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Posts Tagged ‘romantic love’

Feminist Researcher Wishes to Meet Romantic Subject: The “Case” of Mrs. F.
by Susan Ostrov Weisser

[End Page 1] The field of Critical Love Studies is a vigorous and burgeoning one, drawing from multiple disciplines, with or without a feminist point of view. While its diversity of perspectives and methods is certainly a strength of the field, Lynne Pearce has pointed out “the extent to which the social sciences, literary studies and philosophy talk past one another when it comes to research on love and romance” (2015, 1). “Talking past one another” seems applicable not only to varied disciplinary methodologies in love studies but also to feminist critics’ view of romantic love itself as either serving the interests of feminism or in ideological opposition to it.

It is well known that romantic love has been a contentious site for feminist politics since Mary Wollstoncraft warned women about building a marriage on its foundation. There is, for example, a long history of feminist theorists and scholars bent on demystifying love and its cultural representations: for example, Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer, Stevi Jackson, Wendy Langford, Chrys Ingraham, Eva Illouz, Laura Kipnis, and many others. An entire tradition of feminist writing critical of popular romance in particular had a sturdy foothold for several decades from the 1970s onward.[1] But there have also been influential attempts to reclaim the positive, even transformational, aspects of romantic love, coming from psychoanalysts such as Ethel Person to social theorists such as Anthony Giddens and beyond. In recent decades, literary critics of popular fictional romances have also tended to celebrate love and its potential for equalizing gender relations (Ang 1987; Goade 2007; Regis 2003, 2011; Selinger 2007; Goris 2012).

I would argue, along with Margaret Toye, a philosopher, that “Love…needs to be taken as a serious, valid and crucial subject for study, especially by those invested in discourses of the other – most importantly, by feminist, critical and postcolonial theorists” (2010, 41). But these disagreements, not infrequently fraught with overtones of attack and defense, most often occur on the abstract level of scholarly discourse and analysis of published texts. Meanwhile, representations of popular romance in fiction and film sell better than ever, and romantic love as the sine qua non of intimate, embodied personal experience continues as a modern phenomenon of widespread and increasing importance (Illouz 1997; Ingraham 2005; Jackson 2013). The sociologist Stevi Jackson has put this disjunction well in the title of her 1993 article “Even Sociologists Fall in Love.”

Addressing this disconnection between feminist perspectives and women’s desires and behavior in romance has all too frequently caused division rather than enlightenment in scholarship. My own research interests have been in fictional love stories, classic and popular, a resource for understanding that in my view brings to the table exactly the nuance and emotional immediacy that theoretical abstractions about love may lack. Yet I too have been troubled by the desire to make coherent a disparity between my own view of romantic love and what I see in actual (as opposed to fictional) women’s lives, as well as between what I believe and have experienced in my own.

Contradictory definitions of romantic love as either a subset of caring love marked by an ideal of care and equality in heterosexual relations, or an obstacle to, even regression from, that equality, seem challenging to reconcile. Often theorists, researchers, and critics appear to be too invested in one side or the other of these assumptions and their political [End Page 2] implications to be able to let them go. Yet I would suggest that in order to be truly “critical,” scholarly research in Critical Love Studies must do exactly that. Following Stevi Jackson’s observation that “Feminist critique should focus on what is knowable – the cultural meanings of love, how it is deployed or practiced in the making and maintaining of intimate relationships in specific contexts, and the social consequences of these meanings and deployments” (2013, 35),[2] I hope to follow my own path to a feminist understanding of romantic love as at once an individual transformative emotion and a social phenomenon situated in a particular time and location. Rather than argue an ideological position, I would like to look at the “problem of romance” for feminists from the inside out or bottom up, so to speak, through the lens of “thick description” in personal narrative, rather than top downward from the heady atmospheric heights of abstract ideology.

In the 1980s, a group of critics sought out a new direction for feminist scholarship in women’s personal narratives as qualitative research, notably in the collection by the Personal Narratives Group in 1989 and continuing thereafter (Coslett, Lury, and Summerfield 2002; Jackson 1998; Stanley, “The Knowing Subject”; Stanley 1993, 1995; Smith and Watson 1998). In 1990, Liz Stanley argued for the writing and study of “feminist auto/biography” that would pose fundamental questions for feminism, namely “what ‘feminism’ should look like in life as well as in textual terms, what should be the proper relationship between feminist researchers and the ‘subjects’ of their research, what should be the relationship between experience and feminist theory [my emphasis]” (1990, 64). In keeping with what Stanley called a more fluid understanding of selfhood “as fragile and continually renewed by acts of memory and writing” (63), a body of work appeared on the discourse of romance in ordinary women’s life stories (Burns 2000; Griffin 1982; Harvey and Shalom 1997; Hollway 1995; Langford 1995; S. Thompson 1996; Wetherell 1995).

Though my scholarly work has long been in fictional narratives of romance, I also began to study personal narrative early in my career when I assisted in a research study led by the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner in the mid-1980s. My method here is to re-examine a long-ago subject of this study I call Mrs. F., a woman whose narrative of enduring love shaped her life as she told it to me. Mrs. F. was a “case history” to me when I interviewed her in the mid-1980s. Here, however, I have dissolved the conventional boundary between researcher and subject, between abstract understanding and personal investment, between theory and real-life experience, by inserting my own intellectual and personal responses into the romantic story that Mrs. F told.

As the reader will see, there is a marked contrast between my own view of romance, rooted in both my feminist politics and my personal experience, and the romantic views of my research subject, Mrs. F., who had strong faith in a predestined “happy ending.” My goal here is to show through example how the specificities of the Love Plot, widely available to women as the chief consumers of romance, can construct not only the experience of desiring love in the moment, but more profoundly structure the shape and meaning of a life in memory, in ways that are not either simply or categorically “good” or “bad” for women.

I have also taken the further step of offering my own story of courtship as counter-narrative. Writing a scholarly author’s private experience would seem to break a fourth wall of traditional scholarship, but in fact there is well-known precedent: among others, Nancy K. Miller has written about women and sexuality in “My Father’s Penis” (1991), while Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Dialogue on Love” (1998) deployed a first-person narration of her own experience in therapy in order to explore a different sort of love (see also Sedgwick 1987). [End Page 3] As Liz Stanley noted, feminist autobiography is “characterized by a self-conscious and increasingly self-confident traversing of the conventional boundaries between different genres of writing” (1990, 65).

When Mrs. F. related what she remembered of her life and the place of love in it, her story, told from memory, triggered strong memories of my own later in life. In a way, it might be said that the Love Plot (or the Marriage Plot) as a concept in fiction seems to have “worked” as a guiding principle for Mrs. F., my research subject, in a way it did not for me. By adding my own story to hers, I hope to go beyond categories of “happy” and “failed,” or love-as-caring versus love-as-desire. Instead, I attempt to see myself and Mrs. F. as women whose romantic hopes were subject to personal histories, social goals, and gendered expectations, while also respecting the force of love’s pleasures and its possibilities for self-realization. The challenge here in telling these doubled stories, my own and Mrs. F.’s, is both personal and political: first, to understand what we mean by “love,” and also what feminists – including myself as a feminist scholar – may do with that understanding.

“Life as Narrative”: The Project

It is common to reread books or see beloved old films again and again and bring new perspectives to them at different stages of our lives. But it is not often that academic researchers revisit a study to which they contributed decades ago, and view the results through the differently colored lenses of personal experience. Recently, after completing a book about women and love stories, I found myself thinking in a new way about a particular woman, the subject of an exhilarating project on life stories conducted by the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner in the mid to late 1980s. When I was assigned to interview Mrs. F., she was about the same age I am now, in late middle age.

The point of this project, for which Dr. Bruner had a Spencer Foundation grant, was to study the ways in which selfhood is constructed through narrative.[3] My own role was to interview the subjects and then help the four other members of our research team, all psychologists, to analyze the structures of the subjects’ self-narratives from a literary point of view. It was an unusual opportunity for me to learn outside my own field of literature, and, not least, tremendously interesting to see how people told their own life stories on the spot when asked to do so.

It might have seemed unlikely that I would be much influenced by Bruner’s work, since it was far out of my field of expertise. When I joined Dr. Bruner’s project in the 1980s, I was completing a doctoral dissertation on women and sexual love in British novels. The Bruner study I worked on for five years was not concerned with concepts of romantic love in narrative or the particular social circumstances of women, my primary interests. But I learned a great deal about the intersection of humanist understandings and social science from the pioneering work of Dr. Bruner, especially the uses to which we put language, and the way we construct the world through perception, memory, and story (Bruner 1986, 1987, 1991).

When the project was completed, the story of Mrs. F.’s life and the romance that forms her story’s core continued to haunt me, and I began to wonder why. Perhaps it was because she shared some elements of my own identity: like Mrs. F., I was born and grew up in [End Page 4] Brooklyn, NY, in a white working-class neighborhood, and both of us married and had children while young. The similarity, however, ended there. Mrs. F. was not educated past high school, whereas I have an Ivy League PhD; she had not attempted a professional career, and I eventually achieved my early goal of becoming a professor; and, not least, she was, by her own self-description, long and happily married, and I am long and (more or less) happily divorced.

But it was not so much the similarity of background that drew me to Mrs. F.’s story as it was her strong and unquestioning belief in the value of love and marriage. I had a certain pride in having risen above my origins from working class to professional middle class, both in my feminist politics, and it must be confessed, in being introspective and self-aware. Yet Mrs. F. appeared to be happier in love and more successful at romance than I felt myself to be. Her narrative stands on her deep conviction that marriage is a woman’s Happy Ending, the source of her security and fulfillment, through which a woman becomes truly herself. Though I felt and still feel that I began to be my genuine self only when I was alone again, I paid an enormous price for this discovery, sacrificing exactly what Mrs. F. says she gained, and never recovering it in quite the same way as when I thought I had it. This disturbed and challenged my feminist rejection of the romantic mythos: what is a happy ending, after all?

Initially, I had a surprisingly strong sense of dismay toward and distance from Mrs. F. In some way she was both unknown yet disturbingly familiar to me, almost akin to Freud’s idea of the Uncanny. In Freud’s theory of the disorienting mix of familiar and unfamiliar, it is the familiar that is the root of the trouble: the return of the repressed. Revisiting the case of Mrs. F. seemed a unique opportunity to confront that decades-old but lingering apprehension. What exactly did Mrs. F. remind me of, and why did I wish to avoid it?

The “Case” of Mrs. F.

Mrs. F, an Italian-American mother of four grown children and part-time worker in her husband’s small business, was a member of a family who had volunteered for the research study on which I was assisting. This family was specifically chosen for no other reason than their “ordinariness” and their willingness to tell the story of their lives. The F.’s were a long-married couple in their early sixties with working class roots. Mr. F. operated a small business, and they were living in Brooklyn, NY, in a house they had owned most of their adult lives. Mrs. F. had spent most of her life as a “housewife,” raising her four children full-time.

Though our research team was very little occupied with questions of gender, I could not avoid thinking about the social conditions of everyday living for women, especially those women who identify themselves with family and home. Mr. F., interestingly, spoke of his wife as not there in the real world in the same way he is:

“Uh my home life is pretty good. Uh with my wife and I – I don’t think my wife was as educated as I would like her to be, although she graduated from high school. But she seems to be very bent on different things. She’s too compliant; she doesn’t know the real world, the way things are.” [End Page 5]

At the time of this project, I was a new scholar, having spent most of my adult life until then raising three children while studying for a hard-earned PhD in literature. I was also both a new feminist and a new leftist, views that had evolved alongside my doctoral studies. My initial response to Mrs. F. was that she was a sort of woman I already knew, and not necessarily in a warm and pleasant way. But then I do not have warm and pleasant feelings about my less-than-happy lower-class Brooklyn girlhood, which I thought of (only when I had to) as peopled by many Mrs. F.’s – legions of women, in fact, all defining themselves through others, unthinkingly accepting their given role. I confess I had some discomfort with Mrs. F. based on my own predispositions: that is, her narrative seemed to press on the story I told myself about my own life.

Mrs. F. – And Me

Though Mrs F and I both came from working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn, she had Italian roots while my family was Jewish. We were more or less secular, an anomaly in the deeply religious Irish-Italian neighborhood of my youth, where many children in my neighborhood went to Catholic school. Mrs. F. reminded me of any number of women I knew when I was growing up: hard-working rulers of the domestic space, never expected or expecting to leave the world of women and children, utterly devoted to their families and sustained by close networks of relatives and friends in their daily tribulations. For them, womanhood seemed fixed, both in the geographical space of home and as a metaphor of stability and cohesive values, while masculinity was conceived as a progression toward the open-ended world of earning money, public acknowledgement, decisive choices, “action.”

My own mother did not seem to be one of these women, however: she was not at all like Mrs. F. – which is to say, the Mrs. F. in my mind. My mother was neither one of Betty Friedan’s desperate housewives nor a conscious rebel. She was, however, alienated from her time and place. I knew that my mother wanted to be very different from the others on our “block,” at least. As a young woman, she had emigrated alone to New York from England, as did my father, who met her at his brother and sister-in-law’s home in Brooklyn. Because, like my father, she had been forced to leave school after the primary grades, she was never able to earn a decent wage when I was growing up, nor could she afford to stay home as a traditional housewife, as did Mrs. F. It seemed to me as a child that she did little else but work at one low-paying job after another, coming home to cook and clean after a long day.

But though uneducated, and painfully self-conscious about that, she read a good deal of fiction when she had the time, and had fierce, consuming hopes for her three children. My older brothers and I were going to go to college and become “somebody,” meaning professionals who were respected for their work, who liked their work, and (not least) who earned more than my father did doing maintenance in the dank tunnels of the New York City subway system, a filthy, dangerous, and low-paid job he bitterly despised. I breathed the atmosphere of my mother’s thwarted ambition as naturally as I did her love of fiction and her contempt for the neighborhood around us. Her body was that of a lifelong menial worker, but her head was in the middle class.

My mother did not live better than her neighbors did, but her children were going to, if she had any say in it. That emphatically included her only daughter, who was going to be, [End Page 6] just as much as her sons, the educated professional she had missed becoming. I was not going to marry the neighborhood, meaning I was meant for larger stuff than living on a street like this one in Brooklyn, bearing children and waiting at home for my husband to dole an allowance out of his working-class pocket.

Certainly one area of difficulty for me in understanding Mrs. F. was that she seemed an envoy from this neighborhood, which symbolized my childhood feeling of not-quite-belonging either to the working class or the middle-class, of being out of place. I did not know why my parents, particularly my mother, detested our home, since it was all I knew, but I sensed that something was deeply wrong with it. Though I did not yet understand the concept of class growing up, I see now that this has been enormously important to me, informing my experience of having made it into a professional caste. Even today I avoid returning to that part of Brooklyn, located literally as well as metaphorically at the very edge of the borough. Brooklyn itself is quite diverse, with a number of neighborhoods now hotly sought after by young people and families moving from Manhattan. But fashionability has not yet reached the particular area where I grew up, nor would that sweeten it for me. I still feel oddly but utterly alienated on the few occasions I have passed by the tiny attached houses with religious icons on the drab lawns, and low, bare, unattractive stores with small apartments above them on the (to me) dreary shopping streets. I cannot wait to get “home”, meaning where I now want to live, not where I came from.

For me, growing up meant getting myself out of that neighborhood and into a Big City, which I did as soon as I finished my (then) free public education at a city university, the only possible choice for a girl like me who had to live at home for financial reasons. No one supported that move away from my origins more than my mother. Much later, as an academic, I learned the vocabulary and concepts that allowed me to see her as a sort of feminist: she believed, unlike many of her peers in that neighborhood, that girls had abilities equal to boys, and that women were entitled to careers that would bring status and self-respect. My mother warmly sustained her daughter’s efforts to live out those ambitions: “If I’d only been a man, I could’ve made something of myself,” she used to say, with weary frustration. At the time I only knew that she and I were a team, with the united purpose of getting me to the goal line of success, as she defined that term.

Mrs. F seemed to me, therefore, uncannily, and therefore disturbingly, a woman like my mother (situated in the same kind of neighborhood and class), but also very unlike my mother (who was not a “housewife,” and did not want to be where she was). You might say that Mrs. F. was the icon of the woman I felt I could have become, had I remained in that geographic and social place: the return of the repressed.

Mrs. F Tells Her Life

Mrs. F. had anxiously indicated on the phone to me that she was afraid she would not do the right thing in the interview, the only one of her family to express that fear. Unlike other family members whose responses ran about forty pages when asked to “tell your life story,” Mrs. F. produced brief associative clusters, consisting of comments, opinions, and tidbits of information, often about others: her husband’s and children’s characters, their “problems” and deficiencies, the possibility of “coping” with something called Trouble: [End Page 7]

“I’ll start at the beginning, but roughly, childhood was half and half. I would have preferred a better childhood, a happier one…but with God’s influence, I prayed hard enough for a good husband and He answered me.

I got a very good husband, a little stubborn at times, but I’ll take the stubbornness for the goodness that he’s got there. I had four nice children, a little, shall I say, spoiled [laughs], all spoiled because of my husband, he’s very easy. If it was up to me I think I would have been a little bit more stricter, but I think on the whole they turned out with less problems than a lot of other people.

The major part of that is not being on dope…I am blessed that my kids didn’t start it.

Other problems with them, you can’t let that go and have them perfect.

Healthwise, up until the time I was 53, I had terrible health. After that I had a woman’s operation, which I think helped me a lot, and I feel much better. I think I can cope better with things.

God bless my husband. He had a lot of patience with me, and my family. We had everything thrown at us because of my family. His family, he was only boy and he had everything from the time he was seven years old. I think the life we both had as children, I think we both wanted something different when we got married….

But I think what he went through, and what I went through, we built a better marriage on it. To a point I think we try to make our children not have too much of [the troubles] we had. I think we spoil them sometimes for the outside world. And I think that’s what spoiled our two oldest children, their marriages. My daughter is with a very nice man. I would have preferred someone else, but it’s up to her. My son, I’m still upset over him. It’s six years that he is divorced and he just doesn’t seem to pull out of it. He seems to compare other women to her, which isn’t fair for him to do that, but I don’t know. I really don’t know, and I don’t understand him now anymore. That’s in general.

The only thing I can keep saying is I have a very good marriage, and hope and pray my kids will get the same type of a marriage that I had. Outside of that, I don’t know. I’m happy. I’d like to be in better health now, as my husband and I are getting older, especially him, but I’ll take whatever God has given me.

And that’s about it. Forty years of it [marriage] and it’s all in there… That’s it.”

And that was it. The research team could hardly believe she had nothing more to say when asked for a life story, at least until questioned in the next part of the interview. My mother, a [End Page 8] voluble talker, could have gone on about her life (and did) until the cows came home, and if I had been assigned this task of telling my own story, I probably would have self-consciously affected themes, plot, and subplots. But I did thoroughly understand Mrs. F.’s orientation around Trouble, especially her troublesome children (who both have Troubles and are a Trouble to her). My own three children’s troubles still often seem like the moles in a Whack-a-Mole game of life; as soon as you smack one down, more pop up in unexpected places until you run out of time. I pictured Mrs. F. paroling her grounds daily with mallets, on the ready to attack when Trouble inevitably visited her once again. My mother was the same way, so that made three of us.

The Feminist Researcher Interprets Mrs. F.’s “Story”: Gender and Romance

Mrs. F.’s husband and four children, two daughters and two sons, had each narrated their life stories more or less according to the traditional linear plot tracing maturational development. Yet strikingly, Mrs. F.’s spontaneous “life story” seemed more concerned with her family’s lives than her own. If there is a unifying theme in Mrs. F.’s life-as-a-text, it is that marriage has been her lifelong work of construction, its “happiness” her safety net, its aim the carving out of a private haven in a problematic world (to paraphrase the historian Christopher Lasch).

Reading Mrs. F.’s story, short and lacking in literary detail as it was, I believed I recognized in her the women in my own Brooklyn neighborhood. That is, the home, the “inside”world, though busy and hard-working, was a separate realm from the “outside,” largely male “real” world, defined as an arena of public activity that includes privilege, economic control, and authority. Mrs. F. referred to her father’s word as if it were law: “It was his way or no way at all,” “You didn’t have a say about what you wanted or liked to do.”

In her text, Mrs. F. seems to mediate between the two worlds through a connection with males and their privileged power. Pleasing a male – obeying a father, caring for her husband, praying “hard enough” to God the Father – appears often in her interview. As distant as I felt from Mrs. F.’s generation and way of life, I recognized with some distaste that inner universe populated by important men. In my own non-religious childhood, God was not one of those male figures who conferred protection and blessings, as he was in Mrs. F.’s. But as an only daughter, I was keenly aware of the deep hopes my mother, as a young woman, had once invested in finding a man to provide for her, emotionally and financially. I heard almost every day the many ways that marriage had radically failed her expectations on both counts.

My own father was not dominating in the way Mrs. F.’s father appears in her account; unlike Mrs. F, I had little sense that my father was directing what I was going to do. He was adventurous, pleasure-loving, and an admirer of beauty, both artistic and human (the female variety), while my mother was responsible and worried. She felt he had left her holding down the fort with little firepower; her early belief that his untutored brilliance would somehow later pay off in a middle-class life had not materialized, leaving her suspicious of men and their promises. This cynicism about romance contradicted the dominant narrative about femininity before the post-war women’s movement. Yet her bitter disappointment came [End Page 9] from her deeply-held faith that men were supposed to provide, the unquestioned dream that happiness lay in catching the right one. She had not landed the right fish, due to her naively foolish faith in romantic love, she believed, but it went without saying that I could – and would, if I would learn from her what was good for me. It was her mission to help me so I would not suffer as she had. To my mother, a woman could not achieve the social status or personal integrity that signaled she had “arrived” unless she had both a man’s job – and also a man.

The Love Plot

Most interestingly to me, in the question-and-answer part of the interview that followed the request for a “life story,” an actual story finally appeared in Mrs. F.’s text, and it was preeminently a love story. Mrs. F. spoke of courtship, and, in particular, of one moment of courtship, as the high point of her life’s drama: the Glass Slipper Moment when the Prince recognizes Cinderella as his one true love. This was an episode that, by its very atypicality in the life she describes, served her as an emblem of what she could be, her imaginative possible self. In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Jerome Bruner remarks that “the realm of meaning, curiously, is not one in which we ever live with total comfort” (64). It is this discomfort, he speculates, that drives us to utilize “the capacity of language to create and stipulate realities of its own” (1986, 64), fashioning “possible roles and possible worlds in which action, thought, and self-definition are permissible, or at least desirable” (1986, 66).

In this love story, Mrs. F. relates her parents’, friends’, and culture’s expectations for her: “I was pressured into doing the first engagement, because all the other girls were doing that.” Yet as an engaged young woman, she said, she was out with a girlfriend when Mr. F., her future husband, came in the door, and “the first time I put my eyes on him, I said to myself, ‘That’s the one I’m going to marry’.” Later in the interview, Mrs. F. says she turned to her friend and declared, “‘I’m going home with that man tonight and I’m going to marry him,’” while resolutely taking her engagement ring from her finger. In the same way, she asserts that they decided to marry when they did “‘cause I wanted to be with him”; at another point, she adds, “it was just – I wanted to be with him and that was it” [my emphases].

Mr. F., by contrast, tells a different and distinctly less “romantic” story in his own interview. He says:

“And then I met my wife and we got married. And I think I should have waited a little longer to get married… I wasn’t secure enough in a job… I think I got married because there was pressure from her family, ‘cause she was engaged to someone else when she met me.”

Mr. F. concentrates on practical circumstances, ironically naming “pressure” from family as his motive to marry, while Mrs. F. portrays herself as a romantic rebel against the social and familial “pressure” to marry another man. Mrs. F. focuses on her own agency in the question of marriage: she says that though her husband never assented “in so many words,” she assumed that if he did not want to marry when she did, [End Page 10]

“…when I set the date I think he would have said, ‘Let’s wait awhile.’ I think he would have said that.”

He did not ask her not to set the date, and so she took an active role in formalizing the engagement. She relates that when he vaguely mentioned getting engaged in a year’s time, she pronounced, “By next New Year’s Eve we will be married.” “He never argued with me,” she adds sweetly.

Clearly, within the realm of love and courtship, Mrs. F. experienced herself as being entitled to and having enjoyed a good deal of legitimate power (Kitzinger 1995; Miller and Cummins 1992; Rudman and Heppen 2003) extending forward from that early moment. To Mrs. F., being in charge of love and marriage is an empowerment that is wholly expectable in a woman’s life, and the romantic story serves as the legitimating force of her entire history. There is, Mrs. F. says near the end of her interview, “no greater triumph” than “finding someone” to share your life with.

