An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


At the heart of this book is a love of literature. We don’t quite say that in the Preface or in ’The Beginning’, but then, love often has to do with the unspoken. When King Lear is foolishly demanding each of his daughters in turn to tell him how much they love him, the most tender and devoted of them can only say to herself: ’What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent’ (1.1.57). Rather differently, in a phrase dating back to a poem by Oscar Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, published in 1894, homosexuality has sometimes been called ’the love that dare not speak its name’ (in Rodensky 2006, 192). These two examples, hundreds of years apart, already intimate something of the complex nature of our topic, not least in suggesting that love and language are indissociably linked. Love may be silent, but Shakespeare still needs words to make that point: without the device of the aside (in which the audience or reader can learn what Cordelia is thinking, without other characters knowing it), we wouldn’t know that she loved her father at all. And as we soon discover, not telling her father how much she loves him has dire consequences for Cordelia, her father and everyone else: the entire tragedy spills out of this refusal to speak of love. Correspondingly, the very wording of Douglas’s ’love that dare not speak its name’ alerts us to the senses of fear, danger, constraint and concealment that (especially prior to its decriminalization in the UK in 1967) usually accompanied — and in many parts of the world still accompany — homosexual love. At the same time, these examples gesture towards another major dimension of our topic, namely the unsayable. Filial or romantic, straight or queer, love is often associated with what cannot be said, with the inexpressible or ineffable. And, paradoxically, talking about what cannot be said, about the ineffable, about what is ’beyond words’, can prove to be an especially effective way of talking about love.

But what is it that we talk about when we talk about love? And how does it relate to a love of literature? Loving literature is surely different from loving one’s boyfriend or girlfriend, or mother or father — but how? What is love actually? And what role does it play in literary works? How and why might criticism and theory be inflected, guided or inspired by a ’love’ of literature, rather than simply by a curiosity or liking for it? We propose to consider these questions by focusing in particular on examples of erotic and romantic love, before circling back at the end of the chapter to this idea of a love of literature.

’What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ is the title of a celebrated story by Raymond Carver — though, as far as it goes, that title does not really tell us much. We may be drawn to reading Carver’s story in part because we want to know what the ’what’ refers to. The story features two couples (the narrator Nick and his wife Laura, and Mel and his second wife Terri), a lot of drinking, and a lot of talk — some of it bickering and barbed — about killing yourself for love, love and stalking, love and marriage and having kids, love and drink, and all those other kinds of things you talk about when you talk about love. No particular conclusions are arrived at and, as so often in Carver’s fiction, things are left intriguingly in the air. The characters talk about these things, but they could have talked about others. It turns out that the ’What’ of Carver’s title is in many respects less important than just ’talking about love’ and the pleasure we get from reading about talking about it. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan makes this point when he notes that ’speaking of love is in itself a jouissance’ (Lacan 1982, 154). In other words, talking about love is an integral element of the pleasure and excitement, the ecstasy or jouissance, of love. And talking about it can also of course include listening, reading or indeed writing on the subject of love. Thus, focusing in particular on the nature of romantic love, Lacan comes to the perhaps surprising conclusion that writing a love letter is ’the only thing one can do with a measure of seriousness’ (Lacan 1982, 154). From this perspective, we could say that when you write a love letter your life is on the line: there is danger and excitement, you are not sure what you are going to write, your very identity is at stake. As Algernon drily notes in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1894): ’The very essence of romance is uncertainty’ (Wilde 1980, 323).

Romantic love, in other words, has to do not just with what is said, but with the event or experience of saying. There are two points that we would like to emphasize here. In the first place, there is the classic example of saying ’I love you’. To say ’I love you’ is not simply to state something (akin to ’It is raining’ or ’Bananas are yellow’). Rather, it is to do something with words. It is a performative — a pledge, a vow, a promise. At the same time it also seeks a response, hopes to provoke or find love in the other by the act of saying it. As Roland Barthes says, in his seductive meditations on love in A Lover’s Discourse: ’I-love-you … is without nuance. It suppresses explanations, adjustments, degrees, scruples…. Everything is in the speaking of it … I-love-you is active. It affirms itself as force’ (Barthes 1979, 148—53). Second, we want to say that while love is what many poems, stories and plays are about, it is not simply a subject, object or theme. Rather it is inextricably tied up in the speaking (and the unspoken or unsayable), in how the text is written, in the sense of tone or voice, rhythm and timing, in the workings of syntax and rhetorical figures, in the way that pleasure or jouissance is generated in reading.

