Toxic Relationships in Literature
How Common Unhealthy Love is in Classic and Modern Writing.
Nearly everybody is aware of the concept of toxic relationships. Whether one experiences the relationship firsthand, or someone they love is a part of it, toxic relationships are often devastating. The worst thing about these types of relationships might be that they can happen to anyone, regardless of education level, race, or age. Indeed, this is a common theme in literature. Three examples are the song Poison and Wine by The Civil Wars and the poems I’m a Fool to Love You by Cornelius Eady and The Ache of Marriage by Denise Levertov. While all three works are by authors from vastly different walks of life, and are written during different eras, the main idea is the same; they know what an unhealthy relationship is, as well as the complications that come with one.
One example of this theme in literature is the song Poison and Wine, which was written by Joy Williams and John Paul White in 2009 as a duet. This song describes the plight of two lovers in a codependent, tumultuous relationship. Yet, their feelings for each other are stronger than they assumed, causing them to stay together when they know they shouldn’t. The first piece of evidence is line 3 of the first verse, sung by White, “Oh your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine,” suggesting that while his significant other is the one thing that’s killing him, she is also what keeps him alive. Furthermore, the chorus, which Williams and White sing together, states, “I don’t love you, but I always will.” This piece is exemplifying that the couple know how they are tearing each other down, yet they can’t help but continue the chaos.
Now, in the second verse, line three, Williams sings, “your hands can heal, your hands can bruise.” This shows that while her lover is the one who causes her pain, he’s also the one who heals it, thus displaying their codependence. So how does this song’s meaning tie into the two poems, I’m a Fool to Love You and The Ache of Marriage? Similar to Poison and Wine, in The Ache of Marriage, the couple are wanting something different than what they have. And in I’m a Fool to Love You, the author’s mother wants out of her relationship. But, as she is a colored woman in the mid-20th century, she financially has no choice but to stay where she is. This same codependence is displayed in Poison and Wine.
Another example of toxic love in literature is the poem, I’m a Fool to Love You, written in 1954 by Cornelius Eady. It talks about how his father is better than a past lover was, but is still toxic. Lines 3-5 state, “My mother would tell you, if she could/ about her life with my father/ a strange and sometimes cruel gentleman.” This is when Eady’s father is first introduced, and as a man of questionable character.
Yet, as bad as the author’s father may be, this past beau was worse, which is evident in lines 18-22, “This man made my father look good/ that’s how bad it was/ he made my father seem like an island/ in the middle of a stormy sea/ he made my father look like a rock.” Eady’s father is a negative and possibly abusive man; however, this other man was so much worse his father seemed like “an island in the stormy sea.” This reinforces that, no matter the race or age of a person, they can still fall victim to abuse or toxicity. This poem ties into Poison and Wine through the evidence of a toxic relationship, the way neither woman can escape, and the fact that both men are in control of the situation. The situations are the same, even if the people aren’t.
The Ache of Marriage was written by Denise Levertov in the 1950’s and describes a marriage in which the couple wants “communion”, or a deeper connection. Yet, as in the other two pieces of literature, there is something preventing them from reaching their goal. Unfortunately, in The Ache of Marriage, the couple’s obstacle is not clearly defined; however, there is an unhappy couple in an unsound relationship. Yet unlike in Poison and Wine and I’m a Fool to Love You, this couple doesn’t want separation; what they’re hoping for is to fix things and have a deeper, more meaningful relationship. The married couple here has hope, though their relationship is shaky.
Of course, there can be several different meanings to any piece of literature. What one person interprets is not always going to be the same as the next person. In I’m a Fool to Love You by Cornelius Eady, it could be argued that the mother does not want to leave her husband. After all, the poet never explicitly describes how his mom feels about her husband or the situation they are in; he only describes his father and compares him to the past beau.
In conclusion, the theme of toxic love is common throughout literature, both classic and contemporary. These three pieces, Poison and Wine, I’m a Fool to Love You, and The Ache of Marriage, all show that no matter age, race, or education level, one can easily fall victim to a tumultuous relationship.