In the genre of romance, “finding” the right man is often a specific point in a heroine’s life that entitles her to a seemingly unbounded freedom to choose for herself. For Mrs. F., this agency is the very opposite of the rules in her own childhood and youth, where women served men’s purposes and desires: “The women were taught the man is everything and that’s it.” Romantic mystification blurs the question of choice: she describes herself as “very surprised” when falling in love with Mr. F. (“I couldn’t understand why I picked him”). Again, when she broke off her engagement to her previous fiancé, she was convinced she was doing the right thing and felt no guilt: “I haven’t got the slightest idea why.” Mrs. F. provides no explanation as to what she did not like about her former fiancé, what she preferred about her new suitor, or the consequences of ending the engagement. This contextual gap in the story seems not to trouble her in the least: the romantic moment is all.

In Mrs. F.’s short life narrative, her story, she says, is “all in there,” referring to marriage and family. As a feminist, I wanted to identify and sympathize with her view of what made her happy. But this seemed to me less a story of “free choice” than a myth that served regressive social purposes. For me, her view of love and marriage was simply the adult version of her childhood’s dictum, “the man is everything.” Hers was the romance that women of my mother’s era tried to have in that time and place, where finding the right man for life was everything, the key to stability, happiness, and success as a woman. I could so easily have lived out that idea, and then I would be another who recited that story.

A Different Story: My Courtship

Mrs. F.’s romantic story of courtship and marriage could not have differed more from my own. Hers is imbued with transcendent feeling that signals the emotional high point of a life, a silent certainty that determines its direction. You love a man because you “just know” that he is The One, even if you are engaged to someone else. This knowledge is magically mutual: you both “just know” that you will marry and begin a new life, whether or not the timing is practical, and what’s more, it all works out for the best, the Happily Ever After of the Love Plot. Difficult matters of money, living arrangements, and family approval fall before this greater force like so many trees before the determined lumberjack’s axe. [End Page 11]

In my own teenage world, romance was a powerful secret fantasy of my own (as it is for many teenage girls), in a way as private and embarrassing as sex. My mother’s ideal of marriage, on the other hand, imparted over many years through conversation and gossip, was a matter of choosing a husband of reliable character and the ability to provide the best lifestyle possible. She frequently denounced romance as having led to her own ruinous mistake of marrying the wrong (i.e. “unsuccessful”) man for blind love instead of security.

Getting married was not at all on my mind when I was attending public college while living at home, starting at age seventeen. My brothers had gone to school there too (also living at home, it goes without saying), so this order of things was ordained for me. Thanks to my mother’s guidance and approval, I was busy trying to do well in my studies, with an eye to finding a profession that would fulfill and support me. The possibilities of graduate school and leaving New York were still open and exciting, if unnerving. At age nineteen, I had never lived or traveled alone in my life, never had a bank account, driven a car, or made a life decision on my own.

Besides doing well academically, I was finally realizing, after a long and lonely spell in high school, that I was no less attractive to males than most other girls, and that gave me a new sense of power and confidence. Just after my second year of college, I was enjoying the company and attentions of an attractive young man I met while working at a summer job. He seemed to like me a great deal; in fact, we had exchanged shy vows of (not necessarily eternal) love. This was very agreeable.

Then, one ordinary day, unexpectedly, my mother proposed marriage to me. Four or five months into my pleasant relationship with this young man, also a college student but from an upper middle-class family, she sat me down over the usual cup of tea and asked if I loved him. A quick and definitive answer was obviously required. “I guess so, yes, sure,” I said, defensively – after all, he was spending a lot of time at our house, including sleepovers many weekends (in separate rooms, to be sure). In reality, I was far from sure this was the right person for me, and in fact had not given it much thought.

“So would you like to marry him?” she went on, looking alarmingly serious. “Maybe I will, but we’re in college,” I replied – there was a safe out! “Well, I have a way for you to get married,” she announced, and swiftly outlined a plan by which two young college students could set up a household while costing their parents no more than they were already spending to support them at home. Her lively dark eyes were animated as she counted up the part-time jobs, the summer work, the efforts at frugality. Like a modern Mrs. Bennet, nothing seemed to give her more satisfaction than planning how to “settle” her daughter for life.

I could have said no. But I wanted to see how my boyfriend felt about it, to test out how much he valued me. And when I presented the idea to him, half-laughingly, he looked thoughtful, said he would ask his parents, and then they loved the idea because they had married early themselves. Suddenly it seemed less like a joke and more like an opportunity. It was the beginning of something, the first big thing ever to happen to me, a drama. I found myself spinning fantasies of setting up my – I mean our – own little place, imagining a lifetime of emotional insurance against the isolation I had felt as a high school wallflower. The greatest pleasure of all came from the idea that a man had recognized me for who I really was, had picked me… sort of. The shoe fit, and I was therefore a kind of princess, or even (what was to me far better) Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre, underneath my anxiety and ordinariness. The stew of psychological insecurities and pragmatic considerations that [End Page 12] motivated all this suddenly shaped themselves into a wonderfully familiar form: I was the heroine of a new story, a romance, part of a traditional feminine narrative that would uplift me for a lifetime.

I wanted so much to be part of this story that I told myself I was in love, since it seemed required to take the next step. Before you could say Glass Slipper, there was a cheap ring on my finger (selected by my mother and me, paid for by my mother), a shabby wedding hall was booked (approved by our parents, disliked by my fiancé and me), and the next thing I knew, I woke up like Sleeping Beauty and was married for decades. As you might have guessed, this did not turn out to be the love story I imagined.

My mother’s wedding proposal was in the mid-Sixties, twenty years after Mrs. F.’s courtship. It was a time when everything was about to change for girls like me, when the feminist point of view was beginning to critique the traditional narrative of love, but this was not yet available to me. I did once ask my mother why she had set her cap for me at such an early age. “I could see you needed somebody,” she replied. Did I? Then too, I think she suspected that cohabitation (as sociologists call it) was in the air, and from there, abandonment and ruin.

My mother no doubt would have interpreted this situation quite differently: it was not repression or control, it was a mother’s love and care. From her point of view, she was trying to protect me from the emotional and financial privation she had endured in her own marriage by reverse engineering, doing it right this time. To her, marriage itself was not the problem – it was finding the right man, fixing someone in place who was devoted to you and also made enough money to keep you secure.

I differ from both my mother and Mrs. F. in important ways that reflect living most of my adult life in the decades after 1970. But at that moment when my mother proposed marriage to me, we all inhabited the same romantic universe. My mother could envision a professional career for a woman in a way that her own parents could not, but not life without the romance of marriage. She simply could not conceive of it: for her, the world was too dangerous for a woman to navigate on her own. If you were not born a man, the next best thing was to marry one. Though my mother was a feminist heroine to me in some significant ways, her view of men and love took me down a road that felt irreversible for a long time, one I wish I had not gone along (with). For this reason, when I met Mrs. F. and heard her story decades ago, it was as important for me to distance the romantic in Mrs. F. as it had been for my mother to recuperate the losses of romance in her own life through me.

Cynical Researcher, Romantic Subject

I see consciousness as the key to my own endeavors, both personal and professional, as well as the foundational principle of my feminism. Though I was married myself when I interviewed Mrs. F., I no longer believed in the ideal of womanhood as desired object of the courting man – or afterwards, as the key-holder of the heart in the domestic space of marriage. Mrs. F.’s storied moment of romantic transcendence seemed to me an idealized and sentimental retelling of events as a drama of epic proportions simply to justify a decision made long ago. On the other hand, as a feminist and professional (the professional my mother had wanted me to become), it was very important to me to avoid positioning myself as Mrs. [End Page 13] F.’s superior in my role as audience to this woman telling the story of her life, so I consciously resisted this alienation.

But there was something unacknowledged and conflicted in my approach to Mrs. F.’s story that went beyond my political critique of the traditional woman’s role, or my professional struggle to be objective, or my desire as a feminist to connect with Mrs. F. That is, Mrs. F.’s description of herself as the romantic heroine of her own story had touched a nerve in me. In coming to terms with Mrs. F.’s story, I had to come face to face with a cast-off “Mrs. F.” in myself: in effect, with a troublesome version of my own life.

Seeing from the inside out what Mrs. F.’s story meant to her, her own interpretation of her life, I had to conjure up and meet halfway these “uncanny,” disowned aspects of myself. First, there was the part that did not like to see myself as belonging to my own working-class background. The work of climbing out of the lower class through marrying a better-off man has always been a staple of women’s stories in our culture, beginning with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Thinking of myself as of that place meant the certainty of living under the gloomy shadow of my mother’s frustration as a woman, in the milieu that shaped her eagerness to rush me into an early marriage.

Second, there was a buried piece of me that envied the way Mrs. F. had lived out the fantasy of romance and marriage that colored her life and made it cohesive. Where romance had played a secret role in my own psychic life as a second to the real-world imperative to marry, in Mrs. F.’s telling it was marvelously public, proclaimed out loud with complete confidence in its future success – even when all plot elements seemed to weigh against it (as in a Hollywood romantic comedy, where falling in love with Mr. Right while engaged to the wrong person is very common). For Mrs. F., romance had meant escaping the domination of her father and the “everybody’s-doing-it” nature of early marriage in her peer group. That her romance had led to the right marriage was its final justification. This was, to her, a wonderful outcome that echoed the larger purposes of unseen forces in the universe that choose our appropriate destinies beforehand. In my view, those enabling or crushing forces are economic, cultural, and social, with individual psychology thrown in for good measure. I am sure I would have appeared coldly cynical to her, while to me, she was subjugated and self-deceived… but also, as far as I could see, happy in and with her self-deception.

Now, I certainly did not want to be Mrs. F, and never had, any more than I wanted to be a duplicate of my mother (and my mother did not want this for me either). Yet my envy of her romantic solution lived on in shadow form, within some guarded place in me, even though I had no faith in the concept of a “romantic solution” itself. Despite my feminism, I still longed, at a subterranean level, to trust in the Love Plot. Forced to think about Mrs. F.’s love story, I was confronted (and astonished) by a hidden self I had needed to leave behind so as to shape the newer and better story of my autonomous life post-divorce: a ghost of self that whispered urgently, I wish romance had worked this way for me. Yet in fact I had no way of knowing if what Mrs. F. described had been, in reality, as she had said it had. Could Mrs. F. afford to tell, or view, the narrative of love any differently, given how much she had invested the rest of her life in its ethos?

I was a much more ambitious young woman than the character Mrs. F. appears to be in her narrative, where she talks very little about the questions of class, money or education that preoccupied me. In her romantic story, all these issues are resolved with the choice of the right man. And while Mrs. F. said she was “shy” and always had difficulty speaking up in public, I make my living by speaking in front of classrooms. But in a way, Mrs. F. was more [End Page 14] determined, more of a rebel than I was, at least in her telling. I married the man my mother wanted me to, when my mother told me to, though at the time the choice felt like mine; Mrs. F., on the other hand, emphasizes her rebellion in fighting for her heart’s desire. The irony is that for me, marriage (rather than romance) was both a way of formally escaping from my parents’ household and grip, while also, paradoxically, submitting to my mother’s final bid to be the force that controlled my destiny (for my own good, needless to say).

Though I first heard Mrs. F.’s narrative from an assumed position of my own authority, I have acquired, over the span of years, a certain humility, admiration, and eventually, sympathy for her and her story. This sympathetic understanding has also extended to my mother, who led me down a garden path that resulted in too-early marriage and eventual divorce and emotional pain. Was my mother, a generation ahead of Mrs. F, then a feminist, though she did not know the term? I would say yes, compared to other women she knew, just as Mrs. F., younger than my mother, was able to use certain key terms and concepts of feminism (though still not the word), such as “fighting for what you want,” in ways she said the women of her family had not. But these insights only went so far for my mother and Mrs. F., given the burdens of their lives and times.

Looking at myself in relation to Mrs. F. and my mother, I can see that I made the leap from working-class to middle-class due to living in a different space of history from either of them, and also thanks to my mother’s forward thrust of determined ambitions for me. But perhaps because my youthful desire for passionate love was repressed in the interest of marrying young and (supposedly) safely, the hope of meaning through romance, so important to both my mother and Mrs. F., clung to me as a haunting dream all the while I inched toward professional success. The story of my marriage and divorce is too complex to render here. But I can say that the Love Plot both sustained me imaginatively with its double promise of intense excitement and lifelong security, yet also constrained me with the anxieties lurking beneath the polished surfaces of its story. Today the Love Plot has continued to shadow women through the generations after mine, weaving in and out of our expectations for what love should be, now more than ever spurring envy of the glittery celebrated or fictional lives that we encounter everywhere in the public arena (Illouz 1997; Ingraham 1999, 2005).


I cannot renounce the working-class girl I was (and am still at heart), because it means disowning my origins, but neither can I take up Mrs. F.’s romantic view that romantic love is every woman’s destiny uncritically. Unlike Mrs. F., I resist the idea that romance is mysterious; for me, romance is an expression of desire we are taught how to tell in story form, woven with threads of hope and driven by needs we only dimly sense. There is no way I can know for certain if the mythos of love “worked” for Mrs. F. as she said it did, but as Stevi Jackson advised, I can investigate how it works, the influence and persistence of its cultural forms. Having devoted much of my life as a scholar to trying to understand the Love Plot, I want to own up to the dream without being owned by it. If, as Dr. Bruner argued, we construct our world through narrative, for which culture gives us the instructions and tool- [End Page 15] kits, it follows that we can also re-construct its meaning, revising that narrative when we acquire new tools (Kehily 1995; P. Thompson 1998).

I agree with Shulamith Firestone that love itself is not the “problem” with romance, and I acknowledge that feminism can benefit from recognizing love’s transformative potential for personal growth and egalitarian relations. Yet insofar as the Love Plot has been normative and gendered, I believe (like Firestone) that we should simultaneously be conscious and wary of its potential for other effects, which include the erasure of a history of oppression, and the narrowing of other possibilities, especially for women.[4] The very concept that shapes pleasure and meaning in romantic relations can also limit a life by hiding a power imbalance and renaming it as love. Additionally, I believe more study is necessary to shed light on the often-ignored question of why romance is still consumed mainly by women, in spite of its “equalizing” effects.

Is there a way for feminists to claim love that goes beyond the sentiment of virtue rewarded, that recognizes both love’s capacity to limit and harm as well as to give joy, that questions the definition of a happy ending, and makes space for more transgressive sorts of romance than those rigid forms that dominated popular culture in the past? Can we transcend both denunciation and idealization to embrace love as passionate, often selfish pleasure, rather than attend only to the pretty side of love as the starter yeast for unselfish caring and commitment?

It has been a personal and political challenge to simultaneously tell Mrs. F.’s and my own (real-life) stories with sympathy, while also critiquing the love story with a political eye. As a feminist, I wish to embrace the paradoxes of love as experienced, rather than line up squarely on one ideological side or other as to whether love is “good” for women. Instead of either looking up at romance admiringly, like Mrs. F, or down at it, as my mother had, I have attempted to look at romance with awe and appreciation for its power, just as I listened while Mrs. F. narrated her life to me, and marveled at the workmanship that went into constructing that seemingly simple but quite intricate system of signs and wonders that is the love story.

There is now a large body of theory, analysis, and criticism of those forms of popular romance whose audience is mainly women, but the feminist work on romantic discourse in real women’s lives begun in the mid-1990s seems circumscribed and underdeveloped by comparison. The critic Ien Ang has written that

“By taking seriously the love for romantic feeling as a starting point for engagement with ‘non-feminist’ women, a feminist researcher might begin to accomplish a comprehension of self by the detour of comprehension of the other, in a confrontation with other women who might have more expertise and experience in the meanings, pleasures and dangers of romanticism than herself. What could change as a result… is not what… ‘we’, as self-proclaiming feminists, are struggling for, but more importantly, the sense of identity that is constructed by feminism itself.” (1988, 189)

Though narration of and reflection on lived experience cannot resolve every problem for feminists in addressing heterosexual romance, my hope is that a more immersive understanding through biography and autobiography may disrupt the uniformity of abstract discourses of romance, and in doing so, contribute to a more complex, nuanced, and yes, more critical (in the most generous sense) view of romantic love. [End Page 16]

[1] For short histories of these views, see Goade 2007; Hollows 2000; Pearce and Stacey 1995; Radford 1986; Regis 2003, 2011.

[2] See also Ferguson and Jonasdottir, “Introduction” to Love: A Question (2013), and Jonasdottir, “Love Studies” (2013).

[3] Several publications resulted from this research project: Bruner 1987, 1990; Bruner and Weisser 1991; Weisser 1996.

[4] Berlant’s “Intimacy” (1998) is a provocative discussion of the problematics of contradictory desires and “polar energies,” played out in the zone of intimate life. Berlant also illuminates the limitations of the public fantasy of domestic intimacy and the “life narrative it generates,” excluding alternative plots (285). See also Illouz (2012). [End Page 17]

Works Cited

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Love and its Contradictions: Feminist Women’s Resistance Strategies in their Love Narratives
by Nagore García Fernández


I was first attracted to love as a topic of research because I saw other feminist female friends as well as myself struggling with it. There was something jarring about love and feminists, because we seemed to be spending more time criticizing the stereotyped romantic narratives seen in Hollywood films rather than sharing the positive and transformative elements of our everyday relationships. Even if we had read many books and zines, discussed with our comrades, learned from our previous experiences and from those shared among feminist friends, there was still a huge sense of discontent and failure present. From first and second wave feminists we learned about the dangers and the traps of love (Beauvoir 1999; Millett 1971; Firestone 1972; Comer 1974). From other feminists and non-feminists alike we learned that love was a complex emotion (Lagarde 1990; Jónasdóttir 1993; Jackson 1993, 1999; Illouz 1997; Langford 1999; Esteban 2011) and also that other kind of relationships were possible (Easton & Hardy 2009; Barker 2012). But feminists still struggle with articulating our experience among so many contradictory narratives. Love is an issue for feminists and I am interested in exploring how feminist women construct their narratives of love in relation to dominant narratives of romantic love and feminist critical narratives of love.

I apply the concept of “nested narratives” proposed by Mary and Kenneth Gergen (1983) to the analysis of love. The Gergens refer to how different narratives available in the social framework are articulated within personal experiences in subjectivity production. Also, for Jackson “[w]e create for ourselves a sense of what our emotions are, of what being in love is, through positioning ourselves within discourses, constructing narratives of self, drawing on whatever cultural resources are available to us” (1999, 120). Like them, I would contend that we are not passive subjects in these processes, but an active part that assimilates, rejects and subverts those sociocultural contexts in which the narratives are produced (Montenegro & Pujol 2013).

My understanding of love owes much to the work of Stevi Jackson (1993, 1999) and Mari Luz Esteban (2011). They have highlighted that love is a complex emotion that requires serious and critical social research (Jackson 1993; Esteban, Medina & Tavora 2005). Jackson (1993) developed a sociological approach to love as a culturally constructed emotion. In her words, “Far from being just a personal, private phenomenon, love is very much a part of our public culture” (1993, 202). Thus, it cannot be treated as “independent of the social and cultural context within in which it is experienced” (1993, 202). Mari Luz Esteban’s (2011) “amorous thought” refers to emotional, embodied, symbolic, cultural, social and institutional dimensions of love, and also considers that power relations take place in different directions. These theoretical contributions enable us to account for love as both a site of women’s complicity with and resistance against patriarchal relations. In this paper, I aim to explore the resistance strategies of feminist women in order to understand how complicity and resistance work in their narratives about love. On one hand, this could tell us about the experience of women and love in Western societies, while on the other it could shed some light on how feminism works in producing subjectivity.

Resistance Strategies

A Foucauldian perspective on power indicates that power itself permeates every aspect of social life. Power, for Foucault, is not located within but invades all social relations. It is not subordinated to economic structures. Instead of acting by repression, it acts by normalization. In this way, it produces subjects, discourses, knowledges, truths and realities in a positive way. Power is found precisely in that multiplicity of networks in constant transformation. These ideas of power characterise resistance as part of the game: there is no power without resistance (Foucault 1980). Considering these ideas, Lila Abu-Lughod (1990) develops her conceptualization of resistance and reflects over the effects resistance studies have had over the theories of power. Since the 1990s, previously devalued forms of resistance have been re-evaluated: that is, “subversions rather than large-scale collective insurrections, small or local resistances not tied to the overthrow of systems or even to ideologies of emancipation.” (Abu-Lughod 1990, 41). In pursuing a non-romanticized reading of resistance, she asks: what does resistance tell us about power? For Abu-Lughod (1990), theorizing resistance involves theorizing power. She proposes resistance as a diagnostic of power, a project for which we ought to attend to the complex workings of power rather than ask about those who resist. In other words, which are the implications of the resistance we, as social researchers, locate? The study of different forms of resistance will allow us to trace the different – often contradictory – workings of power intertwined in a specific context. In the narrative productions of this study, contradictions between cultures is key. Abu-Lughod relates this contradiction to glocal cultures, to the tensions arising between the global and the local. She also points out how, within this dynamic, women assume, subvert and/or reappropriate different cultural norms, either global or local. In my research addressing the experiences of feminist women in love, this helps in clarifying the relationship between a dominant culture in which participants are involved (permeated with romantic love discourses) and the feminist counterculture where they take part (where other counter-narratives emerge and gain a notorious significance).

Narrative Productions: articulating feminist narratives on love

The methodology used in this study is inspired by Donna Haraway’s (1991) ideas of situated knowledges, which moves away both from non-critical positivist thinking and extreme relativism. Like Haraway, I assume knowledge is produced from a located, precarious, and partial perspective. It is the result of partial connections. In reference to the empirical research, situated knowledges can be seen as semiotic-material places resulting from the relationship between researcher and participants (Pujol, Montenegro & Balasch 2003). From this view, rather than generalizing or representing, my aim is to collect different positions on the issue.

Narrative Production methodology (Balasch & Montenegro 2003; Pujol, Montenegro & Balasch 2003; Martínez-Guzmán & Montenegro 2014; Gandarias & García 2014; Schongut & Pujol 2015) is based in the collaborative production, between researcher and participants, of a series of narrative texts addressing the topic of study. Once the participants agreed to take part in the study, we carried out one or more sessions addressing love representations, meanings and experiences. Subsequently, I textualized the most meaningful aspects emerging from the participants’ narration in a clear and understandable style. In order to maximize  their  agency, I sent the participants the manuscript so they could edit it. The writing process finished with their confirmation of the final version of the text. Once I completed the process with each participant, I got a set of narratives that offer different sets of partial knowledge of love on feminist women (Montenegro & Pujol 2013, 35). These texts are called narrative productions or narratives and I will refer to them as narrative productions in this paper.

The challenge with this methodology is to reflect on this set of narrative productions, considering them theoretical starting points (Gandarias & García 2014). As Montenegro & Pujol (2013) propose, narrative productions are not treated as “pure” empirical material, which means they are not analyzed in the usual sense. The narrative productions are analyzed while being constructed, working from them rather than on them (Martínez-Guzmán & Montenegro 2010). To this end, I have focused on searching for the tensions and the common grounds emerging from the narrative productions (Fraser 2004).

Resisting Love Narratives

In this section I would like to present seven feminist activist women in order to contextualize the coordinates in which these narrative productions have been realized. Their narrative texts are part of a larger study in which ten feminist activist women participated. I selected these women according to different criteria. While they are all feminist activists living in Barcelona, their sexual identities and situations in reference to love differ considerably. I recruited participants from my own personal and political contacts and also through a variation of the snowball sampling technique, which involves asking participants to recruit new participants. I asked feminist friends to recruit possible participants too.

Libertad is thirty-three years old and comes from a city near Madrid. She moved to Barcelona five years ago. She is a sociologist and works as a researcher in gender-related issues. She has been involved in social movements since she was a teenager. She self-identifies as straight and, after a few years of being single, she is starting a new relationship.

Aram is from Barcelona and thirty-two years old. She also has a job in the field of gender equality. She started joining feminist groups in her early twenties. Her romantic trajectory has been straight until recently. Since the end of her most recent relationship, she has been thinking a lot about love.

Lidia was born in Northern Europe and raised in a Latin American country. She arrived in Barcelona in 2005 to do a Masters degree in documentary filmmaking. Since then she has been working on post-pornography as a visual artist, activist and researcher. Her activist trajectory revolves around non-normative sexual practices and gender representations, while love remains unexplored as a field for her activist work.

Rebeca is twenty-four and from a city near Barcelona. She has identified with punk and anarchism since she was a teenager. Overcoming an abusive relationship with a man led her to seek more liberating ways of establishing relationships with both men and women.

Mariona is also from Barcelona and in her early thirties. She is part of the anarchist and feminist movements. Her sexual and affective relationships have always been with feminist women.

Miriam A. and Miriam D. have been long discussing love. They are friends and met each other years ago during a workshop on romantic love. One is from Barcelona and the other comes from a different city but has lived in different places, including the UK. The first identifies as a lesbian and the other thinks of sexuality as a flexible concept. They have worked together in the prevention of abusive relationships and collaborate in several activist projects.

After the narrative productions that I have co-written with these women, I have identified various resistance strategies. First, I will address those resistance strategies that respond to mainstream narratives of love, mostly in its romantic form. Next, I will introduce those that respond to specific feminist narratives of love, which mostly are based in the feminist critique of romantic love.

