Bobbie Ann Mason’s Dear Ann is published this month. She shares five novels about first love.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
First love is often obsessive and destructive. I always liked the way Fitzgerald, through his exquisite prose, makes us see this doomed love through Nick Carraway’s eyes.
Jane Ciabattari: Midway through the novel, Nick notes of Gatsby, “He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy.” How does Gatsby’s nostalgia for a younger love—and a younger self—make his relationship with Daisy obsessive and destructive?
Bobbie Ann Mason: Gatsby was in the army when he fell in love with Daisy. He was so captivated by her wealth that he pretended to be from her world. He was overcome by everything about it, including “the freshness of many clothes.” Years later, after he had built his wealth through underhanded means, he tried to impress her with his vast collection of shirts (no doubt fresh). He had committed himself to “following a grail,” according to Nick. Gatsby would stop at nothing to win her.
Gatsby was formed by a set of adolescent expectations. The simple rules from Poor Richard’s Almanac were his guide. To live up to his dream of himself, it was imperative that he succeed. Losing Daisy was unacceptable. He had to correct that. He believed wealth and status, embodied by Daisy, were the goals. It’s because Gatsby is so insistent on his Daisy that we feel he is doomed.
Although coming East from the Midwest, like Gatsby and Daisy, Nick is more sophisticated. His guiding principles include tolerance, clarity, and flexibility, all antithetical to the success dream. Nick sees the world of the East as corrupt. And yet he understands that Gatsby’s delusion, the American dream, grows from innocence. This is a powerfully tragic notion. On the one hand, you see little Jimmy Gatz and his Hopalong Cassidy book, and on the other you have the illegal bootlegging that enables him to pursue his dream Daisy, who is so very hollow. We need Nick there to steady us, to be an intermediary, someone we can trust to report what he saw. And he does, in an almost elegiac tone. The Great Gatsby is the gorgeous book we all wanted to write when we started out. I do not know its equal. What is especially remarkable about Fitzgerald is that he was swept up in the dream, too, yet he had a clear, penetrating vision, like Nick, of the contradictory heart of America.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Whenever I reread it, the war scenes have escaped my memory, but the heartbreaking love scenes seem indelible.
JC: “This is a rotten game we play, isn’t it?” Catherine says when she begins a flirtation with Henry. She has lost her love on the battlefield; he is detached from the war. Both are eager to distract themselves. After he’s wounded and Catherine nurses him, Henry falls in love. “Everything turned over inside of me.” The love scenes are powerful because they’re played out against the landscape of war and loss. Why do you think the love scenes seem more lasting?
BAM: The “rotten game” is the pretense of love that lovers play during war. They say “I love you” to each other to help ease the darkness, but Catherine is saying aloud that it isn’t real. She is still haunted by the fiancé soldier she lost and she can’t love again so soon. But the love scenes that follow are more vivid than the war scenes because we feel more is at stake. With love, it may be more personal.
Love scenes are opposite of war scenes. Love asserts life over death. They’re a denial of war. War is detachment, but love plunges into emotions, freeing the heart.
I am drawn to stories in which the narrator is telling the story in order to wrestle with a problem. Maybe the storyteller is trying to rationalize his guilt. Maybe he is working out an elaborate delusion. The act of telling is the drama itself. When Frederic Henry has to walk away from Catherine at the end, he has to call on this mental faculty or he will go to pieces.
He deals with his final loss through detachment, not denial, and because this is so, it is utterly heartbreaking. He is numbed. Hemingway’s terse, simple style accentuates this attempt to control emotions. Not to deny emotions or forget scenes or to wipe the slate clean or start a new life—none of that.
He is reliving the story in his mind, he is telling himself the story. Why? To hold it, I think, to look it in the eye, to face it. Not to drown in sorrow but to know it, to possess it. He wants to be honest about it, doesn’t want to forget, wants to face his own culpability.
The love scenes in Farewell contain foreboding. Always the war is the backdrop. And it is chilling when Catherine says she dislikes the rain because she can see herself dead in it. Normally, it wouldn’t be appropriate for a vibrant young woman to say such a thing early in a romance, but Catherine has already suffered loss and it still hovers over her. And Henry in telling the story to himself already knows how it will turn out and knows how the rain figures in.
We remember beautiful scenes in the hospital. Henry with his leg wound and Catherine, his nurse—two lovers who have found each other and are living in the present moment as much as possible, sharing wine and the narrow hospital bed, sneaking sex, laughing. They escape the war in a nighttime boat ride across the lake to Switzerland and live in a cozy alpine abode, waiting for their baby. These scenes are what he holds closest. And so do we.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Laurie is Jo’s first love and readers wanted them to marry but Alcott didn’t approve. Pressured to end the second volume with a marriage, Alcott married Jo off to an older man, a German, a professor. I’d like to argue that Professor Bhaer is an ideal choice for Jo—a soul-mate, not a boss.
JC: Why do you think Professor Bhaer is an ideal choice for Jo?
BAM: Professor Bhaer has been derided in so many ways. He’s old, unattractive, talks funny. Alcott wanted Jo to be single and independent, just as she herself was, but readers who finished volume 1 of Little Women demanded a romantic wrap-up. Feminists up to the present day have blamed Alcott for selling out.
Jo has lost her sister Beth, she has lost the chance to go to Europe with Aunt March, she turned down Laurie, who had been Jo’s buddy, and Amy then snatched him up, with his wealth. Jo is alone, without anyone who truly understands her or who can make a place for her. Prof. Bhaer, a poor teacher she meets at her boarding house in New York, is someone who understands her and is not afraid to criticize the trashy writing she does for money because he knows she can do better. In contemporary terms, he will be Jo’s intellectual equal, a mate with whom she can share ideas, conversation, reading, good food. Maybe even housework.
