Love triangles are all over literature. They’re complex, dramatic, and wildly unpredictable (err—sometimes entirely predictable). These interconnected love affairs get so tangly and confusing, but their circumstances and characters can seem similar from one story to the next. So why is it that we keep on reading the same old tale?
In many ways, the uncertainties and decision-making that plagues characters in these stories often parallel our own circumstances and fears. Should we follow the trail of happiness over money? If I go with choice A, 10 years from now will I be stuck in a never-ending loop of what ifs? But a good love triangle can provide us with guidance. Add in the fact that these tempestuous relationships are downright entertaining, and we have two very good reasons for constantly seeking stories that feature love triangles.
Though there are countless stories that feature prominent and unforgettable love triangles, here are six love triangles that are simply iconic. Whether it was the shocking and dysfunctional circumstances of their relationships, the pure feelings of love that they represent, the challenges they endured to be together, or the devastating effects of their courtship, these romances have made impressions on many readers everywhere.
1. Gone With the Wind: Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes
Scarlett and Rhett | Image Via Warner Bros. Pictures
The relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind is considered, by some readers and viewers of the adaptation, an epitome of a classic romance. Others, on the other hand, may consider the relationship between O’Hara and Butler a classic example of an abusive relationship. Regardless, the love triangle (quadrilateral if you count Melanie Hamilton) that the duo finds themselves mixed up in is certainly an iconic representation of tempestuous love.
Headstrong southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara, finds herself smitten with the reserved and respectable Ashley Wilkes who, to her surprise, ignores her in favor of the kind and gentle Melanie Hamilton. O’Hara uses manipulation and patience to win over Wilkes all the while trying to dodge persistent bachelor Rhett Butler whose own determination and superiority complex gives O’Hara a run for her money. The turmoil O’Hara and Butler each face in their respective pursuits makes this affair unforgettable.
2. The Great Gatsby: Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, Tom Buchanan
Daisy and Jay | Image Via Warner Bros. Pictures
If there is one literary love affair that could possibly rival O’Hara and Butler’s tumultuous relationship, it just may be that of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. The smitten Mr. Jay Gatsby may be considered the world’s biggest romantic or stalker depending on your take.
Gatsby’s love and adoration of the young, pretty, and emotionally unavailable Daisy consumes him entirely, manipulating him to completely reinvent himself into the man whom the superficial Daisy may fall in love with. Their eventual relationship is made complicated by her marriage to the domineering Tom Buchanan whose own superficiality hinders him from giving up Daisy without a fight. The ways in which Gatsby’s adoration for Daisy manipulated his entirety, and the tragic consequences of their love, makes this affair simply unforgettable.
3. Lolita: Humbert Humbert, Dolores “Lolita” Haze, Charlotte Haze
Humbert and Lolita | Image Via MGM
Whereas Jay and Daisy’s relationship is memorable for its intense love (though bizarre and dysfunctional as it may be), the relationship between Humbert and Lolita is defined by how dysfunctional it is. Since its release in 1955, Lolita has portrayed one of the most controversial fictional relationships since Oedipus Rex. It was banned in France shortly after it was published and was panned by numerous critics and editors who took issue with the book’s graphic portrayal of sexuality. Others applauded author Vladimir Nabokov for divulging in a conversation on morality and culpability, as well as the underlying metaphors and social commentary. Sixty-three years later, Lolita still manages to raise eyebrows.
Lolita refers to the titular character who evokes the sexual interest of the much older Humbert Humbert. There are just two small—tiny, really—issues. Lolita is twelve-years-old. She also happens to be Humbert’s stepdaughter. Humbert’s convoluted (i.e. inappropriate) sexual feelings towards the underage girl, and the consequences following, forever seals Lolita as the quintessential dysfunctional love affair.
4. The Age of Innocence: Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, May Welland Archer
Newland and Ellen | Image Via Columbia Pictures
As rare as it is to feel a sense of empathy for the cheater, Edith Wharton manages just that by creating a world in which the happiness of two characters fated to be are ultimately challenged by restrictive social constructs and malicious figures.
Newland Archer is a stereotypical upper class man who is initially consumed by adhering to his social status. His marriage to May Welland appears to be motivated by social convention and his desire to keep his image intact. When he quickly falls in love with the free-spirited Ellen, May’s divorcee cousin who rebuffs social convention in favor of individuality and free-thought, Newland sees a parallel between their shared desire for freedom and passion. The genuine love between the duo is a wonderful example of true love held back by social forces.
5. Lady Chatterley’s Lover: Lady Chatterley, Sir Clifford Chatterly, Oliver Mellors
Lady Chatterly and Oliver | Image Via Hartswood Films/BBC
Before Lolita was banned, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was targeted for its graphic sexual nature. Like Lolita, the dynamic between Lady Chatterley and her lover, Oliver, spawned debate. It wasn’t an age difference that offended readers, rather it was the thought of a sexual affair occurring between an upper-class woman and a lower-class man that led to protests.
Lady Chatterley, also referred to as Constance or Connie, is a down-to-earth intellectual who is married to an old-fashioned aristocrat Sir Clifford Chatterly. After a war injury leaves Clifford paralyzed from the waist down, Connie experiences sexual frustrations. Her sexual desires, exacerbated by additional marital pressures, eventually leads her to undergo an affair with gamekeeper Oliver Mellors. The intense sexual affair between the duo, as well as the invigorating themes on the human mind-body connection in which their affair embodies (and impacts the cultures of audiences exposed) will stick in your mind.
6. Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff, Catherine, Edgar
Emily Bronte | DIT Archive/Amazon
In a discussion of love triangles, where would we be without mentioning Wuthering Heights. Like Jay Gatsby, Heathcliff’s obsessive love has a strong hold over him, ultimately driving his over-arching desires throughout the story and proving to have a substantial impact on not only him, but everyone else around him.
Considered a tortured romantic soul, Heathcliff has lived his life deeply in love with his childhood friend Catherine who, to his revulsion, is torn between her shared desire for him and her desires for another, the wealthy and well-bred Edgar whom Heathcliff seems to pale in comparison to. The intense love between the duo is (as it always is) challenged by social constructs and Catherine’s dilemma to follow true love or a life of stability and social acceptance. The pressures this trio faces, the sacrifices they make, and the disastrous and far-reaching consequences will go down in history.
Feature Image Via Warner Bros. Pictures