Dismantling the romantic model. In what follows, I will address three resistance strategies that respond to specific imperatives of romantic love: 1) intentional singleness, which questions compulsory coupledom; 2) lover networks, responding to sexual exclusivity and temporary fixed romantic scripts; and 3) falling for the collective, which redefines the object and the “nature” of love.

Intentional singleness. It is not only heterosexuality that is seen as compulsory, as Adrienne Rich (1980) warned, but also long term relationships. Compulsory heterosexuality as a normative prescription operates through the construction and policing of various forms of “otherness” (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003), such as singleness. Furthermore, this regulation operates within a patriarchal set of relationships, meaning that women have historically been more excluded or questioned by their singleness. Thus they have been defined negatively and in terms of what is lacking (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003; Reynolds, Wetherell & Taylor 2007). Feminist research on the topic has highlighted how in the construction of women’s “single” identity, negative and positive discourses are implicated. A discourse of singleness as a lack is present, while also another which redefines it as independence and self-actualization (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003). Perspectives of this kind are echoed in the narrative texts of this study. Some participants explain how they came to wilfully choose singleness after turbulent breakups.

Cuando Héctor me dejó tuve una crisis de autoestima muy fuerte. Estuve revolcándome en el fango durante meses, sintiéndome una mierda. [Más tarde], [e]mpecé a hacer cosas que nunca antes había hecho sola, como ir a conciertos o hacer una estancia en Viena. Mi proceso fue progresivo, poco a poco he ido sintiéndome mejor y sin recaídas.[1] (Libertad, p. 4)

In a similar vein, Aram explains how she happened to find out she could be fine being single:

[D]escubrí que podía estar sin novio y empecé a tener relaciones en otro formato. Amantes y encuentros puntuales. De golpe experimenté el “no-compromiso”. Pasé de pensarme en relación a otro a pensarme por mí misma. No solo descubrí que podía estar sin novio, sino que además así estaba bien.[2] (Aram, p. 3)

Although both came to view singleness as a desired state, we can see some differences in their extracts. Libertad evokes elements of independency and a more extended social life as the capacity to do activities on her own and with other people. This makes her feel good because she is no longer identifying singleness as a lack but as gain. For Aram, on the other hand, wellbeing as a single woman is located in her ability to manage her sexual life and an identity of her own, non-mediated by a partner. However, both extracts share a common base: regardless of their focus (social or sexual life, identity), their achievements relate to overcoming a partner-oriented model. This movement, as Libertad acknowledges, is a long progressive way, with challenges to face. She points to social pressure as the one of most concern:

Hay mucha presión, vas a una boda y vas sola, o a otras actividades, siempre sola. A veces he tenido la sensación de que la gente me miraba sintiendo pena. Y lo más sorprendente es que yo estaba bien, estaba sola por elección. Hasta los colegas del barrio (con quienes tengo afinidad política) me cuestionaban por estar soltera. [3] (Libertad, p. 8)

In the experience of Libertad, social pressure appears as challenging, although not very constraining. Her awareness of wellbeing is not especially affected, but she finds herself constantly questioned and having to justify herself as being single, a very common experience single women share (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003). Also, it is interesting to note how the pressure comes from different audiences. It is not by chance that Libertad illustrates this questioning through mentioning a wedding. Although in Spain women are less likely to be married than their European counterparts, with those who do marry doing so later in life (INE Spain 2015), heterosexual marriage is still more accepted than other forms of relationships. For women, their early thirties is a stage in life in which friends, relatives and acquaintances may start to get married or to establish other types of long-term relationships with or without cohabitation. The wedding appears here as the ultimate representation, and indeed the ritual form, of our tendency to “couple” or to “partner” one another in an official and public way. But this questioning is not only coming from the most normative audiences, but also from politically radical circles. This is where the contradiction arises: how is it that people with whom she shares a politically radical position, are using heteronormative narratives to read her personal life? I would argue that her relationships are seen as a private issue, thus remaining non-politicized and therefore easier to evoke a dominant view.

In conclusion, I have addressed intentional singleness as a resistance strategy which responds to compulsory coupledom. This strategy consists of the redefinition and re-evaluation of singleness as a possible and acceptable way of being in the world which opens possibilities for a wider social life, an enriching sexual life and a fully completed sense of self. In the quotes from Libertad and Aram, this is not seen as an idealized model; rather, it confirms their everyday experience, a progressive path where they must face the social pressure coming from different audiences.

Lovers networks. Existing in the world necessarily entails relationships with others. Authors such as Judith Butler (2009) and Silvia Gil (2011) have noted our inherently interdependent relationships with others. We are immersed in multifarious networks of relationships with whom we share different forms of intimacy. Lidia frames the issue as such:

[H]aber mantenido relaciones con amantes que se han ido alargando en el tiempo, ha ido modificando mi manera de entender el amor. Estas relaciones, donde a lo mejor follo una vez al año con una persona que conozco desde hace mucho tiempo, me ha permitido ver el amor como un proceso más lento. Quiero a estas personas, y aunque no compartimos una cotidianidad, lo que siento por ellas es amor. Se dan distintos grados de intimidad y confianza, pero tengo amantes con los que creo que podría estar de amante toda la vida o al menos muchísimos años. Al haber pasado tanto tiempo te vas conociendo más, y se genera una relación de compañerismo que es un amor interesante, que no podría ocurrir si tienes una relación estrictamente monógama. Estas relaciones son como amistades con intimidad y sexo. También son relaciones con las que a veces trabajo en algún proyecto. [4] (Lidia, pp. 6-7)

Based on similar experiences, Rebeca reflects on temporality as the backbone of the dominant understandings of intimate relationships.

[E]n mis relaciones de amistad sexoafectivas sí he podido encontrar más esa espontaneidad y libertad, sin las exigencias propias que devienen en una pareja más “clásica”, y lo que es más importante para mí: esa confianza y complicidad no en todos los casos se ha marchitado, sino que se ha transformado y ha perdurado en el tiempo, volviéndonos así compañeras intermitentes, permanentes, atemporales, eternas. [5] (Rebecca, pp. 2-3)

For both extracts, I would like to focus on how temporality and intimacy are presented in opposition to traditional couple relationships. Dominant love narratives position couples in a linear temporality. This usually begins with a process of “courtship” or flirting when the conditions of the relationship remain to be negotiated until the couple is defined as such. This type of narrative usually ends with either the beginning of a long-term relationship or the end of it. Lidia and Rebeca suggest a different temporality in which the boundaries of beginning and end are unclear. Lidia describes further this kind of temporality in the following fragment:

Son relaciones que entienden que yo puedo estar en un pico amoroso y entonces desaparecen temporalmente y luego reaparecen y eso se produce muy orgánicamente. El grado de exigencia con la otra persona es menor y eso facilita que se adapte a disponibilidades personales y afectivas. Por ejemplo, si un amante me llama para quedar, pero yo estoy en el mundo del corazón […] y no me apetece… no pasa nada. Son relaciones infrecuentes o de frecuencia variable, una vez al mes o una vez cada tres meses… A veces también he tenido un subidón de amor con alguno de mis amantes… quizás dura una semana, luego decae, pero vuelve la otra persona… sería como un gráfico de ondas.[6] (Lidia, pp. 7-8)

Here intermittence emerges, varying in intensities and availabilities, ranging from very intense moments to periods of absence which are not understood as lack of attachment. In this sense, intimacy is reconfigured at different levels. Not sharing an everyday life is not seen as a lack of intimacy, but the contrary. The connection is not based here in a common everyday life, but in sharing an intensity and sexual intimacy. Although precarious and inconsistent, this kind of love is highly valued by both participants. This may not sound like something new nowadays, where sexual life and intimacy have adopted different forms in Western societies. However, there is a kind of convenience, as opposed to engagement and commitment, which makes me suspicious. Lovers seem to appear “naturally” when they are needed and in a way that fits individualistic interests. So, from a critical perspective, it is important to ask to what extent this kind of intimacy is mediated by individualized contemporary discourses.

What is interesting about Lidia and Rebeca’s reflections is that, unlike in mainstream society, they recognize these relationships as love, even if it is a love of a different kind. In this sense, these experiences have resulted in a change of their conceptualization of love.

In conclusion, the forming of lover networks appears to be an ambivalent strategy which challenges sexual exclusivity and its temporality by recognizing the intimacy shared with lovers as a valuable kind of love. However, while being liberating for the participants, these practices of intimacy may intertwine with individualistic dominant discourses, an issue in which further research is needed.

Falling for the collective. Miriam A. and Miriam D. describe how they felt about the feminist group in which they were both taking part a few years back:

Miriam D.: Yo estaba todo el dia de asamblea en asamblea. Trabajaba en un librería de mujeres, acababa de terminar el Máster de Estudios de las Mujeres […] … Okupabamos entre mujeres, hacía autodefensa, […]… Tenía la vida más feminista que podía tener y luego tenía un novio, que estaba en casa… Estaba enamoradísima de la red, de todas las cosas que sucedían. Todo era como una montaña rusa, me dejaba llevar y me encantaba.


Miriam A.: Había un discurso muy bonito de lo colectivo y de repente empiezas a ver las fisuras que has estado ignorando.

Miriam D.: Porque nos enamoramos…

Miriam A.:¡Es muy romántico! Se sustituye la pareja por el colectivo. Te enamoras románticamente del colectivo, ignoras sus fisuras y cuando todo estalla, la ruptura se hace muy difícil.

Miriam D.: Acaban saliendo resentimientos hacia el colectivo…

Miriam A.: Algo no hemos hecho bien que cuando todo se acaba y no nos podemos ni ver… Eso pasa mucho en la pareja.

Miriam D.: Te prometes todo y de repente como no es verdad, la decepción es máxima.

Miriam A.: Creo que deberíamos aceptar que no todo es tan intenso y absoluto, aprender a acabar y acabar mejor. […] Por otro lado, sin esa energía muchas cosas no saldrían. Por eso en el fondo creo que no puede ser malo. La energía que desprendemos cuando nos enamoramos de alguien o de algo, que puedes no dormir y empiezas a hacer de todo… A mí me cuesta encontrar esa energía sin el enamoramiento. No creo que sea solo político… ¿esa energía de donde sale? ¿Eso es puramente construido? Esa cosa que no te da nada más… Pienso en algunos grupos que conocí hacía 2009 y desprendían una energía muy potente… Yo me enamoré de todas y de la energía que desprendían, me encantaba… y luego acabó como el rosario de la Aurora. Parece que cuanto más subidón, luego más bajón…[7] (Miriam A & Miriam D, p. 11)

In their story, the expansion of the loving object reaches the collective. So much affection is put into their political projects that they “fall for the collective.” Love here becomes characterized as a force, an energy that is the basis of mobilization and collective action, rather than as the passionate sexual bond associated with romantic love. This move echoes Hardt and Negri’s politics of love (2009). These authors develop a reconfiguration of the notion of love in which they place the common in the center. From this perspective, romantic couple love is seen as narrow, yet the focus goes beyond individualistic practices of intimacy. Rather, it seeks to reclaim the collective. In the narrative productions, however, some romantic features still remain. Romanticizing the collective emerges as a double-edged sword. It has the potential to challenge the legitimate object of love, which moves from being a person or a network of multiple lovers to a specific group of people with whom they share political activism. Some features of the dominant romantic narrative also emerge. The latter part of the quote suggests that in the process of falling for the collective, there are a number of romantic love scripts in play. The naive happy beginning and difficult ending resonate with the romantic temporality revised before. All the passion attached to it also sounds really romantic. In addition, for Alberoni (1996), love is a collective movement of two, which recuperates the idea that there is something about love that is not totally individual. Still, for Miriam A., despite the problematic of the romantic script, the collective fusion has a great destabilizing potential.

In general, this strategy should be consider in its double character: it politicizes the romantic and romanticizes the political. On one hand, the politicization of the romantic appears as a move towards a transformative notion of love, while on the other hand, the romanticization of the political appears as the process by which some elements of the romantic narrative of couple love is assimilated into a narrative about a wider love experienced within a political collective.

Living the contradiction. Contradictions seem to be a part of our subjectivities and have inspired much feminist writing on love and romance (Jackson 1999). These contradictions seen to be more evident in love where very different narratives are in constant play. As Jackson (1999) points out, there is a contradiction between two of the strongest narratives of love in the Western world. Passionate romantic love – as featured in many forms of artistic expression – favours intensity, whereas the lived narrative of heterosexual pair-bonding emphasis long-term commitment. We are both imbued with the mystery of falling in love as with the routinization of a long-term relationship. The narrative of love as an altruistic emotion is as present as the narrative which identifies romantic love as self-centred and individualistic. Eva Illouz focuses on the contradictions of love in contemporary Western societies (1997). With a focus on love, its practices and their relation to the economic sphere, she traces how the contradictions of capitalism have reached the sphere of love. When the narratives of the productive sphere crosscut the private, it is inevitable that contradictions emerge. For Illouz (2012), contradictions are an unavoidable part of culture and, in general, most people manage to move among them without struggling, but this scenario changes when the contradictions affect the articulation of experience. In such cases, incorporating the contradictions into everyday life becomes a difficult task. This difficulty becomes evident in many of the narratives productions I have collected. It is clear in this piece by Libertad:

El amor para mí es un gran contradicción. […] Por una parte pienso en el amor como un sentimiento positivo, pero no puedo evitar que lo primero que se me venga a la cabeza al pensar en el amor sea la negación de la persona. Es cierto que cuando te enamoras estás más contenta, de mejor humor y todo te parece más bonito. Sin embargo, no puedo dejar de relacionar amor con negación individual, sobre todo a partir de la idea generalizada de amor romántico que nos venden y que se reproduce por todas partes. Tengo esa contradicción. Por un lado pienso que el amor es negación de la individualidad, de la autonomía y por otro lado pienso que somos seres sociales y que el amor nos hace creer en los otros y en las otras. [8] (Libertad, p. 1)

Different narratives are interconnected in this fragment. First, love as a positive emotion and its transformative power (it makes us believe in others). Within that positive aspect of love, falling in love is also mentioned. It is interesting how, as Jackson has suggested, “even feminists resort to mystical language to describe it [love]” (1999, 116). Although there is not a mystical language here, there is a positive and magical understanding of falling, as it is seen as a state in which everything seems to be better. On the other hand, there is a strong presence of a negative reading of romantic love more specifically, which evoking the feminist critique which centres on lack of autonomy and individuality as key elements that are denied in the name of love.

The participants in this study incorporate and make their own narratives after the narratives available in their cultural arena (Jackson 1999). As Illouz (2012) explains, culture provides people with different discourses which are often contradictory and which are used, at different moments and circumstances, to account for different aspects of the experiences of love.

In the stories of the participants, many narratives are in play. Besides the mainstream narratives of love, they also incorporate feminist narratives, meaning the contradiction becomes more evident and more difficult to deal with. In the following strategies I will focus on two different ways of dealing with some of the contradictions they struggle with specifically as feminists.

Claiming “romance”. When Lidia and I were constructing her narrative production I was absolutely captivated by this story of her childhood:

[C]on ocho años descubrí las telenovelas. Todas mis compañeras del colegio las veían y a mí me enganchaban mucho. Pero eran tan nefastas ideológicamente que mi mamá me las prohibía y aun así yo me las ingeniaba para verlas a escondidas. Ella guardaba la tele en la parte alta de un armario y resolví el asunto poniendo un alargo que alcanzara hasta el enchufe. De esa forma podía ver las telenovelas a gusto y antes de que llegara mi mamá ya había quitado el alargo y cerrado el armario como si nada hubiera pasado. En estas telenovelas se reproducían los imaginarios clásicos del amor romántico: enamorarse para siempre, encontrar la pareja indicada, que alguien que te salve… Es como una metáfora divertida que ese imaginario en mi casa fuera el que se tenía que quedar dentro del armario.[9] (Lidia, p. 1)

Lidia’s mother was an artist who had lesbian and feminist friends, so as a child Lidia had different reference points beyond the nuclear family. It is interesting to note that from an early age she was resisting her mother’s power by watching telenovelas secretly. A hugely popular cultural product in Latin America, telenovelas were nevertheless forbidden by her mother on account of their reinforcement of patriarchal relations. The consumption of romantic fiction has been largely researched by feminist scholars. Some of these contributions have highlighted how romantic fiction consumers are not merely assimilating a dominant narrative, taking more seriously the pleasures of romance (Jackson 1999; Roach 2010; Frantz & Selinger 2012). In this sense, I see Lidia’s secret consumption of telenovelas as a site of resistance in which she could fantasize with the narratives that were forbidden in her home. It is interesting here to note how, in this case, what is dominant in mainstream society becomes a site of resistance as the order of Lidia’s childhood home works with its own set of norms and values. Later in her story, she refers to a similar strategy in the present time:

Hay perspectivas feministas -que parten de la crítica al amor romántico- que consideran que enamorarse está mal. Aunque comparto la base de esta crítica, no creo que enamorarse esté del todo mal. A veces me da la sensación de que esta crítica se traduce en una negación y/o desintensificación emocional del amor. Yo me resisto a esto, no quiero renunciar a la intensidad del amor, me gusta, soy una yonki. Pero el amor viene en un pack que está muy satanizado: el amor romántico, el sufrimiento… Hay gente que te manda a la mierda por hablar del amor o por enamorarte y creo que este tipo de discursos generan más que ninguna otra cosa, culpa.[10] (Lídia, p. 5)

This illustrates how within our contradictory subjectivities it is possible to maintain a critical view of romantic love and its connection to patriarchal relations while still desiring a romantic fantasy and the passion of falling in love. Moreover, in Lidia’s experience, claiming romance has a specific meaning due to the specificity of her context. Two different narratives are in tension here: the romantic narrative of passion and intensity associated with falling in love, and the feminist narrative of the critique of romantic love as an ideological delusion (Beauvoir 1999; Firestone 1972; Rich 1980; Wittig 2006). Lidia seems to be articulating both narratives in her own experience, while in her feminist circles they appear totally differentiated.

Siento que lo que hay es más un discurso de la negación y esto me molesta y me ha llevado a reivindicar públicamente que yo me enamoro mucho, muy intensamente y todo el tiempo. Reivindicar esta posibilidad en ciertos contextos genera una cierta transgresión de este tabú que es el amor.[11] (Lídia, p. 10)

In this extract, she explicitly reclaims the right to fall in love, a lot and intensely, which calls into question the feminist critique of romantic love as an hegemonic narrative within feminism. Thus, claiming romance here it is not only a resistance that recognizes the many pleasures romance can have for women but is also responding to what has becoming hegemonic in her feminist networks. Moreover, Lidia is not only critical of the hegemony of the critique of romantic love in her circles, but also includes two understandings of love. The first refers to the way feminism has traditionally understood love – as a patriarchal ideology subordinating women. The second refers to her own understanding – as a biochemical engagement capable of producing a boundless energy. Although her proposal is based in the feminist critique, she remarks that it fails to explain her actual experience. The power she is resisting is the “punishment” of her affinity group and she does it precisely by strengthening its position and pointing to a rupture in the same counter-power.

I argue that, in this specific context, incorporating elements of the dominant romantic narrative results in a form of resistance because 1) it challenges specific power relations within feminist networks, and 2) because the participants do not base their assumptions on an uncritical assimilation of the dominant, but redefine and appropriate it from their own experience and feminist position.

Accepting the contradiction. Lidia is not the only participant with a self-critical view on the rigidity of love’s rejection within feminist environments. Other participants like Mariona and Aram also raise the acceptance of contradictions as a starting point for personal and collective feminist work.

Lo difícil es ser sincera contigo misma, ya no sólo con las demás. Ser capaz de aceptar cosas que salen de una misma, de reconocer que reproducimos. Es muy difícil aceptar mucha mierda dentro y que es fácil decirlo, pero cuando sale es muy doloroso. […] Es difícil aceptar cosas que son mal vistas en nuestro entorno.[12] (Mariona, p. 4)

Mariona highlights the difficulty in accepting these contradictions as a feminist, both at a subjective and interpersonal levels. First, she refers to her own feelings and emotions dealing with assimilation, then she points to how the rest understand that assimilation. Assimilating here is understood as failure. However, she chooses to accept it. By recognizing herself an active participant in a feminist counter-narrative, which is also part of a dominant narrative (the romantic), she rejects an external position from mainstream society, while still questioning it.

Aram proposes a possible way to address this contradiction:

Nos sabemos la teoría y me parece un buen punto de partida, pero ¿por dónde continuamos? Asumo la distancia entre teoría y práctica y puede dejar de resultarme incómoda. Sin embargo, siento que fuera de los círculos más íntimos de amistad, no se comparten estas contradicciones. Hay muchos tabús y entre feministas también. Pero el feminismo no tiene que servir para encorsetarnos, sino para lo contrario, para liberarnos, aunque esto implique contar nuestras miserias. Tendríamos que sacar las basuras, rescatarlas y continuar desde ahí.[13] (Aram, p. 5).

Both Mariona and Aram refer to internal processes dealing with pain and contradiction and how these may become invisible among feminist activist circles, but are shared among closer friends. This suggest a division between irrationality and a political rationality and a specific regime of emotions. Contradictory emotions seem not to be accepted at a public level and are thus privately experienced and shared only with the closest friends with whom we feel free to relax. They propose a different dynamic, in which contradictory emotions have a place in political activism. Thus the division of irrationality and rationality is slightly blurred.

In conclusion, this strategy is based on the inclusion of explicit work on the contradictions as part of the emancipatory feminist project. Rather than making contradiction invisible, this could be a starting point from where to accept our cultural and social constraints.

Towards Narrating The Contradictions

In this paper I have identified various resistance strategies in the narrative production of seven feminist activist women in Barcelona. First, I have addressed the resistance strategies that respond to romantic love narratives. Among these, I have included intentional singleness, which questions compulsory coupledom; lover networks, which respond to sexual exclusivity and temporary fixed romantic scripts; and falling for the collective, which redefines the object and the “nature” of love.

Next, I have explored those challenging feminist narratives with a focus on the contradictions of love. Claiming romance incorporated elements of the romantic narrative while challenging specific power relations within feminist networks. Finally, accepting the contradiction suggested that feminist work should start from these contradictions.

Exploring these resistance strategies enables us to think how feminist women construct their love narratives while opening new possibilities of thinking about love. The danger of establishing new hegemonies still remains, but women resist and negotiate their personal love narratives in the context of the meaning of dominant narratives of love and feminist counter-narratives. The Narrative Production methodology provides the opportunity to explore these resistances through the process of co-producing the texts with the participants. This methodology is reminiscent of narrative inquiry and its focus on the importance of people’s lives and how they give meaning to them (Bruner 1991, 2004), but with a special interest on drawing new horizons to understand love experiences within feminist practice, owing to its commitment to challenge taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions (Jackson 1998). From this perspective, it posits the generation of different positions – in both researcher and participants – in relation to the topic of study (Balasch & Montenegro 2003, Montenegro & Pujol 2012). The process of co-producing narratives can be seen as a “circle of dialogue” in which the text is negotiated between both parties. Within this “circle of dialogue”, it is possible to unearth hidden or subordinated ideas whose importance rests in putting established theories in doubt, thus producing new theories that are more closely connected to people’s lives (Fraser 2004). Specifically, it has accounted for the contradictions between critical feminist perspectives and personal experiences. This is an opportunity to generate understandings of love which differ not only from those grand love narratives that dominate our everyday lives, but also from the feminist critiques of romantic love to which we have become accustomed. It opens a way to perform critical understandings of love.

[1] For this paper I am using the original extracts in Spanish of the narrative productions. The translations to English, by Michael Stewart and I, are included as footnotes to each fragment. “When Héctor left me I suffered a real self-esteem crisis. I got totally bogged down in it for months, feeling like shit. [Later] I started to do things that I had never done before on my own, like going out to shows or spending time [on a doctoral trip] in Vienna. It’s been gradual for me: little by little I’ve been feeling better without falling back.”

[2]I discovered that I was able to be boyfriend-less, and I started having relationships in a different way. Lovers, hooking up here and there. All of a sudden I had a taste of ‘no strings attached’. I moved from thinking about myself in relation to another, to thinking about myself as myself. I didn’t just discover that I was capable of not having a boyfriend, but that even more so I was OK that way.”

[3] “There’s a lot of pressure: you go to a wedding and you go alone, or to other social occasions, always on your own. Sometimes I’ve had the feeling that people are looking at me in pity. And the most surprising thing is that I was fine, I was on my own by choice. Even friends from my neighbourhood (with whom I have a political affinity) have challenged me about being unattached.”

[4] Having maintained relationships with lovers that have grown over time has gradually changed my way of understanding love. Those relationships, where maybe I have sex once a year with someone I’ve known for a long time, have allowed me to see love as a slower process. I love these people, and even though we don’t share a day-to-day life, what I feel for them is love. There are various degrees of intimacy and trust, but I have lovers who I could see being life-long lovers, or at least for many, many years. With so much time having passed you get to know yourself better, and a kinship forms that is an interesting kind of love, one that couldn’t happen if you had a strictly monogamous relationship. These relationships are like friendships with intimacy and sex. They’re also partnerships which I work within at times on certain projects.”

