The pursuit of romantic love is painful and ultimately futile

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A2 English Literature: Practice Essay Questions

“The pursuit of romantic love is painful and ultimately futile”

Despite the differences between the novels, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Great Gatsby both explore romantic love through many forms, ranging from the passionate yet violent emotions individuals hold for one another to the attraction we all hold towards an aspiration.

Initially set before the second World War, the idyllic island of Cephallonia makes the perfect setting for the youthful, appealingly cliché yet naïve infatuation between Pelagia and Madras. De Bernières creates a deep sense of fondness in the readers towards the couple through his use of humour and pure passion “I like his backside. God forgive me, even though I’ve never seen it. I can just tell I like it. That I would like it. It’s very small…” However the novel, from the very beginning sows seeds of doubt of the strength of the relationship through the insecurities held by Mandras and the doubts in Pelagia’s answer to her lover’s proposal: “‘Of course I’ll marry you,’ she said quietly”. Similarly, The Great Gatsby hints towards a bleaker reality that underlines the passion shared between Daisy and Gatsby.

The slow and painful decline out of ‘love’ for Pelagia, mirrored by Mandras’ growth in his desire for her creates strong tension between the two characters in chapter 20 ‘The Wild Man of the Ice’. Through his suffering on the battle field, Pelagia in Mandras’ eyes is elevated to the status of a deity- “Yes, I even prayed to you”- through his love for her he retains his will to live in order to prove himself worthy of her hand in marriage and prove himself a man by going to war. Mandras pursuit of Pelagia is described in excruciating detail by the author, his “bleeding gums” and putrid stench shock both the reader and his betrothed and add to the poignancy of the fact is that the love Pelagia once held for Mandras, a love that has only strengthened inside him, has been replaced by disgust, pity and horror in her: “Had she betrothed herself to an illiterate, without even knowing it?”.

Jay Gatsby, though his love for Daisy embarks on a dream to, like Madras, be worthy of her hand in marriage. Yet through this self-transformation, Gatsby sets aside morals as he falls into corruption; the novel implies his relation to bootlegging, bribery and mobs. Yet in Fitzgerald’s satire, this love for Daisy, an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness” is attributed to the subconscious desire of fulfilling the Platonic conception of himself and achieving the American Dream embodied by Daisy.

Furthermore, Fitzgerald portrays Daisy, a “Southern belle” with a “voice full of money”, as carefree and reckless: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy”. Through her superficial and almost childish mannerisms (“Oh, let’s have fun… It’s too hot to fuss”) the extent of Daisy’s attraction to Gatsby is made highly questionable. Fitzgerald builds her character through a series of contradictions: her so-called ‘love’ for Gatsby is undermined by her persistence to remain with her husband despite his infidelity, her infidelity in turn raises the question of whether Gatsby to Daisy is a temporary escape from the ‘monotony’ and dissatisfaction with her current situation in life.

Whichever interpretation the reader chooses to take, Fitzgerald leaves no doubt at the end of his novel on the nature of romantic love and Gatsby’s pursuit of it. Daisy’s statement “oh you ask for too much” clearly conveys both her lack of commitment to Gatsby but, drawing parallels with Pelagia, conveys the fact that the feelings Gatsby holds for her are not fully reciprocated. Fitzgerald can be exposed to criticism by a modern feminist reader through the insensitivity he shows to the true circumstances Daisy finds herself in: on one hand, finally with her true love yet on the other in danger of being ostracised and stigmatised for leaving her husband with whom she finds security and has had a child with.

Nevertheless, Gatsby accepts full responsibility for the death of Myrtle to protect his ‘true love’, going to the extent of faithfully waiting outside her window in a dire hope to see her: “‘I want to wait here till Daisy goes to bed’… He put his hands back in his coat pockets and turned back eagerly to his scrutiny of the house.” It is through this gesture of devotion that Fitzgerald, like de Bernières for Mandras, creates pathos for the character yet simultaneously projects the futility of his pursuit of love. It is this devotion to love that ultimately destroys Gatsby- murdered by Myrtle’s husband, George, in both grief over his wife’s death and outrage for her infidelity with another man, who he thinks is Gatsby. Fitzgerald, here, portrays yet another failed romance riddled with deception, pain and sorrow.

In John Donne’s The Apparition the speaker condemns his lover of murdering him with her “scorn”. Despite drawing parallels with Gatsby, Donne’s poem deviates in the sense that the speaker has realised the futility of his endeavours. However, despite promising to haunt her and leave her “bathed in a cold quicksilver sweat” and through his outrage and passionate desire for revenge; not to mention jealousy over “he, whose thou art then” whom he claims lacks sexual vigour; and his reinforcement of the fact his “love is spent”, the speaker undeniably holds subtle yet perceivable love for his ex-lover.

This love, turned to hatred, mirrors the emotions that arise within Mandras on his realisation that the Pelagia he once remembered- who he once prayed to “instead of the virgin”- “tumbled short of his dreams”, to quote Fitzgerald. Mandras is disillusioned after his realisation and, in his longing to regain a state of ignorant bliss, he decides to return to war where he may “reclaim the dream of Pelagia”. Over time this hurt within Mandras grows to hate and, alike Donne’s The Apparition, he returns to Pelagia, however, with the intent of forcefully taking what he never was able to take: her virginity. Through Mandras’ physical state, de Bernières shows the ability of romantic love to twist and deform the soul as he returns corrupt and stereotypically so: overweight and despicable in character.

In both novels romantic love ultimately destroys the men who set out in pursuit of it. Fitzgerald, through the tragic end of every relationship in the novel, shows that no one is an exception- a view that many modern readers may appreciate in its cynicism. De Bernières on the other hand, through the love shared between Pelagia and Corelli, shows that true love is observed “when being in love has burned away”. Despite Donne’s speaker rejecting his love after a painful personal experience and Fitzgerald undeniably criticising all relationships as “painful and ultimately futile”, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin differentiates between romantic love and just love, treading the middle ground between both hope and belief in humanity’s ability to truly love one another and the a full acceptance of love’s destructive consequences when it fails or is misunderstood.

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