Stories are tools for making sense of the world. They function as parables. In dramatizing situations, they put problems in a form that helps us to think about their puzzling qualities. In computerspeak, stories “crunch” complex information into usable form. They may follow familiar mechanical schemes, with white hats taking black hats to the cleaners and offering you a momentary wishful high. Or they can be famously enigmatic “literature” such as Heart of Darkness that admits that the world is overwhelmingly bigger than we are, and whispers, "So what are you going to do about it?"
Let’s not stew like English majors over Hamlet. Let’s stew over hot romance like perplexed and sexy hominids. I was going to say “like perplexed and sexy Americans,” but romance has a worldwide appeal. Harlequin books, the romance factory, tells us they sell more than four books a second, half of them internationally.
Who can be surprised? Romance is the go-to tool for thinking about mating. And mating is supremely popular with creatures who don’t want to go extinct. That’s the simple part that the stork delivers. The personal reality is much more complicated. For women readers, romance offers a way to think about self-discovery and relationships, especially now when, like climate change, social life can be unpredictably frigid or hot, and storm warnings keep wailing in the background.
Some readers take in a novel a day, like vitamins or gin and tonics. That sounds creepy until you remember that people who watch TV news faithfully can be addicted to daily tales of criminals nabbed, movie stars rehabbed, orphans and coal miners rescued, and other narrow escapes from oblivion. Heroic rescue from death is another face of the fertility fantasy in romantic love. Who wouldn’t want more life?
In the romance formula of the 20th century, the heroine is a young virgin, and pretty but not glamorous, independent but not aggressively feminist, cut off from her usual support network and naturally a bit lonesome. The formula hero is older, more experienced, apparently recovering from bruising intimacy. He’s successful, with a robust credit card, and with an interesting rather than a pretty face. According Bantam’s old 1980s Soft Romance specs, he might be a cruise ship captain or “an owner of vast estates.” He's made it.
When they’re together at first, the ingénue and hero wrangle a bit to establish their positions on the game board. After some touch-n-go and tentative tingling, he proposes. As the Trafalmadoreans in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five keep asking, "Are you mating yet?"
You can see the outlines of heroic rescue here. The heroine rises from the threat of nonentity (social death) to become an esteemed wife at the top of the food chain. Her virginity guarantees that the kids will be authentic, and his wealth insures that they’ll flourish at the dinner table and a Harvard commencement. For the couple, in different ways, the story prescribes an ideal economy. She trades her virginity, her specialness, for a future of reassuring fertility. He shares his prestige and his “vast estates” with her, trading his sterile solo success for love and family: fertility. Swept along by endorphins and romantic lingo—“fingertips” not “hands” touching—the couple fulfills biology’s and society’s standing order for posterity and immortality.
In this way the “realistic” romance reveals its kinship with its fairy tale cousins such as Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin, in which magic spells, sleep, and captivity in the unheated tower are markers for death which the right kiss can overcome.
Consider St. George. In paintings (check em out online), a reptilian dragon threatens to devour a walled city. The beast is voracious, surrounded by bones and leftovers, a caricature of our own human compulsion to kill and eat other living things three times a day, all year round. The dragon’s cold-blooded and dwells underground like Satan. The Princess of the city has agreed to sacrifice herself if the dragon will spare her fellow citizens. She’s young, lovely, prayerful, and not a biter.
Along comes George, in armor with a blazing red cross. He’s on horseback, mounted high above the dragon (spiritual, aristocratic). He skewers the dragon, marries the Princess, and they together they go on to rule the walled city. (Her Dad conveniently disappears with the slain dragon.)
The George story shows you antecedents of the romance: aristocratic courtly love, the lethal warrior tamed to Christlike chivalry and protecting the self-sacrificing young woman. Mating, the couple overcome death and take over city hall, then come dynastic diapers and teething toys.
In the Disney Beauty and the Beast twist, the Prince is St. George crippled by his inner dragon. Following the 20th century formula, Belle defies his beastly pouting and liberates his royal pedigree, becoming the most prestigious woman in the kingdom. They mate in a waltz, to the servants’ applause.
Everybody wants to be rescued, whether by messiahs, movie stars, commandos, or a lover. Oh, and doctors and vitamin quacks.
These days romance feints at democracy, though mating elevates the modern girl even as it brings her consort back to intimate, emotional life. The climax of the plot is a form of conversion experience for both parties, offering a prestigious position in a idealized social world of money and baby. It’s not far-fetched to notice that the romance story is implicated in the economic inequality that protects ambitious billionaires while beggaring the working poor.
As for that red cross on George’s armor: In modern romance the meek don’t inherit the earth. If the modest heroine marries her way to the top, the top is there because she’s marrying a guy associated with Christ the redeemer. That’s a patriarchal fantasy that only a dragon could swallow nowadays. The giveaway is the idea that George can slay the dragon. That’s a specific religious belief. In the world of wedding cakes and vast estates, you can’t get rid of death and our creaturely limits with the poke of a spear.
These days, reports from the dating frontlines tell us, social life is changing so radically that it’s getting hard to tell the players apart. The runaway—or epidemic—bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey seems to recommend bondage, discipline, sadomasochism, contracts, and safe words as the tools you need to make sense of it all. The grim reaper and the grim raper are behind every locked door and yet gone the next morning, leaving only a dent in the pillow and a cold space on the mattress.
More on this around the next bend in da Nile.
Resources Used in This Essay:
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York, 1977)
Kirby Farrell, “Traumatic Heroism,” Post-Traumatic Culture (Baltimore, 1999).
Eva Illouz, Hard-Core Romance (Chicago, 2014).
Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance (Chapel Hill, 1991).