Although typically consigned to the realm of overly-emotional teenagers, heartbreak is truly one of the most common and yet potentially severe psychological challenges that we encounter. Traditionally thought of as purely a consequence of breakups, its in fact the case that just about any emotional loss can catapult us into the experience of symptoms associated with heartbreak. Similar in nature to the situations that inspire grief, heartbreak can occur as much in a loss of circumstance as in the breakdown of a romantic relationship. Severing longstanding but toxic friendships, being made redundant from a job that you considered to be your ideal, or even watching the struggle of a loved-one battling their own challenges, there are so many situations that can provoke the wide-range of symptoms of heartbreak – scaling from a Bridget Jones-esque turn to tubs of ice cream and romantic comedies to cripplingly severe and paralysing depression. Heartbreak rests much of its impact in our vision of what our life could be, as well as the way in which we tie our own perception of identity to the thing that we’ve lost. In this sense, it is not inappropriate to associate heartbreak with situations as relatively small as finally mustering up the courage to ask a long-standing crush out on a date and finding rejection. Heartbreak has far less to do with the situation or person and far more to do with our sense of attachment to the thing that we’ve lost.
My experience with heartbreak is wide-reaching. Although I’ve certainly encountered the heartbreaks associated with romantic rejection, it is the fallout associated with lost circumstances that stand out to me as my most profound experiences of heartbreak. Leaving my PhD programme – one that I was a hairs-breadth from finishing – inspired perhaps the most dramatic and immediate series of emotional consequences that one might readily associate with heartbreak. Although the decision to leave was completely my own and ultimately for the better, the extent to which I had tied my own sense of identity to academic accomplishment and a sure idea of my future career was extreme. Leaving that situation – however voluntarily – was bound to provoke an experience of what I can only describe as very real heartbreak. In a similar vein, I continue to deal with something akin to heartbreak in my ongoing battle with homesickness. Although I’ve now been in the US for two years, the unwavering sadness and longing that I feel to be back in the UK is probably more challenging to me than just about any other emotional upheaval that I’ve experienced. My perceived permanency of this overseas move, combined with the fact that I still haven’t quite figured out who I am outside of my own culture, has made this particular heartbreak more long-lasting than anything else that I’ve experienced.
So what can be done when it comes to managing our experience of heartbreak or preparing ourselves for its inevitability? When symptoms trend into the more severe or fail to abate over time, it is certainly the case that professional intervention is a must (and I’m not preaching from a place of non-experience here, since I both see a therapist and use medication to manage my own mental health challenges). When it comes to bibliotherapy, however, literature is no stranger to heartbreak and its many consequences. Fiction provides us a place to turn, whether we are looking to equip ourselves with the emotional tools to better navigate future heartbreak or deal with a situation in which we are already knee-deep and struggling. This new post in The Book Habit‘s bibliotherapy series (previous articles are linked at the bottom of this post) considers bibliotherapy as a tool for navigating the challenges of heartbreak. I’ll start by talking through the relationship between bibliotherapy and heartbreak, looking at the physiological and psychological symptoms of heartbreak as they can manifest in response to an emotional loss. Based on this, I’ll then draw on the three components of bibliotherapy – (1) identification; (2) catharsis; and, (3) insight – to make recommendations of some books that might help you to process any feelings or symptoms associated with heartbreak. Whether you are experiencing heartbreak due to the end of a romantic relationship or a change in circumstance, bibliotherapy has something to offer you.
As always, be sure to get in touch via a comment or email if you have any thoughts, experiences, or recommendations that you would like to share! If you are interested in the other posts of the bibliotherapy series, they are linked at the end of this post. You can also access them via the site menu.
