Complicating "Love" in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) and Love Story
by Amy Hagan
Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 1
First published April 2020, Manchester
In this essay, I explore different theoretical concepts of love, primarily concepts of romantic love and familial love. I analyse two American cultural texts to argue that the generic and conventional ‘love story’ or storyline of the romantic couple trying to overcome obstacles to their relationship surviving is only the foundation of the story, allowing other ‘love stories’ like familial love and the relationship between parent and child to be portrayed. As a result, the familial love story becomes the more complex and intriguing storyline of the film or book rather than that of the main romantic couple. The two texts I study are Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Erich Segal’s 1970 romance novel Love Story.
The concept of eros or romantic love is one that is recycled in popular culture, literature, and Hollywood, with identifiable qualities and recognisable themes. These include the couple falling in love over a short period of time and seeking parental approval of the relationship. Therefore, it is thought of as an uncomplicated concept. Both the texts Love Story (1970) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) are characteristic of the typical romantic love story. Both couples fall in love over a short period of time and they both face obstacles to the progression of their relationship. Whether or not their relationship or ‘love story’ flourishes or is cut short depends on whether they can overcome their respective obstacles. Despite facing differing obstacles, for example, race and discrimination in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and social status and class in Love Story, one obstacle both couples face is parental approval of their relationship. In love stories, it is common for at least one parent or familial figure to be involved. Often in a relationship, at the very least, one of the pair feels anxious about being accepted by their partner's family. In this essay, I argue that in having the concept of eros as the foundation of the narrative, other concepts of love are inevitable, for example, familial love and self-love. It is these concepts of love which are the focal points of the narrative rather than the romantic storyline. The features of the romantic love story bring to the surface the complexities of other love stories. I find in both texts that familial or storge love is the predominant love story rather than the romantic or erotic love of the couple. The obstacle needing to be overcome – parental approval and acceptance – is necessary in order to emphasise the complex ideas about familial love.
Both Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Love Story’s narratives are grounded on the passionate or romantic love of a heterosexual couple. These narratives are easily identifiable as ‘love stories’ because of the universal and generic qualities used again and again within the romance genre. Both couples in the texts fall in love over a short period of time, for example. Joey tells her mother Christina in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner that she "fell in love with [John] in twenty minutes" and had only known each "for ten days" before getting engaged.' (see note 1). In Love Story, Oliver and Jenny meet in similar way and have fallen in love by the end of the second chapter: "I think...I'm in love with you". Oliver and Jenny similarly meet and fall in love very quickly by the end of the second chapter, “I think...I’m in love with you” (see note 2). As Clyde Hendrick and Susan S. Hendrick highlight, falling in love “is a widely recognized cultural phenomenon” because it is part of the narrative framework of the romantic love story that is generated time and time again in various mediums (see note 3). Two people falling in love “in twenty minutes” is improbable and yet we recognise it. Joey and John face obstacles in the form of racism and prejudice as an interracial couple in 1960s America, parental approval from both sets of parents of the relationship, and John’s constant anxiety over being accepted by Joey’s family. In Love Story, Jenny and Oliver also face challenges of prejudice in relation to social class and status because Jenny is “an American of Italian descent” and Oliver comes from a WASP family, parental approval, and the obstacle of illness and death (see note 4). The romantic love story and concept of eros is “one plot that is more appreciated and more often told than all the others” because the protagonists “who are bound by love [are] separated by challenging obstacles they struggle to overcome” (see note 5). Without parental approval, John cannot see how his and Joey’s love story would work and survive. All the tension in the film builds up towards the dinner that evening, symbolising the parents' decision to reject the relationship and, ultimately, decide if it progresses or not. In Love Story, Oliver does not receive paternal blessing over his relationship with Jenny and he remains estranged from his father until the end of the novel, when the couple fail to overcome the obstacle of mortality and Jenny dies. What we see in both texts is the obstacle of achieving parental and familial acceptance of the romantic relationship, and the idea that the success of the romantic relationship depends on the success of the relationship between the parent and the child. As a result, the concept of eros provides the foundation for familial or storge love to be explored as the more intriguing and complex ‘love story’ in the narrative.
