Classic Couples: our favorite love stories in the St. John’s Program

Valentine’s Day is all about celebrating relationships and friendships of all kinds. With multiple millennia of plots to choose from, you can imagine that our program is loaded with tons of characters and relationships to explore. This year, we wanted to talk through some of the most interesting, from our perspective, on the program here at St. John’s. Take a look at the list below!

Odysseus and Penelope, The Odyssey

When it comes to literary marriages, there are few which come to mind more strongly than Odysseus and Penelope. Odysseus was separated from his home of Ithaca after sailing off to fight in the Trojan war, which is captured in the Iliad. The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ homecoming. Penelope waits in Ithaca faithfully for Odysseus for 20 years, while he fights against the forces of the gods preventing him from arriving home to his family and kingdom. Despite some initial infidelity on Odysseus’ part, he wants nothing more than to get home to his wife and son after so long of being away. Penelope stays faithful to Odysseus during the entire time, despite constant and relentless advance of suitors. Eventually, the two reunite, and delight each other with stories of their time away. It speaks to a love which stays constant, despite distance and years apart, and is one of the reasons why the Odyssey stays such a powerful story.

Tristan and Isolde, Tristan and Isolde

You’ve heard of Romeo and Juliet, and maybe even Lancelot and Guinevere, but I’ll bet you don’t know much about these star-crossed lovers. After defeating the Irish Knight Morholt, Tristan, a young man from England, brings back the beautiful Isolde to his uncle, King Mark, to marry. However, along their travels, they ingest a potion together which demands that the two fall in love. This sparks a turbulent love triangle between, Isolde, Tristan, and the king, which results in nightmares, legal action, and of course, death for most everyone involved.

Achilles and Patroclus, The Iliad

There are so many emotionally taxing relationships in The Iliad (I’m looking at you, Hector and Andromache), Achilles and Patroclus are maybe the most interesting, and certainly the most central to the overall plot. While it’s not outright said in the text that Achilles and Patroclus were romantically involved (though, there is evidence of the time which states that this was indeed the case), there was a strong mutual bond and love between the two, so much so that it besets Achilles against Hector after he kills Patroclus. Plato even references the two as an example of “divinely approved lovers” in Symposium. Regardless of whether they were an actual couple, or just ardent admirers and comrades, the devotion that Achilles displays to avenge Patroclus is worth writing about, and examining, even thousands of years after the events of the story occurred.

Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, Middlemarch

Middlemarch is fraught with failed marriages – Mary Ann Evan’s sprawling novel offers a more realistic and harsher insight into romantic relationships than what other novels of the era described. However, one of my favorite couples in the entirety of the program is Mary Garth and Fred Vincy. They are not the most idealistic couple – Fred is in debt, has a gambling problem, and is a bit foolish; Mary is probably the most intelligent heroine in the novel, a bit out of Fred’s league from my reading. However, there is one thing that sets these two apart – they both have a deep level of understanding of the other. This couple works because of compromise and the willingness to work through their differences and problems, rather than be tied to an idealistic version of what marriage is supposed to be. The two are honest with each other, accepting the entirety of the person, regardless of their flaws.

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice

Perhaps the most classic of all Romantic era romances, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s relationship is explored each year by budding teenagers in middle-school english classes and literature scholars alike. The story of Pride and Prejudice examines social expectation in the 1800’s and the extent to which this can determine fate and human behavior. What is great about this relationship is that it surpasses convention – Lizzy and Darcy love each other in spite of themselves, and against better judgement. Eventually, they have a mutual respect and understanding of each other which lays the foundation for a successful marriage. Darcy grows to see Elizabeth as a person, rather than an abstract object of desire, and eventually Elizabeth understands that Darcy loves her for who she is, rather than what she could provide for him. This relationship cements itself towards the end of the novel with a surprising proposal scene, in which Darcy declares, “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Good stuff, right? In the midst of the chalky candy overload you might be experiencing today, we at St. John’s College are here to remind you that sometimes there is nothing more romantic than a good book. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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