*These posts are not intended to suggest that bibliotherapy and literature are a replacement for professional help. Although I believe that fiction can serve as an effective tool in the maintenance of mental health and the treatment of mental illness, it must be viewed as a complement to professional intervention, where appropriate. If you are struggling with mental illness or otherwise, please do not hesitate to reach out to someone who is in a capacity to help.*
Bibliotherapy and Heartbreak
Before jumping into the specifics of bibliotherapy and fiction recommendations, its important to get a handle on what exactly constitutes heartbreak and its symptoms. While personal experiences of heartbreak will vary depending on the cause and the individual, there are a number of symptoms that tend to be more common across the board. Popular conceptualisations of heartbreak – usually involving a lot of weeping and eating – are not actually far from the medical truth. Heartbreak is typically associated with feelings of melancholy and a dramatic impact on eating habits (with the individual either eating far more than usual or far less). A HuffPost article on the subject of heartbreak and its symptoms points to the commonality of sleep disorders, especially insomnia, as the body operates in a state of hyperarousal (known to you and me as anxiety). This state of anxiety is one of the most challenging aspects of heartbreak, leading to the symptoms that we traditional associate with extreme worry (racing thoughts, a ‘knot in the stomach’ sensation, sweaty palms etc.) but can also manifest more severely as panic, leading to heart palpitations and shortness of breath. None of this is unusual in the experience of heartbreak. The nature in which heartbreak extends from our own sense of attachment to what we’ve lost, as well as the way that we tied our own identity to the thing lost, creates a profound sense of confusion and can lead to identity crises. This is something that an article from Elite Daily highlights as one of the most problematic, scientifically-proven aspects of heartbreak. This article also notes that heartbreak has been shown to engage the part of the brain that is active when experiencing physical pain. This, in itself, denotes the severity of our body’s response to loss.
At its most severe, heartbreak can lead to depression. In such cases, professional help is imperative and the symptoms are those associated with depression at-large. Interestingly, studies have shown that suffering a loss tied to self esteem is twice as likely to trigger depression as those losses divorced from self esteem. This ties to the notion of heartbreak as connected to our own appraisal of self and the harsh consequences when we lose something that we perceived as integral to our own worth and identity. Beyond the psychological fallout, heartbreak can render itself so severe as to create heart attack-like symptoms in certain individuals. Known as ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’ (Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy), this is “a temporary heart condition that looks and feels like a heart attack and is often brought on by stressful situations,” (HuffPost). One cardiologist indicated that the syndrome is diagnosed in 1-2% of those individuals who come to hospital with symptoms of a heart attack.
Clearly, then, heartbreak has the potential to wreak havoc on both our psychological and physiological wellbeing. Where symptoms are less severe or accompanied by appropriate professional assistance, however, literature has an incredible amount to offer those in the throes of heartbreak. Fiction as therapy – or bibliotherapy – can step in to reduce some of the emotional fallout that typically accompanies feelings of heartbreak, allowing sufferers to better understand the particularities of their own experience and, hopefully, find a fruitful way forward.
*The following couple of paragraphs are a brief introduction to the components of bibliotherapy. If you have read my previous posts on the subject, you might want to skip ahead to the recommendations!*
As I highlighted in Can Fiction Help You? An Introduction To Bibliotherapy, bibliotherapy can be grouped into three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) categories:
(1) Identification with the character or text;
(2) Catharsis in response to the text;
(3) Insight into problems through the text.
As they pertain to heartbreak, each of these components have something truly important to offer. Identification and insight are tied to the representation of heartbreak via the text of a novel. Research has demonstrated that our brains process fictional scenarios as if they were happening to us directly. Reading thus equips us with better tools for the management of challenging scenarios and a degree of emotional resilience when confronting situations first-hand. Our brains quite literally learn to change and adapt our response to heartbreak as we read about fictional encounters with the same emotion. The catharsis aspect of bibliotherapy is similarly important as it pertains to heartbreak. Not only does fiction have the ability to calm any physical distress – for example, the sadness (both psychological and physiological in manifestation) that often comes with heartbreak – it can also provide an important mirror for our experiences and, through this, an alleviation from the crises of identity and profound sadness that can accompany a broken heart.
Making sure to choose the right novel to meet each of these requirements is important. While there is less risk of ‘triggering’ by reading the ‘wrong’ novel in regards to heartbreak in its less extreme forms – as opposed to with conditions such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD – our requirements will vary depending upon our situation and our needs. We might be looking for identification with characters, in order to find representation of our experiences. Alternatively, it might be insight that we desire, in an effort to confront our heartbreak head-on by finding coping mechanisms or a shift in perspective. Or maybe it is catharsis that we are looking to find – a chance to connect with characters more generally or an opportunity to laugh and alleviate some of the physical distress caused by feelings of heartbreak. The following section talks through book recommendations that fall into each of these categories. While they are obviously not personalised exactly to your needs, they are a starting point – a signpost toward the lists that you can continue to create for yourself.
