A Non-Exhaustive List of the Most Iconic Exes in Classic Literature

Painting by Alexandre Cabanel. Phèdre. 1880.

Painting by Alexandre Cabanel. Phèdre. 1880.

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. For some of us, it’s a great day to celebrate all the meaningful relationships in our lives, romantic as well as platonic; for others, it is a dreadful, commercialized holiday and a day to spend in the comfort of our home, watching horror movies (I have been both of these people). However, Valentine’s Day is also unfortunately a day to dwell on relationships that have come and gone from our lives. 

When it comes to matters of the heart, I like to turn to literature to help. In one way or another, the complexity of our relationships is almost always reflected on the page. Whether they are vengeful, crazy, faithful, or understanding, my bookshelves are full of iconic past lovers. My classic bookshelves, however,are also too full of dead white men writing about heterosexual relationships, so please tell us in the comment section down below who else belongs on this list! So without further ado, this is my non-exhaustive list of the best exes in classic literature:


1.    Jay and Daisy, The Great Gatsby, by Francis Scott Fitzgerald: the one who cannot move on

People can argue endlessly about whether or not The Great Gatsby is a love story, but what matters is that Jay Gatsby lives it as such. As a young soldier, he fell in love with Daisy in 1917, before being deployed overseas; when he returns, Daisy has married Tom Buchanan, a wealthy "brute of a man," who is already having an affair with another woman when the story begins. This does not stop Gatsby, who will try his best to win Daisy back, and doing so, try to erase the past standing between them. This delusion will ultimately be his downfall, but who hasn’t wanted, for one moment, to ignore the complexity of the present for the faded sweetness of past loves?


2.    Merteuil and Valmont, Dangerous Liaisons, by Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos and Carol and Abby, The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith: the one who insists on being friends

Dangerous Liaisonsis an epistolary novel, mostly built around the exchanges between two libertines, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. The reader is led to understand that these two once shared a relationship but parted on good terms. In their letters, they keep celebrating their remaining complicity, knowing that even though they are not together anymore, no-one can understand their dedication to the game of seduction like one another. However, the game gets more complex when the Marquise dares Valmont to seduce the prudish Madame de Tourvel, promising him a night of love should he succeed. But Valmont is not as immune to the charms of his prey as he likes to think…

On the contrary, if you want an example of a friendship with an ex done right, look no further than Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel The Price of Salt (also known as Carol). Carol, the object of the young heroine Therese’s affection, has had a short-lived romantic relationship with her best friend Abby years before the plot unfolds. The two, however, remain close friends and Abby’s support is key to get Carol through the struggles she faces as her new love story unfolds. 

All of this is to say that if you chose to remain friend with you ex, you must remember three things: put yourself and your needs first; take all the time you need to rebuild a new relationship; and don’t bet with your ex on the new lover you plan to seduce. Just don’t. 


3.    Swann and Odette, Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust: the one you remember when you least expect it 

When they meet in Swann’s Love, Swann and Odette are already ill-suited for one another. He is an intellectual dandy, and she is a demi-mondaine. He lets her chase him at first, reluctantly enters their relationship, and only when she begins to lose interest does he realize, too late, that he loves her more than he knew. Their relationship is over, and he lives through the break up. But then as he attends a concert one night, he hears the melody that played the first day they met, the one that they came to consider as "theirs":

And before Swann had had time to understand what was happening, to think: "It is the little phrase from Vinteuil's sonata. I mustn't listen!", all his memories of the days when Odette had been in love with him, which he had succeeded, up till that evening, in keeping invisible in the depths of his being, deceived by this sudden reflection of a season of love, whose sun, they supposed, had dawned again, had awakened from their slumber, had taken wing and risen to sing maddeningly in his ears, without pity for his present desolation, the forgotten strains of happiness.

