When Heart is Home, from the Brontës to the ‘Before’ Trilogy
Love, specifically romantic love with a single person is one of the most common depictions and definitions of ‘home’ in fiction. In The Literature of Love by Mary Ward, it is established as a kind of geography: “lovers enter new worlds. They ‘find’ each other.”
The notion of soulmates is a key aspect of love stories in which the romantic relationship between two people is their place of home. But it’s also a narrative system in its own right. The soulmate narrative has its own rules, conventions and structures, and comes with its own set of expectations.
Picking apart the word itself, we know that ‘mate’ can be friend, companion, sexual partner. But soul? That’s trickier.
Thoughts around the soul date back to ancient times. One of its earliest meanings in English, dating from 971, is “spirit of a deceased person” while its use as a synonym for “person, individual, human being” starts from the early 1300s. In almost all cases now, it is seen as “the incorporeal and immortal essence of a living being”
Putting these two words together, ‘soul’ and ‘mate’ is relatively recent. It first appeared in English print in 1822 when Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote “To be happy in Married Life… you must have a Soul-mate as well as a house or a yoke mate”.
The concept however goes back much further than that. The most frequent association of a soulmate – the half of a whole, the perfect fit– can be found in some form in almost all religions and creation myths.
“You Complete Me”
The Old Testament depicts an androgynous creature in God’s own image which “comprises the essence of spirit”, it is given a living soul which becomes the creation of Adam, and from Adam’s rib comes Eve. In the New Testament, “humans were once whole, but were then divided to create [their] mate”.(Ref) In Judaism, Rabbinical literature notes the concept of ‘midrash’ – God created Adam with ‘two faces’ and then split him into two. In Hinduism, the Universal soul seeks company and so brings itself into being.
“He then made his Self fall in two, and thence arose husband and wife” (Ref)
In ancient Greece, Plato’s monumental work ‘The Symposium’ gives a similar account. In this creation myth, humans were androgynous and had four arms and four legs, making them a round shape. They were full of such power and self-sufficiency that the gods felt threatened, and so Zeus split them in two and scattered the halves across the world. Humans were forevermore doomed to wander the planet searching for their literal other half.
This search for wholeness is a popular conceit in stories old and new, but when I think of it in terms of soulmate narratives, I think of the Brontёs.
“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same”
If we are willing to view Emily Brontё’s Wuthering Heights as a love story (the most common understanding of it but arguably the most complicated), then the relationship between the protagonists Heathcliff and Catherine acts as the archetype of soulmate love. Their elemental, almost primal relationship “expresses the passionate longing to be whole, to give oneself unreservedly to another and gain a whole self or sense of identity back”.(Ref) The lovers not only ‘complete’ each other but recognise a wholeness through each other that blurs their individual selves (see Catherine’s famous line “I am Heathcliff”), in a way that shows their relationship to be both insatiable and insufferable. They “represent the essential isolation of the soul, the agony of two souls–or rather, shall we say? two halves of a single soul–forever sundered and struggling to unite.” (Ref)
In some ways, Charlotte Brontё took a very similar stance in her novels. In Jane Eyre, the same-titled heroine sees herself in relation to her husband as “absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.” This couple’s thorny path to marital bliss sees them overcome class, convention and custom to eventually unite in a way that is both plural and singular. There are two bodies, but one ‘soul’.
“I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms”
However, by contrast to Wuthering Heights, this use of being ‘one’ but also two underlines the chief concerns of the plot. Jane is preoccupied with a search for self as well as wholeness with another. From her beginnings as an abused and neglected child, to her position as a governess, a homeless stranger and finally an heiress, Jane’s sense of identity and self-belief is remarkably consistent. Furthermore, she is not just the subject of her bildungsroman plot, but the architect. She marries him. “No net ensnares” her, and although conscious of her position as “poor, obscure, plain and little”, she sees in Rochester an emotional and intellectual connection that transcends those barriers.
“I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! … I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”
The result of their union not only sees them become whole, but mirrors of each other. “You are my sympathy–my better self–my good angel–I am bound to you” she tells Rochester, “with a flame that…fuses you and me in one.”
