Pathos, Tears, and Recriminations

These days, I don’t watch many new TV shows. Generally I wait till they’re on Netflix, then I watch ’em in big batches. But I keep up with Downton Abbey and The Vampire Diaries…

Worse luck for me this winter.


You’ve been warned.

If you’re plugged in at all, you at least know that Downton Abbey ended tragically, unforgivably. Just after all our hopes and dreams came true, everything fell apart.

First Matthew and Mary got married. Yay! We waited for more than two years, hoping and wishing and finally, all our dreams came true.

Then Sybil, arguably the nicest, sweetest character on the show, died in childbirth. Horribly.

Then Matthew, noblest and most honorable character on the show, died in the last few seconds of the finale. Again, kinda horribly. And just after his son was born, right at the height of his happiness.

(Downton Abbey, FYI, is not a good show for new parents.)

And then, just as I’m beginning to recover from the woes Downton Abbey inflicted on me, The Vampire Diaries pulled the rug out from under me.

We’ve watched Elena’s younger brother, Jeremy, grow from an angry, rebellious stoner to an angry, rebellious, courageous vampire hunter. He’s made mistakes, learned from them, and tried to set them right, and just as he was coming into his manhood and his potential as a character–

Crack. (That’s the sound of one of the many broken necks on The Vampire Diaries.)

Last night’s episode, called “Stand By Me,” showed the reactions of Elena, Matt, and Caroline to Jeremy’s death, and the episode completely destroyed me.

I lost a brother as a teenager, too, and this episode made real the grief we all feel when someone dies too young. Elena weeps for a life and a girl long gone, Matt weeps for the loss of his friend, and Caroline struggles to find the right way to hold herself and her friends together.

There’s no right way, of course. The answer is only to feel the pain and let time pass.

So why do we inflict the vicarious pain of grief on ourselves through fiction? Why do we relive it again and again—voluntarily—as show kill off characters we know and love?

Maybe it feels good to weep for ourselves when we don’t have to face the consequences of reality. Maybe it eases grief we’ve bottled for years. Maybe we just love to love, and fictional characters are easier to let go of when we must.

Maybe it’s as simple as Dan Stevens declining to renew his contract, and something must be done with the character.

I cried for Jeremy, Matthew, and Sybil. I cried, and will cry more, for Elena, Mary, and Tom. I’ll keep watching, and I’ll keep opening my heart to fictional characters.

Because we don’t give up. We keep watching and hoping and dreaming. We pin our hopes on imaginary characters, and we suffer when they fail. Maybe I’m a masochist, but I’ll be watching Season 4 of Downton Abbey.

Will you?

What’s the most you’ve cried for a piece of fiction? What show has broken your heart and had you begging for more?

Love Triangles, Part 2

A commenter on my last post about love triangles pointed out that various love-angles have been featured in literature since who-knows-when. Cave people probably told stories about dramatic love triangles in grunts and signs, and good for them.

The story of Helen of Troy was a love-triangle of sorts, with Paris stealing Helen from her wretched husband Menelaus. There’s the classic King Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle, one of my very favorite stories of all time, and the accompanying Tristan-Isolde-King Mark tale. Shakespeare loved a good love triangle, and even Jane Austen gives us a variety of love-angles in Mansfield Park, arguably her primmest book—and again, one of my favorites. (Honestly, if there were a Team Edmund/Team Henry debate, I’d be rooting for Henry Crawford. Seriously!)

Downton Abbey happily plays on our interest in love-angles.

But why? I really want to know what it is about being caught between lovers that is so appealing to us. Is it the drama? The exquisite joy and pain of having two people who love someone so much—do we want to experience that vicariously?

Still, today I want to drag into the mix love untried and those rare books in which two lovers unite without much friction. I just finished one: Soulless, by Gail Carriger, a book which probably warrants a blog post about pastiche and steampunk and parasols.

Over the course of the book, though, which is the first in a series, the two lovers are wed—and there are really very few love-related obstacles for them to cross before the wedding. Practicalities like not knowing if you’re writing a series aside, what is the merit of letting the lovers get together right away, especially when we readers love to have the drama stretched out?

I started this topic out with fantasy because, well, I write and read mostly fantasy these days. I do read and love me some historical fiction and classic fiction—Jane Austen continues to be one of my very favorites. But the mix of lovers does transcend genres, just as it transcends the “romance” category generally.

I want to throw this open to you, readers. Which do you prefer: love quickly triumphant or love tried with complications like other lovers? Why do you prefer it? What are your favorite love stories?

As for me, now I just want to reread Mansfield Park.