What is love? What do we talk about, when talking about love?

The Discourse of Love

The celebration of love is rarely as much talked about as during 14 February. While the discourse of love has evolved into more liberal grounds in recent years with the general public, what may surprise some people is that these ideas have long been discussed in literature, and the discourse dates back to far beyond Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Today, Literature enthusiasts will be no stranger to the titular works of love that harbour on controversy and recalcitrance.

Till today, the big questions remains: What is love? What do we talk about, when talking about love? Is it an intangible cloud that enshrouds the lovers, a passionate rendezvous, an audacious stand against all odds, a secret elopement, or is it quite possibly — all of them?

The discourse of love extends through centuries of literature, covering different voices and representations. We often compare society to a fabric, a quilt that is a constellation of different patches. Similarly, just as people are of different origins and beliefs, the discourse of love talks about the joining of not just two people, but also different beliefs and communities. In other words, the discourse of love is intersectional. It does not talk about love, and love alone – it is in fact, impossible to talk about love without intersecting with other topics like race, gender, culture, identity, and sometimes even topics like environmentalism. 

This Valentine’s, our team at Academia did not just curate a reading list to funnel amorous feelings, but we have selected texts that explore various spheres of discourses, that exemplify how discourses of love are used to challenge broader notions relevant to even society today. Additionally, we have also put together a crossword puzzle for you to test your understanding of some iconic literary couples. (Scroll to the bottom for answers.)

The following reading list is a careful selection of titles by our team with our Literature Head, Ms Sarah Lim (SLM), to capture your hearts through tales of passion, friendship and family. (You may also find some hints for the crossword puzzle in here!)

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Often deemed a pinnacle of romance novels for empowered women, it has also garnered much debate on the choices the heroine makes in her story. This bildungsroman charts the struggles of Jane to find personal identity and freedom while pursuing love in a patriarchal society. Uncoincidentally, she falls for Rochester, a caricatured Byronic male figure; chauvinistic, arrogant and what readers will also discover — manipulative and cruel. Jane, on the other hand, is not your typical Victorian female protagonist who is pretty, dainty and frail. Instead, she is hardy, stubborn and plain. The love story that Bronte depicts is one that challenges societal and gender conventions back in the Victorian era, and which you may find to be relatable also now.

You may read the full classic here on Project Gutenberg for free: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1260/1260-h/1260-h.htm

2. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Another one from the Brontës, and while also tangentially unconventional, offers a different journey that dives into loss, revenge, madness and despondence, all motivated by love, and convoluted by identity and power. Aside from the complex journey and family tree, Wuthering Heights makes for a gripping and enthralling adventure as we follow Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s spiral; witnessing the transformation of childhood, adolescent infatuation into a pernicious and acerbic obsession. It is what the modern day will recognise as a “toxic relationship”. Nevertheless, the novel explores the destabilising notions of class and power, identity and love in the sublime nature of 18th century English country.

You may read the full classic here on Project Gutenberg for free: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/768/768-h/768-h.htm

3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Most known for its flapper-esque aesthetic since the 2013 movie release, the film very accurately reflects the opulence and exorbitance that Fitzgerald’s novel is dressed in. Beyond the flamboyant (and derailing) pursuit of love is a deeper look at a debauched society that appears to be thriving with new wealth, but is truly rotting on the inside, drunk on material abundance. Jay Gatsby’s love for Daisy can be read as a caricature of capitalism, as Daisy's love for money turns Jay's pursuit into an endless chase after material wealth. Fitzgerald’s novel has also been seen as a critique of the American dream, an interesting insight to explore when reading to unveil deeper layers to the text.

As it reaches its 75th anniversary this year, the novel joins the library of other classics and is now available on the public domain. Read the full classic here on Project Gutenberg for free: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/64317/64317-h/64317-h.htm

4. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

Two boys in extremely different positions befriend each other despite the literal fence that separates them. Set in WWII, this story follows the purest blossoming of friendship between two children, amidst the dichotomising notions of privilege and power in a time where the same notions proliferated cruelty and a world war. Heartbreakingly beautiful, the subdued depictions of the harsh realities of war we are so attuned to accentuates the child-like innocence of Bruno, son of a Nazi commandant.

It is important to note that this is a work of fiction, and is not an entirely accurate representation of the experiences of certain communities during WWII. The protagonist is the boy in a more privileged position during the war, and his ignorance may be magnified to caricature the innocent lens that children perceive, in order to construct a discourse on friendship between children despite apparent differences. It is unlikely for a child in his position to be so ignorant of the reality that was unfolding so close to him, and history also records otherwise.

5. Charlotte’s Web by EB White 

By now, you should have seen how novels have a way of breaking down differences, turning what seems as the most unlikely of situations around into a perfectly curated puzzle. Charlotte’s Web may appear to be a simple read, but it subverts traditional conventions of community, partnership and friendship. A timely reminder that love does not always only exist between lovers. Friendship, no matter the differences, can blossom. Follow the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a pig, Wilbur, and a spider, Charlotte, in this tale.

6. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Not a novel, but it’s hard to exclude such a classic when we talk about literatures of love. While many people today remember this play as a tragedy of miscommunication, it is actually also a rich exploration of class difference and gender conventions in a conservative society. We may not all need to consume poison to make a stance, but should we let superficial differences limit the relationships we build with the people around us? We’re leaving you to find out and tell us!

You may read the full classic here on Project Gutenberg for free: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1513/1513-h/1513-h.htm

If you’re one for shorter and more nuanced reads, here we have curated for you a few quotes from some of our favourite poems about love.

1. 'When You are Old' by W.B.Yeats

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

Full poem here:

2. 'Annabel Lee' by Edgar Allan Poe

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

Full poem here:

3. 'Variations on the Word Love' by Margaret Atwood

Then there's the two
of us. This word
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their deafness.

Full poem here:

4. 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' by T.S. Eliot

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;

Full poem here:

5. 'Ode to a Nightingale' by John Keats

O for a beaker full of the warm South,
         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
             With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
                        And purple-stained mouth;
         That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
             And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Full poem here:

With these, we wish all of you a very Happy Valentine’s Day 🤍🖤

Crossword puzzle answer:

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