Atonement and Romeo & Juliet

The Meaning of Love: the Role of External Factors in Atonement and Romeo and Juliet

External Influences on Romantic Relationships

Identifying Relevance in Literature

Love for Personal Gain

The complexities of love and romantic relationships have long been literature mainstays. Fundamental themes of love have emerged in plays, novels, songs, poems and prose for millennia. Concepts of love are used in literature to explore how love impacts human relationships, the role of love within the lifespan, how love influences decision making, and how individuals choose to measure their lives in love. One common question that literary outlets repeatedly try to answer is: how do people fall in love? Novels and plays often aim to describe the innate quality of love, and how its intensity can redefine the lives of the depicted characters. Love is frequently regarded as an act of fate; that two people were destined to fall in love and stay in love for the entirety of their lives. In this respect, love is not simply an experience shared between two people, but is almost equated with the knowledge of a "higher power" because of love's omniscient disposition and ability to choose which two people should fall in love.

Love is generally considered the responsible party for why two people engage in a romantic relationship. People "fall in love" and that is the reason for their attraction and loyalty to one another. Love, however, is an emotional and psychological process that does not account for the external influences that bring two people together. One classic story that has been testing the depths of human love for over four centuries is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; the play about two young, fated lovers, who were birthed to feuding families and ultimately take their own lives. In this tragic romance, Romeo is born into the Montague family and Juliet is born into the family of their sworn enemy, the Capulets. Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time at a party in the Capulet house; Romeo is hidden in costume and they see each other, experience love at first sight, and only later find out they are supposed to hate one another based on family principle. In this circumstance, blind love is viewed as the cohesive force that binds Romeo and Juliet together. Their love is explained as a convenience of fate, is meant to be, and this is reason alone for why they are in love. Little consideration is given to the other influences that affect their lives and the love they share.

A more recent publication includes a love story set in the 1930s England; Atonement, published in 2001 and written by Ian McEwan, is a novel that observes the relationship between truth and imagination, and the need for forgiveness. In 1935, Briony Tallis is a 13-year-old aspiring playwright and sister to Cecilia. Robbie is the housekeeper's son, and has adored Cecilia since childhood. Robbie and Cecilia attend Cambridge University together, and when home on break they fall in love. The crux of the story is Briony's false identification of Robbie as her cousin's rapist. Like the title suggests, the novel is rich in atonement theme, but also focuses on the love and romantic relationship between Cecilia and Robbie. The romantic interest between Cecilia and Robbie blooms after they have both attended university, and indicates how love can arise between two people that have known each other their entire lives. Love is again depicted as an internal, organic process that is shared between two people and does not respect how external influences, such as family pressure and need for security, impact how individuals "fall in love."

The realization of love between Cecilia and Robbie is not that of Romeo and Juliet; Romeo and Juliet are blatantly described as "star-cross'd lovers" (Prologue.6) and were destined to fall in love at first sight, whereas Cecilia and Robbie grew up together and fall in love as young adults. Although both pairs of characters succumb to love in different frameworks, both couples are subject to external factors that influence how they ultimately fall in love. These external factors affect their feelings for one another and determine how, and why, they fall in love. The love between Romeo and Juliet, and Cecilia and Robbie, is not a matter of fated love or a psychological declaration of true love; their love is a product of their respective environments and the context of their lives.

External Influences on Romantic Relationships

Love is often regarded as an omniscient, universal force that can overcome any boundary to unite two people with an unrelenting bond. "Falling in love" and "true love" is seemingly reserved for individuals lucky enough to find their perfect partner. Love is considered an intangible experience that magically surfaces yet little interest is given to the external factors that impact how individuals engage in romantic relationships. At the mental and physical level, romantic love is a psychological process that encompasses "emotions, motivations, and behaviors" (Sternberg, and Weis 88). Love is viewed as a personal, internal experience; however, there is little attention paid to the influence of context.

The context of life situations and circumstances has the potential to impact the love experienced and how individuals are drawn to one another. In some situations, love can be a method of adaptation to meet a psychological need (Sternberg, and Weis). For example, some individuals have a natural desire to rebel, and who these individuals fall in love with presents a way to rebel against the expectations of others. Culture also affects how and why people fall in love. How one identifies with their culture accounts for the differences in experience of love, and one's behaviors associated with love depend on identifying with "culture as either individualist or collectivistic," (Sternberg, and Weis 322). Identifying with an individualistic sense of culture often causes the person to base decision-making on the interest of the individual, rather than to satisfy the interest of the group, such as a family (Sternberg, and Weis). Individuals acting in the best interest of their family may believe they are in love, when they are actually trying to psychologically cope with the pressure insinuated by their family culture. The individual's social network and sociodemographic factors are also expected to impact how, and with whom, people experience romantic love (Sternberg, and Weis).

The social and cultural context of Romeo and Juliet implies several external factors that would influence the romantic relationship between the star-crossed lovers. One of the story elements that drive the plot tension is the intense family feud that exists between the house of the Montagues and the house of the Capulets. Romeo of the Montagues, and Juliet of the Capulets, were destined to loathe each other based on family principle. Although the attraction between Romeo and Juliet is evident before they know each other's familial identities, the nature of rebellion is an external factor in their enduring love. Another external factor that is partially responsible for Romeo and Juliet's love is the understanding of marriage as security. Particular to the time period, marriage represented livelihood for the woman and met a reproductive obligation for the man. The third external influence that fuels the romantic relationship between Romeo and Juliet is this psychosocial notion of "young love." The young ages of Romeo and Juliet make them naive to adult relationships and the understanding of love. The external factors of desire for rebellion, security, and young age are responsible for creating the love Romeo and Juliet believed they were experiencing.

The relationship between Robbie and Cecilia in Atonement is built on similar external influences. The rebellion aspect to the Robbie and Cecilia relationship is created by their separation in social class. Robbie lived on the Tallis property with his mother, the housekeeper. Cecilia and Robbie have been living together in the same physical place, but have always been separated by social class. Their relationship is a rebellion against the expectation of their economic status. The need for security is also relevant to Cecilia and Robbie, but to a lesser extent to that of Romeo and Juliet. In the 1930s, marriage was still regarded as a social expectation and women were supposed to be married at a reasonable age. The notion of "young love" and desire is applicable to Robbie and Cecilia. They were of a university age, and the newness and optimism associated with their romantic interest in each other made them believe they were in love. The relationship shared between Cecilia and Robbie is a consequence of external influences and not a product of true love.

Identifying Relevance in Literature

The concept of rebellion propels the tension and conflict in Romeo and Juliet. Romeo of the Montagues and Juliet of the Capulets are supposed to have nothing but distain for one another and their marriage is practically an abomination. In the opening scene of the play, there is a quarrel between Sampson and Gregory of the Capulet house, and Abraham…