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Death in Romance Is Dead Serious Business

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Average Everygirl #26: Star-crossed Lovers, take 2 | Panel1: Dashing and Average stand opposite one another. Dashing, looking hopeless, says, "Our parents will never approve of us being together." Average, in her matter-of-fact way, replies, "I know. They hate each other." | Panel 2: Dashing, hands raised, says, "There is only one solution: we must die a tragic death together to teach them a lesson!" | Panel 3: Average says, "Whoa, there. Don't you think that's a bit extreme? I mean, we only met yesterday." | Panel 4: Dashing, thoughtful, says, "Yeah, I guess you're right. And I do still need to finish my Call of Duty run-through." The narrator concludes, "A tragedy has been averted."

I’m just going to throw this out there: I’m pretty sure that Romeo and Juliet would both still be alive if Romeo had owned an Xbox. But then the whole Romeo-Mercutio-Tybalt issue would have been three guys screaming into headsets and killing virtual avatars rather than fighting and dying in real life.

And I’m okay with this. (In fact, that’s a version of Romeo and Juliet I’d rather like to see.)

But of course they have to die. Death and despair drive home the message of the Star-crossed Lovers trope, that romance is better than anything the world has to offer, better than logic, longevity, dignity, loyalty, and patience.  Romance is a god unto itself, and the lovers must offer a sacrifice upon its pagan altars.

And typically, that sacrifice results in certain death and despair.

Let’s run down the list of familiars, shall we?

  • Romeo & Juliet: DEAD
  • Tristan & Isolde: DEAD
  • Pyramus & Thisbe: DEAD. And coloring mulberries with their blood. Thanks for that one, Ovid.
  • Antony & Cleopatra: DEAD
  • Catherine & Heathcliff: DEAD (Thank heavens, the miserable gits.)
  • Troilus & Criseyde: DEAD… and ALIVE! But Criseyde used logic! It’s super effective! (And Troilus cried and fainted a lot. Am I bad for feeling like he was no real loss?)
  • Lancelot & Guinevere: PRIEST and NUN. After getting everyone else they loved killed. Good job, guys. You are true survivors.

I think you get the gist.

Death of a Romantic Ideal

The world is full of curious and wonderful things, but you can’t enjoy any of them if you run off on impulse and die. This trope would have its audience believe that the ill-fated pair faces an otherwise bleak and loveless existence if they don’t act in the moment. And yet, they’re always inevitably worse off for acting than if they had bridled their passions, exercised patience, and followed behavioral patterns dictated by rational thought.

So maybe that’s the true message of the trope: “Don’t act now, people. Think things through, or you’ll end up like these dopes.”

If only. I’ve cited examples from Western culture, because that’s predominately where my literary background lies, but star-crossed lovers appear in stories from around the world. Something about this trope strikes a chord with people across cultures, across oceans, across time. While I might wish it’s meant to serve as a cautionary tale, more often it’s placed on a pedestal and revered.

I guess I’m just not one for idol worship.

And I’m okay with that, too.

2 thoughts on “Death in Romance Is Dead Serious Business”

  1. Aaaaaand all I can think of is Sweeny Todd with that gloriously wild head of hair and a frenzied look in his eye, singing:

    “They ALLLLLLL deserve to DIEEEEE!”

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