The eighteenth and nineteenth century were dominated by the intellectual movements of the Enlightenment and the Romantic era, respectively. Broadly speaking, these two eras disagreed about whether individual happiness should be valued over group happiness. Whether to trust in reason or trust in intuition. Whether to view things pragmatically or idealistically . . . among other disagreements. Naturally, such disagreements over human relationships, and the correct outlook to take towards them, led to disagreements about the nature and validity of romantic love.
Exemplars of these two conflicting views on romantic love are Voltaire’s Candide, representing the Enlightenment era, and the poetry of John Keats and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, representing the Romantic era. Although these books are a representation of the thinking of the era, the views they take are also influenced by the personal beliefs of their authors, rendering each book’s view on romantic love slightly different.
Although Voltaire wrote before the Romantic era, he argues against the innocence and the idea of passionate love, which would become a corner stone of Romantic thought. The book’s opening page stresses that Candide is “extremely simple minded“, suggesting a lack of depth to his ideas, and therefore his conceptions about love. Candide and Cunegonde’s relationship begins when she observes “Doctor Pangloss …giving a lesson in experimental physics to her mother’s waiting maid” and “reflecting that she might be the sufficient reason of young Candide and that he might be hers."
This, and the fact that Candide and Cunegonde haven’t talked to each other thus far into the story, suggests that their relationship is based on a natural physicality, rather than any deep emotional connection. This is further reinforced when Voltaire writes "she innocently held his hand; the young man innocently kissed the young lady’s hand", illustrating that this is based on a natural impulse rather than simple lust. Whenever Candide refers to Cunegonde, after he is expelled from the castle, he often mentions her beauty referring to “Mademoiselle Cunegonde’s pretty eyes", calling her a ”masterpiece of nature” and when he finally sees her he” … [devours] her with his eyes.” All of this emphasizes how much his love for Cunegonde is based on her physical beauty.
The story shifts in its discussion of romantic love when the Old Woman tells the story of her love stating “I was betrothed to a ruling prince… What a prince!... I loved him with a first love, idolatrously and extravagantly… An old marchioness… Invited to take chocolate with her; less than two hours later he died in horrible convulsions; but that is only a trifle." This story imparts the idea that, though love is glorious at first, it can be taken quickly and leave such a little impression compared to life’s other woes, its loss can be regarded as a trifle.
The theme continues when Candide is obliged to leave Cunegonde or face capture by the inquisition. “’What should we do without Cunegonde?’ said Candide.… ‘You were going to fight the Jesuits; let us go and fight for them." The implication being that while the natural passionate love Candide feels with Cunegonde is nice, being responsible and surviving is more important.
Later in Candide’s journey he meets a Parisian marchioness who attempts to seduce him but corrects him when he answers wrong “A Frenchman who have said: … When I see you, Madame, I fear lest I should cease to love her.” Eventually conceding “I give myself to you…because one must do the honors of one’s country”, not before convincing him to give up his diamonds to her through flattery. This exchange shows that even purely sensual love is based on superficial concerns of fashion. Again, there is nothing real to it. When he finally finds Cunegonde she has become ugly through years of slavery. Though” Candide had not the least wish to marry Cunegonde” he’s compelled to do so by her brother’s refusal to do so and because “Cunegonde urged it so warmly."
Things then take a turn for the worse: Cunegonde grows “uglier every day... [becomes] shrewish and unbearable” and Candide finally comes to the conclusion that they should just focus on their little farm, and not worry about metaphysics or the big picture, finding solace in the fact, despite his wife’s physical ugliness and ugly personality, she is “an excellent pastry cook." Taking all this into account, Voltaire‘s view of love is that love is natural and fulfilling for a time, but it fades, and can be taken away in its prime or never exists to begin with. Because of this, you should focus on your responsibilities and make sure those who depend on you are physically provided for, regardless of the emotional satisfaction you get from it.
I find this view glaringly flawed, as it fails to take into account that emotional needs are part of human relationships too. I’m not saying that beauty doesn’t fade or that fulfilling one’s duties will always be pleasant. However, I believe that emotional unhappiness can’t be swept under the rug with a change of outlook. People need emotional satisfaction in their relationships with each other. After all, man can’t live by pastries alone.
