I subscribe to John Darnielle’s view of love: “we think of love as a thing that is with strings and is this force for good and then if something bad happens that’s not love…I don’t know so much about that. I don’t know that the Greeks weren’t right, I think that they were, that love can beat a path through everything, that it will destroy a lot of things on the way to its objective which is just its expression of itself. You know my stepfather mistreated us terribly quite often, but he loved us and well, that to me is something worth commenting on in the hopes of undoing a lot of what I perceive is terrible damage, yet we talk about love as this benign comfortable force: it is wild.”
Which means that I am capable of viewing Lolita as a love story; I accept that Humbert Humbert feels he is in love, even though it is obvious to the reader that he is hurting, abusing, imprisoning a teenage girl. It is a one-sided, ugly, damaging love story. It is still a love story. The only way in which he approaches even a sliver of redemption is by acknowledging that he has stolen her childhood and that this is a terrible thing. Dolores Haze, subject and not object, is nevertheless the heroine of the book, and Humbert Humbert is the villain protagonist. He is the monster: and it is still a love story.
Love is capable of driving people to be idiotic. Romance is the business of acting with short-term emotions over long-term rationality; Romeo & Juliet is the story of a brash young man who persistently falls for beautiful women until he finds one naive enough to return his obsessive affections. They behave selfishly and stupidly and it is a love story. The tragedy of Romeo & Juliet is not breach of affections between two warring families but rather the impatience and impetuousness of two idiot teenagers whose family feud prevented them from handling their situation with more maturity.
The crux of Othello is “one who loved not wisely, but too well”; Shakespeare’s body of work is littered with lovers whose ability to behave sensibly and comport themselves like adults is compromised by raging emotions, and with their friends and families trying to haul valiantly on the reins of stampeding passion (cf. the tasks Prospero sets Ferdinand to in The Tempest in an attempt to determine his worth as a man and to stop him from knocking up his long-isolated teenage daughter and then doing a runner). Beatrice and Benedick acknowledge that lovers are fools, fall in love, and proceed to behave very foolishly indeed.
“Romance” and “love” do not necessarily mean “lived happily every after in a stable and non-damaging relationship”. A lot of the complaints about the Twilight books (which are genuinely awful but for entirely different reasons) took in the teenage protagonist’s labelling of Wuthering Heights as a romance and spluttered in disgust. “Wuthering Heights is a book about two sociopaths who can’t stay away from each other and ruin everyone else’s lives while they try”, someone said.
Yes, it is. And it’s a love story. It’s a romance. It’s a story about two horrible, selfish people who are horribly and selfishly in love and instead of handling it well they drag other people down with them, people who are damaged by their love for a man and/or woman who is, at heart, “horrible”. It’s still love. Loving something terrible and damaging or loving someone in a way that is abusive and frightening is still love: it is just damaging, terrible, frightening, abusive love, bad love, love that should be escaped from.
It is in no way inaccurate to to describe Lolita, Romeo and Juliet, Persephone and Hades, and god knows how many other grim and appalling tales of inquity, ill-treatment, and violence as love stories, because a twisted and ugly love lies at the centre of them. It would be inaccurate to call these things POSITIVE love stories, to suggest that the love depicted within them is healthy or something that anyone should use as a model for their own life and relationships, but the idea of fiction as a moral guide was supposed to have died when Modernism happened. The internet appears to think otherwise.
So: love is neither good nor bad. It just is. People have good love and bad love, and stories of bad love are as valid as love stories as stories of good love. People who are determined to model their relationships after fiction get what they deserve: people who deny the damage in fictional relationships because “it’s love” aren’t reading the book properly, but people who claim that because they’re toxic, it’s not love – they’re not reading the book properly either.