These fictional works all centralise characters and situations that overlap with the experience and/or symptoms of heartbreak. The process of identification with a text is believed to increase a reader’s capacity for empathy and compassion toward individuals and scenarios as represented in fiction and, by extension, the ability to better understand personal suffering.
Stoner by John Williams
There is probably no novel more replete with heartbreak that John Williams’ Stoner. We follow the book’s eponymous hero, William Stoner, as he embarks upon a life of troubling mediocrity. His career is effectively ended by an academic rival, he is rejected by his wife, and his daughter is manipulated out of her attachment to her father. It is a novel populated with heartbreak in its many forms and certainly not an easy read. If, however, you are looking to find your own experiences with heartbreak mirrored in fiction, Stoner deals with the kind of heartbreak that emerges both from emotional rejection and crushed dreams.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
When it comes to bibliotherapy for identification with heartbreak, you will notice a definite theme. No novel that deals realistically with heartbreak will likely present the most positive and life-affirming take on what it means to face rejection. Although in many respects tied to its context, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the most powerful works of fiction offering an authentic emotional exploration of the effects of a broken heart. The definition of a tragic novel, Thomas Hardy’s masterpiece follows Tess as she suffers at the hands of men who both love her and lust after her. Where she is met with sexual violence during an encounter with the truly vile Alec D’Urberville, Tess is thrown into confusion regarding her own sense of self. It is, however, mostly in her love for Angel Clare and his refusal to countenance the violence she has suffered that Tess is left life-alteringly broken-hearted.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The bane of many a high school student, The Great Gatsby is known as much for its less-than-subtle metaphors as it is for Jay Gatsby’s relentless love for his married neighbour, Daisy Buchanan. An incredible novel for many reasons, it is also one of the most effective explorations of heartbreak that exists in fiction. Gatsby’s refusal to let go of his love for Daisy and his determination to reshape his life only to better position himself for her reciprocation are common elements of what it means to suffer a broken heart at the hands of a lover. Gatsby is an original version of the ‘show him what he’s missing’ philosophy, although, in this case, it is not so much about hitting the gym and getting a haircut as it is about the quick accumulation of wealth and some truly extravagant parties. The Great Gatsby is certainly a lesson in what not to do when it comes to romantic rejection.
As I mentioned above, the cathartic capacity of fiction is one of the most meaningful and direct ways in which literature can assist those of us experiencing heartbreak. Catharsis indicates an alleviation of physiological and/or psychological distress and can be achieved in a variety of ways. There are three principle ways to achieve catharsis via fiction – as it pertains to heartbreak – and this is via (1) calming, (2) levity, and (3) nostalgia. Although the manner in which each of these works for you – as well as the books that evoke each response – will depend largely on your individual preferences, the novels listed below can serve as a point of reflection and exploration for you to figure out what offers the best cathartic response.
Calming: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Although Vladimir Nabokov is traditionally celebrated (or, in some cases, not so much) as the man behind Lolita, his literary skill demands recognitio
n that extends far beyond the controversy provoked by that novel. Nabokov’s prose is perhaps the most luminous and beautifully composed writing that exists in all of literature. A big claim, perhaps, but one that few who have encountered Lolita or, in my opinion, his superior work, Pale Fire will easily refute. Nabokov’s prose perfectly positions his works as a recipe for physiological calming. Where it has been shown that the transcendental nature of well-written prose, as well as its rhythms, can calm the distress associated with anxiety and panic, Nabokov has so much to offer those in the throes of heartbreak. Pale Fire‘s intriguing narrative – as well as the absence of any overtly romantic plot lines – make it the perfect companion for those looking to achieve a sense of catharsis through fiction.
Levity: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
This is an ambitious recommendation, not least because the name ‘Charles Dickens’ typically inspires fear in the hearts of even the most accomplished readers. I make no secret of the fact that I absolutely adore Dickens and every piece of his work. Beyond this, I also recognise the incredible potential of Dickens’ writing as its pertains to bibliotherapy. Dickens’ works are classics for a reason – their messages far transcend the place and time in which were written, achieving a sense of contemporary relatability that is unrivalled elsewhere. In the case of heartbreak, I can think of no better novel to recommend for a humourous cathartic release than The Pickwick Papers. Following the travels and trials of the The Pickwick Club as they traverse England in search of stories and connections, this novel is one of the funniest and most heartfelt that I’ve had the joy of reading in the past few years. Where romance is included, the novel is a refreshing reminder to take all of life’s challenges with as optimistic and as light an outlook as possible. It is a truly perfect novel.