Keats takes the opposite view of Voltaire: Romantic love is valuable precisely because it fades. In his poem The Eve of St. Anges, Keats describes how a young girl, Madeline, is so enraptured by thoughts of seeing her love in a dream “The music…She heard not…saw many sweeping train… she headed not at all.” This theme of love as so all-consuming that it drowns out physical needs continues when “Porphyro, with heart in fire for Madeline” comes to see Madeline despite the fact that “those chambers held hyena foeman...Not one... affords him mercy.” Here we see the idea that love is worth risking one’s life for.
His determination to see his love is so great he’s able to convince a sympathetic old woman to do ”whatever he shall wish, betide her weal or woe." When he is finally able to come near her, as she sleeps, he utters ”Thou art my heaven... Open thine eyes ... Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache.” In Keats, love takes on a salvific quality far from the brief or purely physical pleasure love brings in Voltaire. Keats describes love as a not only giving a lasting fulfilment all its own, but also giving that fulfilment just by being in your lover’s presence. This theme is continued when Madeline, fearing her love will leave she cries “my heart is lost is thine." Porphyro, to reassure his devotion, compares himself to “ A famished pilgrim- sav’d by a miracle.“ In this way, each confirms an intimate dependency on the other, so much so that they agree to run away through a sudden storm to make a home together in the highlands, defying Voltaire’s precept that you should focus on your group duties over individual happiness.
Do they make it? All Keats says is that “Ages long ago the lovers fled away into the storm." The fact that their love was powerful enough to lead to this sacrifice is more important than whether they survive from it. It’s a view Keats applied to his own relationships as shown in the sonnet Bright Star, which ends with the words “To feel for ever … [ his lover’s body] soft raise and fall… and so live ever. or else swoon to death.” A life without love is not worth living for Keats. While I find Keats’ view more palatable than Voltaire’s, if I had to assign a flaw to it I’d say it’s a little too subjective. He explains how he feels but not why, which makes it a little hard to understand why he feels so intensely. He feels a passion worth dying for, but since I can’t feel that passion for myself, I have to question the wisdom of being so eager to run off into the storm.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, elaborates on the Romantic idea that love makes life worth living, and provides an interesting contrast to Voltaire. This theme is first developed when Victor mentions his love, Elizabeth, by saying “Harmony was the soul of our companionship” agreeing with Keats, that love brings about a complete connection of people. Shelley goes further than Keats, though love also causes people to become better “she was the living spirit of love to soften and attract…she was there to subdue me to a semblance of her own gentleness.”
When the creature comes back to Victor, his main entreaty after months of isolation and abuse, is for a female companion to love him. He tells Victor “no Eve soothed my sorrows nor shared my thoughts; I was alone. I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator.” This suggests that love is not merely a welcome passion or airy frivolity, but something necessary to live comfortably, more necessary to survival than fulfilling one’s physical wants, unlike Voltaire argues. When Elizabeth fears Victor has made his journey to England so that he won’t have to fulfill his duty to marry her she writes “It is your happiness I desire as well as my own… our marriage will render me eternally miserable, unless it were… your own free choice.” For Victor’s part even though he assumes his creature will kill him on his wedding night ”Yet I would die to make her happy."
This exchanges brings up another important facet of Shelly’s definition of love: self-sacrifice. What happens next brings up an interesting rebuttal to Voltaire. Victor, thin and sickly after months of imprisonment, is driven to further emotional breakdowns and madness at the memories of the deaths of his friends at the hands of the creature. So, much like Cunegonde, he has become both physically and emotionally ugly. However unlike like Candide who provides for his wife out of a perfunctory sense of duty, Victor tell us Elizabeth” wept with me and for me. When reasoned returned she would. endeavor to inspire me to resignation", showing she is sincerely invested in his wellbeing. In contrast to the Old Woman who quickly moves on after her lover’s death, for killing Elizabeth Victor swears” to peruse the daemon who caused this misery until he or I shall perish in mortal conflict.” pursuing him to the literal ends of the earth.
Near the end of his quest, Victor resigns to die saying “When you speak of new ties … [can you] replace those who are gone? Can…any woman [be] another Elizabeth," for Victor and, by extension, Shelly, a love that strong and sincere can’t be replaced. Although I disagree with that last point, I believe Shelly’s view is the least flawed as it emphasizes the sincerity and self-sacrifice I believe true romantic love necessitates.
While I think that Shelly’s view of romantic love is the most correct, I do see that the other views each have something valuable to impart. Keats shows the joys pure romantic passion can bring and the things that such a passion can drive people to do, While Voltaire implores us to fulfill our duties and obligations, even if we don’t find the emotionally satisfying. All the of these provide key insight into the joys and obligations romantic love imparts