It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The classic quote from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice never dies. It finds numerous incarnations in romance throughout the world. The universal appeal of romance lies in its depiction of a utopian world of love, which is passionate, eternal, and most importantly, faithful. In this phenomenal world of inconstancy and decay, the perfect state in romance offers a vicarious satisfaction for the disappointed souls, however temporary it is.
Romantic love is a nonstop theme in Western popular culture. The romantic ideal of emotional commitment to a single person can be traced back to the courtly love found in the legends of King Arthur in medieval Europe. At that time, the court poets exalted love and young men were urged to devote themselves to the service of ladies in the Roman de la Rose (Beauvoir, 1989). From then on, love has been sanctified as a divine visitation wherein the individual unites with the sacred (Campbell, 1988).
As a type of popular literary work, romance is the medium through which romantic love is extolled and imprinted in people’s minds. According to Margaret Wetherell (1995), romance is a text which presents an image of redemption, salvation and rescue for the heterosexual lovers. While the real world is imperfect with male chauvinism, the lovers’ world is perfect with undying passion, faith and devotion. Shakespeare’s sonnet (116) conveys the essence of romantic love by comparing it to “the marriage of true minds,” “an ever-fixed mark,” and “the star to every wandering bark.”In the utopian state of romance, men and women encounter and fall in love with each other until death separates them. With its eternity and faithfulness, romantic love may well be claimed the secular equivalent of religious love (Fiske, 1989).
While romantic love is embraced by popular culture, academicians find it hard to appreciate its expression in romance. They belittle romance as sentimental melodrama marketed towards bored housewives or those with limited educational backgrounds (Cynthia, 2013). But still, lots of people feel thrill and excitement in reading romance. The disappointed women who can’t find their ideal lovers in the real world will find them in the fantasy world of romance. The resolution of the romantic story gratifies vicariously the ordinary women’s needs for love, nurturance and power. Once their thirst for love is quenched through romance, they can go on facing the mundane reality of life again. Interviewing the readers of romance, Janice A. Radway (1991) concluded that female readers, often mothers, feel invigorated and ready to take on the daily household chores after reading romance. Her study defended romance reading, countering the commonplace literary criticism of its being simple, formulaic and sexist (1997). Admitting that romance has a standard structure with a submissive female identity, Radway (1991) acclaims the power of romance in helping women find possible deliverance. In her opinion, female weakness as shown in romance is not to be endorsed but to be transcended or reversed. Women can strengthen their confidence through heroines’ nurturing and transforming power over heroes in romance. John Fiske (1989) has the similar confirmation of popular culture as embodied in the form of fantasy. He considers fantastic works of art an important political part of popular culture, as they represent the resistance of the subordinate to defy the existent social relations. What the subordinate cannot get in real life, they get it in fictional world. His view echoes Radway’s positive acceptance of romance as a solace and empowerment of disappointed housewives.In The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir (1953) points out that there are wives with a deep need for the exaltation of romance. They will abandon themselves to imaginary passion so that they remain a faithful wife to their husband. Beauvoir’s “imaginary passion” equals the image of the lover a reader clings to when reading a love story. As a housewife harbors an imaginary lover through romance reading, a romance reader shuts up with the ideal image of a lover in the enclosure of the book.
Indeed, we don’t need to deny the “low” pleasures provided by romance reading. Pauline Kael (1992) explains well why the general public needs popular culture:
Why should we deny “mediocre” pleasures because there are other, more complex kinds of pleasure possible? It is true that these pleasures don’t deepen, and that they don’t change us, but maybe that is part of what makes them seem our own----we realize that we have some emotions and responses that don’t change as we get older. (p.602)
The proletariats don’t want to live on the heights; the objections and scorn from the elite intellectuals don’t work on them.As long as the quickening of pulse is felt, or disappointed women can find their ideal lovers in an imaginary world, romance will go on prospering. As a form of mass culture, romance not only reflects mainstream ideology but criticizes the existent social order. It offers an outlet for the ignored and discontented women who fail to get their men’s love and concern. Romantic love, as narrated in popular culture, is changeless, faithful and passionate. It’s a lofty ideal expressing the need of human imagination to create beauty and harmony out of discord. The sufferings inflicting on the lovers turn out to be delights in the form of “exciting jealousies,” “thrilling uncertainties” and “secret alliance” (Porter, 1992, p.436).
