Unrequited Love in Storytelling

Cupid's Spell 1885 Henry Woods

There is a strong bias in storytelling, across the board: In stories of unrequited love, the object of affection is the romantic opponent, not the main character. Time and again, storytellers show the pain of falling for someone else without reciprocation. We very rarely experience a narrative from the point of view of the person who is not in love.

This is unfortunate because it is in some ways easier to experience unrequited love than to experience being the object of someone else’s love. Twenty years later, the person with the crush will probably look back fondly on the love they felt for someone else, even if that love was never returned. There’s a corpus of story out there telling us exactly how this feels and how this is meant to feel. If we fall for someone who doesn’t love us back, we know from story that we are definitely not alone.

Problematically, many stories of unrequited love end with the love object changing their mind, sometimes because stalker behaviour coded as admirable perseverance has (supposedly) made them fall in love after all. It’s way easier to find stories about love potions and Cupid’s intervention than stories that end in moving on.

Generally, in real life, we hold back the full capacity of our affection until we receive confirmation of reciprocation. Therefore, catching feelings for another person and then facing lack of interest is a minor hit. We do move on.

But being on the other side of unrequited love has a longer half life. Twenty years after someone else professes their love for us, we, the love object, are quite often still a bit confused, indignant and unsure how to process having been part of that whole scenario.

Why? Because stories are not told from the point of view of Rosaline, the (generally) unseen romantic interest of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo is at first deeply in love with Rosaline and expresses his dismay at her not loving him back.

And how did Rosaline feel about all of that? We’ll never know. That said, there have been revisions centring Rosaline — here is one, though reviews of Romeo’s Ex suggest this story is not about what it’s like to struggle with hard feelings. Instead, the author gives Rosaline an anachronistic interest in a career until she does in fact fall in love herself, demonstrating how it is far easier for storytellers to write about the experience of being in love than the experience of being loved (without reciprocation).

There are very few stories about the Rosalines of this world who are very much not in love, but who know they are the object of love. Writers struggle to write this scenario because there is no cultural script regarding how to process it.

This is why people in real life scenarios write into advice columnists such as Captain Awkward as part of processing what to do when someone falls in love with you.

What accounts for the difficulty of the situation?

  1. When you fall for someone else, you are 100% sure how you feel. In contrast, you can never be 100% sure of the nature of the crush someone has on you, because they’re only seldom being fully straight with you, and with themselves. So the first step is generally second guessing yourself. You might always be second guessing yourself because there is no period of resolution.
  2. We don’t know what our obligations are to people who fall in love with us. Empathetic love objects feel mean because rejecting people, under any circumstance, is hard.
  3. Women in particular are socialised to manage other people’s feelings, especially the feelings of men. Even when nothing is required whatsoever, women can struggle to leave others alone to manage their own feelings.

Because of these exact difficulties, we need more stories told from the other side of unrequited love.

Header painting: Cupid’s Spell (1885) by Henry Woods

The Lap Pool by Robert Drewe

ponies

“The Lap Pool” is a short story by Australian author Robert Drewe, and the opening story in the 2008 collection The Rip. Robert Drewe is known for writing about the beach, and its importance to the lives of many Australians, but this particular story is about man’s relationship to a very different body of water — a pool on a farm. The beach is nowhere in sight.

“The Lap Pool” is a short story by Australian author Robert Drewe, and the opening story in his 2008 collection The Rip. Robert Drewe is known for writing about the beach and its centrality in the lives of many Australians. But this story is about man’s relationship to a different body of water — a pool on a farm. The beach is nowhere in sight, except that he has moved away from it.

In this story the author paints a picture of a complicated, unsympathetic character and then kills him off at the end, sort of like divine retribution, the modern equivalent of deus ex machina. (Another example is “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple.) These stories can feel pointless if the author isn’t careful, partly because killing a character at the end can feel like a cheap and easy way to stop writing. If you’re planning this category of story there must be another point to the narrative.