We might turn again here to Shakespeare in order to explore the play of language in love and love in language. Shakespeare’s interest in such playfulness is clear from his earliest publication, the ’first heir of my invention’ as he calls the marvellously erotic poem, ’Venus and Adonis’ (1593) (see Shakespeare 1988, 224). Much of this long poem is about Venus (the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex and seduction) trying to seduce the young Adonis. (Shakespeare playfully, suggestively, provocatively inverts the conventional figure of the male wooing the female: the poem he writes, the textual ’heir’ to which he gives birth, is a compellingly perverse creature.) Consider for example the following stanza from quite early on in the poem, where Venus addresses the beautiful young boy:

Bid me discourse, I will enchant thy ear;

Or like a fairy, trip upon the green;

Or like a nymph, with long, dishevelled hair,

Dance on the sands, and yet no footing seen.

Love is a spirit all compact of fire,

Not gross to sink, but light, and will aspire. (ll. 145—50)

We know from the opening words of the poem that Adonis ’laughed [love] to scorn’ (l.4), whereas Venus is lovelorn, ’Sick-thoughted’ (l.5) with love. The power of the poem does not consist in tracing a successful seduction — Adonis never gives in to Venus’s wooing; he is gored by a wild boar in the forest and dies. On the contrary, the greatness of this poem has to do with the way in which it speaks or ’discourse[s]’ and ’enchant[s]’ the reader’s ear on the subject of love. ’Enchant’ is etymologically related to the French chanser and, going further back, to the Latin cantare, to sing: in this respect it is perhaps worth recalling Barthes’s suggestion that ’the point of departure’ for saying ’I love you’ is not so much language as such, but ’Music’. The proffering of ’I love you’ is akin, he suggests, to ’what happens in singing’ (Barthes 1979, 149).

Venus is talking about love, we may suppose, but in a sense she is also not doing so. Indeed, the charm of her discourse — for the reader, if not for Adonis — consists in part in the fact that its very accumulation of images defers talking. The mode of her speech is futural, of the order of the promise. ’Bid me discourse’, she says: tell me to talk, go on, bid me. If you do, I promise I will enchant your ear. Shakespeare’s deployment of the repeated ’or’ (’Or like a fairy, trip upon the green’, ’Or like a nymph, with long, dishevelled hair, / Dance on the sands, and yet no footing seen’) makes it unclear whether these supernatural acts of tripping and dancing are alternatives to the enchanting of the ear, or if they are alternative ways of describing or enacting the enchantment. What is described becomes entangled in the act of describing, in the syntax (’Or … Or…’), in the hauntingly beautiful images. Thus we are led to sense the extraordinarily ’light’ nature of love — its enchanting, eerie ’spirit’. And all of this is accomplished by the sense that Venus is saying that she is not saying any of this: the lines emerge out of a future or imagined ’discourse’, out of what she might say and do with her words if the listener were indeed to ’bid’ her to speak.

People in love in Shakespeare are more or less constantly concerned with the role and importance of the eye — with the visual beauty of the beloved, with seeing and being seen. So important is the nature of seeing and the eye in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example, that critics such as Joel Fineman have been led to argue that these love poems invent ’a genuinely new poetic subjectivity’ (Fineman 1986, 1). More or less every Shakespeare play works intensively with the relations between love and seeing. As Helena’s witty formulation at the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595) suggests, those in love are so passionate that they don’t see with their eyes at all, in fact, but with their minds: ’Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, / And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind’ (1.1.234—5). As You Like It (c. 1599) is specifically about the experience of love at first sight, about lovers who ’no sooner looked but they loved’ (5.2.31—2). Othello (1604) is all about ’the green-eyed monster’ of jealousy that wrecks the lover, reducing him to one ’Who dotes yet doubts, suspects yet fondly loves’ (3.3.169—74).