[5] “In my emotional-sexual friendships I have definitely been able to find more of a certain spontaneity and freedom, without the demands that inherently emerge in a more ‘classic’ couple. And more importantly for me: that confidence and mutual support hasn’t withered away, but instead has been transformed and has held out over time, making us in turn periodic companions, permanent companions, timeless companions, eternal companions.”

[6] “They’re understanding of the fact that I can be head over heels [for someone else] so they take a step back and then come back on the scene and the whole thing plays out very organically. There’s less demand on the other person and that helps them to adapt to changing emotional and personal availability. For example, if a lover called me to meet up, but my heart’s elsewhere…and I don’t want to…that’s cool. They’re infrequent relationships, or of varying frequency, once a month or once every three…Sometimes as well I’ve been totally smitten with one of my lovers…maybe for a week, then it fades, but someone else comes back…it’s like a wave graph.”

[7] “Miriam D : I was spending the whole day going from meeting to meeting. I was working in a women’s bookshop, I was just about to finish my Masters in Women’s Studies…We were squatting as women, we were practicing self-defense… I had the most feminist life I could have and by the way I had a boyfriend, he was at home…I was completely in love with the network, with everything that was happening. The whole thing was a rollercoaster, I was letting myself get carried away and I loved it.

Miriam A : The collective had this really beautiful discourse, then all of a sudden you start to see cracks that you’ve been ignoring.

Miriam D : Because we were in love…

Miriam A : It’s very romantic! The couple is replaced by the collective. You fall in love romantically with the group, you ignore the cracks and when it all explodes the break-up becomes really difficult.

Miriam D : Some resentments towards the collective end up coming out…

Miriam A : There’s something we haven’t done right when everything is over and we can’t even face each other…that happens a lot between couples.

Miriam D : You promise everything and then all of sudden, since it’s not true, there’s this huge disappointment.

Miriam A : I think that we ought to accept that it’s not so heavy and final, and to learn to finish and to finish better…Besides, without that energy a lot of things wouldn’t come to pass. For that reason I don’t think it’s inherently bad. The energy we give off when we fall in love with someone or something, where you can stay awake and do everything…for me it takes a lot to find that energy without being in love. I don’t think it’s just political…where does that energy come from? Is it just a social construct? That thing that nothing else can give you…I’m thinking about some groups that I was familiar with towards 2009, and they gave off this powerful energy…I fell in love with all of them and the energy they were giving off, I loved it…and then it all went to blazes. It’s like the bigger the high, the bigger the fall…”

[8] “Love for me is a huge contradiction…on one hand I think of love as something positive, but I can’t hide from the fact that the first thing that comes to my head when thinking about love is the denial of the person. It’s true that when you fall in love you’re happier, you’re in a better mood, and everything seems nicer to you. Nevertheless, I can’t stop relating love with self-denial, especially the general idea of romantic love that they sell us and that is played out everywhere. I’ve got that contradiction. On one hand I think that love is a denial of individuality, of autonomy, and on the other hand I think we’re social beings and that love makes us believe in others.”

[9][I] discovered telenovelas when I was eight. All my classmates from school watched them and I was so hooked. But they were so dire ideologically that my mum banned me from watching them and I still managed to do it secretly. She kept the TV on top of a closet and I resolved the matter by using an extension plug. That way I could watch the telenovelas at ease and before my mum was back, I had already removed the extension and closed the closet as if nothing had happened. Those telenovelas reproduced the classic romantic love imaginary: falling in love for ever, finding the right partner, that someone saves you… It is a funny metaphor, that it was this imaginary that had to stay in the closet in my house.”

[10] “There are feminist perspectives – that start from a critique of romantic love – that hold that to fall in love is bad. Although I agree in principle with this critique, I don’t think that falling in love is completely bad. Sometimes I have the feeling that this critique translates into a denial and/or an emotional pairing-down of love. I resist this, I don’t want to give up on the intensity of love, I like it, I’m hooked on it. But love comes in a pack that’s very sanitized: romantic love, suffering…there are people that would kick you to the gutter for talking about love or falling in love and I think that this kind of discourse creates guilt more than anything.”

[11] “I feel that what we’ve got is more of a discourse of denial. That bothers me, and has brought me to assert publicly that I fall in love a lot, passionately, and all the time. Standing up for this possibility in certain contexts sparks a certain transgression of the taboo that is love.”

[12] “The hard thing is to be honest with yourself, never mind with everyone else. Being capable of accepting things that come from within oneself, of recognising that we reproduce things. It’s very hard to accept a lot of the shit we keep inside, albeit that it’s easy to say, but when it comes out it’s very painful…It’s hard to accept things that are frowned upon in our circles.”

[13]We know our theory and that seems like a good starting point to me, but where are we headed? I’m coming to terms with the distance between theory and practice and it might stop becoming uncomfortable for me. Yet I feel that outside of those particularly close circles of friendship, these contradictions aren’t talked about. There are a lot of taboos, among feminists too. But feminism shouldn’t be a straitjacket for us, rather the opposite, something to liberate us, even when that involves talking about our hardships. We ought to take out the garbage, salvage what we need, and continue from there.”


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After Happy Ever: Tender Extremities and Tangled Selves in Three Australasian Bluebeard Tales
by Lucy Butler

Introduction: Tending the Bluebeard Tale

“We must tend the myths […] only in that way shall we survive.” Janet Frame (2007, 109)

The Bluebeard tales of Margaret Mahy, Sarah Quigley and Marion Campbell suggest that we use narratives of romance actively, if not often critically or consciously enough, to negotiate our relationships and give shape and meaning to our lives. This is what makes reprising the familiar romantic scripts, particularly the foundational stories of myth and [End Page 1] fairy tale, a vital undertaking. Narrative is not the bearer of ideology in any uncomplicated sense in these works, and the meanings of even so seemingly transparent a text as the fairy tale prove to be highly unstable and adaptable. In these relatively recent works by female writers in Australasia, Bluebeard’s key tropes of fragmentation, repetition and revelation are remobilised to challenge the fiction of romantic sufficiency and to complicate the popular representation of romantic love as a site of self-realisation. These writers are not working in a purely critical or revisionist mode, however: their stories partake of the pleasures and seductions of narrative and visual representations even as they challenge popular romantic mythology. If these postmodern Bluebeard tales are riddled with unresolved tensions, then this reflects the conflicted, often contradictory, and yet still central position of romantic love in an apparently post-romantic age.

The Bluebeard fairy tale, written by Charles Perrault in 1697,[1] has many affinities with Gothic romance novels, yet it also lends itself to a critique of popular romance. As several commentators have pointed out (Warner; Tatar), Bluebeard is an anomaly in the fairy tale canon in that it begins where most tales end: with marriage. Bluebeard’s secret chamber can be seen as a repository of “the detritus of his failed romances” (Haslem 2003), and reprising the tale, in the texts considered here, amounts to prising open the paradoxes in popular representations of romantic love. Beginning where romance narratives tend to finish, unlocking the door of “happily ever after” to reveal a bloody chamber, Bluebeard is apt for examining the complications concealed behind the rather glib final phrase of the classic fairy tale romance.

Bluebeard is a story that female characters in contemporary film and fiction tend to stumble into unawares, as though the narrative were submerged in contemporary culture. The mute adolescent heroine of New Zealand author Margaret Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence (1995), for instance, suddenly realises that she has been caught in the cage of a certain story: “It was the tale of a bride who was allowed to go anywhere in a house except for one forbidden room[…]” (110). Similarly, in Francesca Lia Block’s Bluebeard story, “Bones” (2000), the diminutive narrator is in danger of falling prey to the infamous photographer Derrick Blue: “He took a key from his pocket. I wasn’t afraid. I couldn’t quite remember the story” (162). With this forgetting in mind, I will briefly summarise the plot of Perrault’s Bluebeard tale.

Bluebeard is a very wealthy, mysterious nobleman who wants a wife but his suspect past and repellent blue beard make it difficult for him to find a bride despite his great fortune. He finally convinces a peasant girl to marry him. Shortly after the wedding, Bluebeard announces that he has business to attend to elsewhere. He gives his new bride the keys to every room in his castle and tells her that she can roam freely as long as she doesn’t enter one particular small room. Once alone, however, the young wife cannot contain her curiosity and soon finds herself opening the door to the forbidden chamber, where she makes the grisly discovery of the mutilated corpses of Bluebeard’s seven previous wives. She drops the key to the chamber in shock, and it becomes stained by the blood and gore on the chamber floor. Bluebeard returns and demands to see the key that betrays his wife’s disobedience. As punishment, she must join the other brides in the bloody chamber. Bluebeard prepares to decapitate his wife but her brothers appear with swords drawn, just in the nick of time, and kill the tyrant. The heroine inherits her husband’s riches and marries a more worthy man. [End Page 2]

Bluebeard is a fundamentally ambivalent tale; it cannot be summed up by Perrault with a single moral like his other tales, but requires two: the first warns wives not to pry, while the second tells husbands that times have changed and they can no longer assume quite the same authority. Fairy tale scholar Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde, notes “the porousness of stories to their tellers’ temper and beliefs” (1995, 255). Bluebeard proves to be highly malleable in the hands of contemporary writers, open to different and even contradictory moral slants.

In her recent study of the Bluebeard tale in the English tradition, Casie Hermansson (2009) points out that references to the Grimms’ Bluebeard variants “Fitcher’s Bird” and “The Robber Bridegroom” have become much more prevalent in feminist revisions of the tale (170).  In “Fitcher’s Bird” the wily heroine rescues herself through her own cunning, reassembling the corpses of her sisters in the process. Poetically, she leaves a grinning skull bedecked in bridal finery in her place as she flees the castle disguised as a bird. It is not surprising that this version of the tale has held particular appeal for feminist-oriented writers and artists challenging the classic fairy tale tropes of feminine passivity and victimhood. Though it is Perrault’s better-known tale that is explicitly referenced in the works in this article, their female protagonists clearly have a defiant spirit and, like the Grimms’ heroine, enact various rescues and “re-memberings”.

With its vivid images of domestic violence and relative lack of magical elements, Bluebeard is hardly a bedtime story by modern standards, and it is not surprising that Disney has yet to animate it. But while it may be less immediately visible than more comfortable or comforting tales, Bluebeard remains a powerful narrative in contemporary culture: the secretive man with the dark past and the compulsively curious woman determined to get to the bottom of it is an enduringly popular theme. While the early tale had little to do with love and romance in its current conception, concerned instead with material gain and physical survival, Bluebeard has been used to signify the redemptive power of love, as well as its potential blindness, and contemporary authors are putting yet another spin on the tale’s tropes of fragmentation, repetition, and revelation. The qualities of secrecy and curiosity, while they continue to be symbolically gendered, are no longer attributed to male or female per se, but are instead used to investigate broader problems of romantic love in relation to language, knowledge and self-definition.

Postmodern Bluebeard tales foreground the act of storytelling and its role in shaping romantic relations: they are self-conscious in their storydom and acutely aware of the power at stake in assuming any kind of authorship. Their (anti)heroines are unable to slip seamlessly into the romance narratives they don’t quite believe in yet long to inhabit nonetheless. Instead, they must negotiate a constant tension between competing selves and stories in the realm of romantic love. Genuine empathy and embodied compassion grow in the cracks of the official love story, while true illumination is most often found in moments of collision with sister selves, the other women in Bluebeard’s chamber, with whom the protagonists inevitably share aspects of their stories and identities. The revelation and recognition of this unbidden kinship is key to breaking with romantic delusion in the works considered here. In the current context, where love is very often experienced as a succession of monogamous relationships, the Bluebeard trope of repetition is especially potent, as Alison Lurie suggests (129). The substitutions of love unsettle a romantic mythology predicated on subjective uniqueness. Confronting the other girls and women who have occupied the same place in the romantic narrative helps to break the spell of [End Page 3] perfect romantic sufficiency, fracturing the self-enclosed world in which the heroine’s love fantasy thrives.

Several commentators have pointed to the prevalence of a doubled, ironic first person narrative voice in recent Bluebeard tales. Warner, for instance, notes the tendency for narrators of contemporary feminist fairy tales to adopt a tone of feigned naiveté, employing “the voice of a child who is not a child, whose voice is always doubled, always deceitful, always masked” (1995,193). Voice is at the fore in the works of Mahy, Quigley and Campbell. Like the influential tales of Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom return to Bluebeard and its variants repeatedly in their work, these Australasian tales are highly artful accounts disguised as first-person confessionals, employing an often disingenuous intimacy with the reader that questions the power inherent in any act of apparent disclosure. Maria Tatar suggests that the Bluebeard tale turns on “the quest for intimacy through knowledge” (2004, 6). The disingenuous confessional mode enables these authors to play the fine line between knowledge and disavowal in romantic relations, and to interrogate the submerged tension between the supposedly private, unmediated emotional experience of love, and the highly constructed, cultural nature of the love story.

Much has been written on Australasian Filmmaker Jane Campion’s acclaimed Bluebeard tale, The Piano (1993).[2] The following section will focus on another mute protagonist of New Zealand fiction. Like Campion’s Ada, the imaginative and silent heroine of New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy’s young adult novel The Other Side of Silence (1995), reclaims her voice in the course of her passage through the Bluebeard tale. As in The Piano, Hero’s voice is literally submerged beneath a sea of competing stories and truth claims; its surfacing requires learning to balance embodied, imaginative and abstract truths in the pursuit of love and self-definition. Like Campion, the late Mahy is one of New Zealand’s most awarded and successful creative practitioners but her work, written for children and young adults, has received far less critical attention. Her portrayal of the power of story to shape human relations is rich and nuanced, as the following section aims to demonstrate.

Refusing to sing in the cage of story: Margaret Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence

As in many postmodern Bluebeard tales, voice (and voicelessness) is at the heart of Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence. Mahy, who died in 2012, produced some of New Zealand’s most popular and influential Young Adult fiction. The Other Side of Silence is a Bluebeard story dealing with the problematic nexus of love, story and self-definition in the deceptively simple first-person narrative voice characteristic of contemporary fairy tales. It is a coming-of-age story about finding one’s way in the thicket of love and family life, amidst a disorienting swirl of competing stories about who and how to love.

Hero, the third child in a large family of loud talkers and powerful thinkers, stopped speaking three years before the action of the novel begins. Electively mute, Hero wields the power of withholding speech in a family dominated by oppressive eloquence and endless argument. Hermansson points out that now, “[e]ven in juvenile literature, postmodern self-reflexivity is the norm” (159); Hero’s very name suggests the novel’s self-consciousness [End Page 4] about the power of story to shape identity. The novel celebrates the power of stories, from the academic text to the fairy tale, to transport and transform even as it warns that this power can equally circumscribe and maim. Recognising this power, Hero chooses to withhold her words; yet she remains, in the heart of her silence, “a word child” (4), living out private stories on her own terms. These terms change abruptly, however, when she falls from her fantastical flights in the tree tops into a tale so twisted that only her schooling in Old Fairy Tales could have prepared her for its unfolding.

Eva Illouz asserts that the postmodern romantic condition is characterised by “the blurring of the boundary between the real and its representation” (1997, 15, emphasis in original). This blurring, key to the three Bluebeard tales examined in this article, is treated most explicitly in Mahy’s novel. Hero imagines being turned into a book, and while she would prefer The Jungle Book, “I would probably have been turned into Old Fairy Tales, which was the book everyone read me when I was small” (8). She uses this book for “divination” and her familiarity with it lends a sense of inevitability to the novel’s unfolding. She remarks of the Credence house and garden into which she tumbles: “it seemed as if I had been working my way towards it from the very first time anyone ever told me a story” (14).

All of the female characters in this tale are intoxicated by the power of story. “Real life is what you are supposed to watch out for, but an invented life, lived truly, can be just as dangerous” (3), Hero observes at the beginning of the novel. Hero’s mother Annie is a successful academic and best-selling author of books on how to raise brilliant children. Hero’s older sister Ginerva, for many years a poster-girl for her mother’s theories, ran away from home, returning during the course of the novel battered almost beyond recognition by her new career as a stunt car driver. The main Bluebeard figure in this tale is Miss Credence, the “deeply strange” neighbour into whose story Hero falls. Miss Credence lives as her father’s ghost, haunting his huge, decrepit estate. Like all Bluebeard figures, Miss Credence is deeply private, and she is so enthralled by Hero’s silence that she offers her a job clearing her neglected house and garden. Miss Credence is the daughter of a former Vice Chancellor of the University, “a world figure in the field of symbolic logic” (85), whose influence she cannot escape but whose power she can never inhabit, though she wears his academic gown, smokes his cigarettes and stalks cats with his old hunting rifle.

Under the spell of her dead father’s disdain for anything but the highest order of abstract thought, and desperate to protect his reputation, Miss Credence has secretly locked her “substandard” illegitimate daughter in a chamber in the tower. Chained to her bed, the unspeakable secret at the heart of her mother’s tale of romantic abandonment, Jorinda Credence is Hero’s abject symbolic sister. Incarcerated for all of her eighteen years, Rinda claws and gnaws at her own flesh, screaming “dreadful, silent screams” (159). It is only by passing through Bluebeard’s chamber and bringing this “terrible twin” (141) to light that Hero can rescue herself (assisted by Sam, her love interest) and reclaim her voice.

Hero immediately recognises the inevitability of what she finds in the forbidden chamber (protected, in this contemporary tale, by a security system rather than a key): “As soon as I actually saw Rinda I wondered why I had not known all along that it was she who was up there, waiting for me like a terrible kind of twin” (141). In contemporary female-penned Bluebeard tales, as noted, recognising the suffering of one’s sisters is critical to breaking with abuse and finding one’s own power. It enables the heroine to view her predicament in broader, cultural terms, the first step in empowering her to change these [End Page 5] terms. Rinda Credence has been rendered silent and invisible because she doesn’t fit her mother’s story of intellectual brilliance. Underlining this sisterly doubling, Miss Credence has painted a picture of her damaged daughter as Ginerva, Hero’s sister, from a photograph in a newspaper article lauding Ginerva’s childhood genius, before Ginerva broke free from her mother’s story of intellectual brilliance. It is this painting that reveals Miss Credence as a Bluebeard figure to Hero, well-versed as she is in the old tales, and sends her on the search for the forbidden chamber.

Acutely and ambivalently aware of the shaping power of story, the sisters in this novel go to extreme lengths to avoid being circumscribed by the stories of those around them. Hero opts for self-imposed silence, while Ginerva embraces dangerous physical extremes that keep her in the body and the moment, free from her mother’s “prodigy” mythology. Story is powerful, but it is not monolithic, Hero discovers. Crucial to her survival of the Bluebeard tale is Hero’s belated realisation that the bars on the windows where she and Rinda are held are not steel but flimsy painted wood: “I had been looking at the idea of a cage, rather than a real one” (156). It is a symbolic cage, a cage of story and expectation, though the consequences of such conceptual prisons can be real enough.

Hermansson observes of contemporary Bluebeard: “[t]he story is not only about Bluebeard; the story is Bluebeard” (160), and in Mahy’s novel, the trap is the tale itself. When Hero falls into Miss Credence’s garden, Credence immediately gives Hero a new fairy tale name, which is also her daughter’s: Jorinda, from the Grimms’ ‘Jorinda and Joringel’. “The name was a leash that could be used to twitch me into place,” Hero realizes (23). Hero senses that her fairy tale tendencies have been turned against her: “I don’t belong in this story, I kept thinking over and over again. I don’t have to give in to it” (85). And later: “my secret story had somehow broken free, and was twisting back on me with its jaws open” (127). But if Hero can’t control her story, then nor can her captor: “Miss Credence was still a storyteller of a sort, but I knew she wasn’t in charge of the story any more. The story was in charge of her” (85). Stories are never entirely in the service of the teller, the novel suggests, and they can turn from comfortingly familiar to oppressive in the blink of an eye. You have to know the tricks, Mahy suggests, “tend the myths” (as Frame puts it), pay attention to the old stories that have serious consequences, even, or especially, if they are operating just beneath the surface of our consciousness. Hero both loves and fears the battered books that have been handed down from her parents through her siblings to her. The stories call to her: “Make me true, they would say to me over and over again. Make me true” (30). But if narrative is so volatile, so open to different turns, therein lies opportunity, Hero discovers. Once she gets her fictional bearings and regains some agency, her curiosity, initially a compulsion in classic Bluebeard fashion, becomes an assertive call to action. She is then able to repeat actively, rather than passively[3]: “it wasn’t enough just to be something magical. I must do something magical. I must push the story on” (138).

Houses in Bluebeard tales are often symbolic extensions of their occupants’ psyches. The stagnancy and secrecy of the forest-shrouded Credence mansion is in stark contrast to the transparency of Hero’s family home, which is perpetually under renovation and wide open to the world. The Credence mansion is a shrine to the late Professor’s brilliance. Hero intuits the way his intellectual arrogance undermined his relationships. She perceives the gown worn by the Professor, and now by his daughter, as a kind of defence against the uncertainty of intimacy: “He must have felt comfortable behind a fence of long, black [End Page 6] folds” (89). In typical Bluebeard fashion, the Professor is as wealthy as he is isolated. Once his wife–despised as an intellectual inferior–dies, the house becomes lifeless.

On first entering Credence mansion, Hero encounters a photograph of “Professor Credence, smiling across a dead stag which was stretched out at his feet” (82). His daughter copies his posturing with the cats she shoots, but Hero observes that Miss Credence’s expression more closely resembles the stag’s. Mahy critiques an academic authority that reduces the wild, messy aliveness of the world to something dead certain, something pinned and final. In postmodern renditions Bluebeard very often seeks a kind of fixing rationality that oppresses the other. American novelist Lydia Millet’s Bluebeard (1998), for instance, kills because the unruly bodies of his wives debase the romantic ideal. Bluebeard often appears as an erudite puritan, an aesthete, a collector, or an obsessive in popular culture, as Warner notes (1995, 269); there are many examples of this in the serial killer genre, most famously perhaps The Silence of the Lambs (Harris, 1988). The ultimate meaning of the other can be fixed only in death in these contemporary takes on the Bluebeard tale, and the quest for definitive knowledge in the name of love is figured in images of physical suffering and psychic fragmentation.

In The Other Side of Silence, Miss Credence is so deeply entrenched in her father’s mythology of academic brilliance above all else that she can escape only by shooting herself in the head. And the head is where the problems happen in this novel, as Mahy depicts the attachment to rigid categorical knowledge or excessively abstract thought as an obstruction to loving relationships. If, as Tatar suggests, the Bluebeard tale turns on “the quest for intimacy through knowledge” (2004:6), then in Mahy’s fictional world some ways of knowing are more apt for intimacy than others.

In true fairy tale fashion, Hero falls in love with the teenager who helps to rescue her from Bluebeard’s chamber, though she remains the hero of the story rather than Sam. There is more power in being the author of a tale than in being its hero, though, as Hero recognises. The majority of the novel is told in the first person, and the reader is privy to all the things that Hero doesn’t say to the people around her. But the novel’s brief fifth part takes place in the third person, three years after the main action of the novel. The now fifteen year old Hero has just completed the novel that details her passage through Bluebeard’s chamber. In the continuing tussle between concealment and disclosure characteristic of the Bluebeard tale, Hero’s hidden novel draft is discovered and read by her parents against her wishes. Her mother delightedly declares Hero “a writer” and prepares to send the book to a publisher. Hero is not so sure. She decides to take the advice of Old Fairy Tales once more: “Tell your sorrows to the old stove in the corner” (181). She burns the manuscript, deletes the electronic copies, and goes running with Sam, who reminds her gently that there’s more to life than thinking. Sam shows her that she can transform herself not only through flights of fantasy and intellectual brilliance, but through flights of physical being. Like the wily third sister of “Fitcher’s Bird,” Hero finds freedom in a winning combination of cunning, imagination and daring physical action.

Hero is suitably ambivalent about the power she assumes in authoring Rinda’s story (her symbolic sister is slowly being rehabilitated to speak, under the fascinated academic eye of Hero’s mother Annie). Closing the book, we realise that, in keeping with the disingenuous narrative style Warner cites, the tale we have just read is Hero’s story, the one she has supposedly destroyed. And so the irresistible lure of story wins out, but only [End Page 7] when integrated with embodied empathy, compassionate engagement and critical awareness.

The Other Side of Silence explores the need to balance privacy with transparency, solitude with connectedness, and to reconcile inner and outer worlds. The power of stories to shape relationships is not inherently positive or negative in this novel, but it is profound. Opening these relationships to transformation is not a matter of exchanging fiction for reality, imaginative knowledge for empirical or vice versa. The Bluebeard trope of revelation and the tale’s characteristic play of repression and disclosure bring to light the hidden stories at the hearts of the characters’ various identities, breaking them up that they may be better “re-membered” in respect of the physical world and the freedoms and desires of other people.