For instance, the story might be a frame for a well-rendered evocation of a very interesting storyworld, symbolically and metaphorically fascinating in its own right.

Or, the author might be testing the reader’s sympathies, encouraging us to understand a character and therefore empathise as a human being. Whenever an author gives us a glimpse into the secret part of a character’s psyche we tend to empathise, even if that character is truly terrible. In that case, a death at the end forces us to realise we actually didn’t mind this guy after all. Stories with this underlying structure can thereby make us question our problematic powers of empathy.

Who do you empathise with in this story? Did you feel a pang of sadness at the end? I remained detached from Leon and I’m pretty sure I groaned at the end but “The Lap Pool” is still a masterful work of short fiction.

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The Symbolism of Crossroads

Albert Ludovici - Mr. Pecksniff Leaves for London

Crossroads in storytelling often indicated the place/time of decision. A self-revelation occurs after the decision has been made. Character arc or penance follows. The ur-crossroads story features a character with special skills, who has supposedly traded his soul with the devil.

One such story, attached to an actual person, is the story of Robert Johnson, who was so good at guitar no one could believe he’d practised to get that expert. But the mythology of the Father of Jazz goes back much further. We can find an example in fairy tale:

So the retinue was increased, and now [the twin brothers] came to a crossroad, where they said, “We’ve got to separate here, and one of us should go to the right, and the other should head off to the left.”

“Johannes Waterspring and Caspar Waterspring”, a tale from the first Grimm collection

In folk magic and myth, crossroads are magical places. All sorts of supernatural and paranormal things were thought to take place at crossroads.

In other words, crossroads are a visual representation of a moral dilemma.

Examples From Children’s Literature

In 101 Dalmatians, a chase scene includes a crossroads shot, indicating that there are various possible routes. We don’t know if the villain will find the puppies because this is a maze-like world. It’s easy to get lost in this snowy landscape.

crossroads 101 Dalmatians

I made use of crossroads myself in our 2011 picture book app The Artifacts, to end the story, but also to create an aperture ending, which encourages the reader to extrapolate what happens next. After filling his mind with knowledge, there’s more than one path this young man could have taken in life. Armed with knowledge after a lifetime of reading, more than one choice opens before him.

The Artifacts sheep moon
The Artifacts, Slap Happy Larry, 2011.

We also see symbolic crossroads in:

Thomas Edwin Mostyn - Which Way to Bushey
Thomas Edwin Mostyn – Which Way to Bushey

FURTHER READING

The crossroads shot from North By Northwest
The crossroads shot from North By Northwest

Header painting: Albert Ludovici – Mr. Pecksniff Leaves for London

What is parallax in literature?

Landscape with Clerks Studying Astronomy and Geometry from the early 15th century

Parallax describes a type of movement. The position or direction of an object seems to differ when viewed from different positions.

OPTICAL ILLUSION

Parallax is an optical illusion. Extend one arm and hold up your thumb. Close first one eye, then the other. The thumb appears to have changed positions, but hasn’t. Your perspective is simply different depending on which eye you’re using. 

STELLAR PARALLAX

In astronomy, the angular amount of parallax changes depending on what point in the earth’s orbit you’re seeing it from. Early 1800s astronomers worked out that they could measure distance to stars outside the solar system by viewing the same star from different positions. 

PARALLAX ON SCREEN

Many games make use of parallax to create a more ‘alive’ setting. A good example can be found at this website. The plants in the foreground are created on a separate layer from the main background.

PARALLAX IN PHILOSOPHY

Actually, philosophers use the phrase ‘response dependence‘ to describe how individuals’ ideas differ depending on our perspective and input.

PARALLAX IN LITERATURE

A writer can also let readers see a situation from different positions, or perspectives. It’s called parallactic narration, or narrational parallax and refers to the device or rendering of a story from more than one point of view in variable parallactic focalisation. One writer who made much use of parallax is Katherine Mansfield, who largely used it to create irony.

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