Saturday, 26 July 2014

Romeo and Juliet Must Die

Have you ever wondered why all the romantic stories end when one part gets the other? Romeo and Juliet meet each other, marry and then promptly die. Elizabeth Bennet pairs up with Mr. Darcy and the story is at an end. The fairy tale princess marries the fairy tale prince effectively terminating the fairy tale with a flimsy assurance that their marriage is to be a long and happy one.

A familiar fate

Any author or literature specialist will tell you that with the establishment of the protagonists as a romantic unit the initial conflict is resolved. This is the conflict that drives the plot and creates a lack both protagonists more or less actively seek to fill, and their union rounds off the plot by halting its driving force. More on this below, but in the meantime, there is another theory of why the fate of all couples is this way.

The O(o)ther

Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, launched his theory of "the other". This was an ontological aspect of the self, an idealised exterior part of what each individual considers to be his essence. While the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas focused perhaps more on the social and ethical nature of the other, Lacan’s focus on language makes his thinking especially relevant for the literary Other.

Jacques Lacan

He distinguishes between the little other (the “other”) and the big other (the “Other”). The first is not really someone else, but a projection of the self onto someone or something else, so when Catherine in Wuthering Heights says about Heathcliffe that He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, she is talking of the little other. On the other side, there is the big other, which is radically different, a clear and distinct alternative to the self. In literature, there is arguably a graded scale of otherness, but where for instance Heathcliffe and Catherine are similar in nature, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are quite dissimilar. For Elizabeth, then, Darcy is the Other whom she needs to relate to.

This is where Lacan argues that language, the system by which we understand everything and conceptualise the world, originates in the Other, rather than the self. It is by relating to the clearly different Other that language originates, and so language development is beyond the individual’s control, or as Lacan puts it: the unconscious is the discourse of the Other.

Bringing it back to the concept of love in literature, since the system of language is created by the Other, the concepts understood through this system follow a similar progress, including love. It is by relating to the Other, Romeo to Juliet, Elizabeth to Darcy, Catherine to Heathcliffe or vice versa that the characters can understand love and each other.

Three couples from literature: Romeo and Juliet,
  Elizabeth and Darcy and Catherine and Heathcliffe

If by now you are a bit confused by the haphazard use of the Other and the other, that is understandable, but let me tidy the conceptual area up for you. Previously, I boldly stated that in literature, there is a graded scale between the Other and the other. Romeo is the other to Juliet in the sense that they are both young aristocrats grappling with many of the same problems and desires. Juliet understands her own feelings and fears by recognising them in Romeo. At the same time, Romeo is Other. He belongs to a different familial tradition with different, conflicting interests to that of Juliet’s family. In order for their relationship to work, Romeo needs to advance from Juliet’s Other to Juliet’s other, and to do so, Juliet needs to conceptualise and understand her love for Romeo.

The same progress will, of course, have to be performed by Romeo with Juliet and the area in which this happens is in that literary graded zone between the Other and the other. Once the process is completed successfully, and both parts are the other to each other, they have formed a new unit in the other, as complete projections of their selves. It is when this stage is reached in literature that the narrative will have to end, because no more of the progress of the main characters is possible. Further narrative requires another Other, with implications for the story which are interesting, but far too wide to address here.

Furthermore, as the psychological progress from the Other to the other mirrors the narrative’s progress from exposition to conclusion, the elements of the Other that needs to be overcome in the process reflects the conflict in the narrative.

You see, here we have returned to the conflict as promised.


Already the ancient Greeks were familiar with what they called agon, an identifiable element that initiates and propels the plot forward. Later literary studies have identified explored and expanded on this concept of conflict by diversifying into a range of categories like “man vs. man”, “man vs. society”, “man vs. nature” and “man vs. self”. In this way, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes grapples with Moriarty, Orwell’s Winston Smith opposes Big Brother, London’s Buck and White Fang have to come to terms with nature, external and internal and Beckett’s Krapp, Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Palahnuik’s Fight Club protagonist all spend the span of the plot consciously or unconsciously dealing with some aspect of their own character.

Two antagonistic sources of conflict; Professor Moriarty
and Big Brother/The society in Nineteen Eighty-four

Depending on how you define the different sides of the conflict, several of these categories can play a role. The hindrance for Romeo or Juliet and the progress from Other to other is both actual antagonists (relatives), society (one organised around the family unit and its values), nature (in the sense of their own sexuality) and self (their perception of their own individuality and identity).

While this bears witness to the fluid nature of conflict in literature, it nevertheless underlines how essential it is. Even when conflict remains unresolved at the end, when the complexity of the conflict is a central theme or when the narrative challenges the reader to make his own conclusions, the conflict is present from the exposition on. Just look at any part of Joyce’s Dubliners, which is riddled with different conflicts but painfully void of resolution.

Happily Ever After

This, however is not the case in most of the romantic stories of literature. Once the lovers are together (or irretrievably lost to each other, which is the same), the conflict is resolved, the Other has become the other and the plot is at an end. There are only two alternatives to this. The first one involves an open ending. Romeo enters the church and sees Juliet and the plot ends there.

The second is that most dreaded of cultural items; the sequel. In this, “Romeo and Juliet 2 – Vampires of Verona” or “Pride and Prejudice – Meet the Darcys”, a new conflict and possibly a new or different set of characters (“Romeo and Juliet 2 – Mercutio the Merciless”) need to be introduced.

In any case, the main characters of the original have overcome the conflict and effectively ended the plot. Romeo and Juliet are one in death and so are Heathcliffe and Catherine. The Darcys, and hopefully many others of your favourite literary characters, do like in the fairy tales and live happily ever after.

of the conflict and the fun

What do you think?

Is this theory correct? Are all love stories doomed to end as soon as love blossoms, and how does this make you feel about your own relationships? I have used the theories of psychoanalysis on literature, can these theories on literature be used on real life social relationships?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Sources: as given


  1. Half, if not all, the fun is in the chase, isn't it? Would we be so interested in reading about the domestic life of the Darcys after the novelty has worn off? TH

  2. Hi TH, and thanks for commenting!

    Certainly, the process is the prize, at least in those pieces of literature or drama where that romantic tension is the point. However, according to this kind of approach to Lacan, the chase is actually not so much about that the object of that chase, but about finding a compromise between the "other" from the start of the chase and the objective qualities of the that goal. This compromise is the "Other" and the end of the book. Sometimes, of course, the conflict is resolved, but not completely. I'm thinking Elizabeth and Darcy getting together, but not seeing themeselves as one unit (or possibly growing apart). In any case, the conflict would be a new or at least modified one, and I suspect the new tension in the Darcy houshold wouldn't be especially romantic, either.