Love’s double-trouble: substitution and successive selves in Sarah Quigley’s ‘North of the Lights’

In New Zealand author Sarah Quigley’s Bluebeard story “North of the Lights” (1998), the themes of seriality and repetition, the doubling of husband and wife in pursuit of knowledge, and a playful, self-reflexive narrative voice work to question the wisdom of staking one’s sense of self in fairy tale romance plots.

‘He kept his ex-wife in a teapot above the stove’ (8). The opening line of Quigley’s short story, the first in her collection having words with you, signals its play on the Bluebeard tale. It is a photograph of his ex-wife, but this is enough to unmoor the female narrator Greta from the imagined certainties of her marital relations. In this story, Bluebeard’s wife is an illustrator of children’s books who spends her days in the world of fairy tale, while her journalist husband Alec prides himself on his hard-nosed rationality. Alec is arrogant and indifferent, but there is little evidence that he is still infatuated with his first wife Isobel, nor has a horrific fate befallen her. In fact, the photograph confronts Greta with the fraudulent nature of her own identity, the aspects of herself that she has repressed in order to marry her husband:

The past that I had buried ten fathoms deep, hastily, furtively, wiping my hands clean: or so I thought. But Isobel saw the remains of clay beneath my fingernails: she, with her sharp and shining eyes. (11)

In this Bluebeard tale, both husband and wife have a “secret” past, and each constructs the other in terms of deceptive surface and secretive interior. Cristina Bacchilega emphasises the doubled structure of the Bluebeard tale in her study Postmodern Fairy Tales (111). Bluebeard seeks to test his wife’s loyalty and obedience by giving her the key that she is forbidden to use, and reveals her to be the treacherous creature he suspects her of being. She betrays him to penetrate the secret chamber because she likewise suspects him of concealing his true identity, and finds him to be the monster she feared. Both are rewarded, in a sense, by having their worst suspicions confirmed. Postmodern Bluebeard tales such as Quigley’s depict a romantic mythology that diminishes the other to a prop in a personal [End Page 8] drama, an idea to assuage an imagined lack, or an aspect of the anticipated fulfilment of the self.

Hermansson notes that in contemporary renditions, “Bluebeard’s wife insists on her rights to access patriarchal institutions, now to include her husband’s own mind” (158). In Quigley’s story, the probing in which Bluebeard’s wife engages is on one level a valid and vital curiosity, a pragmatic approach to love and marriage. But this can easily tip over into a violation of the other’s inner world, as the compulsion to investigate and scrutinise the other helps to create the hidden horrors that it reveals (in the Bluebeard story, first wife notwithstanding, this is quite literally the case). Moreover, the urge to know the other completely is driven by the need to shore up one’s own identity, reliant, as it is in Quigley’s tale, on a fiction of perfect romantic sufficiency. In “North of the Lights”, Greta has attempted to entirely remake herself in her marriage to Alec, but after the revelation of Isobel, Greta can no longer pretend that either she or her husband is a clean slate.

I was a fraud. My partnership with Alec was one in which my weaknesses were rigorously ignored in the hope that they would vanish. And for a time it worked. Even I believed I was one of life’s predators, one of those red-lipped girls with reckless eyes. I pruned my past without compassion, severed my bleeding toes to cram them into my chosen slipper. (12).

Ann Snitow (1979/1996) observed in her seminal study of popular romance fiction that it is characteristic of classic romance narrative, and indeed of the fairy tale, that the privileged couple be removed from the flow of life and time, as well as from other social bonds, existing in pristine isolation (195-7). There are only two characters in this story: Greta and Alec. And Isobel, but she exists primarily as a symbol in their relationship. Greta’s “happy ever after” can be sustained only in the total absence of history and social context. When Isobel finally appears in person late in the piece, dropping in to pick up some papers, the game is finally up for Greta, who is forced to confront the fact that Isobel, in herself, isn’t the problem. The problem is Greta, and all the relationships she has “negated” in order to marry her husband: “sister, daughter, friend. And self” (12). Isobel, bearer of history, context and materiality, ruins the romantic plot and inadvertently sends Greta back to herself.

In another aspect of the doubling of Bluebeard and his wife, the revelation of Alec’s secret is equivalent to the revelation of Greta’s own. “Isobel” unleashes all the messiness and complication that each has in their own way denied. Greta has sustained the fiction of romantic sufficiency through the very fairy tale images (Bluebeard, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood) that are now turning on her, undermining her romantic assumptions. Like Hero in Mahy’s tale, Greta discovers that the fairy tale images that are her bread-and-butter are volatile, open to different and even contradictory messages. These tales are never entirely contained by the intentions of their creator, but may speak much more than she would like to hear. Alec, for his part, seeks control, or “absolute mastery,” as Greta puts it, of all that is unknown and uncertain, through a framework of rigid rationality that is untouched by his wife’s increasingly bizarre behaviour.

The destabilizing effect that the discovery of Isobel has on Greta’s identity is greatly exacerbated by the fact that she has staked her identity entirely in her marriage, severing anything that doesn’t fit. Alec’s relentless rationality renders him opaque and [End Page 9] impenetrable, much like Ed in Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” (1986), to both the reader and his wife. This is especially problematic because, having stripped herself of history, family, friends, Greta’s sense of self is completely contingent on her husband:

Through the mating of our possessions, my new identity had been born. I had created a brave new nature for myself, with fragments chipped from my lover’s side.

Biblical overtones? Perhaps. My trade, as I have said, is with legends, myths, fairytales. Alec’s lay in facts: a warning in itself, had I stopped for one moment in my brave new directionless stride. A journalist and a children’s illustrator, a gingerbread villa in Thorndon: highly suitable, happy ever after. But stories today demand more sophisticated endings. (9)

Along with a self-reflexive nod to the reader, whose complicity is foregrounded in contemporary Bluebeard, as Hermansson notes (160), in the marriage of Greta and Alec we again see staged the contest of knowledge that marks the Bluebeard tale. Greta’s husband, like most postmodern Bluebeards, deals in precision, bending the material world and indeed his own marriage to his will, wilfully blind to anything that doesn’t fit his rationalist paradigm. Lying awake at night, worrying about Isobel and what she means, Greta observes of Alec:

In sleep he lost the absolute mastery he had over the physical world. His fingers, so deft in the daylight hours and in the long slow evenings when they wielded a pen with the ruthlessness of a surgeon – these fingers would now twitch loosely on my skin. (8)

The image of a surgeon ruthlessly cutting resonates with images used by Mahy and others to evoke the perceived aggression of definitive truth claims and the violence of categorical language. Hero observes of her brother working on his MA thesis: “I came to imagine the poor fact lying there, panting and helpless, and Athol ruthlessly fixing it in his notebook, not so much with the point of his pen as with a skewer of words” (27). Quigley’s “ruthlessness of a surgeon” again calls to mind the opaque heart surgeon husband of “Bluebeard’s Egg”, and the famously severed finger in Campion’s The Piano. Roland Barthes[4] and Angela Carter[5] both also depict a lover performing a figurative dissection of the other in the name of love and knowledge.

As noted, in contemporary Bluebeard tales, the lover’s quest for knowledge is undermined by their anxious solipsism: they seek not to discover the other but to confirm pre-existing romantic expectations in which they are already heavily invested. An inquisitional approach to romantic relations is both necessitated and thwarted by the fact that the other is so central to one’s own identity, as is clearly the case for Quigley’s narrator. The attempt to catalogue and fix the other in the service of one’s own desire or identity is Bluebeard’s death-dealing quest and a trap the heroine must evade, even while she is prone to doubling her husband by demanding the assurances on which her self-identity rests. Again, Greta and Alec are doubled in their attempts to lay definitive claim to [End Page 10] one another. If Alec has a scalpel-like precision, Greta wonders: “how could I plant my stake in his heart without seeming insecure, possessive, a grasping imperialist?” (12).

Contemporary Bluebeard tales such as Quigley’s playfully expose the epistemological unease that frequently underlies and undermines romantic aspirations of unity and transparency. They may use different tools, but both Greta and Alec cut, reduce, contain the potential complexities of their relationship, and so their union is very fragile. It takes no more than a photo of an ex-wife to render it untenable. The story ends with Greta on an evening bus heading North, leaving her husband, returning to the muddy roots of her own history. Greta “confesses” to the reader that she is not Greta at all, but “Margaret McArdle from Palmerston North. […] There, I’ve said it. My secret is out” (12). These little asides to the reader create a disingenuous intimacy that mocks our expectations of transparency and disclosure, while Alec himself remains “in the dark”. In keeping with the theme of confounding certainty, Quigley complicates our identification with, and our access to, her protagonist, just as Greta herself is denied access to her husband’s inner world.

Bluebeard’s wife doubles not only her husband’s secret past and his aggressive approach to love-through-knowledge, she also impersonates his impenetrability. “I was equally pleased at the conviction of my own disguise. Spiky, glittering, I caught and reflected back his self-sufficiency” (10). This “hardness” is a performance Greta finds impossible to sustain, but it doesn’t matter much to Alec, as long as she remains installed in his “gingerbread villa”. He taunts her, knowingly or not, with her structural secondness:

 “Isobel used to say that too. Old Isobel. Christ, we had some fights.” His gaze raked the dim room like the beam of a lighthouse, picked out the golden teapot. I wonder now why I had no premonition of my fate as his lean fingers extracted the curling photo. Curiosity was all I felt as I stood at Bluebeard’s door. (10)

At this moment of revelation, Greta’s marriage, her very sense of self, is compromised: “Alec released Isobel from her circular prison and my own incarceration began” (1998:10). Like “the Second Mrs de Winter” in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), whose earnest efforts to create a loving marriage are mocked by the ghost of the first wife whose irreverence and unruliness represents all that has been repressed to create such as union, Greta is haunted by Isobel. “[N]ow that Isobel had seen the outside world, she was no longer content to stay in the darkness” (11).

In his seminal treatise on romantic love, A Lover’s Discourse (1978/2002), Barthes notes: “The lover painfully identifies himself with some person (or character) who occupies the same position as himself in the amorous structure” (129). The power of a mere photograph of the first wife to undermine Greta’s own identity speaks to a problem at the intersection of the dominant humanist model of integral selfhood and current romantic mythology that the Bluebeard tale is apt to address. Cultural theorist Dominic Pettman calls this problem “the trauma of the second love” (29). Through its repeated destruction and reformulation of the romantic couple, Bluebeard renders the loved object infinitely substitutable, challenging the romantic ideal of the singular merging of souls. The sheer number of bodies in Bluebeard’s chamber, as much as their dismembered state, threatens the sense of a unique and integral self. As Warner notes: “the seriality of the dead wives also marks their anonymity, their interchangeability, the failure of stable subjectivity” [End Page 11] (1995, 271). The serial aspect of the Bluebeard tale, in more recent renditions, highlights the threat posed to the identities of both lover and beloved when confronted with love’s tendency to repeat. No matter how many assurances one demands from a romantic partner, this suggests that it is ultimately impossible to avoid the fact of one’s somewhat contingent position in the romantic narrative. Pettman continues:

It is this inherent interchangability which lies at the brutal heart of the lover’s discourse. The fact that almost every text produced in its name insists otherwise only serves to highlight the power of denial needed to keep such knowledge at bay. (27)

We are confronted with this fact more frequently than ever in contemporary culture, where we are very rarely the first love, even if we are lucky enough to be the last, and a culture of successive monogamous relationships may be one reason for the renewed interest in the Bluebeard tale in recent decades (Lurie 129).[6]

In Quigley’s story, Greta lacks the necessary “power of denial” to sustain the fiction of her marital identity: “Once Isobel had exposed me there didn’t seem much point in going on with my life” (12). Confronted with the fraudulence of her romantic persona and the losses she has sustained to maintain the fiction, Greta is cut off from her creative life, unable to create the characters for her illustrations: “How could they live when their identities depended on mine, and I no longer had one?” (12). She is also divorced from her embodied self: “Barefoot, I could not feel the grass beneath my feet” (13). She takes to bed: “Invalid in both senses of the word” (13). In true Bluebeard fashion, Alec grows strong in inverse proportion to his wife’s languishing. She feels his “casual kisses” (13) robbing her last vestige of strength.

As observed, in Bluebeard tales both old and contemporary, a traumatic and illuminating encounter with Bluebeard’s former wives is key to breaking the spell of a suspect marriage or ending a period of romantic delusion. In Quigley’s tale it is indeed Isobel herself who breaks the stasis and sets Greta free, sends her back in search of Margaret. The abrupt fall of romantic idealisation into material reality that Isobel’s visit represents turns out to be exactly what Greta needs. If Isobel’s symbolic presence was incapacitating, her physical presence has precisely the opposite effect, bringing Greta back to her “senses”, in both senses of the word. Isobel’s “thick ankles” humorously suggest both the end of idealisation and Isobel’s groundedness, a refreshing contrast to the narrator’s capacity for fantasy. Isobel’s ankles anchor Greta to the earth again and to her own body; as she watches Isobel leave she feels “the hot boards scorch [her] feet” (15).

The substitutions of love, particularly unsettling in the context of a contemporary romantic mythology predicated on subjective uniqueness, helps to explain how the Bluebeard tale retains its currency, and why it cuts so deep. In contemporary versions of the tale the trope of repetition undermines the ability of romantic union both to complete the self and to guarantee the self’s uniqueness. Confronting Isobel, Greta has to relinquish the fantasy of her marital identity, her perfect romantic sufficiency, and recognise that she is, quite literally, an “other woman”. [End Page 12]

Tender Extremities: unravelling romantic love as self-identity in Marion Campbell’s Not Being Miriam

Slipping between first and third person narration, between genuine disclosure and disingenuous confessional, and indeed between different versions of the self, Mahy and Quigley challenge romantic aspirations of transparency and unity. They problematize the search for definitive knowledge in the name of love by presenting identity as an unstable construct created by many overlapping and competing stories. Australian writer Marion Campbell pushes this notion even further. Campbell takes the Bluebeard themes of fragmentation, repetition and revelation played out with witty fairy tale simplicity in Quigley’s short story and adds further layers of complexity, crafting a compelling exploration of the damage done in the struggle for subjective affirmation in and through romantic union.

As in “North of the Lights,” a photograph of an idealised first wife is pivotal in Not Being Miriam (1988). In another instance of the doubling of Bluebeard and his wife, Elsie dismembers a huge photograph of Miriam, the beloved first wife, which her abusive and sentimental husband keeps in the closet. She wraps the strips of photograph around herself like bandages, making literal the way she has been brutalised by the image of an idealised former love. Campbell’s novel deals with the overlapping lives and identities of Bess, Lydia and Elsie, three Australian women of different ages, ethnicities and socio-economic situations. It charts their struggles for distinction, recognition and self-identity within the limited frameworks and entrenched mythologies of their romantic relationships, relationships that, while seemingly subsidiary to these women’s considerable talents and desires, continue to be their main point of reference.

Campbell’s quite radical and political novel suggests, even more strongly than the preceding works, that roles in romantic plots, while they are always gendered, have a complex and unstable relation to the biological sexes of the participants. Bess, whom we first encounter as a young girl in Campbell’s novel, initially struggles for self-definition in an intense and passionate relationship with her younger sister Cassandra. Bess wants to be an actress. So does Cass, and she refuses to stay in the supporting roles her older sister assigns her. While Cass grows up to make her living as an actress, Bess settles for teaching drama. But she is always acting, and her identity is self-consciously tenuous and provisional.

Throughout the novel, Bess’s, Lydia’s and Elsie’s identities shift and merge, overlapping with each other and underpinned by the fictional, mythological and historical women with whom they identify. Ariadne is the “A” to the sisters’ “B” and “C”. Bess discovers the Classical Adriadne at a young age, in a rage at her romantic abandonment by her childhood crush Peter, who prefers the blonde, pretty Cass. “This is who Bess can be. Ariadne who learnt the plan, drugged the guards and gave the thread. Who knew” (15). But if Ariadne knows, then Cassandra does too. And it is Cass that Bess guards jealously, not Peter, who is peripheral, an object traded between sisters. Cass is self-contained and Bess experiences Cass’s opacity as a threat to her own identity. Expressing the constant tension between disclosure and secrecy that marks the Bluebeard tale, Bess wants to dissect Cass, to “ransack her sister for her secret” (23). [End Page 13]

It is Cass, and later Lydia and Elsie, who have the crucial relation to Bess’s own identity, just as relationships with former wives and sister selves are key in Quigley’s and Mahy’s stories. Yet it is the romance narrative that frames these relationships and a ubiquitous romantic mythology that turns the wheels of story. While these inter-female relationships seem to run deeper in Not Being Miriam, it is the love relation that is the lynch pin of identity. Bess absorbs this lesson as a young girl, in her identification with Ariadne, who is in the Dictionary of Classical Mythology under A for Abandonment. Ariadne is her abandonment by Theseus, and so she barely exists.

Bess’s identity is informed by the feminist politics of her era and education, but perhaps more profoundly shaped by the obsessive iteration of one particular classic love story. This is the story of their Aunt Mamie, which Bess and Cass act out every day after school for years. This story turns out to be a fabrication, a consolation for Mamie, a working-class beauty flattered into a Bluebeard marriage with a very wealthy, controlling and secretive man. Mamie’s attachment to her love story is enduring, and the end of the novel finds her re-enacting it in her nursing home, confused old people stammering through the lines she used to assign to her nieces. But, unlike Bess, Mamie knows it is a fiction.

Highlighting the fact of one’s contingent place in the love story, the characters in Not being Miriam play a kind of musical chairs within the romantic narrative. And, as Bess, Elsie and Lydia in their different ways discover, there is always someone left standing when the music stops. Bess’s identification with her role as the handsome stranger who sweeps her beautiful young Aunt Mamie off her feet in Florence is intensely passionate; “sick,” her sister says. Years later, Bess’s Italian husband abandons her and takes their son, and so Bess switches places within the romantic narrative, identifying even more deeply with Ariadne. Bess is also the Other Woman: for Lydia, with whose husband Harry she has an affair, and for Elsie, whose husband’s beloved first wife she uncannily resembles. Structurally speaking, Bess is Miriam, even as she identifies with Elsie, the next door neighbour whose pain she inhabits through a radically destabilising form of empathy, a transformational self-becoming-other that she has never achieved in her romantic relationships. Passionate identification with other experience, which we encounter first as child’s play in Not Being Miriam, becomes a dangerous undertaking with very real consequences.

In Bess’s connection to Elsie, empathy is a kind of contagion. Bess comes to inhabit, not Elsie per se, to whose history and specificity she is a genuine stranger, but Elsie’s conflicted place in the romantic narrative: “Sliding back toward sleep, Bess finds Elsie anyhow, embodies her. Her veins become knotted, tumescent” (88). Bess both fears and desires this loss of self.[7] Lying on her couch next door, she feels her loss of boundaries mirrored in her surroundings: “‘Like a bad cosmetics job on a burns victim, she feels the house as if it’s her own tissue stretched almost beyond endurance’” (85). Domestic space is charged with significance in Bluebeard tales. Like Quigley’s Greta and Mahy’s Miss Credence, Bess shuts herself away in a house that was once a place of pride and union but falls into sickly stasis, out of the flow of love and life.

Bess becomes Elsie becomes Miriam. Bess becomes Miriam through Elsie’s painfully ambivalent gaze: [End Page 14]

The poster-sized photo of his Poor Late Beautiful Wife is still there all right. Bess rocks with Elsie’s shame. She winces with recognition. She hasn’t refused from Elsie the mixture of awe and worship she offers. Miriam in that foggy enlargement could be Bess. Spitting or bloody splitting image do they say? Elsie asked. […] Bess loses herself tracing out these features. Hers. The Other Woman’s. Bess loses herself finding Elsie’s pleasure, Elsie’s pain. She contracts back to something like a reclining hologram of Miriam, the Late. (89)

If Ariadne is Bess’s mythological forebear, it is the second Mrs de Winter with whom Elsie identifies. Semi-literate, Elsie hasn’t read the novel, but she watched the film again and again as a girl. Raised in poverty, Elsie knows that economic and romantic dependence are intertwined: in Hitchcock’s film, as in Aunt Mamie’s story, the great wealth of the Bluebeard figure and the material security he offers propels the romantic plot and drives his wife’s compulsion to make the marriage work despite so many misgivings.[8] But even as a girl, Elsie intuits that material dependence is only part of the picture. Married to a man who abuses her children, Elsie’s mother pleads:

 Else, for all our sakes, I’ve got ter make a go of it this time. Otherwise where would we… what would we…

Else could have said it for her. She can answer it too. What you do is you get a job. Else will get a job. They needn’t be trapped. She’s not going to be forced to stick with a man if he turns nasty like Stan. What is it that’s made him go nasty? He was young and happy in the marriage photo. (95)

You get a job. And Elsie does. But Elsie’s mother is dependent on Stan for her sense of self, and it is this subjective dependence that her mother cannot relinquish and that compels her to make such shocking sacrifices to “make a go of it”. Elsie, despite her youthful insight and defiance, ends up playing out her mother’s familiar script. Love songs go around and around in Elsie’s head – “Love was just a glance away. A warm embracing dance away” (132) – alternating with self-loathing: “Slut, she says to the dressing-table mirror. Bleedin fat cow” (132).

Elsie’s husband Roger, like Stan, cruelly disregards both Elsie and her children. But this, it seems, she can tolerate. What is intolerable is his continued romantic devotion to his first wife, so jarringly at odds with his treatment of Elsie. She endures daily reminders that she is not the “real” wife of Roger Miller, and in a world where identity is vested in the marriage plot, this means she is nothing at all. Elsie lives in the shadow of the idealised former love, Miriam’s poster-sized image ill-concealed in the closet behind Roger’s trousers. Like all of Bluebeard’s wives, Elsie’s curiosity is compulsive: she can’t stop looking at Miriam.

Miriam had the finest skin, not a flaw, not a single flaw. Always says everything about Miriam twice. He still puts the notice in the In Memoriam column every year […] [End Page 15]

And I’ve made a home with another,
Deep at heart, I’m still your lover.

How suddenly, that’s what she was: another. And I’ve made my home with another. Fancy Roger talking about himself like that too. Well. Now the scissor traces out loops on the skin of the photo, on the skin of how she looked. […] As an old woman she probably would’ve got a profile like Punch, nose jutting down to the chin (105- 106).

But Roger’s romantic idealisation is perfectly maintained by Miriam’s absence, fed by the tragedy of her premature death. Miriam robs Elsie of her rightful place in the romantic narrative, and thus of her own identity. In desperation, Elsie even tries the famous line from Rebecca on her husband – “I’m Mrs Miller now” (133) – but it predictably fails to have the desired effect. “My bloody arsehole you are!” Roger rages (133).

Elsie’s lack of identity, a fact published by Roger in the newspaper every year, is the fact through which Bess enters Elsie and inhabits her pain, which is also of course Bess’s own. To stop Roger beating Elsie, Bess strikes him with a snow dome of the Eiffel tower, a relic from his first marriage that he keeps on the dresser, killing him poetically with an emblem of his hypocritical romanticism. Despite the myriad material problems in their relationship, it is the symbolic gesture of cutting up Miriam, and Roger’s consequent rage, that destroys their marriage and ends Roger’s life.

In this penultimate scene the three women finally come together. Lydia sits in a taxi on the street, hearing the screams at Elsie’s house and seeing Bess run next door to intervene. Imaginatively, Lydia inhabits Bess inhabits Elsie, as these strange unbidden sisters haunt each other in and through their unhappy marriages. Their complex interconnectedness grows like an invasive vine through the romantic framework, disturbing the love story, the official narrative which gives explicit shape and meaning to their lives. In a final slippage of identity, after Bess goes to prison for manslaughter her sister Cass moves into her house and resumes the (condescending but quite successful) project of Elsie’s “liberation”.

If Mahy and Quigley critique a grasping, fixing knowledge of the other, implying the oppressiveness of this search for certainty, then Campbell questions “the quest for intimacy” through knowledge of another kind. Critic Toril Moi notes, and Bess discovers, that the empathetic, merging knowledge sought as perfect union “is not knowledge at all but confusion” (432).[9] The failure of perfect knowledge or communion is not the failure of love, however; it may be, as philosopher Emmanuel Levinas asserts, “precisely what nurtures love” (103). A gifted physicist, Lydia knows “the danger of certainty” (115), and that there is “no matter only tendencies” (113). The increasingly punning, poetic and fragmented language as the novel progresses evokes more open, multivalent and fluid ways of approaching love relations: “I’ll underpun their purpose, sound the lisp as a way of saying, whisper monstrosities[…]” (137).

The punning on “tender”, in particular, playfully critiques demands for singular certainties in the realm of romantic relations. “Tender” insists on meaning more than one thing at once, in a way that is poetically appropriate for the novel’s complex deconstruction of romantic mythology. Love is legal tender in Not Being Miriam. If for Lydia, sitting in her [End Page 16] taxi, things are “only tending to happen” (113), Elsie knows that flesh is real enough. She knows that the wisdom of the body is worth something: “Somewhere the things she knows will count. […] She can pick what’s fake. And she can trust her hands. Her fingers practically think” (96). A certain kind of love is associated with death, in this multivalent tenderness. Elsie asks the butcher if his meat is tender. “Tender love? he says. Tender, you’re asking if it’s tender. Why it’s tender as a woman’s heart. On pay day” (131).

