Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The "Good Life" in the Romance Genre: A Philosophy or Religion of Love?

Jessica at Read React Review is posing the question "What Does The Romance Genre Say About the Good Life?" She lists the following as aspects of "the view of the good life found in the romance genre":
  • "romantic love"
  • "material welfare"
  • "physical and mental health"
  • "physical beauty"
  • "affiliation"
  • "autonomy"
  • "integrity"
  • "moral virtue"
It's a thought-provoking list and one which will probably have people searching their minds for exceptions (whose very scarcity may end up proving Jessica's point). She also notes a few things which aren't on the list, including "spirituality." Catherine Roach, however, in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, suggests that the genre's view of love shares a template with "the Christian religious tradition":
The love of a good woman (or man, or God, or Son of God) heals all wounds, forgives all sins stretching back to the stain of original sin, resurrects a dead man, saves a lost soul, integrates false persona and true self, can make a real man—or real woman—out of you. The belief in the healing power of love is the central trope of erotic faith, western Christian culture, and romance novels alike. Whether the romance narrative borrows this belief from the Christian religious tradition or whether the latter takes this perennial belief and incorporates it as central to its theology is a chicken-and-egg question that need not concern us here. Either way, love, in various forms of agape, phile, and eros, is the central emotional dynamic in the life quest for meaning, happiness, and—the point on which I want to focus—the crucial category of wholeness or healing.
When the reader leaves the romance protagonists at the end of the novel, they have generally achieved what Jessica calls the "good life" or, in the terminology of Roach's argument,
an eschaton of love, commitment, completion, fulfillment, happiness, generational continuity, maturity, and hope. The happily-ever-after ending functions as a foundational psychological component of human wish-fulfillment: we yearn for this ideal paradise where we are loved, where the quest for wholeness is granted, where wounds are made right, where pleasure and security reign guaranteed.
Both Jessica and Roach's conclusions are based on generalisations, but it seems to me that those generalisations are nonetheless relatively accurate descriptions of a high proportion of the genre. If any of those conclusions seem at all troubling, perhaps the reasons why can be discussed at Read React Review and JPRS.


  1. Didn't you reference Giles Fraser's piece on weddings in a blog comment somewhere? (I've seen a number of people quote it, so I'm not sure). Anyway, that, and this, made me think of the end of last Sunday's Vows column in the NY Times:

    After the service, Canon Win
    Lewis, who participated in the ceremony with the officiant, Canon Andrew Van Culin, sat in the pews talking quietly about the couple’s future together as they left the church in an antique car.

    Canon Lewis, sounding as analytical and academic as the couple, called marriage “a wonderful confinement” and a big risk.

    “The risk is failure, the risk is limiting yourself to one relationship,” he whispered. “But you’re also deepening yourself. Marriage is an ordeal. In ancient times, an ordeal was what you went through to develop your own authentic self.”

  2. "Didn't you reference Giles Fraser's piece on weddings in a blog comment somewhere?"

    Yes, and your memory's very impressive: I'd forgotten his name already. But I did remember where I'd left the quote.

    On the topic of marriage as trial-by-ordeal, Rebecca Mead recently made a comment to that effect, but about modern weddings:

    I came to believe that the trauma of planning a wedding under such commercial pressure is, in some sense, a stand-in for the experience of real nuptial trauma that was experienced by earlier generations. No longer do most newlyweds have to negotiate the shock of the transition from the parental home to the marital one nor, in most cases, do they face the intimidations of a virginal marriage bed. Nor are they likely to be coping for the first time with the responsibilities of housekeeping or breadwinning.

    But while the distinction between unmarried and married life has become so much less momentous, the wedding itself has become far more so. Brides and grooms expect that their wedding will demand months of stressful, time-consuming planning. There will almost invariably be conflict between husband- and wife-to-be, as well as between themselves and their families; and the process will, in addition, be financially burdensome beyond many couples' means. It is as if the bygone traumas that were a necessary part of the life of a newlywed have been transferred and transformed into the new, invented traumas of planning a wedding.

  3. Terrible memory, I just stumbled on references to it twice yesterday. Here's the other:


  4. Thanks for the link. You've got me thinking about weddings again.

    In her White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture Chrys Ingraham observes that

    When used in professional settings, [...] weddings work as a form of ideological control to signal membership in relations of ruling as well as to signify that the couple is normal, moral, productive, family-centered, upstanding, and, most importantly, appropriately gendered. Consider the ways weddings are used by coworkers in line for promotions or to marginalize and exceptionalize single or nonmarried employees. For example, two employees are competing for a promotion. One is single, the other engaged to marry. The engaged worker invites all members of the office, including the hiring committee, to the wedding. Because of the heterosexual imaginary, weddings are viewed as innocuous, fun-loving, and as signaling membership in dominant culture. As such, they give people significant advantage in the workplace and are anything but benign. (18)

    In other words, weddings, which are public and very visible can come to act as symbols of the the couple's possession of various elements of the "good life" outlined by Jessica, including "romantic love,""material welfare," "physical beauty," "moral virtue."