In place of the abstract expressions "the time when I was happy," "the time when I was loved," which he had often used until then, and without much suffering, for his intelligence had not embodied in them anything of the past save fictitious extracts which preserved none of the reality, he now recovered everything that had fixed unalterably the peculiar, volatile essence of that lost happiness; he could see it all; the snowy, curled petals of the chrysanthemum which she had tossed after him into his carriage, which he had kept pressed to his lips, the address 'Maison Dorée,' embossed on the note-paper on which he had read "My hand trembles so as I write to you," the frowning contraction of her eyebrows when she said pleadingly: "You won't let it be very long before you send for me?"; he could smell the heated iron of the barber whom he used to have in to singe his hair while Loredan went to fetch the little working girl; could feel the torrents of rain which fell so often that spring, the ice-cold homeward drive in his victoria, by moonlight; all the network of mental habits, of seasonable impressions, of sensory reactions, which had extended over a series of weeks its uniform meshes, by which his body now found itself inextricably held.

(Translated From The French By C. K. Scott Moncrieff. Project Gutenberg.)  

I love this one because even though it takes place more than a hundred years ago, in a society that is foreign to most of us, it is highly relatable. One major theme in In Search of Lost Time is that there are two types of memory: an active, conscious memory, or "intelligence," and a passive, sensorial, and often more powerful memory. This is what the madeleine episode at the beginning of the first book is all about: tasting the cake, the narrator is thrown back to his childhood. In Search of Lost Time presents many other episodes like this one, and the episode of Vinteuil's sonata is especially poignant. Many of us have experienced it first hand: unexpectedly hearing a song that reminds us of a lost love, we do not only recall the relationship, we relive it.


4.    Nora and Robin, Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes: the one where no one can understand the pain you’re going through

A great mystery in heartache is to realize that although it feels like the world is ending, almost everyone is familiar with it. If the pain is so great, shouldn’t have someone figured out a solution by now? An epidural for feelings? Let’s be honest: poetry is not as effective as the imaginary emotional pain killer that I have in mind, but it is soothing to realize that others have been through the agonizing sorrow we’re going through, and lived to put the words on the page. 

Djuna Barnes is one of those amazing poets incidentally turned novelist that almost makes you glad to experience the pain in order to understand the depth of her prose. Nightwood always feels to me as though Marcel Proust was writing directly in English — the sentences are long, the style viscerally sensitive, but Djuna Barnes is even more radical in her description of the doomed love story between the bewitching Robin and her lover Nora. The latter is the one to finally utter one of the most heartbreaking truth in life and love: 

I can only find her again in my sleep or in her death; in both, she has forgotten me. 


5.    Maxime and Rebecca, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier: the one you cannot compete with

Rebecca is built on a gimmick: a recent widower, Maxim de Winter, meets the young narrator on holiday in Monte Carlo. They marry after having known each other for a few weeks, and after their honeymoon, he brings her back to his magnificent estate of Manderley. The narrator then realizes that, even though she’s dead, the late Mrs de Winter is very much present in everyone’s minds. Most importantly, even though readers are subjected to the omnipotent presence of her name, Rebecca, they are never to learn the name of the narrator. 

This modern gothic novel has been a best-seller since 1938 for a reason: it gives a fantastical twist to the feeling that the past lovers in our life are forever here to stay, their phantom-like presence always affecting our present relationships.


6.    Rochester and Antoinette, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë: the one you didn’t know about, and who tries to set your bed on fire

It is only fair to talk about one of the patron saints of the Attic – the mad woman in the attic herself. 

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was largely inspired by another classic gothic novel — Jane Eyre. It is no coincidence that both novels have a great character in common: the evanescent ex. In Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester meets his first wife Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress, in Jamaica — the story of their meeting and marriage is brilliantly explored in Jean Rhys’s retelling, Wide Sargasso Sea. However, when Jane Eyre enters the life of Rochester, she is completely ignorant of his first wife’s existence. Driven to madness shortly after her wedding, Antoinette was locked away in her husband’s attic. She finds her way out to roam the estate at night, however, and goes as far as to set Rochester’s bed on fire. Her pyromaniac tendency will eventually lead her to destruct the entire estate and maim her husband. She is herself killed in the fire. 

This tragic story — one could hardly call it a love story — lets the reader explore the darkest aspects of past relationships, the dreadful acts ex-lovers are capable of undertaking in order to make each other suffer. This figure of the monstrous ex can be traced back as far as the myth of Medea. In both cases, of course, the contemporary reader recognizes that the true monster is the man that caused the madness in the first place, and this is why feminist retelling of classic stories are so important to restaure the humanity of these past-lovers.    