According to Radway (1991), the most striking characteristic of an ideal romance is its focus on a single, developing relationship between the hero and heroine. The structure device insures that the hero and heroine function as the single and dynamic center of the novel. She identifies the constituent elements in an ideal romance as follows:
The heroine’s social identity is destroyed.
The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male.
The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine.
The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine.
The heroine interprets the hero’s behavior as evidence of strong attachment to her.
The hero and heroine are physically and/or emotionally separated.
The hero treats the heroine tenderly.
The heroine responds warmly to the hero’s act of tenderness.
The hero declares his love for the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness.
The heroine responds sexually and emotionally.
The heroine’s identity is restored.
Underlying the structure of typical romance is duality. For example, Component 1 and 11 form a binary opposition, with the heroine’s identity destroyed in the beginning and regained in the end. Component 2 and 10 is another pair, as the heroine reacts to the hero in opposing ways. The duality recurs in romance, highlighting the rising of complication and its final solution. Such a pattern appeals to readers in that they like to experience vicariously the elimination of all troubles and the triumph of true love. Although the structure presents an oversimplified way to solve problems, it reflects human tendency to think in terms of opposites. According to Joseph Campbell (1988), everything in the field of time and space is dual; the ancient stories of leaving and returning, or death and resurrection cycle are the most glaring examples. Seen in this light, the binary structure of romance reflects the universal mode of human thought. Jessica Benjamin (1988) adds depth to the duality of romantic structure by asserting the dynamic interaction of destruction and survival in erotic union. The destruction that lovers experience corresponds to their departing from the original family or renouncing of old values to enter the unknown realm of love, which inevitably triggers ecstasy and agonies. The survival implies lovers’ overcoming of obstacles as well as their reconciliation with their family. Romance is significant in that it involves lovers’ spiritual growth by following the dual pattern of departing and returning, destruction and redemption
Lady in Distress
The type of “Lady in Distress” provides emotional gratification by supplying women readers vicariously with the attention and nurturance they don’t get enough in daily life. As a fragile and delicate creature, Lady in Distress secures the full devotion of our hero. Her triumph, as is what most women desire, lies in her predominant claim to the hero’s time and interest. Her ability to transform a suitor into a full-time protector comes from her destiny to undergo a series of destructions to stimulate her knight into action. She can attract accidents like a magnet. The quickening of readers’ pulses depends on the excessive disasters she experiences. According to Catherine Clément (1988), women’s pathetic role in opera provides great pleasures for the audience. How thrilled one feels when watching the fragile heroine bravely jump into the pit of self-destruction!
A damsel in distress has other mental wounds to be sympathized with besides the physical ones as discussed above. According to Roland Barthes’ (2002), it is always the woman who suffers from the uncertainty of waiting for her beloved. She belongs to the binary category of the sedentary, faithful and waiting while the absent male possesses the part of the hunt, fickle and departing. The hero is the absent one that generates the heroine’s doubts, reproaches and desires. It’s the hero’s absence that reinforces the heroine’s desire for him. Historically, the discourse of absence is carried by woman. Beauvoir (1952) once criticized the resigned passivity endowed on women by the patriarchal culture:
Woman is the Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White. She who receives and submits. In song and story, the young man is seen departing adventurously in search of woman; he slays the dragon, he battles giants; she is locked in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave. She is chained to a rock, a captive, sound asleep: she waits.
Lady in Distress perpetuates fairy tale’s insistence on women’s sexual chastity and submission to masculine authority. Like the fairy tale heroines, she is a virgin prone to external danger and her savior knight’s timely rescue is her only chance of survival. The only difference is that while traditional knights ride on white horses with swords and banners in hand, the modern hero may steer a boat, fly a plane or drive a speedy car with guns in hand! Female passivity in romance is unchanged but the form of hero’s rescue is adaptable. In this 21st century, there still abound the ladies in distress entrapped in their passivity and tormented by their beloved’s absence. The anguish of waiting never dies!
