Man and woman are the two binaries that support our existence and the integral combination that literally creates life. As time unfolds, the very nature of relationships evolves; man and woman has given way to woman and woman, man and man, or even no relationship at all. What is it that makes relationships between human beings so intriguing? Copulation? Procreation? Love?
Of course, when studying relationships one must look to a paragon of English literature –William Shakespeare. From star-crossed lovers steered to suicide, to austere arranged marriages, he manipulates his characters to fall hopelessly in love, time and again. Yet, is it always genuine? Much Ado About Nothing deals with a textbook example of superficial love in the guise of Hero and Claudio’s intense infatuation. Becoming enamoured with each other after one silent meeting, their relationship is based on first impressions; Claudio perceives Hero as the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen. Conversely, he is easily tricked into believing her infidelity, announcing it in front of the congregation at their wedding, thus proving the fragility of a one-dimensional relationship.
Jump forward 200 or so years to Jane Austen, another titan of English prose. Relationships now become a formal affair. Between the ages of 15 – 19, a woman was said to be ‘out’, and this is reflected in the myriad, young, Austenian heroines betrothed to men within their teenage years, such as 17 year-old Marianne and 35 year old Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. Men presented themselves as possible husbands before the development of any romantic emotions and the act of courtship was a façade, acted out according to fixed societal conventions. Any potent amorous feelings were restrained and the whole affair was handled as a business transaction. Applying to a father for a woman’s hand in marriage was commonplace, and, of course, it would be laughable for the woman to have a choice in the matter. Unfortunately, in Regency and Victorian marriage, love was often sacrificed for stability and comfort, exhibited by Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, counseled to find a rich husband first, and love, afterwards.
Moving on to 20th century literature, relationships really start to transform. One such example is from Fitzgerald’s opus, The Great Gatsby, the tale of a man obsessing over a woman who’s moved on. Here, we start to see the possibility, and reality, of unequal love. The memory of Daisy plagues Gatsby for years, being the sole motivation for his rapid acquisition of wealth, whereas her life, child and husband, do not factor in her old paramour. He idolizes her - the incarnation of his aspirations for a better life - whereas her love with Tom is ranked equal to her love for Gatsby. His divine image of Daisy is unattainable for the human woman it depicts and she knows she can never reach his expectations. Theirs is a prime example of a ‘what if’ relationship. Would they have been any happier?
Alongside monumental shifts in the societal psyche, homosexuality began to be explored later in the 20th century, as the stigma collapsed. Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited centres on a male homosexual relationship in the English aristocracy. Charles, the protagonist, falls for Sebastian and later on, Sebastian’s sister, who bears a striking resemblance to her brother. It seems likely that their homosexual relationship was sparked by what Sebastian represented for Charles, a new world of aesthetics and beauty. Without a doubt, the fluid sexuality of a protagonist, whilst perhaps controversial in 1945, has become less taboo in the last half century, leading to relationships much more inclusive of all sexual preferences.
So that begs the question, what is the future of relationships in literature, and in real life? Science has become an inexorable influence on our culture, leading to an array of novels dealing with cloning, such as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Possibly removing sex from the equation - the epitome of intimacy - leaves the future of relationships in a compromising position. Without the need for men and women to procreate, will the archetypal relationship survive? I think so. Human beings need contact and crave interaction, otherwise life is lonely and altogether less exhilarating. Relationships encompass more than just the sensual; it’s the emotional pull to another person that has permeated through the centuries, and I believe, will permeate through the years to come.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of St George's Weybridge.