Document Type


Date of Award



Love in literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

John V. Hagopian

Second Advisor

Zack Bowen

Third Advisor

Melvin Seiden


The dialectic concerning romantic love and its place in the lives of men and women has for many centuries provided much of the matter of literature. How important is it, or should it be, the poets have asked; is it more important in the lives of women than in the lives of men; how do or should men and women in love conduct themselves; do they have different responsibilities toward love; are their different reactions based upon inherent differences in the natures of men and women? Sometimes the dialectic follows a strict rhetorical form as in literary love-debates; more often the arguments are diffused through various aspects of the work. Though the form changes, the substance remains much the same, and the dialectic spills over into every available genre.

Neither the subject nor the virulence of the contemporary dialogue between men and women is new. Women have often been angry about their assignments in the scheme of things. Historically, their angry assertions were often dismissed by detractors’ insisting that the degree of anger was in direct proportion to the degree of hysteria inherent in women's natures. But, following as it does two decades of Black assertion, the current angry assertion of women takes advantage of an intellectual climate constrained to listen, however reluctantly, to argument. What is new, then, is the awareness that the substance of this dialectic may deserve greater respect from listeners than it has sometimes received. Strident feminine voices may be unpleasant, but they less often now may be patronizingly dismissed as hysteric.

Misogyny, misandry, and mutual mistrust are older than the mystique of romantic love which has so preoccupied the lives and literature of the Western civilizations since the 11th century. While all of these themes have their place in the literature, the major concern of this paper is with the substantive issues of the dialectic itself and the major contention is that those issues remain basically the same, i.e., (1) What is the proper weight or place in one's life of secular love, and—given that it has a place—(2) What is the proper role of the sexes—pragmatically proper—the one that contributes most to achieving and keeping love and to the general social harmony. Quantitatively, male authors have had the most to say though many of the more perceptive have given some of their best lines to female characters. Shakespeare's Emilia, Chaucer's Wife of Bath, among others, make remarkably telling sallies against the sexual politics of their time.


There is too much material, and certainly any historical sketching must be outrageously selective and personal. Also my discussion of contemporary artists is selective in several ways. I have chosen to deal with four female authors, because (1) I wish to see if, in their use of any of the technical tools available to them, such as manipulation of sympathy through irony and point-of-view, they have slanted the arguments or operate from a markedly feminine perception of the debate, and (2) simply because each is a fine artist who addresses herself to the specific issues under consideration. Of the artists, Katherine Anne Porter, Doris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates, and Christina Stead representing three countries and, the two Americans, different regions, each is master of a distinct style. Moreover, I have been selective in dealing with the canons. There is no attempt to achieve an “overview” of any writer's total perception of the questions, but I have tried to avoid the temptation to pick obscure or inferior pieces of their work simply because those pieces are supportive of my thesis. In each case, I deal with representative work, letting her speak for herself rather than for me.

The aims, then, of this paper are to examine the tradition of the literary love dialectic, to examine its persistent themes in contemporary authors, and to establish that the substantive issues of the debate remain the same.