Feminist rage and criticism can’t stop the popularity of romance reading. The beautiful lady in mental and physical agony, together with the handsome and powerful hero guarantees a large readership. The thrill of seeing her fall, suffer, and die provides similar pleasures begotten from sadomasochism, wherein torture and rapture are simultaneously embraced by both the prey and predator. This is a consensual and fulfilling game for both parties. The submission of the prey is not just an act of resignation or bowing to a superior. Instead, it’s an “act of liberation,” the freedom from ego by allowing someone to take control (Brame, Brame, & Jacobs, 1993). There exists an intriguing paradox in SM. It’s the submissive female that holds the key to dominate the powerful hero. The more suffering the heroine undertakes, the more care and concern she elicits from her hero. The boundary of dominance and submission is blurred when the strong hero loves her at the cost of his life. By then, he is not the dominant savior, nor is she the submissive prey. The lady in distress controls the emotions of her hero through her misery and vulnerability. Therefore, there is no need of feminist protest against the heroine’s submissive role. As a fragile being, a female can dominate and redeem the physically strong male, transforming him from an egotistic loner to a selfless savior. When true love tears down the class barrier between the two lovers, social equality finds a temporary fulfillment. The lovers’ union of body and mind represents the triumph of the spiritual over the material values.
In a typical romance, the hero is rich, handsome, and tender. With a superior social status, he has a strong influence in his society. When the wealthy and powerful hero meets the beautiful, delicate and wise heroine, he is destined to love her. His love can be platonic without the taint of sexual appetites. With extreme tenderness, sacrifice and caring, the hero acts like a mother. The masculine and feminine traits find a most harmonious coexistence in a hero when he falls passionately in love. As indispensable elements in romance, lovers’ kiss and embrace appeal to readers in implying the return to the mother. When lovers embrace each other, they experience two subjects at once: “maternity” and “genitality” (Barthes, 2002, p.104). Enchanted and bewitched, they might be defined as a child getting an erection. Radway’s (1991) assertion that romance contests the reified status of gender identity is not groundless. Masculinity and femininity are not fixed categories exclusively belonging to either sex. Instead, they are elusive and flexible modes of expression when one falls in love. Julia Kristeva has the innovative view that feminine and masculine qualities coexist in human subjectivity: “[A]ll speaking subjects have within themselves a certain bisexuality which is precisely the possibility to explore all the sources of signification” (165). Deconstructing the biological fixity of the female psyche, Kristeva highlights the potential of feminine writing as an unstable, drive-charged force in the phallocentric order, ready to be adopted by both male and female writers. Likewise, when one adopts the role of a lover, one unknowingly enters the feminized stance of a mother. Lovers’ caressing and waiting function as a feminized language mode to be adopted by both men and women. Gender is no longer biologically determined, but becomes a property of language. Without the poststructuralist commitment to erase the hierarchical binary opposition,romance unwittingly displays the bisexual potentials of heterosexual lovers. In a psychological sense, lovers’ embrace satisfies the universal yearning for mother’s love. Both sexes are capable of giving mother’s love and concern, which wait for the release switch of romantic love.
It’s impossible to shake off romance from popular culture, as it is a fantasy to gratify our need of love and concern in this world of chaos and disharmony. In the utopian state of romance, two lovers experience thrilling passion, doubts and worries. Despite the threat and danger from the outside world, their love remains changeless and faithful. Their secret world is a haven to ward off all the vicissitudes in life.
Despite the formulaic plot and characterization, it offers a vicarious exhilaration in the two aspects of class and gender. The hero is rich, powerful and tender, and the bourgeois heroine is beautiful, passionate and fragile. The love between the bourgeois and aristocratic crosses the class boundary. With excessive wealth and power, the hero stands for what capitalism embraces and the general public endorse. The lady in distress suffering from physical and mental torment provokes thrill and empathy. She appeals to the discontented adolescents and women.
In typical romance, female submission is prerequisite to her final triumph in seizing her man’s heart. When the fragile and delicate heroine turns out the dominant master to control the hero’s moods, she succeeds in subverting the hierarchy of gender. Lover’s embrace also subverts the binary category of sexuality. From the psychological perspective, lover’s sexual intimacy signifies the search for the ecstatic merging with mothers. Both men and women are capable of the role of the mother; tenderness is not an exclusive trait belonging only to women. Despite the censure of romance as a form of escapism, it is a mirror to reflect common desires and a tool to satisfy them tentatively.
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