But people in love in Shakespeare are, if anything, even more preoccupied with the power of language to stir and solicit love or, rather differently, with the inability of language to measure up to the nature or power of love. All of this is encapsulated in the opening few lines of Antony and Cleopatra (1606), which starts with one of Antony’s friends, Philo, telling another, Demetrius, to ’Look where they come’, to ’Behold and see’ (1.1.10—13) the lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, as they first come onto the stage together. Like Venus, Cleopatra is a great talker and, like Venus, nothing makes her talk more than talking about love. It is implicit in her very first words to Antony that they are already talking about it:

CLEOPATRA (to Antony)

If it be love indeed, tell me how much.


There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.


I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.


Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.


In a playful and erotic way quite at odds with Lear’s foolish demand of Cordelia, Cleopatra wants Antony to ’tell [her] how much’ he loves her. She wants to hear him talking about love, about herself, about their love. Antony tells her it cannot be specified, calculated or ’reckoned’. She knows that love has no limits (no boundary or ’bourn’), but she pretends that she could ordain its borders, as if it were a country over which she is sovereign, as if she had control over ’how far’ Antony has permission to love her. She is teasing, playing with Antony, playing with words, but the truth is clear: love is not spatial, and no one can control ’how far’ they can ’be beloved’. In his response (and in a fine Shakespearean anachronism), Antony evokes the language of Christian apocalypse — ’And I saw a new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1, in the Geneva Bible). To find the boundary in question, he suggests, you would need to go beyond this world or universe. This image affirms again the sense of love as limitless and immeasurable, while hinting also at its implicitly religious and apocalyptic nature.

We cannot talk about love in Shakespeare — which is also to say, our love of Shakespeare — without focusing, if only briefly, on Romeo and Juliet (1595). Like Venus and Adonis, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, the Sonnets, Antony and Cleopatra and other works, Romeo and Juliet is concerned with the deceptive, troubling, entrancing, profound links between love and vision. Romeo’s problem is not just that he is one of the Montagues, whose family feud with the Capulets forbids him from being in love with Juliet, a Capulet, but also that he is prone to fall in love with any beautiful young woman he sets eyes on. His ’love’ is — at least initially — random, contingent, indiscriminate. Shakespeare draws on the Petrarchan notion of love as religious devotion in having Romeo speak of his first love, Rosaline, in terms of ’the devout religion of mine eye’ (1.2.90). It is a crucial element in the power of the play that love is figured conflictually both as quasi-religious — essential, meaningful, profound, permanent, spiritual — and as flighty and contingent. Of Rosaline whom he ’so loves’ (1.2.85) in the early scenes of the play, Romeo asserts: ’the all-seeing sun / Ne’er saw her match since first the world began’ (1.2.94—5). But it is only a matter of hours before he is at a feast at the Capulet’s house and falling in love with Juliet.

Shakespeare’s play is an extraordinary exploration and exhibition of the beauty of language itself, and of the seductive power of talking about love. One of the most provocative passages in the play is actually a sonnet, as if jointly composed by Romeo and Juliet. On their encounter at the feast, Romeo speaks of her hand as a ’holy shrine’ and of his own lips as ’blushing pilgrims’:

ROMEO (to Juliet, touching her hand)

If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentler sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this.

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers, too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:

They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.


Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.

He kisses her


The love between Romeo and Juliet is effectively initiated in this sonnet-like exchange, in which religious phrases are appropriated for erotic purposes. This appropriation is at once audacious, even shocking, and faithful to the spirit of Christianity which, as Alain Badiou observes, is ’a religion of love after all’ (Badiou 2012, 15). As the next four lines (serving as an additional quatrain to the embedded sonnet) make clear, kissing is at once a sin and a way in which to have one’s sin purged:

Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged.


Then have my lips the sin that they have took.


Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!

Give me my sin again.

He kisses her

JULIETYou kiss by th’ book.


Like all experiences of romantic love perhaps, this encounter is singular and transgressive (’O trespass’), at the same time as being conventional and rule-bound (’by th’ book’). Since the participants are at a masked ball, the erotic character of their exchanges is inseparable from a sense of being hidden from one another while colluding in something forbidden (’O trespass sweetly urged!’).

This sense of trespass and transgression is sharply magnified when they discover each other’s identity. Romeo (a Montague) cannot fall in love with Juliet (a Capulet) and vice versa, because their families are at war with one another. When her nurse reveals Romeo’s identity, Juliet exclaims in dismay:

My only love sprung from my only hate!