Bess like/as Ariadne is stranded at the novel’s end, “beached in the sway between am/am not”. But this place of deep uncertainty and several selves is preferable to being “mythaken, fixed in constellation” (137) the novel implies. Limited categorical knowledge is associated with sight, while tentative and truly tender connection is a touching of extremities, a connection that respects difference and distance and leaves space for the shifting seasons of the self. These tender extremities are the feet of Quigley’s Greta, anchoring her to the earth and to an embodied self built from sedimentary layers of muddy history and connectedness. They are the “blind fingers” (181) of Mahy’s Hero, working beyond the privileged sense of sight and its association with unequivocal truth.  Not Being Miriam leaves Bess/Ariadne, feeling her way back, to her body and her roots: “I found the fissures with my fingers, I was sightless in reply” (139). And while it may not rely on the conventional romantic coupling, self-realisation in these tales is never a solo journey, but one undertaken with a chorus of sisters and shadow selves.


There is an opera written by Maurice Maeterlinck (Ariane et Barbe-bleue, 1901, opera composed by Paul Dukas in 1907) in which Ariadne attempts to rescue Bluebeard’s wives. The rescue fails because the brides prefer to remain captive in the castle of mythology, but the story suggests the malleability of myth and the porosity of its boundaries. The Bluebeard tales of Mahy, Quigley and Campbell propose not a rejection of fictionalised romantic relations in favour of an (equally mythic) unmediated embodied experience of love, but rather recognise the limiting nature of many stories that currently shape (although never entirely condition or contain) our expectations and experiences of love. They challenge us to open these stories up to both critical scrutiny and creative reconfiguration.

New Zealand writer Janet Frame observes: “we must tend the myths, […] only in that way shall we survive” (109). Perhaps in these renewed Bluebeard tales, however, the less-than-tender myths of romantic love are not so much tended as tenderised. The relentless repetition that marks both romance and violence in the Bluebeard tale, and the phenomenon of this tale’s perpetual retelling, implies the importance of re-entering and manipulating the stories that mould romantic experience. These Australasian writers treat romantic myth and fairy tale as a bundle of loose ends, threads that suggest the many possible re-entry points into the labyrinth of human intimacy. [End Page 17]

[1] Marina Warner (1995) discusses the way in which literary fairy tales evolved from folk tales with heterogeneous oral origins and primarily female tellers.

[2] Both Maria Tatar (2004) and Cristinia Bacchilega (1997) write on The Piano as an exemplary postmodern Bluebeard tale.

[3] In Stephen Benson’s terms: ‘narrative itself is always a remembering or a retelling, yet when generic norms become static the repetition is passive. It is only by drawing out other submerged, partially silent narrative voices that we can seek to hear the conflict and tension that lie beneath the surface, to repeat actively rather than passively, and thus generate change’ (1996:109).

[4] ‘To scrutinize means to search: I am searching the other’s body, as if I wanted to see what was inside it, as if the mechanical cause of my desire were in the adverse body (I am like those children who take a clock apart in order to find out what time is). This operation is conducted in a cold and astonished fashion; I am calm, attentive, as if I were confronted by a strange insect of which I am suddenly no longer afraid’ (2002:71).

[5] ‘When I’d first loved him, I wanted to take him apart, as a child dismembers a clockwork toy, to comprehend the inscrutable mechanics of its interior. I wanted to see him far more naked than he was with his clothes off. It was easy enough to strip him bare and then I picked up my scalpel and set to work. But, since I was so absolutely in charge of the dissection, I only discovered what I was able to recognise already, from past experience, inside him. If I ever found anything new to me, I steadfastly ignored it. I was so absorbed in this work that it never occurred to me to wonder if I hurt him’ (1996:72).

[6] Like other fairy tales, Bluebeard’s fortunes wax and wane depending on its ability to speak to current social circumstances. Tatar identifies a spate of Bluebeard-themed films in the 1940s, for example. The tale was being used in this era, she suggests, to play out the anxieties provoked by husbands returning from World War Two, having acquired bloody and unspeakable pasts in the course of their war service which made them strangers to their wives (2004:90).

[7] The Bluebeard tale, Tatar notes, is particularly apt for showing us how our fears and desires are deeply intertwined (2004:10).

[8] Even Hero, in Mahy’s novel, reflects: ‘I was trapped by my own silence and the lure of an extra twenty dollars’ (1995:90).

[9] ‘In the very moment the knower merges with that which is known, both entities are abolished as such. In this way imaginary knowledge undercuts all other forms of knowledge, blurring all boundaries and dissolving all definitions in its way’ (Moi, 1999:432). [End Page 18]


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Rebecca. (1940). Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.

Notorious. (1946). Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.

The Company of Wolves. (1984). Dir. Neil Jordan.

The Silence of the Lambs. (1991). Dir. Jonathan Demme.

The Piano. (1993). Dir. Jane Campion. [End Page 22]

In the Cut. (2003). Dir. Jane Campion. [End Page 23]


Marriage, Romance and Mourning Movement in Cherie Nowlan’s Thank God He Met Lizzie
by Mark Nicholls

Thank God He Met Lizzie (1997) stands out as an extremely rare example of an Australian romantic comedy/drama.  Like most romantic comedies, this film is really about the negotiation of an obstacle to union and marital happiness.  What is generically atypical [End Page 1] about the film, and the source of its drama, is that this obstacle emerges only once the marriage is solemnized and in the form of nothing more concrete than what we might call the ghost of a girlfriend past. The last few shots of the film present the eponymous “He”, Guy (Richard Roxburgh), and Lizzie (Cate Blanchett) with their children, “slip, slop, slapping” (an eighties promotional slogan for liberal sunscreen application) beside a Mercedes station-wagon in a Sydney beachside car park.  Within the span of less than a minute, the camera moves in, very slightly, before tilting up and left, fractionally, framing the actors in a medium shot that will hold them for the last ten seconds before the credit sequence rolls.  This final shot is a freeze-frame, the highpoint of a gradual slowing of their motion which began, almost imperceptibly at first, ten seconds into the sequence and continues, seemly unhindered by two slow dissolves, before reaching its final point of stasis.  The image presented is picture-perfect and is the sort of snapshot of domestic bliss that will probably end up on the family piano.  Whatever substantial doubts over the question of Guy’s current state of happiness, raised both by his voiced-over letter to his sponsor-child and Martin Armiger’s stingingly melancholic score, the picture itself is one that many spectators understandably associate with desire.  The sun, the beach, signs of material comfort and the blessings of children and family togetherness all add up to an idea that many aspire to.  This is also an idea that lies beneath and relies upon the expression of divine gratitude explicit in the film’s albeit ironical title.  Like this apparent irony, the crushing feelings of domestic ambivalence implied by this final image make a telling impression on us.  This image and the marriage that lead to it have such an impact on us because they are so dearly protected by our genuine ambivalence over the question of desire and its relationship to romantic love, marriage, children and family life.  The film does not tell us about this ambivalence – it reminds us.

Given what we know about the ups and downs of marriage and divorce rates since the Second World War and what scholars such as Irving Singer have highlighted in the vast historiography of romantic love, the potential incompatibility of romantic love and marriage should be a truism of modern life.  At the very least we ought to consider love, as Catherine Belsey has considered it in its paradoxical postmodern form, as “ceaselessly suspected” even if “endlessly pursued” (Belsey, 74). From Belsey we understand love in postmodernity as ”naïve”, defined by opposites, contained by a “fundamentalism” of material transformations, commodification and social surveillance. The fundamentalism of marriage and contractual bonds marks desire’s fragility. The interventions of Law are the mark of its absurdity.    Another transformation, for Belsey comes through the media and cultural expression. Love is considered silent in its essence. Through the media, however, as Roland Barthes has pointed out, (what it packaged up as) love is endlessly loquacious, even enduringly citational in its banal expression of nightly paraded clichés. Stories and narratives thus place lovers in the passivity and imprisonment of uncharacteristic behaviour, thus becoming victims of this very fundamentalism (Belsey, 73-84).  Doubtless we can view Thank God He Met Lizzie as just such a banal expression.  But the terms of the relationship represented within the film, its practicality and a sense of inevitable doom linked to a relentlessly enduring quality, sustain comparison with much of the essence of Belsey’s portrait and its critique.

There is, of course, an array of theoretical treatments and methodologies contextualising romantic love, any number of which might be employed in relation to Thank God He Met Lizzie.  In this article I will emphasise certain discourses of [End Page 2] melancholia as highly useful in reading the film, but I do not wish to impose this psychoanalytic approach to advocate the exclusion of others.  Accordingly, I find it extremely useful to look to comparative mythology and Joseph Campbell, if only briefly, to provide a summary position on romantic love.  This is to employ a working definition, which I have found enduringly communicative of romantic love’s essential discourse.  Campbell places the origins of the love/marriage divide at the beginnings of romantic love in the troubadour traditions of twelfth century.  Marriage in this context was about the power of the family, the church and the state.  Romantic love coming in with the troubadours stood in radical distinction to that power.  A personal expression, romantic love supported the courage to live one’s life according to one’s own pattern. Jealously opposed by established authorities, however, romantic love threatened disaster and eternal damnation.  As a prime example, Campbell looks to the romance of Tristan and Isolde. Campbell’s reduction of Tristan’s reaction to the news that he and Isolde have drunk the love potion that will bring them together in disaster encapsulates the dilemma.  Once Isolde’s nurse tells him, “You have drunk your death.” Tristan replies:

By my death, do you mean this pain of love? . . . If by my death, you mean this agony of love, that is my life.  If by my death, you mean the punishment that we are to suffer if discovered, I accept that.  And if by my death, you mean eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too. (Campbell 235-6)

The ever-increasing commodification of what used to be called “courtship and marriage”, however, coupled with the impossible material expectations of middle-class lifestyles after marriage, have produced an adherence to a perverse contemporary mono-myth of romance – nice boy meets nice girl and they stay nice for the rest of their lives – in order to keep the whole thing going.  The simplicity of Thank God He Met Lizzie’s exposé of that adherence makes the point about the romance/marriage disconnect obvious.  Even in its most practical and conservative incarnations such as friendship and companionship, the viability of love and the prospects for intimacy in relationship to marriage, as Guy will experience, is chillingly impossible.  In Seminar XX Encore Jacques Lacan invokes the notion of courtly love.  In doing so he provides an insight into the drama of the unconscious underpinning this incompatibility.  For Lacan the aristocratic acts and aesthetics of courtly love are a performance of desire that stand in for consummation.  They are a proxy, an alibi for desire itself, giving cause and excuse for the obstacles and blockages that pile up against sexual intimacy.  Perhaps the most refined of all forms of perversion, such acts of courtly culture are a potent metaphor for Lacan’s general notion that “in the case of the speaking being the relation between the sexes does not take place” (Lacan 138-141).  In its own context the more contemporary forms of courtly culture, ritual and commodity concern in Thank God He Met Lizzie play an equally perverse role.  In Freud’s useful phrase to account for perversion, we may read Guy and Lizzie’s marriage of convenience, and the social and commodity fundamentalism that support it, as a sophisticated process of deferring desire by “lingering over the intermediate relations” (Freud 1991, 62).  What we see in the final freeze-frame image of the film, however, suggests a general and logical reluctance to do anything about their perversion.  In this particular era of commodity romance the film’s simple, perhaps even banal deconstruction of the love and marriage relationship is, nevertheless, instructive. [End Page 3]

I will begin here by outlining the film’s general themes.  Given the narrative primacy of Guy in the film, I will also highlight the way in which the film relies heavily on Guy’s agency, his fantasy of loss and his expression of male melancholia – another of the great cinematic perversions – for its emotional impact.  Despite its potency, the concept of male melancholia, however, cannot account for this impact alone.  By beginning this article with a description of the film’s final slow-motion to stasis sequence, I wish to highlight that the sadness, and perhaps even grief, which dominate the spectator’s experience of watching the film are not solely reliant upon the who of loss expressed by the male melancholic Guy, but the what of loss experienced by both characters and spectators more generally.  I argue that what is mourned by the spectator watching the film, in its obvious advancement towards stillness, is not merely Guy’s loss of love through his separation from his former girlfriend Jenny (Frances O’Connor), but the loss of the palpable sense of movement that we know Guy once experienced in his life. It was this capacity for movement that also gave Guy and Jenny the ability to present each other the gift of freedom and the gift of movement that it implies.  As Laura Mulvey has written of ideas of stillness and movement, this is the trauma of her primary form of “delayed cinema”, “the actual act of slowing down the flow of film” (2006: 8) as we have observed it in the final scene.  This last minute retardation acts in the service of one particular form of narrative cinema which, Mulvey considers, creates a “desire for the end, elongating the road down which the story travels, postponing the structurally inevitable conclusion” (2006: 144).  Mulvey’s “two grand conventions of narrative closure that allow the drive of a story to return to stasis: death or marriage” have merged in Thank God He Met Lizzie into a drive towards stasis, a sense of advancement towards stillness, Freud’s death instinct as a kind of “no fault” marriage (2006, 71).[1]

“The trouble with happiness is . . . you remember it.” 

Alexandra Long’s screenplay begins with Guy’s awkward failure to meet a potential partner at a catered affair expressly designed for the purpose.  He then continues his misfortune on two blind dates before finally meeting Lizzie in a chance encounter involving a pregnant cat.  We see Lizzie and Guy only once together, lounging by some Sydney side waterway, before the wedding plans are in full swing. A priest is brought in; Guy informs his sponsor child Fong Hu; and Guy then buys Lizzie a professionally wrapped engagement present which seems to seal the deal.  Only once is Jenny, the “ex”, named in discussion and it takes the particular probing of the Catholic priest to raise the spectre of a three shot mini-montage in which she features at passionate moments in their past relationship.  The devil of romantic desire seemingly exorcised, the wedding ceremony takes place off screen, and the major part of the film, anchored to the excessive social ritualism of the wedding reception, can then proceed.

The wedding reception is regularly punctuated by expressions of the fakery and cynicism of the event.  These moments provide the cues for extended flashbacks of Guy’s life with Jenny; their meeting at less sophisticated and less well-catered pubs and parties, embarrassing family get-togethers, the ups and downs of their sexual appetites, the traumas of foreign travel, their fights and, finally, the growing irreconcilability of their differences leading to the bitter-sweet termination of the relationship.  Before these [End Page 4] flashbacks are done, the functionality of the wedding is made chillingly explicit when Lizzie’s mother Poppy (Linden Wilkinson) produces a forged letter purporting to be from Fong Hu giving an innocent and moving blessing on their nuptials.  Knowing it to be a fake, the letter causes Guy momentary terror before he gives into his sense of decorum and continues with his duties at the reception.  Later in their hotel room, released of his first night obligations by a tired and emotional bride, that terror is magnified by a speech Lizzie gives him, calmly advocating her need and desire for what used to be known as an “open marriage”.  Shocked then resigned, “overwhelmed by life’s choices” as Margaret Smith has observed (Smith, 48), Guy does not argue the point.  The film then cuts to a devastating scene in which Guy sees a vision of Jenny in Martin Place.  He approaches her with enthusiasm, only to see the vision first disappear in the crowd of cold and wintry spirits rushing to work, and then become occluded by the family picture postcard scene described above. “The trouble with happiness”, Guy writes (and narrates) to Fong Hu, “is you don’t know when you have it, you remember it.”

“Like a horse and carriage”

Something about Thank God He Met Lizzie that stands out immediately, for an Australian film made in the late 1990s, is how banal, unselfconscious and middle-class it seems in its milieux and subject matter.  This film is essentially a melodrama of “first world problems.”  As a film about the basic disconnect between romantic love and marriage, however, how could it be otherwise?  And yet what could be stranger in the context of Australian cinema since Strictly Ballroom (1992) than a clear and straightforward picture of the persistently questioned, but ultimately unshakable marriage customs of the audience for which it is intended?  In this sense, “the melodrama of one bourgeois addressing another” as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith puts it (91), which is present here, relies on a certain sense of the mundane to expose the fact that the most significant of our emotional dilemmas are usually those closest to home.  The greatest strangers to us are most often ourselves.  In another sense, however, like Noel Coward and David Lean’s timelessly affecting Brief Encounter (1946), the effectiveness of the film’s theme relies on its very simplicity of expression.  Any extraordinary estrangement of the audience from the world represented, such as Matthews observes as central to the types of love stories praised by Andre Breton and Surrealist thought generally (Matthews, 37-50), runs the risk of clouding the already complex issue.  The obvious message of the disconnect between romantic love and marriage seems so lost in our culture, the clinging to the mono-myth of romance so tenacious, that Thank God He Met Lizzie impresses upon its audience the fact that all attempts at mystification run the risk of supporting that very tenacity.  Placing this affair amongst the guns of Verona Beach (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 1996), the mentally ill characters jumping off Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge (Angel Baby, 1995), in the elite world of Henry James (Portrait of a Lady, 1997) or even simply making it happen between “old folk” (Innocence, 2000) or university intellectuals (What I Have Written, 1995), threatens to portray it as something that happens to other people.  In its dramatic understatement and lack of hyperbole, in its very middle-class context, a comparatively [End Page 5] rare milieu within Australian cinema, Thank God He Met Lizzie demonstrates that the romantic love/marriage disconnect is not portrayed as “their” problem but “ours”.

Marriage, as represented in Thank God He Met Lizzie,is a department store gift registry length list of abominations.  From the plot description and brief visual analysis I have already presented, we can see that the film’s marriage portrait shows us the manipulation, deception, convenience, emotional entrapment, fear of loneliness, class anxieties, overwhelming community involvement and expectation, nostalgia and compromise that seem central to the institution.  Whether any of these characteristics really has the potential to shock any adult who has experienced more than about three weeks of a settled domestic relationship is an important point.  As a summary of any important partnership, this liste de mariage, might well, at different times in our lives, argue for both the need and the genuine use for the institutionalisation of such relationships.  The film itself does not totally shun this point of view.  In this context, however, it is testament to the work of the film that these “abominations” do appear shocking and detestable however familiar and even necessary they may be.  Beyond what it presents as familiar and practical, however, it is in the way this particular portrait of marriage represents the desire for intimacy in relationships that we see the real source of its conclusions about the abhorrence of marriage.  The same may be said for the film’s rendering of even something so basic in marriage as the desire for friendship and companionship.

In their only real moment together as a couple, before they become caught up in wedding preparations, Guy and Lizzie are lounging by the water and talking about how her father, a surgeon, once told her she could become “a doctor, a lawyer or a piece of shit”.  Once assured that his own occupational status, or relative lack thereof, will pass muster, Guy begins to admire Lizzie’s once fair hair.  Lizzie embarks on a deconstruction of the validity of the adult blonde before Guy attempts to stop her by saying, “Don’t tell me about it. We’ve got the rest of our lives to find out about each other.  It will be boring if you tell me now”.  In this playful moment, Lizzie presses on, in an intimacy “over-share”, with information about her family history and her first sexual encounter, before Guy stops her mouth with a kiss.  At that point the scene dissolves with a high medium shot framing their headless bodies rolling on-top of each other, a clear allusion to the essential biology behind the union which seems to trump all other threatening complications.  The personal back-stories of each character, Guy’s relationship with Jenny, and Lizzie’s “married by thirty and then have affairs” agenda among them, will emerge as part of their discourse soon enough.  The essential fear and mistrust of genuine intimacy, expressed through Guy’s concealment and Lizzie’s shocking frankness, as part of their marriage is the most disturbing aspect of the film’s portrait of married life.  As Cate Blanchett says of the couple, “They sort of don’t want to know about each other.” (Blanchett, “Cast Interviews”)  Somewhere between the need to be kept in ignorance and the need to be horrifyingly overly-informed lies the film’s representation of the fear of the line between intimacy, true partnership and marriage.  Importantly, this is a fear that the film does not restrict to its portrait of marriage, but one that is also an acknowledged part of its idea of romantic love.  Guy knows this fear as much in his relationship with Jenny as with Lizzie.  The difference is that with Jenny he has the freedom to express it and explore its implications, however bleak they may be. [End Page 6]

Lizzie is the frankness expert in the film and she knows how to use that frankness in the fight against intimacy.  When Raoul (Jacek Koman) is teasing her about her pre-ordained vision of a marriage of convenience, she defends herself by saying “you couldn’t expect me to make a commitment like that to someone I knew.”  Despite Lizzie’s sophistication in this matter it is Jenny, from the safety of a presumptively directionless, one night pub pick up, who is able to best present the threat of the information/ignorance/intimacy triad.  When Guy explains to Jenny that he would like to get to know her before getting involved, Jenny replies, “Oh, see, you are taking a big risk there . . . you might get to know me and find out you don’t like me and then you’ll miss out on a fantastic root.” Of course, nothing about this proffered one night stand suggests any real potential for intimacy.  The point made, however, is that deep knowledge of one’s partner threatens emotional intimacy and emotional intimacy is presented in the film as not only a threat to good marriage, but also a threat to good sex.  Avoidance of this kind of intimacy may be desirable within a twenty-something relationship and it may also suit the requirements of thirty-something marriage.  Just where it leaves the obvious search for intimacy in our lives generally is the film’s insoluble dilemma.

If the scenes with Lizzie provide us a view of the film’s cynicism about marriage, the Jenny flashback sequences speak of love in its romantic mode.  The flashback scenes of Guy’s relationship with Jenny may be about the work of nostalgia but they are not nostalgic or rose-coloured in content.  Certainly they are warm, colourful, charmingly chaotic, passionate and, above all, full of movement.  In their isolation from community interests and lack of middle-class consciousness and decorum, these moments stand in high contrast to Guy’s experience of the formal bourgeois ritual of the wedding and its preparations.  For all their relative warmth and colour, however, these moments with Jenny speak of a love that is full of a sweet sort of pain, an affair that is fleeting, potentially fatal (when they are drugged and robbed while on holiday), fading and ultimately lost without the benefit of hindsight.  As Guy makes clear in the last words of the film, these moments represent a happiness that is not known but only remembered.  Like Brief Encounter, the key to the emotional power that this relationship holds over the spectator is the fact that it is represented in flashbacks that are visually designed in a very separate and distinct way from the sequences of the main plot.  Most importantly such flashbacks obviously indicate that the relationship is located in time past and that, for all its potency in the present, the relationship is over and probably done with.  As is the case with Brief Encounter, the “probably” gives the narrative its romantic potential, but this potential is so grounded in the armed camp-like detention of the protagonists’ present life that any real thought of romantic fulfilment is little more than fantasy.

Just over an hour into the film, as Lizzie’s “married by thirty” plan is outed by Raoul, Guy reflects on the scene of his break up with Jenny.  The scene is typical of all Guy’s reminiscences throughout the film, but the act of breaking up and the directness and honesty with which the decision is arrived at give the scene a devastating resonance.  It is the most moving scene of the film and, in many ways, the most expressive of any real form of love exchange.  Common to all their scenes together is the movement of Kathryn Milliss’ hand-held camera, never resting and always maintaining a feeling of uncertainty and high energy in the spectator.  As in the moment in this scene when Jenny rushes to find Guy’s hidden photos of Fong Hu, this off-balance movement, like their relationship itself, sometimes becomes disconcerting.  Also a feature of all their scenes together, in contrast to [End Page 7] the shades of grey and white of the scenes with Lizzie, is the explosion of colour about them.  Whatever mood is portrayed, and in this film mood can move across a scale between joy and horror, the richness and variety of colours provides a depth of feeling and a sense of emotional substance to their scenes together.  This colour is matched by their Hepburn/Tracy-like, screwball physicality and a verbal banter routine, as here, when they squabble over Jenny’s annoying habit of leaving her clothes on the floor, and the quibble she makes over the plural form of cactus and “other related succulents”, in light of her extensive collection of cacti that have now become odious to Guy.

Where the break up scene turns away from the expected levity, however, is when Jenny introduces the issue of Fong Hu, Guy’s sponsored child in Vietnam.  In all their years together, we discover, Guy has never told Fong Hu anything about Jenny.  Challenged over this, Guy babbles on for a moment about Fong Hu’s innocence and cultural sensitivities over the question of why he and Jenny are not married.  What he does not say or understand about his relationship with Fong Hu, and what Jenny’s challenge implies, is that it is a model of the structure of his desire.  In the face of the dilemmas of emotional intimacy with Jenny, the distance, cultural estrangement and age gap he enjoys with Fong Hu provides him with an ideal relationship. Ultimately he sidesteps that emotional conundrum, an intimacy challenge to, what we might think of as, his melancholic “crypt” of solitude (Abraham and Torok, 135-6), by introducing the strain of discussion that will end in their separation.  This sidestepping is an act of resistance that demonstrates the line against emotional intimacy that they are clearly unwilling, or unable, to cross.  That resistance, however, does manage briefly to give way to a mutual expression of a degree of honesty about their states of mind, which makes the scene even more affecting.  Guy says he wants space (his crypt), but Jenny counters by pointing out the emptiness and untouchability of this space.  Guy longs for the things and the feelings “you can’t touch”, but Jenny does not want to hear about his feelings – the feelings he now complains he no longer has.  Her reaction to this admission is genuinely empathetic, but like a true melancholic, he wants the “magic” back and she cannot see why.  In many ways this is a confused, illogical and, in terms of characterisation, inconsistent line of argument, but not incompatible with the truth of the moment as we might expect it to be played.  It is at this point of confusion, the clueless moment of “what do we do now?” that they find the “end of the line” and resolve to separate. Jenny bursts into tears as Guy holds her with an expression of exhaustion and sadness.