Fritz is poor but he has soul, understanding, warmth, intelligence. It seems Alcott meant him to be different—a thumb of the nose to her publishers, maybe. She wanted someone unexpected. Professor Bhaer is the most radical choice for Jo’s future that Alcott could have thought of. If she must provide a husband, she will find one worthy of the term, one who will honor Jo the individual.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
I like the way this captivating, compulsive wild romance of a pair of naughty adolescents is a personification of the moors. This exaggerated first love is written in the landscape itself and so strong it lasts through two generations.
JC: Which passages most illuminate the first love between Catherine and Heathcliff, in which she feels so close to him she notes, “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same…”?
BAM: It’s as though they are looking at mirror images. “I am Heathcliff,” says Catherine. The ragged, wild dark-skinned boy is exotic to Catherine, but the family calls him a savage. The two children run away from abuse and neglect at home and find solace in each other on the moors, where they cavort and scamper in a childhood idyll. As they grow older, it expands into full-blown, roaring passion.
Heathcliff is haunted by Catherine for the rest of his life after she betrays him by mixing with the neighbors at Thrushcross Grange and becoming a refined lady, while he still has to labor on the land and has to eat in the kitchen. Although her passion for Heathcliff persists, she can’t marry him—for the usual family reasons (class, reputation, inheritance).
The landscape fits his brooding revenge, his isolation, his mistreatment. It infiltrates the whole story. The old word wuthering—of a strong, roaring wind. The story is rife with wind, darkness, snow, storms, thunder.
The landscape comes to us through the narrators, primarily Nelly Dean, the housekeeper who tells Mr. Lockwood, the tenant next door (two miles through the wuthering weather), about the history of the place. And Lockwood, an outsider, eager for a good story, reports to us. As a writer, trying to imagine how Emily Bronte thought up this fantastical tale, I’m fascinated by this complex narrative structure, which heightens the passionate romance of Catherine and Heathcliff by creating suspense. It’s not just a love story. It’s a love story that shakes the foundations of the conventional world. It’s so intense it seems to violate natural law. It is theatrical. Natural elements (storms, wind, desolate landscape) and emotions (love, betrayal, jealousy, possessiveness, rage) are exaggerated. The wind howls, and characters get caught in snow and rain between Wuthering Heights to Thrushcross Grange.
Ultimately, the story is in our own imaginations. Thus we feel that the landscape of desolation and boundlessness is an appropriate match for the passion that fuels Heathcliff’s revenge against the family that owned the property and treated him as property.
This is Nelly Dean’s world. She herself is a product of this place. She knows that wind, that daily desolation, She may be projecting it onto Catherine and Heathcliff. People living in a fierce, provincial place with wild weather are subject to dangerous passions, Nelly seems to be suggesting. “We don’t in general take to foreigners here,” she explains to Lockwood. Young Catherine’s attraction to the dark-skinned boy doesn’t set well with her, and Catherine herself mistreats Nelly, so Nelly has her own reasons for fashioning the story as she does. Lockwood is compelled by the tale, having experienced the weather and Heathcliff’s wrath firsthand in the first few pages. Lockwood, who is susceptible to wild dreams, hears the ghostly voice of Catherine and nearly loses his mind. Nelly Dean and Lockwood are coloring this story of wuthering weather from their own experience of it and they are glad to spin a yarn, but it is the genius of Emily Brontë that pulls the wool over their eyes and makes us feel the depth and strangeness of this powerful love tale.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility invites a question like “Which Golden Girl are you?” or “Which Derry Girl are you?” Which Dashwood sister are you—free-spirited Marianne or practical Elinor? Or is it more complicated?
JC: Which sister are you? Or is it more complicated?!
BAM: It’s complicated!
If you asked me, in the abstract, if I were a practical, logical person like Elinor Dashwood, or more of a free spirit who was, well, born to run, like her sister Marianne, I’d definitely say I was born to run. But on reflection I’d have to say that I also tend to be very pragmatic and rather reserved, not so flighty and emotional as Marianne. Perhaps I’m well-rounded. Mature, maybe. The Dashwood girls are just teenagers, after all.
In Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen contrasts the two sisters by characterizing them through their choices of men they want to marry. Elinor, the one with good sense, is attracted to Edward Ferrars, but is devastated to learn he has been secretly engaged to Lucy Steele for four years. Utterly self-contained, Elinor suffers quietly, seeming to be cold and unfeeling. Since Marianne is much more appealing, Austen tricks us into going with Marianne and her headlong flight into fantasy. She has her eyes on the sexier, more interesting Willoughby, but he inexplicably dumps her and breaks her heart.
The characters are often misreading each other because of their secrecy and restraint or their excessive emotional displays. And since their society thrives on gossip, the story is a comedy of errors. Ultimately, in their crises over boyfriends, each sister learns from the other. Elinor learns to loosen up and Marianne learns to think things through. Thus both become more well-rounded, which is what we want to be—not all one way or the other.
My most recent encounter with this novel was the film version (1995) with Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant. Maybe it’s not fair to the novel that the movie—because of the star power and talent of Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant—makes Elinor and her love, Edward, more compelling than Marianne and her crush on the cad, Willoughby.
Austen wrote of Edward, “He coloured, and stammered out an unintelligible reply.” The line seems explicitly written for Hugh Grant, a master of stammering unintelligibly, while colouring.
But I must say the ending of this film version is just about my favorite romantic-comedy ending of all time, when Elinor (Thompson) explodes with “tears of joy” (a giggle fit mingled with a sobbing fit) upon learning that she has been mistaken. Edward (Grant) is not married after all and he is free!