Looking at Ancient Greek philosophy of love and John Alan Lee’s The Colours of Love, Hendrick and Hendrick presented three primary love styles: eros (passionate and romantic love), ludus (uncommitted and playful love), and storge (friendship and familial love) (see note 6). All three concepts or styles of love overlap and intercept one another, in particular storge and eros. These concepts of love are linked to one another because of the relationship between the parent and child and the child’s desire for their parent or figure of familial authority to accept the romantic love story. This is evident in both Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Love Story.
John and Joey must overcome the ‘dinner’ for their love story to flourish and survive because a great deal of importance is placed on familial love and acceptance. The dinner is a symbol of the question Joey and John’s parents have been asked: will they accept this interracial union and love story? A film that lasts almost two hours, the plot revolves around verbal exchanges and speeches between characters with limited action occurring. Set over the course of a single day, the lack of action and character interactions which are mainly made up of dialogue result in tension building up as the dinner nears. When Tilly announces, “everything is ready when you are”, it is a sign for the parents, particularly Joey’s father Matt, to decide whether to accept the romantic relationship or not (see note 7). The relationship between Christina, Matt, Joey and John becomes the focal love story of the film as the romantic relationship depends on storge love and parental acceptance. John is often anxious in the film because he fears rejection from Joey’s parents. In entering a romantic relationship with their daughter, John becomes almost a son of Matt and Christina’s but first must be accepted into the family. He places storge love and commitment above eros: “There is no real commitment and up to now nothing is settled on...unless you two approve” (see note 8). Only with parental approval will John marry Joey, and the absence of his own parents until the end of the film emphasises the importance he places on his future in-laws accepting him as one of their own. The challenge for the romantic couple to acquire parental acceptance now becomes a challenge for those in the storge love story: Christina, Matt, Joey and John. The repetition of “surprise” and “shock” throughout the film highlights the fact that the parents are not sure how to react when faced with an unlikely situation: their white daughter falling in love with a black man. There is pressure on Matt to bless the romantic relationship and despite being a “lifelong fighting liberal who loathes race prejudice” he struggles to do so (see note 9). Matt loses control in all aspects of his life, from crashing his car into another vehicle to dropping his shaving brush in his drink, from his ties falling to the ground from the wardrobe to finding holes in his socks. This reflects the importance of his decision to accept or reject the romantic love story because it will impact his relationship with his daughter. He must “come face to face with [his] principles” (see note 10). As Leigh A. Leslie states, people whose relationships are supported by their parents are more likely to “continue or increase their involvement in the relationship” than if their parents showed little support. Subsequently, the concept of familial love and the relationship between the parent and child is portrayed as essential for the romantic love story to survive (see note 11).
Love Story is also a text where importance is placed on the familial love between a parent and child. It uses Oliver and Jenny’s romantic love story – the concept of eros we are familiar with and understand – to highlight the familial love story of Oliver and his father. For most of the narrative Oliver is at odds with his father and they become estranged because “Old Stony” refuses to accept Oliver marrying Jenny, “Marry her now, and I will not give you the time of day” (see note 12). Again, prejudice is an obstacle that Oliver’s parents must overcome in order to heal and maintain their familial love story with their son and new daughter-in-law. The use of the second person possessive pronoun “your people” when asking Jenny about her family conveys the preconceived opinion Oliver’s parents have of those of immigrant heritage and working-class backgrounds as less worthy compared to wealthy families with titles and “numeral[s]” (see note 13). Oliver’s relationship with his father is the dominant love story rather than his and Jenny’s. The quick succession of statements that characterise their interactions emphasise the idea of the child always fighting the parent as rebellion to parental authority, “‘What about those plans to authenticate the mills,’ I volleyed back” (see note 14). Adjectives like “Stony” and pejorative slang such as “Sonovabitch” Oliver uses to name his father highlight his anger with his father for the constant pressure to “be number one” because of “family heritage” (see note 15).When introducing Jenny to his parents, Oliver is immediately defensive. For example, he has his tea “just black” in response to his father stating Oliver “always takes sugar”. This demonstrates the help and love his father offers, but Oliver refuses to accept it, still hurt by his father’s failure to acknowledge Oliver’s achievements. To Oliver, his father is still “Old Stonyface” (see note 16). However, the story ends with reconciliation between the father and son, rather than Jenny’s death: “And then I did what I had never done in his presence, much less in his arms. I cried” (see note 17).Although Oliver and Jenny are unable to overcome the obstacle of parental acceptance and ultimately death, Oliver and his father’s relationship of familial love overcomes its own obstacles. Death ends the height of possibility of one love story, Jenny and Oliver’s, but allows another love story to grow and heal, reflecting the link between eros and storge love.