Too early seen unknown, and known too late!

Prodigious birth of love it is to me

That I must love a loathèd enemy. (1.5.137—40)

Besides giving us the erotic intensity of what psychoanalysis would call a forbidden object-choice, these lines illustrate another key Freudian concept, namely ambivalence. Ambivalence in this context involves the idea that one can, indeed that one fundamentally does, feel both attraction and repulsion, love and antipathy towards the same person. (’Odi et amo’, declares Catullus in a famous two-line poem: ’I hate and I love’: see Catullus 2008, 130—1.) It might be easiest to think of this in terms of your parents. You love them, but they drive you up the wall. In his discussion of ambivalence in ’Instincts and their Vicissitudes’ (1915), Freud sketches what he calls a ’history of the origins and relations of love’, arguing that ’hate, as a relation to objects, is older than love’ (Freud 1984a, 137). Juliet’s words indicate that ’love’ is not necessarily separable from ’hate’, and indeed that the hate and loathing (the ’loathèd enemy’) come first.

Juliet speaks of the ’birth of love’ as ’prodigious’, that is to say not only ’monstrous’ or ’unnatural’, but also ’ominous’ or ’portentous’ (OED, ’prodigious’, sense 1a). ’Prodigious’ is not good: as with so many other examples (starting with the ’lamentable’ in the original full-title, The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet), it encourages the audience or reader to suppose that things are not going to work out well for these young lovers. It is also a striking instance of figurative or metaphorical language. Romeo and Juliet are not having an actual baby anymore than Shakespeare had a baby called Venus and Adonis, but the language of procreation and creation, of love’s labour (lost or won), suggestively illustrates the generative and performative dimensions of talking about love.

The phrases ’being in love’ and ’falling in love’ are so common in everyday speech that we do not often pause to reflect on their strangeness. ’Being in love’ reverberates with a double sense of ’being’: to be in love is not just to be in love with someone, but to be in love with being itself, with being alive. It is a phrase largely reserved for talking about an overwhelming, all-encompassing erotic passion between two people. (The adjective ’erotic’ comes from Eros, the name of the ancient Greek god of love.) We do not generally talk (except frivolously) about being in love with our laptop or brother, our grandmother or pet anaconda. When we talk about being in love, and about falling in love, we are talking about passionate erotic feelings for another person, a person to whom we are not directly related. This rather simple-sounding statement implies at least two significant further ideas:

· 1. There is a fundamental (if unstated) link with the taboo against incest (you cannot be in love, or fall in love, with your mother, father, brother or sister). Again, psychoanalysis is helpful here in illuminating some of the darker aspects of love. As Freud memorably and somewhat alarmingly phrases it, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930): ’[T]he prohibition against an incestuous choice of object … is perhaps the most drastic mutilation which man’s erotic life has in all time experienced’ (Freud 1985e, 293).

· 2. Because the loved one is always — or should be — a stranger, there is always a certain uncanniness lurking about. Falling in love is traumatic. It is a fall, after all. There is excitement, but also fear (of losing oneself, of love not being reciprocated). You cannot know with whom exactly you are falling or how far you are falling alone, without the other. The other is a stranger, unfamiliar in so many ways. And yet, at the same time, the feeling of love has to do with identification. You want to be one with the other. There is warmth and familiarity (it’s just what you wanted, even if you didn’t realize till now). In this realm of the strangely familiar we might also recall the rather enigmatic proverbial saying: love is homesickness.

We would like to conclude by looking at Emily Brontë’s extraordinary novel Wuthering Heights (1847). In the following short passage Catherine Earnshaw, who is resolved to marry Edgar Linton despite — or because of — the intensity of her feelings for Heathcliff, distinguishes between two quite different kinds of love. ’If all else perished, and he remained,’ she tells the housekeeper Nelly Dean, referring to Heathcliff, ’I should still continue to be’:

… if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath — a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff — he’s always, always in my mind — not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself — but as my own being — so don’t talk of our separation again — it is impracticable; and — (Brontë 1990, 64)

