The recent Guardian article on the worst couples in literature got me thinking. How many of the cited couples are actually bad together, and how many are just unpleasant characters?
To me, the defining essence of a bad couple in literature should be that we can easily imagine either of them in a functional relationship, but just not with each other. So, of course Tom and Daisy Buchanan are a bad couple – but really, I can think of very few people that either of them would have been good with. Nick and Daisy, perhaps?
One of the writers who really brings this nuance out is Thomas Hardy. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess and Angel Clare are a genuinely bad couple without being unsympathetic characters. Both of them have positive traits, and both of them appear able to sustain a functional relationship (although notably, neither of them do – with anyone – throughout the book). But although Angel thinks that he loves Tess’s earthy, naturalistic traits, he’s decidedly less enamoured when she doesn’t turn out to be a “fresh and virginal daughter of Nature”. Similarly Tess is impassioned by Angel’s learning and slightly dictatorial nature, but has no real point of sympathy with him that would allow them to sustain a relationship. She responds to the physical brutality of Alec D’Urberville far more readily than the cold cruelty of Angel. But we can easily imagine both of these characters sustaining a relationship with others (Angel and Mercy for one, Tess and somebody like Dairyman Crick for another).
The same could be said for Jude and Sue in Jude the Obscure. It’s always been a regret of mine that Sue didn’t stay with Phillotson, to whom she seemed far more suited. Jude and Sue are drawn with painful realism, down to the hurt feelings and minor misunderstandings that anyone that’s been in a fractious relationship will recognise. Jude seems congenitally unsuited to be with anyone who impinges on his own ambitions to become educated – and in their different ways, both Arabella and Sue do this. But Jude isn’t fundamentally ill-suited to a relationship, just to the relationship with the mercurial Sue.
Finally, Thomasin and Wildeve from Return of the Native also display these characteristics. It would be arguable that Wildeve would be unhappy in any relationship, but the same certainly couldn’t be said for Thomasin. She’s a relatively simple character, and doesn’t display any of the same depth and complexity as Eustacia, for example. But with another man (such as Diggory Venn), she may have been happier. Personally, I would have liked to see how long the romance between Wildeve and Eustacia lasted. They display a fundamental need to hurt each other, or to coax out a confession that the other one loves more. And yet, with all that, they’re both very ready to admit their need and longing to each other. Is that openness the sign of a good couple?