By Karen Jurgens
What emotion comes to mind when you hear The Classics? Do you revert back to high school or college where you were “forced” to read Dickens, Hawthorne, or Mellville in order to collect graduation credits? Or were you savvy, refusing to read the book but still gleaning enough information from Sparks Notes to pass those tests and compose essays? Now that you’re a writer—and even published—you congratulate yourself that you pulled it off and will never again have to face reading a dry piece of literature written before the twenty-first century.
I remember those days of mastering college Shakespeare courses while attempting to dissect the tangled word webs of great authors like T.S Eliot (I admit The Wasteland was never my cup of tea). But who couldn’t delight in Twain’s wonderful tales of adventure with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn? Or suffer through Steinbeck’s Oklahoma dust bowl with the Judd family as they limped through the desert to California? Or bite your nails with Scout and Jem as they sat in the courtroom balcony one hot Alabama summer, sweating through Tom Robinson’s trial?
A true lover of classics reads and rereads those favorite novels—always gleaning new truths, always feeling like the characters are real friends who have once again come to pay a visit in your own living room.
As I reviewed a list of must-read classic authors (found here), lightning struck as I regarded the romance category. Novels such as Gone with the Wind and The Great Gatsby come to mind first, but these are unlike today’s romances with happy endings.
I vividly recall the weeks of absorbing every one of Margaret Mitchell’s 1,037 pages and reading one night into the wee hours to finish—followed by a good, long cry. Why were those unresolved endings so bittersweet, so much more satisfying than those happy fairytale endings? Probably because it kept my imagination turning, planning that perfect ending I longed for just over the horizon or around the bend. Striving for resolve, but never arriving. The struggle is continually ongoing, carving the story forever in my heart.
To me, that’s the power of a good classic book. It often reflects the reality of our ordinary, everyday lives. No fairytale endings here. Instead, don’t we all yearn for what “could have been?”
Think about it—the majority of The Great Love Stories of All-Time didn’t resolve happily. Romeo and Juliet, Daisy and Gatsby, Pip and Estella—all eternally memorable for their losses in love. Perhaps that’s the key to creating something great today—to keep readers wondering how it will end as they work it out in their own imaginations.
Should we return to the Masters’ blueprints for a truly unforgettable romance?
As we entertain the idea, let’s compare character development in these all-time favorites with that of contemporary romance. The moral fiber was so strong in Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, that the main character kept his love for Roxane a secret, even to his dying breath. Not wanting to let her know his true feelings, he pretended that her dead husband, Christian, was the one who had composed all those flowery love poems and letters, while he (Cyrano) was the real author. Although Roxane loved Christian’s physical handsomeness, she unknowingly loved Cyrano’s poetic soul. After Christian’s death on the battlefield, she resided in a convent where Cyrano visited her every Saturday but never confessed his love directly to her. All for the sake of honor. (Sigh.)
Talk about a life of suffering and unrequited love. But along with Cyrano, doesn’t it break our hearts, too? The bittersweet injustice borne out of a sense of loyalty to his friend’s memory strums a minor key on our heartstrings and memorializes the story forever in our souls.
Moral duty and honor were the key character elements around which the story wove—the very elements we must use if we are to emulate the Masters.
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What is your opinion? Do you prefer the happily-ever-after resolution of a romance? Or do you love a bittersweet ending that you must resolve in your own imagination?
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