    I think in the romance genre beauty and, to a certain extent "physical and mental health" and "material welfare" are like weddings inasmuch as they act as symbols of "the good life." That's not to say that weddings, beauty, material goods, and health can't be very important in their own right, but I suspect that aspects of the romance protagonists' bodies (beauty, expensive clothes, size etc) can be read as symbols or markers of possession of the less tangible/embodied aspects of the "good life" depicted in the genre.

  5. About 10 years ago David Brooks (now a conservative NY Times columnist) published a pop-sociology book called "Bobos in Paradise" (Bobo=bohemian bourgeois), about the changing sense of what it means to be upper-class (maybe upper-middle) in America. One thing he did was look compare NY Times wedding announcements in the 1950s and 1990s (now the Times even includes gay weddings, which they did not in 2000).

    I don't think you can see any of it on-line, but here's an excerpt from an interview he did with Gwen Iffil of PBS' Newshour:

    One of the places I went to look at these was the New York "Times" wedding page, which is a great indicator of the American elite. In the 1950's, it was the WASP aristocracy. It was, you know, when your ancestor came over was listed on the page-- not your job, but your connections, what cotillion ball you came out. Now if you look at the New York "Times" wedding page, it's this great clash of resumes. It's, like, they call it the mergers and acquisitions page. Harvard marries Yale. Princeton marries Stanford. Magna cum laude marries magna cum laude. [jobs are much emphasized in these pages too. But if people had ancestors on the Mayflower, they still seem to mention it! Also where the wedding took place and who officiated]

    Very much, I think, reflecting some of the ideas about the good life, at least among wealthy New Yorkers. Shift in the goods marriage symbolizes.

  6. That's really, really interesting. I don't think UK wedding announcements tend to contain all those details.

    Given that Giles Fraser was contrasting weddings with funerals, and since I've done quite a bit of work on death and funerals myself, it seems worth noting that a lot of the modern criticisms directed at weddings could also be applied retrospectively to late medieval or Victorian funerals (I'm not so sure about other periods): people could spend vast sums of money on them, they were often very complicated, involved large numbers of people and were often planned ahead of time, although admittedly only partially, given that although death is inevitable, the timing of it tends to be uncertain.

    And a lot of the symbolisms around the "good life" (ancestry/social class, job, wealth, "moral virtue") were expressed at them, much as they are today at weddings and in the wedding announcements you mentioned.

  7. Oh yes, black-plumed horses and hired mourners. And didn't working-class Victorians join funeral "insurance" clubs? (Though I think that was about avoiding a pauper's grave). Many people in the US go into debt for funerals, as well as weddings (though generally not to the same extent). There is a small movement afoot for simpler funerals.

    I am with you on the symbol of the good life thing, but when I read about Bridezillas in advice columns or see them on reality TV, I have to think [hope!!] that these people are temporarily insane and that their real vision of a good life is not reflected in the weddings they choose.

    The Daily Dish had a follow-up on the weddings post with some comments from readers. Also I noted that one commenter of Fraser's piece said that the church charged her something like 600 pounds to get married there (suggesting that he was a hypocrite).

    I have got way off the topic of Roach's article, which I agree with, but cultural behaviour around these things fascinates me.

    I took my kids to visit my 90-year-old grandmother, and we were looking at family wedding albums spanning 60 years or more. The differences in the weddings, and the marriages, over the years and among the couples in the family, are fascinating--definitely different ways of celebrating and understanding love, class, virtue, etc.

  8. IMO, Roach's assessment would apply to the majority of romance fictions, for almost invariably either the hero (usually him, poor fellow) or the heroine is redeemed in some way. Or perhaps the entire business is a matter, as Jane Austen suggested, of gratitude. Or are gratitude and redemption so akin that she and Roach agree?

  9. "And didn't working-class Victorians join funeral "insurance" clubs?"

    I don't know (I only read a bit about the Victorians in passing while looking for articles on death/funerals in the Middle Ages), but I do recall reading about some families ending up impoverished because they wanted all the trappings for a relative's funeral.

    Or perhaps the entire business is a matter, as Jane Austen suggested, of gratitude.

    Which quote are you thinking of, Dick?