Jenny and Guy’s last and final scene together in the film, in which they announce their break up to Jenny’s devastated parents, simply underlines the trauma of the previous scene.  The substance of trauma is found in the very basis of romance at the heart of their relationship: that is, the inevitable incompatibility between love, their mutual desires, and the broader, social context of their lives.  With Jenny’s mind and body moving towards children, this broader context undoubtedly implies the move towards permanent union.  This is the very announcement Jenny’s parents were obviously, eagerly expecting. But such external expectations of permanent union and grandchildren are the antithesis of romance.  What such expectations fail to acknowledge, in their push towards the altar, is the potential for a genuine clash between female biological imperative and male emotional inexperience. Guy’s isolationist emotional reticence, frequently expressed in social work and counselling contexts as “men in sheds”, and his protection of his “space”, with Fong Hu delineating that space, may look like a sit-com joke.  That very reticence is, however, an [End Page 8] equally potent combatant in this clash and plays a role, similar to Jenny’s desire for children, in breaking up the relationship.  What is ultimately, amongst all their scenes in the film, the most strikingly consistent element in the break up scene is the representation of the inevitable demise of their union.  If Thank God He Met Lizzie shows its portrait of marriage as both lacking in real intimacy and doggedly persistent and unbreakable, the film shows romance as brutally true – honest, but with a lively discourse of intimacy – and hopelessly lost in the empty and intangible space of the past.

Man Melancholy

As to Guy’s “men in sheds” emotional obstructions, it is worth nothing that Thank God He Met Lizzie was released in the same year as Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, this co-incidence suggesting the usefulness of the critical territory of male melancholia.  Given the dynamics of male impairment and loss, most notably represented in the films of Martin Scorsese and Jeremy Irons, which highlighted a continuing strain of cinematic male melodrama into the 1990s, this context is obviously seductive in reading Guy’s lament (Nicholls 2004; 2012).  This approach relies heavily on a reading that privileges Guy’s point of view and constructs both Lizzie and Jenny as objects of an emotional empowerment through loss that has been the project of male melancholic discourse since Hamlet (Schiesari, pp. 5-6).

The scene of Jenny’s final appearance in the film might have easily been lifted from Lolita or, indeed, any of Scorsese’s final scenes of mournful parting in films from Taxi Driver (1976) to Shutter Island (2010).  Prompted by Guy’s sadness and his sense of horror when, on their wedding night, Lizzie suggests they pursue an open marriage, the scene cuts to a windy, cold, drab and grey working day morning in Martin Place.  Guy is on his way to work when he sees Jenny in a bright red coat, the only real colour in the sequence, walking towards him.  Guy smiles enthusiastically as they approach each other but as Jenny appears to see him her expression moves gently from a contented air to one of cold reproach. Martin Armiger’s violin and string concerto pauses for seven seconds as the camera is over-cranked, shooting Jenny in slow motion until she finally comes to a halt.  As the music track resumes and a very brief piano accompaniment is added into the score, Jenny stands staring towards Guy.  Although Jenny seems frozen, other city dwellers pass in front of the camera, at first momentarily obscuring our view of Jenny, and then the shot goes to black as if one of these walkers has lingered.  When the shot cuts back to the scene of action, Jenny has gone.  Guy’s point of view shot (although not in his own close up) then remains in slow motion for a few seconds more, before standard cranking returns to the sequence as a whole.  But for one jump cut, Guy’s close-up is held for an excruciating twenty seconds while his confused state of mind tries to work out where Jenny went and what happened.  The sequence then ends with a high, extreme long shot of Guy in the square, looking around, still in his state of confusion, while his fellow workers cross his path from every direction, in their frantic and disinterested walk to work.

The reading of Thank God He Met Lizzie as an expression of male melancholia is a compelling one. Certainly Guy demonstrates its key tendencies: a sense of separateness from a conservative and over-bearing group (Lizzie and her world), the trauma of loss (his life and separation from Jenny), a tendency to fetishise and a refusal to relinquish that loss [End Page 9] (his inescapable reminiscences of that life), an outward show of conformity, self-sacrifice and renunciation of that refusal (going through with the marriage when he knows it is a fake), and finally, a consolidation of his personal authority through melancholic display (the attraction of the spectator’s prevailing sympathy for him) (Nicholls, 2004, 1-14).  Guy duly performs all these tendencies throughout the film and they take up the major part of the film’s duration.  They are also summarised in the Martin Place scene where, as the man in the grey flannel suit, Guy interrupts his dutiful walk to his Lizzie lifestyle-supporting job to perform his desire, his radicalism, his loss and to receive the mandated adulation and sympathy as the great bourgeois of sorrows.  In the years following Daniel Day Lewis’ Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence (1997) and Jeremy Irons’ performance as Humbert Humbert, Richard Roxburgh’s incarnation of the melancholic Guy is a performance of emotional “sad man candy” that is too similar to shun the comparison.

Implying an unrevised Mulvian representation of visual, and emotional, pleasure for both male and female spectators (1989: 14-28 & 29-38), however, the celebration of male loss in narrative cinema is a discourse that can be equally empowering to spectators across the spectrum of gender and sexual identity.  But this is the case because it is a discourse.  It is the nature of the expression of loss that multiple perspectives leak out.  In the case of the Martin Place scene, for example, the dubious nature of Jenny’s actual presence in the scene, as opposed to being there as a phantom of Guy’s fantasy, has to prompt us to consider whether she was, in fact, in that or in any of her scenes.  Could Jenny not simply be a fantasy image constructed by Guy in the face of the intolerable realities of his present situation?  Is she, in another sense, simply a substantially unrecognisable version of Lizzie when young, before she got old and serious?  Given the lively ambivalence of the discourse of male melancholia, I am not willing to dismiss it as an utterly suitable reading of the film, any more than a variety of other readings.  Looking at the film some fifteen years later, however, what strikes me about it now is the very force of that ambivalence.  Fifteen years later, older and hopefully wiser and at a distance from the predominant sad men of late nineties art house cinema, the reading of moral and emotional objectification of Lizzie and Jenny in the film seems to me somewhat questionable.  In the secondary form of Mulvey’s notion of “delayed cinema” she posits a “loose parallel with Freud’s concept of deferred action (nachtraglichkeit), the way the unconscious preserves a specific experience, while its traumatic effect might only be realized by another, later but associated event.” As in this quite different notion of “delayed cinema” to that considered above, in a contemporary reading of Thank God He Met Lizzie other details that have “lain dormant” can now be “noticed” (2006: 8).  In this context and in an updated reading, Lizzie and Jenny may appear to merge in their desires, but no more so than they all merge together with Guy’s similar desires for a life of stability, home and family – the “no fault” marriage.  Such a re-evaluation may not leave us feeling any more positive about the representation of Guy’s destiny with Lizzie, but the film’s exposure of the past as equally prone to, and fast moving towards the dilemmas of that present, leaves both it and Jenny as in no way looking like a fantasy or the ideal.  Reading the film simply as an expression of male melancholic perversion in the context, therefore, is inadequate.  The problem with the male melancholic reading of Thank God He Met Lizzie is that it threatens to limit the extent of what is mourned and who mourns.  We may feel sadness at Guy’s story, but the sadness of Jenny, her family, their friends and, indeed, the implicit grief and lack at the heart of Lizzie’s character, echo a more profound and general sense of loss and sadness that is the [End Page 10] experience of the audience watching the film.  It is an experience of loss that goes well beyond a generalised male melancholic expression of “poor Guy”, “horrible Lizzie” and “I just really miss Jenny”.

 “A relationship is like a shark”

Woody Allen is one of the greatest expressionists of the cinema of male melancholia.  In the substance of his various character and relationship studies however, we can see that he is committed to the very general audience experience of loss that I am interested in here.  Allen specialises in the charms of the type of break up scene we experience in Thank God He Met Lizzie.  In his Husbands and Wives (1992), Gabe (Allen himself) and Judy (Mia Farrow) conclude a long argument sequence with a final scene of lyrical reminiscence of their life together which leads to a mutual realisation of its ending.  It is a sad but sweet moment, typical of Allen’s films since Annie Hall (1977), which so often appear to work as a kind of palliative to the sadness and trauma of romantic separation.  The reason these films work as great films to watch after a break up, or in the middle of any relationship turmoil, is that they advocate the virtues of change and movement.  As Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) are considering breaking up in Annie Hall, Alvy observes that, “a relationship is like a shark it has to constantly move forward or it dies.  And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”  This is a cute gag certainly, and the role of the humour in these so-called Romantic Comedies is central to their palliative aspect.  As Freud points out in his 1928 essay, humour is about assuaging fear and pain, reminding us, “Look here!  This is all the seemingly dangerous world amounts to. Child’s play – the very thing to jest about.” (Freud, 1950, 220).  Accordingly, this type of humour is never far away from psychological insight, not to mention the many physical acts of movement in Allen’s work, particularly walking.  It also relates directly to the privileging of mobility over stasis that I have emphasised in my reading of the Cherie Nowlan’s film so far.  It is, therefore, a humorous line of dialogue that helps us understand the very nature of melancholia and loss, in a gender-wide sense and beyond the perversions of male melancholia, as we can read it in the film.

Central to the work of melancholia in classical Freudian terms is the subject’s unwillingness to move on and free him or herself from loss and the past.  This “inhibition of all activity” is read by Freud in both psychological and physical terms (Freud, 1984, 252, 263).  In the work of Julia Kristeva, we read the logical, and perhaps happy extension of this ceaseless mourning in the ultimate stupor, stasis and immobility of the death drive (Kristeva 1989, 119-128; 2000, 47, 54-5).  I am drawn to these ideas of movement, and the lack thereof, by considering more recent work on the idea of melancholia brought to the foreground by a 2011 exhibition at the Dax Centre in Melbourne under the curatorship of Charlotte Christie.  In the exhibition book of essays, child psychiatristPia Brous looks at the idea of melancholia in relation to psychiatry and neuroscience and highlights the work of Australian biological psychiatrist Gordon Parker.  As Brous puts it, Parker “conceptualises the “core” of melancholia as a disorder of movement rather than that of mood.”  For Brous this conceptualisation has it that “psychomotor retardation or agitation is the essence.” (Brous, 14) [End Page 11]

As we have observed in Thank God He Met Lizzie, it is exactly this type of psychomotor capacity and retardation that is at stake.  Through the apparently simple strategy of contrasting the Jenny scenes of mise-en-scene colour and camera movement with the creamy, Steadicam and stable diegesis of the Lizzie scenes, and by gradually bringing both to a final point of stasis and freeze-frame, we locate the true centre of despair in the film.  This visual manifestation of the “cinema’s paradoxical relation between movement and stillness”, as Laura Mulvey has considered it, has a direct connection to the idea of death and destruction (2006, 71& 104).  What is mourned in the film is not Jenny and not the apparent freedom of the youth and lack of responsibility that, from one perspective and in contrast to Lizzie, Jenny seems to represent.  When Jenny says of the “magic” that Guy wants to get back, “why would we want to do that?” she really seems to be saying “why would we want to go back to what was before?”  What Guy mourns, however, and we join him in this, is this very notion of movement.  The symptoms of melancholia in the film are its predominant aesthetic of stability found in the scenes of the present with Lizzie.  At the very point when the worst possible expressions of Lizzie’s character become apparent, Guy cannot resist the incredible propulsion towards this stability, a death-drive to a place of still life, where change is impossible.

The scenes with Jenny threaded throughout the wedding reception may be about fun and freedom and romantic experimentation, but the break up scene is not only extremely sad, but the freest and most romantic thing about the film.  It impresses such a response on us because it implies the greatest of all acts of mobility, the ability to change.  The scene demonstrates that, however dead inside Jenny and Guy have become, however intolerant of each other’s feeling and foibles, at that point in their lives they still have the ability to move on, to change, to break up and explore the positive side of the experience.  This break up is so moving because it is the ultimate sign of love, a gift of love and life.  In this context, the break up says, “I love you so much that I am willing to set you free and to spare you the pain of the living death of stasis and immobility.”  This is the very immobility to which not only the final snapshot scene turns, but also where Guy’s final, perhaps fantastically perverted, vision of Jenny in Martin Place rests, before both fade to darkness.

[1] Since the early 1970s, divorce in Australian law is all “no fault”.  I am using this phrase to highlight the idea in the film that marriage is essentially perverse but that the film’s protagonists are not to blame for it. “Fault” is still part of popular discourse of divorce, but is not part of the legal grounds for divorce in Australia. [End Page 12]

Works Cited

Abraham, N & Torok, M. “Mourning or Melancholia:  Introjection versus Incorporation”. The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Nicholas T. Rand. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1994. 125-138. Print.

Belsey, Catherine. Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. Print.

Blanchett, Cate. “Cast Interviews” in “Special Features” Thank God He Met Lizzie, (Cherie Nolwlan (dir), Stamen Films, The Australian Film Commission, The New South Wales Film and Television Office, Magna Pacific, Becker Entertainment 1997). DVD.

Brous, Pia. “Melancholia: A Vista from Psychiatry and Neuroscience”. Melancholia (Exhibition Booklet). Melbourne: The Dax Centre, 2011. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “The Mythology of Love,” in Myths To Live By. London: Paladin, 1972. 119-135. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905)”. Trans. J. Strachey. The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 7, On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. Ed. A. Richards.  London: Penguin, 1991. 33–169. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia (1917 [1915])”. Trans. J. Strachey. The Pelican Freud Library, volume 11, On Metapsychology. Middlesex: Penguin, 1984. 245-268. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Humor (1928)”. Sigmund Freud: Collected Papers,Volume 2. Ed. E. Jones. London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1950. 215-221. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt: The Power and Limits of Psychoanalysis. Trans. J. Herman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. L. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “God and the Jouissance of the Woman”. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and The Ecole Freudienne. Ed. J. Mitchell, and J. Rose. London: Macmillan, 1982. 137-148. Print.

Matthews, J. H. Surrealism and Film. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “The Death Drive: Narrative Movement Stilled”, in Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion Books, 2006, pp 67-84. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1989. Print.

Nicholls, Mark. Lost Objects of Desire: The Performances of Jeremy Irons. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012. Print.

Nicholls, Mark. Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob. Melbourne: Pluto Press, 2004. Print.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. “Minnelli and Melodrama (1977)” in Movies and Methods, volume 2. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985. 190-194. Print.

Schiesari, J. The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Print.

Singer, Irving. The Nature of Love. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print

Smith, Margaret. “In Review: Thank God He Met Lizzie”, Cinema Papers, November 1997, no. 121: 47-48. Print. [End Page 13]


“Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies” by An Goris


These are exciting times for popular romance scholars.[1] Over the last few years a number of interconnected developments—including the founding of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR) in 2009 and of the peer-reviewed Journal of Popular Romance Studies in 2010, the increase of international conferences about popular romance (Brisbane (2009), Brussels (2010), New York (2011), McDaniel (2011), York (2012), Freemantle (2013)) and the funding of substantial academic grants by Romance Writers of America (RWA) and The Nora Roberts Foundation—have stimulated the increasing institutional establishment and recognition of the field of Popular Romance Studies. As the overall study of the representation of romantic love in popular culture gains academic ground, the scholarly examination of one of the genres at the epicenter of this emerging field—popular romance fiction—is in transition as well. The inclusive, genre-wide and generalizing approach that characterizes many older studies of popular romance fiction, including such foundational works as Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance (1982), Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution (1987) and even some parts of Pamela Regis’ seminal A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), is slowly being replaced by a more focused and differential approach.

Such a differential approach to the study of popular romance fiction seeks to address not the whole of the genre (as older studies are wont to) but specific subparts of it. These studies are then based on more specified corpora of primary texts. Examples of such studies are recent work on romance subgenres (see e.g. Neal (2006), Fletcher (2008) and Betz (2009)), particular authors (see e.g. Frantz (2009)) and even individual novels (see e.g. Selinger (2012)). The findings and conclusions formulated in these studies are usually less general and wide-ranging than those often formulated in older romance studies. Slowly, the decades-old scholarly tradition of making very general claims about the popular romance genre as a whole is then being replaced by a more specified perspective in which the scholar seeks to address not the similarities of the whole, but the specifics of the parts of the whole. In this setup, the general claims of older studies often serve as a (normative) framework against which individual cases—of particular romance authors or novels, for example—are being tested. As will be illustrated in this paper, such a more differential approach to the study of popular romance leads to analyses that recognize (instead of obscure) the variety that exists within the genre and that are often more refined, nuanced, and sophisticated than before.[2]

The general claims about popular romance fiction that are taken to task in this paper have to do with the representation of romantic love—and, more particularly, of the mind and the body in love—in popular romance novels. Specifically, the paper investigates Catherine Belsey’s claim that popular romance novels offer a particular construction of the mind and the body in love that purports to resolve the (postmodern) tension between the body and the mind—the material and the immaterial—but eventually fails to do so. This recurrent construction, Belsey suggests, explains the massive appeal of the popular romance novel as well as the curious disappointment readers supposedly feel at the end of the happily ending romance tale (21-41). In this paper, Belsey’s general(izing) claims about popular romance novels are used as a framework to study the work of Nora Roberts, the single most popular romance author of our time. In particular, the paper analyzes the representation of the body and the mind in Roberts’ construction of romantic love on the basis of eight of the author’s novels. By investigating if Belsey’s claims about the irresolvable tension between body and mind hold true for Roberts’ hugely popular work, this paper develops a nuanced understanding of one of the core motifs in Roberts’ vast oeuvre that might shed some light on its immense popularity.

The General Claim: Mind, Body and Love in Popular Romance Novels

Catherine Belsey’s claims about the popular romance novel appear in the second chapter of Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (1994), the scholar’s theoretically sophisticated and wide-ranging study of the representation of desire in Western texts. In line with this work’s overall theoretical interests, Belsey turns to critical theory to try to explain the popular romance novel’s massive appeal. Her analysis focuses mainly on the representation of romantic love as a phenomenon that impacts both the body and the mind in popular romance novels. This dual conceptualization of love, Belsey notes, is in line with long-standing Western traditions of dual conceptualisations of identity and the self that originated with René Descartes and his colleagues of the Enlightenment. These thinkers put forth conceptualisations of the human subject as internally disjointed and divided along the line of the body and the mind that have held sway in Western culture ever since. Although Belsey notes that such dual conceptualisations have come to seem “natural and inevitable” (23), the notion that the self is internally disjointed remains a deeply unsettling idea in many ways. Popular romance novels, Belsey finds, capitalise upon this anxiety and this is the secret to their extraordinary appeal. In these novels, romantic love offers “a promise to bring mind and body back into perfect unity, to heal the rift of experience which divides individuals from themselves” (23). Such a promise, Belsey posits, strongly appeals to the contemporary reader.

However, Belsey is quick to note, fulfilling this central promise is easier said than done and herein lies the romance genre’s problem. Romances attempt to bridge the gap between mind and body by consistently connecting intense sexual sensations to moral and emotional feelings of commitment and love (23). This goal, Belsey elaborates, induces the genre’s rather specific representation of sexuality as “elemental, beyond control, majestic, thrilling, dangerous” (27)—a construction that is in part achieved by the stereotypical representation of sexual passion in metaphors of powerful natural phenomena such as a hurricane, a flood, a storm, an earthquake or a wave. While such extremely intense sexual sensations ensure the involvement of the body in the experience of romantic love, physical passion alone is not enough. Indeed, Belsey observes, for this passion to constitute true love, not only the body but also the mind has to be engaged: the rational, knowing subject is, in love, “required to speak, to assert his identity as a subject” (29).

It is here, Belsey claims, that the crux of the problem lies. Words spoken in the heat of passion are not to be trusted since this passion has explicitly been presented as “bewildering, transporting of consciousness, sweeping away all sense of the self, [which] precisely deflects subjectivity and consequently defers the moment of moral commitment” (29). Only the words that are spoken afterwards, “independently [from the bodily experience], once the knowing, willing subject is restored,” are the words that really matter (30, emphasis mine). But herein lies also the failure of the romance novel to live up to its promise of unifying mind and body. Inasmuch as the romance project hinges on words spoken in this separate, post-passionate context, it does not bring body and mind together, but rather enforces the distinctions between them. “To the extent that the aim was to dissolve the opposition between mind and body in a story of true love,” Belsey concludes, “the project signally fails in these instances” (30). This failure, Belsey finally suggests, explains why “the fantasy [romances] offer is a little disappointing” (31): romance novels consistently fail to live up to the promise that constitutes (at least in Belsey’s eyes) their biggest appeal.

The sense of disappointment Belsey speaks of is not, as such, identified or described by romance readers. To the contrary: in Janice Radway’s classic study, to which Belsey repeatedly refers, readers consistently identify positive emotions at the end of the romance reading experience and claim romance reading makes them feel good (60-66). Belsey does not consider these claims to be incompatible with her own conclusions, however. Instead she suggests that the frequent repetition of the romance reading act Radway observed likely confirms her hypothesis:

It emerged that the Smithton women were reading a great many romances. [ . . . ] Is it conceivable that this avid reading is an indication that the optimism created by romance is more precarious than it is possible to say? Perhaps the next romance is there to compensate for the disappointments engendered by the last? All we can be sure of is that readers of romance tend to crave more romance. A number of the Smithton women acknowledged an anxiety about whether they might be depressed by their reading [ . . . w]hat if the anxiety is precisely an effect of their extensive reading experience, a silent recognition of unconscious disappointment that the stories have consistently failed to resolve the divisions they depend on? (34-35)

Although Belsey formulates her ideas as questions, she quite strongly suggests that the repetition of the romance reading act is not, as readers tend to claim, primarily motivated by positive emotions, but rather by a sense of disappointment that readers might not be consciously aware of: a disappointment which is, in Belsey’s eyes, very likely a consequence of romance reading itself.

Belsey and the Evolution of Romance Scholarship

Although Belsey’s claims have found very little response in subsequent romance criticism, she puts forth a set of interesting, challenging and even provocative ideas. The notion that the popular romance novel’s massive appeal—a (seeming) conundrum that has confounded many a critic—has something to do with the texts’ complex relation to anxieties about self and identity that are typically associated with the (post)modern condition is a new, intriguing and valuable suggestion that certainly deserves further scrutiny. While Belsey’s discussion of the romance reader’s lack of awareness of her own negative response comes off as somewhat belittling, the suggestion that romance reading triggers a more complex reaction than straightforward happiness—and that this reaction might have something to do with the desire to read more romance—is fascinating nonetheless. Belsey’s study thus offers a number of suggestions that deserve further exploration.

Such further exploration is undertaken in this paper, but in line with the ongoing development in the field of Popular Romance Studies there is an important methodological difference between this study and Belsey’s. Notwithstanding the impressive theoretical suggestions the latter makes, Belsey commits an important methodological faux pas in her study by failing to adequately discuss the size, composition and selection of the primary corpus on which her findings are based. Moreover, since in the course of her discussion Belsey refers to no more than six romance texts, the (apparent) size of her corpus seems decidedly too small to warrant the genre-wide scope of her claims. The present study deliberately makes different methodological choices by first, focussing on the oeuvre of a single author and second, selecting novels from that oeuvre according to explicit, clear-cut principles.

Nora Roberts

This paper focuses on American writer Nora Roberts, who is widely considered the most popular and successful romance author of our time. Since her first category romance novel was published in 1981, Roberts has written more than 200 romance novels. A staggering 178 of these have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, on which the author’s novels have so far spent a total of 932 weeks (or 17 years). As the first (and only triple) inductee in RWA’s Hall of Fame and the recipient of a record-breaking twenty-one RITA Awards, Roberts is one of the most distinguished romance authors in RWA’s and the romance genre’s history. With more than 400 million copies of her books currently in print Roberts is, moreover, not only the top-selling romance writer, but also one of the bestselling authors in the world.

Remarkably, Roberts is also one of the most understudied authors in the world. Whereas the oeuvres of Roberts’ fellow bestselling authors such as J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and John Grisham are studied regularly, Roberts’ romance oeuvre has hardly drawn the academic gaze.[3] Barely a handful of studies on her work have been published; a monograph that takes on Roberts’ complete oeuvre does not currently exist.[4] In this regard Roberts does not differ from other contemporary romance authors—the author study remains an important lacuna in scholarship on this genre—but her status as one of the bestselling authors in the world makes the lack of studies on her work especially remarkable.

