09/20/2012 02:49 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Thwarted Romances Are a Literary Staple

Among literature's most popular plot devices are the obstructions authors put on the road of love.

It's hard not to get engrossed when two characters are thwarted -- temporarily or permanently -- from finding happiness with each other. Will things work out? If so, how? Will things not work out? If so, waahhh! (Yes, it's sad -- albeit realistic -- when compatible protagonists sometimes don't get fairy-tale endings.)

Speaking of love, I would love to tell you why I'm writing this post. It's because I recently read Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, and that novel is a very good example of the stymied-relationship phenomenon. Tita and Pedro are enamored with each other, but Tita's nasty mother adheres to a ridiculous family tradition that the youngest daughter can't marry because she has to take care of mom. So Pedro ends up marrying one of Tita's sisters and, well, people who haven't read the book won't love me if I give away what happens next....

Like Water for Chocolate is a very good novel, but not an all-time classic. Many classics also feature romances that face huge difficulties before the happy or unhappy conclusion.

My favorite is Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which stars two very different people (in social strata, life experience, etc.) who are nonetheless kindred spirits. But a certain attic-related issue jeopardizes Jane and Rochester's love for the ages.

One age -- The Age of Innocence -- chronicles the interaction of Ellen Olenska and pledged-to-someone-else Newland Archer. Is it love? Infatuation? Newland's desire to use the "arty" Ellen to break out of his confining, conventional high-society role? Whatever it is, Edith Wharton's compelling novel keeps readers wondering if the two will eventually become a couple.

Wharton also pours on the intensity in Ethan Frome, in which the title character is unhappily married. The lovesick Ethan and his wife's cousin, Mattie Silver, develop a strong affection for each other and... a memorable resolution ensues.

How about The Scarlet Letter? In another place and century, things might have worked out between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. But the constraints of that Puritanical locale and time are a big reason why Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel is so gripping.

When it comes to thwarted love, things don't get much more painful than in Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. The young Edmond Dantes is engaged to Mercedes before getting unjustly imprisoned for years -- setting the stage for perhaps the best revenge plot in the history of literature. One very intriguing part of the book is what happens when Edmond and Mercedes eventually meet again, and it's not necessarily what readers might expect.

While hardly an epic example of love that's temporarily or permanently stymied, it's intriguing to see what the interaction of Vinnie Miner and Chuck Mumpson will lead to in Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs. Chuck is enamored with Vinnie from the get-go, but the intellectual Vinnie (a literature professor) wrestles with whether the good-hearted Chuck is too crude for her. And it's nice to see middle-aged characters, not just young ones, in a potential romantic situation.

War, of course, can throw a wrench into a romantic couple's hopes. Among the many novels with that kind of theme is Erich Maria Remarque's stellar A Time to Love and a Time to Die, whose protagonists Ernst and Elisabeth try to pack a lifetime of relationship experiences into Ernst's brief military furlough.

Romance can even be thwarted for couples who've been married a while! In T.C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville, Will Lightbody is in love with his wife, but her object of affection is John Harvey Kellogg's sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Will the Lightbodies reconnect? No spoilers here! Will they change their last name to something less silly? I'm afraid not.

Then there are stymied romantic partners who are not exactly model citizens. Laurent and the title character in Emile Zola's Therese Raquin are in love (actually, in lust) with each other, but there's the matter of Therese being (miserably) married to Laurent's friend Camille. Therese and Laurent's "solution" to this dilemma is of the "be careful what you wish for" variety.

I've only touched the surface with examples, because few people say "I do" when asked if they like too-long blog posts. What are your favorite novels in which love is thwarted for many chapters or forever?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional has been published. Signed copies are now available; if you'd like to buy one, contact Dave at There's also an Amazon listing here. (Two things in the listing still haven't been corrected by Amazon: The 2012 book came out in July, not May; and it's from Xenos Press, not self-published.)