In Villette, another of Charlotte Brontё’s novels, the protagonist Lucy Snowe is self-sufficient but lonely, friendless and alien. The unlikely journey of Lucy and her ‘soulmate’ is demonstrated throughout the novel with a language of incompleteness. Ellipses, interruptions and misunderstandings underpin the relationship until their eventual declaration of love. It is at this point that we see the prominence of the half and the whole between them.
“Still as I narrated…he spurred me by the gesture, the smile, the half-word. Before I had half done, he held both my hands… I merited severity; he looked indulgence… I knew not till now that my nature had such a mood: he gathered me near his heart. I was full of faults; he took them and me all home”
Lucy’s lover fills the gaps, takes the imperfections and makes them complete. (PS don’t read this book unless you have a soul of stone.)
To go one step further with the Plato myth, we should note that the soulmate comes from something that used to be whole and then was split, so the act of finding a soulmate is actually a process of re-finding and rediscovering them.
This is where Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny – a growing concept he elaborated on in 1919 that is particularly prevalent in Victorian Gothic fiction – comes into play.
“But We’ve Met Before…”
With the uncanny, Freud proposed that people have hidden or ‘secret’ memories that have either been repressed in their formative years or developed at an earlier stage of the psyche – ie before being born. In German, the term is unheimliche, literally meaning ‘not homely’ although ‘heimlich’ also refers to being ‘cosy’, ‘hidden’ and secret’. The sensation of the uncanny then, is to feel at once ‘at home’ (safe/enclosed) and not at home, or more simply put; a sense of recognition and familiarity that is unsettling and strange.
The uncanny is a process of repeats, returns and reflections. Doubling is a key motif of this (where it can take such forms as “shadow, reflection, portrait, and twin”), as is telepathy, deja vu, visions and dreams. All of these play a significant part in Victorian gothic imagery. Jane Eyre maximises the effect of these by weaving them into realism, or as this paper puts it: ‘gothicizing the domestic and domesticating the Gothic”. In other words, Jane is constantly inhabiting uncanny spaces, whether they are in the dramatic scenery of mists, moors and woods, or the dark shadowy corners of manor houses and school rooms. She exists on a spiritual plane that seems often to manifest into the physical, and vice versa.
It is through this vocabulary that Mr Rochester explores his own, undeclared love for her.
“I have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame.”
What Rochester refers to as a “cord of communion” is given greater power and meaning when positioned as a channel of communication in a later, very memorable telepathic exchange between them.
“I saw nothing, but I heard a voice somewhere cry —”Jane! Jane! Jane!” — nothing more.
“O God! what is it?” I gasped.
I might have said, “Where is it?” for it did not seem in the room — nor in the house — nor in the garden; it did not come out of the air — nor from under the earth — nor from overhead. I had heard it — where, or whence, for ever impossible to know! And it was the voice of a human being — a known, loved, well-remembered voice — that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe, wildly, eerily, urgently.
“I am coming!” I cried. “Wait for me! Oh, I will come!” I flew to the door and looked into the passage: it was dark. I ran out into the garden: it was void.
“Where are you?” I exclaimed.
The hills beyond Marsh Glen sent the answer faintly back — “Where are you?” I listened. The wind sighed low in the firs: all was moorland loneliness and midnight hush”
The uncanny, like the sublime, surpasses the logical mind, and here we see this truly in play with an encounter that climbs the heights of gothic. Jane is in a room “filled with moonlight” and a lone, dying candle in a house that is “all still”. The depiction of the wind, the moors and the summoning of the vast plains and the darkness of the sky evokes the sublime, but also the ghostly.
It also confirms the spiritual bond between them. Indeed, Rochester frequently calls Jane a “spirit”, “sprite”, “fairy” and “elf”, her presence for him is already unearthly and strange, almost as if – to use the thinking of Virginia Woolf on the supernatural and the uncanny – his “field of perception” has been widened, and it is his spirit that ‘sees’ hers.
In modern day soulmate narratives, the ‘frightening’ aspects of the uncanny can often be found in something more accessible to romance: Magic
Magical Moments and Meet-Cutes
One example of a modern-magic ‘soulmate’ connection can be seen in Richard Linklater’s ‘Before…’ film series. In the first of these, ‘Before Sunrise’, a long train journey across Europe sees protagonists Jesse and Celine act on a connection between them by walking the streets of Vienna together until dawn.