Although she may, in a sense, love him, critics do not talk about Catherine being ’in love’ with Linton: it would make no sense. As she talks about it here, this love is transitory, provisional, reasonable and limited: intimating that ’winter’ brings an end to the ’foliage in the woods’, her simile about her love for him being like the trees is, at best, contingent. Catherine’s ’Nelly, I am Heathcliff’, on the other hand, is one of the most forceful and condensed declarations of love anywhere in literature. It calls to mind Freud’s observation in Civilization and Its Discontents:

At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that ’I’ and ’you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact. (Freud 1985e, 253)

In the context of Catherine’s ’I am Heathcliff’, Freud’s remark becomes an understatement: it is not that the boundary threatens to melt, it has already done so. Catherine Earnshaw is not Catherine Earnshaw.

The question of incest often surfaces in critical discussion of Wuthering Heights. But the contradictoriness of Catherine’s self-description, together with the mystery of Heathcliff (where he came from, who or what he is), preclude any comfortable critical rationalizations. If Heathcliff is, in Leo Bersani’s succinct phrase, the ’sibling-stranger’ (Bersani 1978, 206), this does not smooth out or resolve matters. As Bersani also observes: ’Wuthering Heights is both almost embarrassingly vulnerable and astonishingly invulnerable to psychoanalytic interpretation’ (215). Catherine’s ’I am Heathcliff’ is, finally perhaps, a mad thing to say. But then, in certain crucial respects, love is mad. Love cannot be rationalized. As Theseus says at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ’The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact’ (5.1.7—8).

In his little book In Praise of Love, Alain Badiou writes:

What is universal is that all love suggests a new experience of truth about what it is to be two and not one. That we can encounter and experience the world other than through a solitary consciousness: any love whatsoever gives us new evidence of this. (Badiou 2012, 39)

He is talking in particular about the love between two human beings. But this definition of love is also suggestively akin to a definition of literature. To enter the world of a literary text — at least if we are reading with some care, sensitivity and open-mindedness — is to open ourselves up to the experience of another consciousness or other minds. The space of literature is a space in which we can share what someone else (whether narrator, character or even author) is thinking or feeling. And it is not entirely frivolous to speak of falling in love with a novel or other literary work, as we begin, however madly, this process of identification. Indeed, as we hope to have intimated in this chapter, literature also does more than this. Can we readily imagine adolescent love without a knowledge (at least through its pervasive cultural influence) of Romeo and Juliet? Can we imagine the passion of a final fling or romance without Antony and Cleopatra? Or can we imagine (in the words of the famous Buzzcocks song) falling in love ’with someone / You shouldn’t have fallen in love with’ without Wuthering Heights? Where would we turn to for the language of love, if not to literature? Before film, recorded music and other electronic media, where would we have got our sense of the power of love, of its force and duration, its ecstatic heights and terrible fateful losses, its tropes and narratives, if not from novels, poems and plays? Literature provides us — still provides us — with the models, the language and the forms of love. It shows us how to love. From this point of view we might come to see falling in love as a profoundly literary experience.

Further reading

Not surprisingly, there is a massive wealth of secondary reading on the topic of love in literature. You can search for critical books and essays on virtually any author and you will come up with at least one essay or book on love. At the same time, as we have tried to suggest, all critical writing is about love in some way or other. Try to imagine, for example, critical books about the works of Geoffrey Chaucer or Jane Austen that do not have anything to say about love, marriage, romance, the erotic and so on. Still, specifically — even monumentally — on topic, Irving Singer’s The Nature of Love, in three volumes (2009), offers a superb historical account of its chosen subject, elucidating the originality and importance of many writers and philosophers as it goes. For a range of more contemporary books and essays that offer rich and provoking discussions, see Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love (2012), Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse (1979), Catherine Belsey’s Desire: Love Stories in the Western Culture (1994), Hélène Cixous’s ’Love of the Wolf’ (in Cixous 1998), Jacques Derrida’s ’Envois’ (in Derrida 1987) and Peggy Kamuf’s ’Deconstruction and Love’ (2000). For Freud on love, see, in particular, his ’Contributions to the Psychology of Love’ 1—3 (in Freud 1977) and ’Being in Love and Hypnosis’ (in Freud 1985e, 141—7). For an absorbing and suggestive study of incest in a literary context, see Ellen Pollak’s Incest and the English Novel, 1684—1814 (2003).