An illustration of a man reading to a woman; he's sitting on a grey sofa, and she's standing behind it, leaning over the back of it and listening.
An illustration of a man reading to a woman; he's sitting on a grey sofa, and she's standing behind it, leaning over the back of it and listening.

In the 30 years since its first publication in 1992, the ideas laid out in Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages have become almost common parlance for the ways we express and seek out love and intimacy. In the book, Chapman laid out five ways – or, “languages” – in which people do just that: acts of service, quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, and physical touch. These days, they’re such common concepts we might even ask on a first date: “So… what’s your love language?”

Which got us thinking: surely, these languages must apply to the wants and needs of characters from the world of literature, no? As an exercise, we got to thinking about the books that best evince the five love languages at play in relationships. Read below for the examples we came up with, then ask yourself: which other characters speak these love languages?

Acts of service

If love equals a cup of tea brought to you in bed, a tidy house to come home to or someone to take the car for its MOT, then acts of service is your language of love. Maybe you are a parent – overworked, overwhelmed and probably outnumbered – and if you are lucky enough to have a partner who can take the reins while you have five minutes of peace, then all the better. Spare a thought, then, for Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs Bennet, mother of five unmarried daughters with the prospect of destitution ever looming in the event of Mr Bennet’s death – it’s quite the mother’s load to contend with. So when Mr Bennet teasingly tells his wife he has visited and secured an invitation for their daughters to meet the new man on the block – Mr Bingley, of ‘£100,000 a year’ fame – nothing could make Mrs Bennet’s heart beat faster. 

On the giving side of acts of service, there is one man from literature who really goes all out. Jay Gatsby spends the best part of adulthood (and The Great Gatsby) plotting to win the heart of Daisy Fay. Buying a mansion on the opposite side of Daisy’s family home on Manhasset Bay, he begins to host elaborate parties in an attempt to lure and impress her as a guest. The plan works, and sparks fly. In a desperate attempt to persuade Daisy to leave her husband, Gatsby panders to her every whim; unfortunately, it doesn’t work out as planned, as one ultimate act of service transpires to be Gatsby’s greatest sacrifice.

Quality time

Time, love and shame circle in strange harmony in James Baldwin’s influential and heart-breaking love story, Giovanni’s Room. For closeted bisexual David, though, it seems that the closest he gets to love is while in the quiet, intimate company of Giovanni, a gay man comfortable with his sexuality but tragically destined for execution.

These are not spoilers: Baldwin lays his cards out at the start of the novel. But as it unfurls, we see David’s feelings expand in vivid colour through the short but sweet time he spends with Giovanni in Paris: the days, the dinners, the nights in the titular room. These are the hallmarks of quality time, in which one desires nothing more than undivided attention, face-to-face conversation, and spending time getting to know one another. It’s undoubtedly David’s love language; only, he struggles to speak it due to the overwhelming shame he feels about his sexuality.

Words of affirmation

Early in Megan Nolan’s scintillating debut novel Acts of Desperation, her protagonist notes that “I had cleared up the most absolutely basic questions necessary on that first afternoon outside the museum: Is it over? Is she gone? Do you love me? Yes, yes, yes.” The ‘desperate acts’ described by the novel’s title show a woman deep in need of affection and desire expressed a multitude of ways – physical touch, certainly, and quality time as well – but her primary love language, as shown in that passage and throughout, is words of affirmation: positive and affirming words, compliments, encouragement, praise. She wants the words to confirm Ciaran’s actions, which vacillate depending on his mood.

Of course, words of affirmation are everywhere, especially in literature: countless authors have dug deep into the meaning of the word love, the phrase I love you. Most recently, we saw an explosion of popularity for a book whose words meant just as much to its millions of readers as its beautiful illustrations: Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, whose titular boy spends the book’s pages enjoying kind and calming words from his animal compatriots. When the boy wonders whether he’s too “ordinary” to deserve love, the mole offers words to soothe him: “Love doesn’t need to be extraordinary.”


Think of characters who express – and receive – love in form of gifts and perhaps the most materialistic swiftly come to mind. The 19th Century was rife with women who fell for those who gave them treats: Flaubert’s titular Emma Bovary was so taken by love tokens that she was dumped via the means of a basket of apricots left by her escaping lover; Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair fame had one sole goal in a mate – money, and the power it enabled her.

But gifts as a love language are, traditionally, more likely to be tokens of affection, beautifully free from material value. Fiction is filled with all sorts of those kinds of generosity. Take Miss Honey, the penniless teacher in Roald Dahl’s Matilda: is her love language not to give, namely in the form of education to her pupils? Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series so loved Lily Potter (albeit unrequitedly) that he lived a double life to secure the safety of her son. Sometimes the biggest gifts are the ones we can’t even see.

Physical touch

If being hugged, putting your head on someone’s shoulder or holding hands is your way of giving or receiving love, your primary language might be physical touch. Though sex can of course play a role here, this love language is much deeper than that – even a hand on one’s shoulder can feel like an important communication of safety and intimacy. Which is why Lady Chatterley’s Lover, despite centring on physical love, makes a perfect demonstration of this love language in literature: though the book was made famous as a tale of lust, the characters here are not only pursuing sex, but physical intimacy and connection. That much is clear in this passage, in which Lady Chatterley’s gamekeeper, Mellors, dreams of her nearness: “All hopes of eternity and all gain from the past he would have given to have her there, to be wrapped warm with him in one blanket, and sleep, only sleep.” It is intimacy – “sleep, only sleep”, wrapped in her physical touch – Mellors seeks here.

That said, there’s plenty to be said for erotic touch in literature too: the characters in E L JamesFifty Shades series are all about the sexual act itself, as are the young, gay protagonists of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library and The Spell.

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Image: Getty

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