With conversation being the main driver of the plot, their way of talking to each other is of the same “more animated and an audible thinking” quality of Jane and Rochester. That two strangers in a foreign land are so immediately familiar with each other adds greater significance to their relationship, making it almost uncanny, a theme that does not go un-examined in the film. They even remark how their experience is “other-worldly”.
“It’s like our time together is just ours. It’s our own creation. It must be like I’m in your dream, and you in mine”
Iconic ‘soulmates’ across film and literature have met in similar places of otherness. Typical examples include the doomed lovers Romeo and Juliet, who meet at a masquerade ball and Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca, who like Jesse and Celine fall in love as strangers not-at-home. These are places that seem to exist outside of time, conjuring ideas of magic, the secret or the dream.
A preoccupation with time and memory is in fact a recurring element to the plot in all three ‘Before…’ films, and sets the tone for the sequel Before Sunset, where Jesse – now an author – regales an idea for a story in the opening scene of the film:
“There’s this guy…he’s sitting there, and just at a second, his little five year old daughter hops up on the table. And he knows that she should get down ’cause she could get hurt, but she’s dancing to this pop song…And he looks down, and all of a sudden, he is sixteen… his high school sweetheart is dropping him off at home…and the same song is playing on the car radio, and she climbs up and starts dancing on the roof of the car. And now, now he’s worried about her! And…he knows he’s not remembering this dance, he’s there. He’s there in both moments simultaneously. And just like for an instance, all his life is just folding into itself…that’s it’s all happening all the time and inside every moment is another moment, all…You know, happening simultaneously.”
In this scene, it is implied that it is the memory – or ghost – of one person, namely Celine that occurs and reoccurs as the defining moment of his life.
“Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”
This taps in to another facet in soulmate thinking that derives from creation myths; that out of the ‘halves’ that make a ‘whole’ there is only one ‘true’ love. The theme in fact strengthens in the first two Before…films, where Celine’s muse of not finding the right person (“I knew it was a special moment, but something was always wrong. I wished I’d been with someone else”) in ‘Sunrise’ becomes more of a concern in ‘Sunset’, where they both view each other as the ‘one that got away’. (“I guess when you are young, you believe that you will meet many people with whom you’ll connect with, but later in life you realise it only happens a few times”)
Again, this belief in ‘the one’ is deeply entrenched, as evident in religion and myth creation stories. Applying Plato’s myth; there is only one match that can create something powerful enough to rival the gods.
It goes to follow that the gods – or fate – play a significant part in soulmate narratives, in which themes of chance and design interplay.
Star-aligned or Star-cross’d?
The importance and power of coincidence, aside from being a convenient plot device, suggests that fate has conspired to bring two people together, even if their ‘earthly’ circumstances keep them apart. In fact, being brought together only to be separated is itself a recurring element to soulmate narratives. That they cannot stay together renders the aspects of chance and coincidence more meaningful.
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”
‘Destiny’ appears to deliberately align to misalign, or the other way round. In Before Sunset, the newly reunited Jesse and Celine share stories of their lives that reveal how close their paths had once crossed without them knowing it. Jesse’s response to this is that “something was off” in the Universe, some sort of cosmic mix up.
Do we still think that’s the case by the third film, Before Midnight? Here, he again uses cosmic thinking to review their (now established) relationship. Crucially, he does so in an attempt to return to the ‘soul’ of their love, presenting himself to Celine as a messenger from the future and the past, referring to the space-time continuum, or in other words, the stars.
I don’t talk to strangers.
But that’s the thing, I’m not a stranger. No, we’ve met before…summer ’94
You are mistaking me for someone else.
No, we even fell in love.
I don’t think so.
Well, see, I know something about tonight that you don’t know.
Really. What is that?
Something important. See, I know because I’ve actually already lived through this night.
I’m a time traveller.
I have a time machine up in my room. I’ve come to save you just like I said I would.
Save me from what?
Save you from being blinded by all the little bullshit of life.
It’s not bullshit.
