Five love stories…that aren’t really love stories at all

Many of the greatest ‘love’ stories in the arts are a bit like Monet paintings: hazily romantic from a distance, but up close you really see the gaps. IAM‘s Maria Roberts and Mark Powell pick out a couple each – but which other favourites would you include, Valentine’s cynics? Comment below…

1. Don Giovanni, 1787 opera by Mozart and Da Ponte, based on the legends of Don Juan.

Synopsis: Impossibly arrogant libertine, liar, seducer and con artist Don Giovanni spends his entire life trying to add slimy notches to a bedpost that must already be more of a giant sawdust heap than a serviceable item of furniture. He has a particular habit of going after married (or soon-to-be-married) noblewomen, which doesn’t end well for him. We don’t just mean he spends most of the second act hiding in a garden shed in his pants, either: in fact, he’s ultimately tormented by a ghostly statue and then physically dragged to hell by demons. Which almost never happens on Jeremy Kyle.

What it’s really about: As if it wasn’t clear from the full title – The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni – this is a stark, finger-wagging reminder that when it comes to sex and relationships, you’re better off going for quality over quantity. (MP)

2. Swan Lake, the iconic 1875-76 ballet composed by Tchaikovsky and based on a libretto supposedly inspired by historical Russian folk tales. (Click the link to see Kirov Ballet doing the whole thing – that’s your afternoon sorted, then.)

Synopsis: Transformed by evil sorcerer Von Rothbart’s curse, ‘Swan Queen’ Odette has been doomed to a life of feathered, bread-guzzling sogginess for all eternity. Luckily, young royal sort Prince Siegfried happens by and – under pressure from his mother to grow up and find a well-heeled wife – decides to reject all potential suitors, fall for Odette and break the weird spell. Von Rothbart instead tricks Siegfried into marrying an Odette lookalike, at which point the two star-crossed lovers opt for a watery grave together rather than a cursed life apart. As fairy tale protagonist deaths always do, their subsequent plunge somehow kills the bad guy as well, so at least there’s a hint of a silver lining.

What it’s really about: Not pestering wildlife? Paying closer attention to who you’re saying ‘I do’ to on your wedding day? It’s hard to tell quite what the moral is here, as nobody seems to have done very much wrong. Maybe it’s just saying ‘oh sure, life’s a beach alright…but sooner or later you’re gonna fall in the water.’ (MP)

3. I Will Always Love You – the most loved song ever, as trilled by Dolly Parton to Burt Reynolds in the 1982 film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Synopsis: Like Romeo and Juliet, but in oil countryEd Earl, the sheriff of Gilbert, Texas (played by Burt Reynolds), falls for Miss Mona (Dolly Parton), owner of the Chicken Ranch brothel. A key scene is when Mona sings to Ed after he lowers himself from his dizzy heights to propose.

Burt: ‘You know how hard this is for me to say – I love you, will you marry me?’

Dolly: ‘Oh, Ed Earl, I’ve loved you since I was 16 years old, but I’ve thought about this for a long time and as much as I’d love for this to work, I know deep down in my heart it ain’t never gonna be.’

Cue vocals: ‘If I should stay, well I would only be in your way and so I’ll go…. and yet I know… that I’ll think of you each step of the way. And I will aaaaaalllllways love you… bittersweet memories, I guess that’s all I’ll be taking with me…. And I will aaaaaalways love you.’

What it’s really about: Oh. Dolly. You heartbreaker, you. You wrote this years before the film, when you were leaving your musical partner *wipes tear from eye*. Sigh. (MR)

4. El Castigo sin Venganza (Punishment Without Revenge), a play by Lope de Vega dating back to 1631 – full-length Spanish version here, if you’ve got the multilingual skills down.

Synopsis: Prolific ‘Golden Age’ Spanish playwright, Lope de Vega, was heading towards his 70th birthday when he staged this tragedy to rival all tragedies. The ugly and womanising old Duke of Ferrara needs an heir, and predictably picks the beautiful young Cassandra to be his wife. Like a fool, though, he can’t actually be bothered to go and meet Cassandra as she makes her way to his court (what a gentleman, eh?), and instead sends his handsome outcast son, Frederico. Cassandra’s carriage gets stuck in some mud, as they do, and handsome young Freddie saves her. When the awful Duke heads off to war, Fred and Cassandra fall in love and get down to business – Ferrara promptly finds out about the affair, of course, and uses some pretty nasty tactics to get revenge.

What it’s really about: Honour killings. Jealousy. Pretty bad stuff, however rose-tinted your Valentine’s goggles may be. (MR)

5. Jane Eyre, the groundbreaking novel by British author Emily Brontë, published in 1847. Jane is the pin-up single girl of the navel-gazing literati.

Synopsis: A single-minded orphaned girl with horribly mean relatives is raised in desperately grim Victorian conditions, but escapes poverty through education and perseverance. She declines one offer of marriage from an old, sensible and boring man (nice work!), and instead heads off to the fabulous heights of Thornfield, aggressive social climber that she is. Ensconced in that giant house, she falls for the moody, sexy and emotionally unavailable Mr Rochester: fabulous potential love-match though he would otherwise be, he loses major swoon points for keeping his mad wife locked up in the attic while Jane lives out her lovelorn torment downstairs. (The scenario is much worsened by a fire, which causes sparks to fly in all the wrong ways.) Only when Rochester is blind does he truly see what he’s been missing – which was plain ol’ Jane, as the point appears to be.’Reader,’ says Jane at the end, ‘I married him.’ Awww. Er, sort of.

What it’s really about: The oppression/emancipation of women in the 19th century. Nowadays we’d simply say: ‘Jane, we’ve all done it. Move on! Get another job. Possibly somewhere exciting like here…’ (MR)