Nostalgia: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
I hadn’t really considered the cathartic potential of nostalgia until I started publishing these articles on bibliotherapy. With reflection, however, I’ve come to realise that a catharsis with its roots in personal nostalgia is one of the main ways in which I use literature when confronting any kind of emotional crisis. Nostalgia’s ability to remove you from your current experiences and remind you of times when you were free of pain makes it an incredibly important component of bibliotherapy. With regards to heartbreak, I have often turned to Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle as a place of nostalgic reprieve. Very different from the film adaptation of the same name, Howl’s Moving Castle describes a world so far removed – and yet emotionally connected – to our own. It is an exploration of the fantastical, in which love and heartbreak – although real – are part of a human experience populated with so much joy and exploration.
When reading fiction for insight, it is not necessarily the case that novels need directly refer to or deal with the problem at hand. Where identification allows us to explore characters and situations to which we can directly relate, insight permits us to consider ways of operating that might allow us to better navigate our challenges. While the books listed below do not necessarily portray heartbreak directly (although, in most cases they do), they offer a variety of reflections on coping and moving forward that provide particular insight into the problems that heartbreak can create.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s novels don’t deal too readily in heartbreak, beyond the momentary heartbreaks utilised to propel the author’s heroines to realisation of the person whom they truly love. This is, perhaps, the reason why Persuasion feels like the most authentic and recognisable of all of Austen’s books. In this novel, the reader joins Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old woman who has consigned herself to the life of a spinster following her rejection of her one true love, Captain Frederick Wentworth. Having allowed herself to be persuaded by friends and relatives of the inappropriateness of a match with Wentworth, Anne lives her life profoundly broken-hearted. Persuasion is a novel of second chances but, more than this, is a story about the process of throwing off expectations and navigating one’s own life. Faced with heartbreak, romantic or otherwise, there is no message more important. This is not a novel that should convince us that holding out will bring our love back to us (we can learn the truth of this from Gatsby) but rather the importance of affording ourselves a chance to find who we truly are and what it is we really wish for our future.
House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
An intergenerational epic that achieves so much in so few pages, it is easy to understand why The House of the Spirits may exist as the very definition of bibliotherapy and its power. While there is much to be gained from reading Isabel Allende’s incredible novel, its emphasis on connection as a route through the trials of heartbreak is a critical insight for those suffering a broken heart. The book is populated with heartbreak across both generations and decades – the heartbreak of rejection, of lost love, of death, and of broken expectations. The novel is a lesson in living true to identity, divorced from the expectations of others or the desire to derive one’s sense of self-worth from external circumstances or people. Beyond this, The House of the Spirits is a reminder of the joy that can be found in connection. Whether friends, family, or a stranger in a supermarket, our lives are replete with opportunities to find ourselves mirrored back in our interactions with those around us. Given the sadness, isolation, and fear that heartbreak can inspire, The House of the Spirits is an invitation to reflect, gain perspective, and relish in the bounty of what life has to offer.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
One of my favourite novels of all time, I first read I Capture the Castle at about the time that puberty’s dramatic changes first hit. The novel was a revelation – and it remains so to this day. Narrated by Cassandra Mortmain, a teenage girl living in an increasingly derelict castle with her family, I Capture the Castle follows many of the typical trials and tribulations of teenage life (albeit the life of a teenager in the 1930s). When two wealthy American men come to town on business, Cassandra is quick to fall in love. The object of her desires, Simon Cotton, is, however, fairly quickly engaged to Cassandra’s older sister, Rose. While Cassandra’s own experience of heartbreak takes on the dramatic proportions that one might expect of a teenager obsessed with Jane Austen novels, her commitment to her own principals and truth is an empowering message to anyone experiencing similar challenges. Were this novel without any instances of heartbreak entirely, it would still prove one of the most effective remedies for those suffering a broken heart. Where heartbreak can leave you struggling to locate a sense of self or a picture of the future, it is in the captivating, determined, and unflinching voices of fiction that we are best reminded of our own truths. Cassandra Mortmain’s narrative voice – guided as it is by a relentless hope for the future and a determined commitment to herself – is the perfect insight into how one might recapture their own unwavering commitment to themselves and their post-heartbreak future.
Other Posts in the Series: