St. Valentine’s Day is a day where the world comes together and celebrates love – the powerful emotion. Whether it is a significant other, a friend or a family member, this is an occasion where many choose to pass on well-wishes to those dearest to them.
Literature meanwhile is one of the best ways of expressing our emotions. There are several iconic and memorable love stories from literature, as we explore here.
Romeo et Juliette
Possibly best known due to the enduring study of Shakespeare in schools everywhere. This is the story of two lovers who happen to be from feuding families, Juliette Capulet and Romeo Montague.
Romeo et Juliette was written by William Shakespeare in 1596 and further memorialized by Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliette Overture’ in 1870 and by the ballet composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1935.
The love-struck principals are forbidden to marry, and through a series of tragedies involving friends and families, eventually both die by their own hand. Juliette wants to fake her death to avoid marrying the man chosen by her father, and drinks a potion that will cause her to appear to be dead; the potion lasts 24 hours.
As she lies there (apparently dead) Romeo comes in, finds her “dead,” and drinks his own potion – poison. Juliette awakens and seeing Romeo dying, takes his dagger and kills herself.
Ironically the Capulets and Montagues, in their shared grief, reconcile. The Tchaikovsky overture is one of my favourite pieces of instrumental music. (Wait a minute, I have dozens of ‘favourites!’ I just really like good music, and I have a quite eclectic list.)
Lancelot and Guinevere (From Tales of King Arthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory ca 1300 AD)
Lancelot is perhaps the most trusted knight at King Arthur’s Roundtable. Arthur is pledged to wed Princess Guinevere and sends Lancelot to protect her on her journey to the castle.
Lancelot and Guinevere fall in love but try to conceal it in order for her to be Arthur’s queen. Discovered in adultery, Lancelot battles to protect her reputation. Though he defeated a number of other knights, he was eventually overcome and was banished from the kingdom.
Guinevere was condemned to death. Lancelot reappears and saves her from the death sentence; he becomes a hermit and she goes to live in a convent. Another favourite is the vocal “If ever would I leave you” sung by Lancelot pledging his fealty to Guinevere.
Madam Butterfly, the opera composed by Giacomo Puccini as adapted from Belasco’s stage play by the same name; 1904. This opera is one of the ten most frequently performed operas, being presented somewhere in the US and Europe each year.
The self-centred Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton lures 15-year-old Cio Cio San (Butterfly) into what is for him a marriage of convenience. Though formally married to her in Japan, he has no intention of remaining so; in fact, he already has a fiancée waiting for him back in the States.
Pinkerton consummates the marriage to Butterfly. As he leaves to return on assignment to the US he leads Butterfly to believe he will return. After Pinkerton leaves, Butterfly gives birth to a son.
Three years later Pinkerton returns, but brings his American wife, and intends to take his son back to America. When Butterfly realizes the whole story she is heartbroken.
In a tragic scene in which Butterfly meets Kate (the American wife), heartbroken Butterfly agrees to let Pinkerton take the boy to the US. She tells Kate to have Pinkerton return for him in a half-hour.
When Pinkerton arrives, as he enters and appears contrite, Butterfly takes up a dagger and takes her own life. The dagger is inscribed “Death with honour is better than life without honour.”
The instrumental music written to accompany the opera is simply fantastic. I am fortunate to have a recording, which I play somewhat frequently.
The backstory of Evangeline was said to have been related to Nathaniel Hawthorne by a cleric; Hawthorne told it to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow then composed the long, narrative poem in 1847.
“Evangeline” to my knowledge was never produced as a serious opera. Two French composers wrote an opera in French in the late 1800s, a few pages of which have survived. George Carter wrote a cantata for the story in 1873. A short opera was performed in 1948 but was not a serious work.
Many (most?) of the love stories in serious and/or classical literature have some tragic events that are outside current and longstanding morals – adultery, illicit sex, unfaithfulness, suicide. I find “Evangeline” to embody the best of faithful love.
The story is of a young couple separated the day following their betrothal. The British are forcibly removing the French-speaking settlers in Acadie, Nova Scotia and resettling them to British-held Louisiana ca 1750.
Evangeline Bellefontaine and Gabriel Lajeunesse were deported from Grand Pre’, NS on different ships bound for Louisiana. Unable to find one another wherever they debarked, Evangeline spent her life searching for Gabriel. Years later they are reunited in a Philadelphia almshouse where she, now a Sister of Mercy, finds him destitute and dying.
Evangeline’s faithfulness to her betrothed never wavered and was complete through years of sorrowful searching only to have Gabriel die in her arms.
Christianity: The Three Great Loves of Man
We cannot forget that St. Valentine’s Day and love are important areas in Christianity. There are three great loves of man, as the Holy Bible reminds us.
- Man and Wife: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her…” (Ephesians 6:25)
- Man and mankind: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)
- Man and God: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16)
While the four literature pieces listed are amazing, other iconic books include Tristan and Isolde; Cleopatra and Marc Antony; Paris and Helena, and many, many more.
St. Valentine’s Day is a special day, and one that offers us a reminder of the love God has for us. We too should remember to pass on love to others, and spread joy where possible.