Love is in the air. I find myself spurning celebrity Twitter feeds and box office blockbusters, and instead turning to my bookshelves. The legends. Men and woman who made my heart go pitter-patter on the first, second, and third read. The ones who still stir a bittersweet ache if I merely think their names. Amor dripping with delicious desire. Cue the beat of Cupid’s wings and let’s all have a moment of sighhh…
However, once I bat Fabio’s windblown mane out of my eyes, I realize, dang—Eros shoots some wicked arrows. Every epic love story on my shelf seems to have a poisoned tip. In fact, when I step aside from my own reader romance with these characters, I quickly discover that all of my favorite legendary couples are guilty of or victim to one of the seven deadly sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Sloth, Envy, Pride.
Capital vices, moral wrongdoings, fatal flaws, whatever you wish to call them, these are the crimes of passion that bring lovers to tragic ends—or nearly. And in truth, isn’t that what solidifies their place in the love canon? Nobody remembers the people who have it all hunky-dory and settle into domestic bliss. Props to them. If they were a real-life couple, we’d cheer for true love! But literature is drama and drama is conflict.
We remember the sagas that rip our guts out and make us as emotionally worked over as the characters. There are moments we hate them, individually and together, and moments we feel such tenderness that we’re physically weak holding the pages. As far as love goes, it’s the hellish journey that makes these stories unforgettable, even if our hearts come away splintered. At least, that’s my preference for reading—and writing!
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Gluttony: excessive consumption categorized by six forms; forente is defined as ‘eating wildly’ with abandon.
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
This was one of the first books (technically a play) that made me sob to the point of wailing. My momma thought I’d had a traumatic episode at school, a quarrel with a close friend; fallen out of my bunk bed and broken my prepubescent neck—something worthy of my hysterics. When I explained that my tears were for the lovers of feuding families who took their own lives unnecessarily in star-crossed tragedy, she nearly threw the book at me. Romeo and Juliet were guilty of forente: eating love too wildly, which I think is apropos for the deliciousness of their sin.
Greed: the excessive desire for and dedication to material possessions at the expense of others.
Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The setting of Tolstoy’s love story between Natasha and Prince Andrei is gorged on greed: lovers from aristocratic families in the Tsarist empire during Napoleon’s invasion. In this case, the desire for possessions at the expense of others is an outside nemesis. First, the Natasha and Prince Andrei are separated by Prince Andrei’s father who doesn’t see a Rostova bride as fit for his celebrated heir. Then we have Napoleon’s army marching across Russia in a quest to take over Europe. Greed permeates the novel like a toxic vapor and kills with equal potency.
Sloth: failure to develop spiritually and rejection of grace.
Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Who didn’t swoon and scream at this book? From the spark of their introduction, readers see plainly what immature Scarlett fails to recognize: that she loves Rhett; that the love between them defies fanciful notions of romance and is far more solid (and obtainable) than that timid Ashley Wilkes. It takes over 1,000 pages for Scarlett to finally have a spiritual Ah-ha! moment. But it’s too late to give a damn, as Rhett so aptly said.
Wrath: temper, uncontrolled anger.
Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery
A perennial classic. I’ve proclaimed my devotion to Anne and Gilbert’s love story to the extent that I even named my dog Gilbert (Blythe). Anne is a spirited orphan with a wicked temper that brings a slate down on Gilbert’s head, nose-in-the-air snubs to his face, and many an ungracious word to his ear. She struggles to see that her childish rage toward him is truly a flame of mature desire. I, too, struggled with a temper as a younger woman but quickly learned from Anne that wrath is never the answer. We must look into ourselves to find what is kindling our fire. Their story is bright and beautiful because it is tempered with love.
Envy: insatiable desire that leads to jealousy and long-standing discontentment.
Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
When we objectively look at the relationship between Jay and Daisy, it’s envy that drives the train. Jay wants Daisy, another man’s wife. He’s determined that he’ll never be content until he has obtained her. While it sounds tyrannical in brief, that kind of insatiable passion is immensely appealing. It’s practically woven into our humanity: we want to be wanted. We want someone who would give up everything and give us everything. As readers, we envy that kind of love. So to see it drawn out to fatal conclusion in this novel spears the soul.
Lust: an intense and uncontrolled desire.
Lancelot and Guinevere, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory
A tragedy of such epic proportion that poems, paintings, plays, and even a musical (“The Lusty Month of May” is a catchy, little jingle) have been based on it. Lancelot was King Arthur’s most heralded knight of the Round Table. A man of loyalty and kindness with one fatal flaw: lust. He fell in love with King Arthur’s Queen Guinevere. Like Adam and Eve (another pair of legendary lit loves), once Guinevere tasted the forbidden fruit, there was no turning back. When Arthur’s nephew stormed Guinevere’s chamber to find Lancelot in her bed, the unraveling of Camelot was inevitable. Lancelot died a hermit while Guinevere became a nun. It’s mad, it’s gay, a libelous display, as the song goes.
Pride: believing oneself better than others and failing to acknowledge the virtues of others.
Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It’s in the title because Jane Austen knew nothing was more poignant than two people using a deadly sin in fierce battle. We can’t look away from the haughty repartee between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Each finds reasons to believe him or herself better than the other when. in truth, they are ideally suited for one another. The everlasting beauty of this book is that they both come to their senses in time to save their love story. Their happily-ever-after feels earned and leaves the readers rightfully satisfied.
So this is my theory as to why these books have shot us through the heart and rendered us lovesick without antidote.
Your turn to test it: what’s your favorite legendary lit love and do they suffer from one of the deadly sins?
Image credits: Neftali/Shutterstock.com.