7.    Milady and Athos, The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas: the one who comes back from the dead

Dumas did not invent the character of the femme fatale, but he wrote one of its most iconic incarnations in literature. When d’Artagnan meets him, Athos is a common musketeer and Milady de Winter (maybe related to Maxim, I don’t know) is the devilishly seductive spy of the Cardinal de Richelieu, the musketeers sworn enemy — so you can imagine the strength of the coup de théâtre when d’Artagnan, and through him, the reader, realizes that Athos was once a noble man, the Comte de la Fère, and married to a woman named Anne de Breuil, whom he would later come to know as Milady. As they are hunting in the forest one day, Anne faints and Athos has to undress her to let her breathe. Doing so, he finds the fleur-de-lis symbol branded on her shoulder, the mark of a convicted criminal. Feeling betrayed and dishonored, and, as the local seigneur, having the right to dispense justice on his estates, Athos immediately orders that she’s hanged from a tree — but this condemnation is to haunt him for the rest of his life. 

Of course, to a contemporary reader, Athos’s attitude toward his wife is appalling, and Milady de Winter appears as one of the great mistreated villains in literature, but she is also the archetype of the evil ex, the one that won’t even let death come between you, and that will hunt you to the ends of the earth to keep on making you suffer. 


8.    The Crooner and his Wife, Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro: the one that looks like the last embers of love

From the moment he received the Booker Prize in 1989 for The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro has been the great contemporary writer of the should-have-been and the might-have-been, and every shade of regret in between. He is also wonderful at describing dissolving relationships. 

Nocturnes is a mesmerizing collection of short stories; like its title poetically suggests, each story centers around music and nightfall. Ever the romantic city, the first one is set in Venice. A fading American singer plans a come-back, and in order to stage it, decides to serenade his wife and their dying relationship one last time before moving on with his life.

No list about the great exes in literature would be complete without at least a book that explores the complexity of the break-up itself. Sometimes, it is but a moment, but often, it is a process, and a long, painful one at that, full of doubts and regrets, leaving the two parties alone to wonder where and why things went wrong. 

9.    Katia and Dmitri, The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: the one who finally lets you go

It’s only fair to end with Katia and Dmitri, because in many ways, these two are the ones who make their break-up work. Dmitri and Katia meet when Dmitri is a debauched young officer, and Katia is the daughter of his superior.  When her father finds himself in financial difficulties, she comes to find Dmitri to beg him to help him; he gives her money and lets her go. Touched by his generosity, she comes back the next day to ask him to marry her. However, when the main plot of the Brothers Karamazov  begins, Dmitri has fallen hopelessly in love with Grushenka, a young woman wooed by both his father and him (it’s complicated). After many tribulations, Katia finally lets Dmitri go, in what is perhaps one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful goodbyes in all literature:

“That's what I loved you for, that you are generous at heart! (…) Love is over, Mitya!” Katya began again, “but the past is painfully dear to me. Know that you will always be so. But now let what might have been come true for one minute,” she faltered, with a drawn smile, looking into his face joyfully again. “You love another woman, and I love another man, and yet I shall love you for ever, and you will love me; do you know that? Do you hear? Love me, love me all your life!” she cried, with a quiver almost of menace in her voice.
“I shall love you, and ... do you know, Katya,” Mitya began, drawing a deep breath at each word, “do you know, five days ago, that same evening, I loved you.... When you fell down and were carried out ... All my life! So it will be, so it will always be—”
So they murmured to one another frantic words, almost meaningless, perhaps not even true, but at that moment it was all true, and they both believed what they said implicitly.

(Translated from the Russian of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Constance Garnett. Project Gutenberg.)

I love this passage so much because it recognizes the most beautiful and terrible thing about the exes in our lives: we once shared something precious, and even though that something is over, and no matter the reasons why things didn’t work out between us, the love we shared is still a part of us, and always will be.

Now tell us, who are your favorite exes in literature?

Milena Le Fouillé has taken on the dantesque task of trying to pursue the career of a national curator in France, a path close to academia, fascinating, exhilarating, and yet distilling its very own fragrance of hell. In the meantime, she tries to find comfort in softness, good books, and the beauty that surrounds her.