Also Louisa Musgrove, the third point in our triangle, is just too silly to care about.
I am interested in why two boys-one girl love triangles are so persistent, while two girls-one boy situations are noticeable by their absence. If complicated romantic situations are such an important trope in literature, why all one way? My theory on this is that, for some bizarre and archaic reason, society still thinks it’s okay to present a female character as something to be fought over; readers also still seem quite accepting of a girl being indecisive. For a male character, would it be emasculating to be the object of competition? Would he be presented in too negative a light if he dragged a love triangle out for as long as, say, bloody Bella Swann? Is it just unmanly to take so long to make a decision?
Having just seen my word count, I shall end this epic discussion here and thank you kindly for sticking it out to the end. Observe the lovely comments section below and please leave your thoughts on good, old-fashioned love triangles based on women having literally no options or on my pretentious use of the word ’emasculated’ if you please.