I assure you, that guy you vaguely remember, the sweet romantic one who you met on a train? That is me.
Guess I didn’t recognize you… you look like shit.
What can I say? I mean, it’s tough out there in time and space.”
Seeing (for the first time) the couple in an established everyday relationship also brings a new element to this idea of a soulmate. In possessing each other, the lovers address everyday mundanities, disappointments, disagreements and sacrifices – some of them life-altering. As such, we witness an uglier, more painful side to their relationship that in some ways recalls the bitterly claustrophobic scenes of marital exorcism in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’.
The final scene sees them sit together in silence, at a moment of possible separation to grieve for their fairytale expectations of love – or soulmates – and by doing so, actually reconcile. It is a moment of transition, but not one so readily affixed to the conventional soulmate story.
But then perhaps it is. I see both Before Sunset and Before Midnight as explorations of the first film. They are repeats, returns and reflections of a single moment in time, or as Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian put it, the “fractured memory of an afternoon’s love”, and it is in this moment that their ‘soulmate’ resides. In true uncanny fashion, it is a memory and a hope.
And actually, with the exception of Jane Eyre, the preservation – and subsequent immortalisation – of a moment in love is a running theme.
“Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while”
Perhaps the bond of the soulmate is that this degree of love does not – or cannot – sustainably exist in the physical world. If souls are immortal, existing before and beyond death, then it goes to follow that so are soulmates, but like souls they can only endure in another ‘realm’ –they are immortalised in and by a period of time.
For Rick and Ilsa, this is Paris – the city’s name itself becomes a sacred keepsake of their love. Meanwhile, Romeo and Juliet’s death is consciously emblematic –symbolising how dying in their youth at the height of their love effectively ‘preserves’ that moment forever. Furthermore, like Catherine and Heathcliff, there is an implication that, belonging together, their souls will reunite in the spiritual realm.
But why is this, and why do Jane and Rochester escape this fate?
We have seen that soulmate love disturbs, can’t take form, maybe is even frightening or ghostly. But in many cases, it’s also sacrilegious. It is the lovers that make deities of each other who suffer the most.
According to Stanford Professor Robert M. Polhemus, Catherine and Heathcliff “have faith in their vocation of being in love with one another… They both believe that they have their being in the other, as Christians, Jews, and Moslems believe that they have their being in God”. The characters, especially Heathcliff, are tormented until their deaths. Meanwhile, “Juliet, and her Romeo” who she calls “the god of my idolatry” only bring about literal and metaphorical peace through their tragedy.
‘The Kiss’ (Lovers) bu Gustave Klimt, 1908. This painting caused controversy for its ‘sacrilegious’ use of gilt and gold leaf – normally reserved for religious art. Pic: Google
Putting this thought that spiritual love should be reserved for religion gives extra weight to why Rochester sees Jane as spectral, and why their final reunion occurs when he is blind and finally turning to God (read then ‘humbled’). In fact, when Rochester and Jane reunite, there is much emphasis on the word “human”. Rochester in his blindness asks Jane “you are altogether a human being, Jane? You are certain of that?” to which she replies “I conscientiously believe so”. Meanwhile, Jane uses similar language in her bid to bring Rochester out of his self-abandonment from the world.
“’It is time someone undertook to rehumanize you’ said I, parting his thick and long uncut locks.”
Perhaps their marriage is depicted as successful because they commit to the everyday, physical world. By the end of the novel, their love is firmly rooted on ‘earth’. It is the love of mortals in league with, rather than in place of their God.
At a recent Brighton Festival talk for Reader, I Married Him – an anthology edited by Tracy Chevalier of stories inspired by Jane Eyre, we see a number of ways this tale of soulmate love can be explored or re-examined in 21st Century approaches to love. And here we see a few repeats and returns of our own. Esther Freud’s tale ‘Transference’ – itself a nod to her Great-grandfather Sigmund, raises questions around who and how to love (and in this case marry). The story asserts “you can love someone in a pure way. You can hold them in your heart. And nothing has to happen”.
When applying this to the narrative figure of the soulmate, we could question if it even should.
 Leading us to thoughts of the link between souls, death and immortality (see also the ghost of Catherine at the window in Wuthering Heights)