Although both the texts Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Love Story are very similar in the portrayal of familial or storge love as the dominant love story and relationship in the narratives, they also are complicated. Both texts present the white, wealthy and influential father figure – Matt and ‘Old Stony’ - as the parents with the power to give parental blessing. After Matt’s speech in which he gives the couple his blessing, it is still not completely clear if John’s father, Mr Prentice, approves of the romantic relationship. He remains completely silent during the ten-minute speech, and in terms of body language, he shakes his head and does not smile at the end when it seemingly appears there is a happy and neat resolution. In Love Story it is Oliver’s father the couple, especially Oliver, find the most challenging to win over and accept the romantic relationship. It is not entirely clear if Oliver and his father’s love story flourishes and if the relationship completely heals because the story abruptly ends. Moreover, it is the man in both love stories where the focus and attention lie. John is more anxious than Joey about being accepted by her family and even though he tells Mr Prentice to “get off [his] back” and accept his romantic relationship with a white woman, he leaves the ultimate decision and power of parental approval with Matt (see note 18). The story in Segal’s novel is told through first person narration and the point of view of Oliver, drawing immense focus to his relationship with his father. Jenny is the person in the romantic love story to die because it allows Oliver’s love story with his father to have the potential to be resolved. It is a sacrifice the wife must make in the romantic love story, according to P. Walcot, for the ‘true love story’ of the father and son to flourish and progress (see note 19). In this essay, I have argued that in the typical romantic love narrative, the more complex concept of familial love is the dominant and more intriguing love story in comparison to the passionate love of the young couple. The two texts portray the conventional ‘boy-meets-girl' storyline and the major obstacle to their relationship surviving: parental approval. A great amount of importance is placed with overcoming this obstacle because barriers are how we recognise love and determine whether it is a successful ‘love story’ or not. Therefore, the two concepts of love are inherently linked. The romantic story appears “even more romantic when reinforced by parental opposition” and approval, the so-called “Romeo and Juliet” effect (see note 20). As a result, eros love is something that needs to be approved, registered and signed off in order for it to have a chance at surviving. As much as the couple may believe that in opposing their parents, they are proving their romantic love for one another and placing eros above storge or familial love, this is simply not the case. Both Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Love Story end with a resolution between the parent and child and even though one romantic love story succeeds and the other is cut short, the focus remains on familial love and its successfulness.
1: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, dir. by Stanley Kramer (Columbia Pictures, 1967) [on DVD]
2: Erich Segal, Love Story (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013), p.16
3: Clyde Hendrick, Susan S. Hendrick, ‘Styles of Romantic Love’, in The New Psychology of Love, ed. by Robert J. Sternberg and Karin Weis (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006), pp.149-170 (p.154)
4: Love Story, p.4
5: Alan Page Fiske, Thomas W. Schubert, Beate Seibt, ‘The Best-Loved Story of All Time: Overcoming All Obstacles to Be Reunited, Evoking Kama Muta’, Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 1 (2017), 67-70 (p.67)
6: Hendrick, Hendrick, p.150
7: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
11: Leigh A. Leslie, Ted L. Huston, Michael P. Johnson, ’Parental Reactions to Dating Relationships: Do They Make a Difference?’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 48 (1986), 57-66 (p.57).
12: Love Story, p.59.
13: Ibid., p.51-55.
14: Ibid., p.51.
15: Ibid., p.1, p.58.
16: Ibid., p.52-53.
17: Ibid., p.133.
18: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
19: P. Walcot, ’Romantic Love and True Love: Greek Attitudes to Marriage’, Ancient Society, 18 (1987), 5-33 (p.21).
19: P. Walcot, ’Romantic Love and True Love: Greek Attitudes to Marriage’, Ancient Society, 18 (1987), 5-33 (p.21).
20: Ibid., p.5.