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Looking for good role models

Brooks Smith | Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The other day I was reading in the bathroom, as I normally do when nature calls. The book I had (hastily) selected for my time of need was an English translation of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” For those not in the know: Cyrano is an unusually eloquent man who also bears the unfortunate cross of a longer-than-average nose, rendering him unattractive to women. He is in love with his cousin Roxanne, but she prefers the handsome Christian, but Christian is really dumb, so Cyrano nobly decides to help Christian seduce Roxanne by putting words in his mouth. Christian dies in battle before he and Roxanne can consummate their marriage, and Cyrano nobly hides his role in the seduction from Roxanne until he is on his deathbed.

Now Cyrano used to be one of my favorite stories, and I’m still carried along by the sheer momentum and craft of the play. But rereading it in the water closet yesterday I had a revelation: Romantically speaking, Cyrano is a terrible role model. And that started me thinking of all the other terrible role models in literary history — among them Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, and Edward Cullen.

Why is it that it’s so difficult to accurately portray a functional relationship? One answer might be that dysfunction makes for more compelling reading. There must be a reason most fairy tales end with “and then they lived happily ever after.” But is it that all the interesting stuff happens before the ending — or that capturing “happily ever after” in less nebulous terms is beyond the literary skill of the tale-spinner?

But the vague-out of “happily ever after” is by far less pernicious than the romanticisation of tragedy and drama which works like “Cyrano” and “Romeo and Juliet” perpetuate. Where “happily ever after” simply glazes over the inevitable difficulties in sustaining a serious romantic commitment, tragic romances like these actively work against the goal of finding a happy relationship.

“Cyrano” is bad because it hides Cyrano’s fear of rejection under the guise of his lavish self-sacrifice. When Christian comes along it’s a huge relief for Cyrano: all of his pent-up emotion can finally have a safe channel that won’t damage his relationship with Roxanne. Roxanne doesn’t have to put on the red light for Cyrano (telling him to stop), she can green-light Christian’s forward progress. As much as Cyrano proves his courage on the battlefield, in love he is a coward.

“Romeo and Juliet,” one of the best-known and worst-written of Shakespeare’s plays, is equally awful. Its status as an archetype belies the monumental stupidity of all characters, not least that of R and J themselves. It’s actually painful to read how much angst and perfectly metered, excellently rhymed, terrible teen poetry Shakespeare managed to pack into this play. What truly galls is that at the end Shakespeare has the Prince of Verona declare, “For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” thereby elevating their callow and foolish actions to an inappropriately large scale. Flawless execution of a bad idea doesn’t make the idea any better (see: Twilight, Showgirls, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

It may be as hard to write about a good relationship as it is to have a good relationship, and no doubt most writers have managed neither. Or to be more exact: it may be as hard to write well about a good relationship as it is to have one — documentations of happy relationships from the parties involved tend to be cloying and irritating (if Facebook is a good barometer of such things). So there’s the challenge: write a story about a happy relationship that can’t be turned into a self-help book for the lonely or anthologized in “Chicken Soup For The Soul.” I will offer a large monetary prize to the winner of this contest, which I’m calling the Burger King Love Story Contest in hopes of attracting a certain wealthy corporate sponsor. Submissions can be anytime between now and my graduation. Let’s get it started.


Brooks Smith is a senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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