One of my students came to class toting a Team Jacob water bottle. Another day, she showed up wearing a Team Edward shirt, which made me think I had misremembered her water bottle. Usually I make it a policy not to comment on my students’ sartorial choices, yet when I was taking attendance I couldn’t help blurting out, “So which team, exactly, are you on?”
“Edward for the books,” she said, “and Jacob for the movies.”
Fair enough. That’s the beauty of being a reader or watcher: you never have to choose (or, at least, a multiplicity of choices isn’t likely to cause any controversy in your personal life). Her answer pointed out how narrow-minded I was in phrasing my question.
And speaking of being narrow-minded, let’s consider the almost excruciatingly conservative nature of the image alongside this text. No wonder the people in it look bored! Though love triangles traditionally feature a woman who must choose between two men, that is not, of course, the only possible permutation. Whatever genders are involved, there is usually a lot of angst and even a sense of mourning—any good love triangle (in my opinion) should make the people involved (and the people watching it) aware that, even if the The One is chosen, it will not be without cost. As the Runner-Up exits stage left, the Judge of the triangle should feel deeply that s/he’s losing something forever. This is what makes Stephenie Meyer’s love triangle in Twilight so compelling. Whomever Bella chooses, she will lose something (if Edward, she loses the chance at a normal, sort of human existence with Jacob; if Jacob, she loses eternal love).
What makes a love triangle work?
René Girard famously pointed out that love triangles in literature seem to be about the Judge’s relationship with his/her two Options, but really the most interesting side of the triangle is the line drawn between Option 1 and Option 2. Take a classic love triangle of Western literature: King Arthur, Gwenivere, and Lancelot. Though we may be caught up in Arthur’s relationship with his wife, and her relationship with the hot young knight of the Round Table, a truly compelling narrative is the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot. The triangle ends up being as much about the love and strife between king and knight as it is about Gwenivere’s torn loyalties. This is why Twilight fans are so sucked into the famous “tent scene” in Eclipse, where Bella, Jacob, and Edward are crammed into a small tent, with Bella hazily sleeping while the two guys talk it out. There’s a great delight in seeing how the two Options relate, under whatever terms (and I’m hoping to see some of this in Suzanne Collins’s final book in the Hunger Games series).
I have a particular interest in young adult literature, but I’d like your opinion on love triangles, and please don’t feel you have to confine your responses to YA lit just because that’s my interest. So here are my questions:
1) What are the best love triangles in literature, film, and television?
2) What makes them work?
Marie Rutkoski is the author of the young adult fantasy novel The Cabinet of Wonders and its sequel, The Celestial Globe (published on April 12, 2010). Both books have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, which described the first novel as a “heady mix of history and enchantment.” Her novels have been or will be published in eight languages. Marie holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard University, and currently teaches as a professor of Renaissance drama, children’s literature, and creative writing at Brooklyn College. She lives in New York City with her husband and son. You can visit her at marierutkoski.com.