Perhaps one of the reasons scholars have been reluctant to take on Roberts’ oeuvre is its sheer size. Already counting more than 200 novels and increasing by an average of five new novels every year, Roberts’ body of work is simply colossal. It is also decidedly too large to subject to the close reading analysis on which this present study is based, so for the purposes of this study a selection had to be made. This selection takes into account a number of the most significant variables present in Roberts’ oeuvre—including year of publication, subgenre, part of series or standalone and original publication format—and eventually resulted in eight novels.

  Publication Subgenre Series / stand alone Original format
Irish Thoroughbred 1981 Contemporary Irish Hearts series Category
One Man’s Art 1985 Contemporary MacGregor series Category
Suzanna’s Surrender 1991 Contemporary/


Calhoun series Category
Montana Sky 1996 Western/


Stand alone Single title


Morrigan’s Cross 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (1) Single title


Dance of the Gods 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (2) Single title


Valley of Silence 2006 Paranormal Circle Trilogy (3) Single title


High Noon 2007 Suspense Stand alone Single title


Although this collection of eight novels does not represent the full range of Roberts’ oeuvre—Roberts’ alter ego J.D. Robb is missing and the decade between 1996 and 2006 is underrepresented, to name its two most important shortcomings—the corpus is nonetheless fairly well-balanced and compatible with the practical constraints of a study like this one.

The Integration of Body and Mind in Nora Roberts’ Romance Fiction

Catherine Belsey’s claims about the pivotal importance of the representation of the body and the mind to the immense appeal of the popular romance genre open up interesting avenues of inquiry for the study of Nora Roberts’ work. As Belsey’s observations imply, the complex relation between body and mind plays a central role in Roberts’ representation of romantic love, which is indeed conceptualized as a dual force that impacts the body as well as the mind. While to a large extent Roberts’ romance novels follow the patterns of the genre insightfully uncovered in Belsey’s study, in one crucial regard Roberts’ novels deviate from this pattern. Whereas Belsey claims that popular romance novels consistently fail to realize the bridging of the gap between body and mind their conventional representation of romantic love promises, the analyses in this paper reveal that in Roberts’ romance fiction the unification of body and mind is always represented as successful. The potential implications of this observation for our understanding of Roberts’ popularity are addressed in the conclusion to this paper after the pattern that achieves this unification is described in more detail.

Divided Selves During the First Meeting

In Roberts’ romances, the process that ends with the complete and successful integration of the lover-subject’s body and mind starts with their explicit separation. Indeed, at the beginning of Roberts’ stories the division between the lover’s body and mind is repeatedly stressed in the narration. All first meeting scenes analyzed in this study emphasize the protagonists’ double, diverging response to each other: strong and immediate physical attraction is combined with a form of conscious dislike, irritation, or anger. Although this representation differs slightly from the pattern observed by Belsey—who finds that the division between mind and body is mainly situated in the heroine’s emphatic bewilderment over, lack of understanding of, or even full-out distrust of her body’s uncontrollable, explicitly sexual response to the hero (24-26)—the first meeting scenes in Roberts’ romances nonetheless systematically introduce, and emphatically stage, the basic dichotomy between body and mind around which the rest of the romance narrative essentially revolves.

The first meeting scene between hero Grant Campbell and heroine Gennie Grandeau in Roberts’ 1985 category romance One Man’s Art is an example of this construction. Hero Grant is severely “annoyed” (264) when heroine Gennie shows up at his doorstep during a stormy night, disrupting his much-valued solitude and privacy. Roberts quickly adopts the hero’s point of view to emphasize that barely seconds after letting the heroine in he already “wished fervently he’d never opened the door” (263). Gennie, put out by Grant’s “unfriendly, scowling face” and rude and unwelcoming behavior, adopts an “icy tone” and remains “distantly polite, [ . . . ] frigid and haughty” (264), but privately “seriously consider[s] heaving her purse at him” (265). The narration of this immediate dislike and annoyance is instantly complemented with the narration of their physical attraction. Grant is “thrown” by Gennie’s “sea green, huge and faintly slanted” eyes (264) and “when the sight of her [ . . . goes] straight to his gut” he realizes she is “too beautiful for his peace of mind” (267). The unambiguous statement that Grant is “furiously annoyed by the flare of unwelcome desire” (268) makes the opposition between his mental and physical response textually explicit. Gennie is portrayed as equally attracted, experiencing a physical “stir” and “a thrill [of . . . ] anticipation” (269). Again, the body’s response is explicitly opposed to the mind: she is depicted as “catching herself” and internally lecturing that “even her imagination ha[s] no business sneaking off in that direction” (269). The division between body and mind, staged continuously throughout this first meeting scene, is once more explicitly narrated in the scene’s closing paragraphs:

He wondered what she would do if he simply got up, hauled her to her feet and dragged her up into his bed. He wondered what in the hell was getting into him. They stared at each other, each battered by feelings neither of them wanted while the rain and the wind beat against the walls, separating them from everything civilized. (270)

The parallel syntactic construction of the first two sentences (“He wondered . . . He wondered”) discursively reinforces the notion—made explicit in the narration—that within one person, one self, two opposing reactions are simultaneously ongoing; the physical, sexual response is represented as a force separate from the conscious self—indeed, Grant experiences it as “getting into him.” The opposition between mind and body is again stressed in the statement that both Gennie and Grant are “battered” by physical “feelings neither of them want.” The subsequent sketch of the violent natural setting in which these “feelings” occur explicitly underlines the distinction: the “civilized” mind is “separated” from the unruly, feeling body.

The Body As Marker of Sincerity

A fundamental aspect of Roberts’ representation of the divided self at the beginning of her romance novels is the emphasis on the mind’s inability to control the body in these instances. Roberts’ narrations consistently stress the passive, powerless position of the mental self who undergoes the sexual attraction, the invasive physical impact of the romantic other, but who emphatically lacks power over these bodily reactions and cannot stop them. This uncontrollability not only stresses the schism between body and mind that exists within the lover’s self at this early stage of the romance narrative, but is also an essential aspect of Roberts’ construction of the body as a site of (emotional) truth. In Roberts’ fictional universes the body consistently functions as a marker and display of (emotional) truth. Profound, heart-felt, sincere emotions instantly manifest bodily: faces pale in shock, fingers tremble from sadness, hands jerk in surprise, voices shake from anger and eyes are bruised, battered or smudged from emotional pain. Time and again, Roberts’ narrations stress that the mind—the conscious, thinking self—has no control over these physical manifestations.

Importantly, this emphatic lack of mental control implies an inability to consciously manipulate the body—in Roberts’ fictional worlds, when true love is involved, the body cannot lie. The uncontrolled body thus necessarily and certainly displays true, sincere, authentic emotion—and to say that the body displays these emotions means, in effect, that in Roberts’ romance fiction the body becomes a text that can be read in order to gain insight into one’s true emotional state, even when the novel at hand does not explicitly deploy textual metaphors. This “reading” of the body is undertaken by both the characters within the fictional world and the novels’ readers outside of it. Indeed, in an interesting doubling act, the novels’ characters, like the novels’ readers, become readers and interpreters who turn to the body-text to gain insight into their own or another character’s true emotions.

Roberts’ deployment of the body-text as a marker of sincere emotion is exemplified in a scene from the 1996 single title Western romance Montana Sky. The scene depicts the story’s heroine, Willa Mercy, in a state of profound emotional distress. She has just discovered the murdered and mutilated body of her long-time employee Pickles and faces the loss of her home, ranch and livelihood due to the murder. While throughout the novel Willa is usually characterized as an exceptionally strong and decisive woman, this is a point in the narrative where she reaches emotional rock bottom. In the following excerpt she is confronted with her two half-sisters, with whom she has a strained relationship, and experiences a range of conflicting emotions. Willa’s complex emotions—which include grief over Pickles, horror over the image of the mutilated body, guilt because she had words with the victim mere hours before his death, bone-deep fear of losing her home and livelihood and eventual extreme relief when she realizes the ranch is safe—impact her body, which instantaneously displays them.

Willa came into the kitchen, stopped short when she saw the women at the table. Her face was still pale, her movements still jerky. [ . . . ] She slipped her hands into her pockets as she stepped toward the table. Her fingers still tended to shake. [Her sister confirms the ranch is safe. . . . ] Because wine seemed like a fine idea, Willa crossed to the cupboards and took out a tumbler. Then she just stood there, unable to move, barely able to think. She hadn’t been able to fully consider the loss of the ranch. [ . . . ] But it wasn’t until now, until she knew [it was safe], that it hit her. And it hit her hard. Giving in, she rested her head against the cupboard door and closed her eyes. Pickles. Dear God, would she see him for the rest of her life, what had been done to him, what had been left of him? [ . . . ] But the ranch, for now, was safe. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” She didn’t realize she’d moaned it out loud until Lily laid a tentative hand on her shoulder. (110)

In this scene, Willa’s body clearly functions as a text displaying her emotions as both the characters within the fictional world and the novel’s reader outside of it interpret Willa’s emotional state of mind via the physical signs displayed by her body. Her pale face, jerky movements, shaking fingers, closed eyes and unconscious moaning are conventional physical signs of emotional upheaval. The pronounced contrast between her purposeful, controlled physical actions—“cross[ing] to the cupboards and tak[ing] out a tumbler”—and the purposeless, uncontrolled ones—“just [standing] there, unable to move, [ . . . ] rest[ing] her head [ . . . ] clos[ing] her eyes”—constructs and reinforces the interpretation of the latter as manifestations of and responses to profound emotions.

The character’s lack of conscious control over her body’s display is stressed multiple times in this short scene and ensures the sincerity of these emotions. It is clear that the characters in this fictional world are aware of their bodies’ truth-revealing and communicative potential: Willa attempts to hide her shaking fingers, knowing those bodily manifestations would reveal a depth of emotional turmoil she is uncomfortable displaying in front of her sisters. Lily’s supportive “hand on [Willa’s] shoulder” indicates, reversely, that not only grief but also support and comfort can be communicated solely by the body. The marked absence of language—dialogue—in this scene adds to its emotional impact as it constructs this world as one in which emotional truth can be read directly from and conveyed by the body-text, making emotional deceit and insincerity virtually impossible.

Sex: So Much More Than Just Sex

Roberts’ construction of the body as a marker of emotional truth—which is pervasive in her texts and an important conceptual pillar on which her fictional worlds rest—implies that the body uncontrolled by the mind displays emotional truth. This notion puts another perspective on the function of sex in the representation of romantic love. Roberts’ texts emphasize the physical, natural, powerful and non-rational aspects of sex and sexual desire, which are represented as ultimate acts of the body as opposed to the mind. In the experience of sexual sensations “the body rule[s] the moment” (High Noon 222) and the thinking, rational, controlling self is temporarily suspended as the natural impulses of the body take over. This representation is frequently based on the association of sex with powerful natural phenomena and a lack of rationality and control on the part of the mental, conscious self. As Belsey notes, metaphors of powerful natural phenomena and disasters are often used to describe sexual sensations in popular romance novels, and Roberts indeed tends to depict sex in rather unimaginative and very conventional—even clichéd—metaphors. Sexual sensations are like a “flame [ . . . and] fire, in the blood, in the bone” (Valley of Silence 62), “long, liquid waves” (High Noon 312), “turbulence,” “a tidal wave” (Irish Thoroughbred 195; 129), “a rage” (Montana Sky 134), “a fever” (Suzanna’s Surrender 389), “a full-scale explosion” (One Man’s Art 306) and “liquid flames” (Dance of the Gods 96). Via these metaphors Roberts not only emphasizes the powerful, uncontrollable force of the sexual experiences—sex is literally and metaphorically depicted as a force of nature—but of course also inscribes the texts in the conventions of the romance genre.

The rational subject’s lack of control in the physical sexual experience is further emphasized in Roberts’ narration by her representation of sexual desire and sensations as a near-violent force that seems to attack the body. Descriptions such as “desire [ . . . ] pierced through him” (Morrigan’s Cross 43, emphasis mine), “each separate scent slammed into his system, pumping through his blood, roaring through his head,” “dozens of sensations knifed into him, all sharp and deadly” (Suzanna’s Surrender 389; 429, emphasis mine), “the stab of desire [ . . . ] left a nagging ache,” “it rocket through him, fierce and fast,” and is “an assault on the system” (One Man’s Art 304-5, emphasis mine) systematically invoke the semantic field of violence and thereby stress the uncontrollable nature of this desire.[5] These descriptions also serve to represent the subject’s experience of sexual desire as an external phenomenon which does not seem to originate within the (conscious) self. The gap between body and mind seems wider than ever in these passages.

This dissociation between body and mind is reinforced by the recurring and explicit associations of sex with a lack of rationality; physical sexual sensations are repeatedly represented as causing the mind to “turn off” (Valley of Silence 141). Here are two exemplary passages:

He brushed his thumb over her nipple, watched the shock of pleasure flicker over her face. “Turn that busy mind off, Moira.” It was already as if mists clouded it. How could she think when her body was swimming in sensation? [ . . . H]er mind misted over again as his hands, his mouth, slid like flaming velvet over her body. [ . . . ] She was nothing but feelings now, a mass of pleasures beyond any possibility. [ . . . ] His hands simply ruled her until she was a hostage to this never-ending need. Half-mad she struggled with his shirt. (Valley of Silence 141)

But right at the moment, with her back up against the door and his mouth hot on hers, thinking wasn’t part of the equation. [ . . . ] His hands dove into her hair, skimmed over her shoulders, molded down her body with such purpose and skill that any idea [ . . . ] went straight out of the window, and kept on flying. [ . . . ] With her mouth under assault and her blood flashing from comfortably warm to desperately hot, her body ruled the moment. [ . . . ] The sensations careening inside her flew too fast, too high for [ . . . ] any hope of sanity. (High Noon 221-22)

Physical sexual pleasure is explicitly presented as causing a temporary suspension of the self’s rational capacity: Moira’s mind is “clouded” by “mists” and “misted over” due to the hero’s sexually arousing touches; “thinking [isn’t] part of the equation” in these scenes as rational thoughts go “straight out the window and [keep] flying.” Again, the sexual body is presented as the opposite of the rational, thinking mind: “how could she think when her body was swimming in sensations?” During sex the self is then reduced to “nothing but feelings, a mass of pleasures” and the “body rule[s] the moment;” the rational self is temporarily suspended in this act and, the love scenes stress over and over again, overpowered by the natural body that for an instant overtakes and occupies the entire self. This hyperbolic representation of sex—Roberts projects the feelings surrounding the orgasmic moment to all sexual sensations—emphasizes and exaggerates the uncontrollable nature of sex and, by extension, the body.

Whereas Belsey interprets this representation of sexuality as indicative of how body and mind are and remain separated, my reading of Roberts’ use of these topoi recasts them as a pre-condition for the authenticity of the true love that is later realized in the complete unification of body and mind. This interpretation builds on Roberts’ construction of the body as a marker of emotional truth—an interpretive strategy that constructs sexuality as undeniable physical proof of the authenticity of an as-yet mentally unacknowledged emotion. This interpretation of sex is further supported by other, explicitly non-sexual manifestations of the body. Indeed, the bodies of Roberts’ lovers/protagonists do not exclusively respond to the other in a sexual way, but also experience and display strong non-sexualized reactions. These are diverse and range from the small and seemingly unremarkable—an “uneven beat of [the] heart” (Irish Thoroughbred 43), hands that naturally “belong” (One Man’s Art 328) together, a “quick hitch in [the] gut” upon seeing the other cry (Montana Sky 65), a throat snapping shut when being “wooed” (Dance of the Gods 90), and the natural “fit” of each other’s bodies (Montana Sky 115)—to more elaborate physical responses.

In the following brief scene from the 1991 category romance Suzanna’s Surrender, for example, hero Holt’s body experiences and displays his strong emotional response to heroine Suzanna at a time in the narrative when he has not yet consciously realized or acknowledged his feelings for her (let alone openly confessed them to her). Holt’s body displays as-yet-unspoken feelings of affection and love, but this display is clearly not sexual:

[Holt] rubbed a thumb over the line between [Suzanna’s] brows in a gentle gesture that surprised them both. Catching himself, he dropped his hand again. (Suzanna’s Surrender 421)

Again the conscious self’s lack of control over this bodily act (“catching himself”) is stressed; the body, disconnected in these acts from the mind, displays and reveals an emotional truth the rational, conscious self has not yet acknowledged. While the overwhelming sexual response then generally dominates the protagonists’ physical reaction to one another, such non-sexual physical manifestations confirm what the emphatic uncontrollability of the sexual acts already indicate, namely the existence of an as-yet linguistically unacknowledged emotion of which these bodily manifestations are both the physical trace and proof.

The Meaning of the Body

Although these physical manifestations and reactions are an essential part of true love, they do not suffice: as Belsey remarks, for popular romance novels the difference between love and lust lies in the complete involvement of the mental self (28-29). In Roberts’ novels as well, true romantic love comes into being when not only the bodily but also the mental self is involved in the phenomenon. This mental involvement consists, as Belsey already indicates, essentially of language: the lover speaks about love, in doing so asserts his/her identity as a subject and involves his/her complete self in the romantic love he/she speaks of. However, whereas Belsey posits that it is in this speaking that the dichotomy between mind and body is reconfirmed and reconstituted—the words have to be spoken “independently” from the body (Belsey 30)—I claim that in Nora Roberts’ romances in this speaking of love the gap between body and mind is definitively bridged.

In a fictional world in which the body functions as a text the physical manifestations of love have double significance: they offer the unquestionable physical proof of love’s truth by making it tangible, anchoring the immaterial to the material, and they signal and display this truth to be read, interpreted and linguistically realized. Still, Roberts’ representations of romantic love consistently make the point that without the active intervention of the conscious, thinking, speaking self this physicality is and remains mute. It is only when the thinking, speaking subject intervenes with the transformative act of interpretation that these otherwise meaningless physical manifestations become significant and meaningful, in the etymological senses of both words. This transformative act, the “making” of meaning and sense, takes place in language; physical reality (the body) is “put into words” and thereby transformed from meaning-less to meaning-full. As long as love is only apparent in the body and remains consciously, rationally and linguistically unacknowledged, it remains without meaning, regardless of how materially real and true the bodily manifestations prove it to be. It is in this transformative process of making the meaningless physical truth meaningful that the gap between body and mind—emphatically staged at the start of the romance—is bridged in Roberts’ conceptualisation of true love. This bridging takes place in three successive stages.

The first stage consists of a remarkable discomfort, unease and even fear the protagonists experience over (some of) their physical reactions. Montana Sky hero Ben, for example, is “unnerved” (115) by the way Willa fits in his arms, Irish Thoroughbred’s Adelia finds her physical “awareness” of Travis “disturbing” (47), Blair, in Dance of the Gods, feels “wary” (48) about kissing Larkin, Holt and Suzanna both “resent and fear” (Suzanna’s Surrender 383) the intensity of their physical attraction, and Morrigan’s Cross’ Hoyt “fears” (82) the intensity of his desire for Glenna. This resentment and fear is all the more remarkable because it is often connected to physical and sexual sensations that are essentially pleasurable (exceptionally so even). The lovers’ marked unease then indicates a consciously unarticulated awareness on their part that the intensity of their bodily response is a sign of an otherwise as-yet-unacknowledged emotional truth: they are falling in love. The concept of love—that is, the signifier ‘love’—remains strictly unarticulated by the protagonists in this stage of the story, however.

The second phase in the bridging of the gap between mind and body by making meaningless physical truth meaning-full via interpretation and linguistic actualisation consists of a rudimentary linguistic acknowledgement of the physically enacted emotional truth. This elementary linguistic acknowledgement takes place in the use of the explicitly vague and generic term “something” (sometimes “it”) to refer to the phenomenon that in a later stage will be acknowledged as true love. Roberts uses this word in this way multiple times in all the novels in this study; a few examples:

[S]he had tapped into something inside him he hadn’t known was there—and was still more than a little uncomfortable with. Finding it, feeling it left him as vulnerable as she. (Suzanna’s Surrender 470)


I feel for you. You stir something in me. Yes, it’s difficult, and it’s distracting. But it tells me I’m here. (Morrigan’s Cross 127)


There was longing in him for her, which he thought as natural as breath. But there was something tangled with it, something sharp that he didn’t recognize. (Dance of the Gods 100)


Still, there was something inside her, something she couldn’t quite see clearly, or study, or understand. Whatever it was made her uneasy, even nervy around him. (Dance of the Gods 212)

“Something” is an interesting choice of words: on the one hand it signifies a rudimentary linguistic actualisation of the physically manifesting truth, which is at this stage in the story still unnamed and thus unsignified; “something” changes this and brings the uninterpreted, mute physicality into the meaning-full, human world of language. On the other hand, however, “something” is a word that essentially means nothing. It is so vague and generic that in the act of naming it signifies not-naming; even as it puts into words—signifies, linguistically actualises—a physical reality, it refuses to assign it actual, concrete meaning. Still, this use of “something” signals the beginning of the bridging of the gap between mind and body as it starts the mental naming process of a bodily experienced truth. It does not, however, fully bridge the gap; the lack of concrete meaning makes the transformative act of interpretation and signification incomplete.

The gap between body and mind is fully bridged in the third phase: the actual use of the word “love” in naming the physical and emotional phenomenon the protagonists are experiencing. This first conscious naming takes place in the protagonist’s initial, introspective realization or acknowledgement that he/she is in “love” with the other. It is one of the most important moments in the romance novel and its representation as an isolated, crystal clear moment poised in time and place reinforces its perceived significance.

Why did he always send her into a flutter? she wondered. Why did her pulses begin to race [ . . . ] whenever she looked up and met those marvelous, blue eyes? [ . . . ] She’d lost. She’d lost the battle, and though she fought against it, she was in love with Travis Grant. (Irish Thoroughbred 78)


Love. He’d managed to avoid it for so many years, then he had thoughtlessly opened the door. It had barged in on him, Grant reflected, uninvited, unwelcome. Now he was vulnerable, dependent—all the things he had promised himself he’d never be again. (One Man’s Art 408)


He glanced toward her and felt the punch low in his gut. [ . . .] When his palms grew damp on the wheel, he looked away. Not falling in love, he realized. He’d stopped falling and had hit the ground with a fatal smack. (Suzanna’s Surrender 442)


Love. His heart ached at the word so that he pressed his hand to it. This was love then. The gnawing, the burning. The light and the dark. Not just warm flesh and murmurs in the candlelight, but pain and awareness in the light of day. In the depths of the night. To feel so much for one person, it eclipsed all else. And it was terrifying. (Morrigan’s Cross 247)[6]

In these scenes, the most crucial step in the bridging of the gap between mind and body is taken: the physical materiality of the body—already rudimentarily signified by “something” but still lacking true meaning and thereby a place in the ordered, comprehensible, signified human world—is transformed into a signified linguistic entity and irrevocably takes on meaning. The gap between mind and body is then completely bridged in these scenes since these words are not spoken independently from the body, as Belsey would have it, but are to the contrary both a linguistic, mental actualisation of the bodily experience which cause further bodily repercussions. Indeed, the use of the word love impacts the body. Body and mind are intimately connected; the self is unified.

From Love to True Love Via “I Love You”

Although in the initial linguistic actualisation of love the gap between the lover’s body and mind is bridged, the love that is realized here does not yet qualify as the utopian true love around which popular romance novels conventionally revolve. The discourse that is used in the initial realization scenes tends to signal that something is still amiss. In the examples cited above, for instance, love is considered a “lost battle”, it “aches [ . . . ] gnaws [ . . . ] burns,” brings “pain” and uncomfortable “awareness;” and is explicitly “uninvited, unwelcome,” “terrifying,” and “fatal.” The semantic fields of battle and violence which are systematically invoked in thinking about love in this stage of Roberts’ romance narratives are discursive traces of an underlying problem: the lover has not yet freely, rationally, actively chosen this love. Instead, this love is a physically proven truth, a fait accompli, a material fact the existence of which the lover can no longer ignore or deny, but to which he is at this point essentially subjected. In other words, the lover lacks agency in love.

That the lover’s agency and volition, his free and active choice to accept and embrace love, is crucial to Roberts’ conceptualisation of true love is something that is established repeatedly in the narratives in this study. Roberts’ lovers tend to make a clear distinction, for example, between the physical manifestation of sexual desire and other bodily signals of love on the one hand and the choice to accept and want those desires and manifestation—to want, in other words, romantic love—on the other. Morrigan’s Cross’ heroine Glenna Ward pointedly formulates the central dilemma Roberts’ lovers/protagonists face in this regard when after her first, fiercely passionate kiss with reluctant hero Hoyt, she muses: “He wanted her, there was no question of that. But he didn’t choose to want her. Glenna preferred to be chosen” (Morrigan’s Cross, 83). The signifier “want,” here a reference to sexual desire, and “choice,” here a reference to the innately human capacity of free will, explicitly differentiate between the desires of the body and the mind in play in this scene and the entire romance. The heroine’s explicit assertion that she “prefer[s] to be chosen” indicates the importance of the lover’s conscious volition in the matter of true love. In deliberately choosing to accept and actively embrace love—a love that has been constructed as both physically and emotionally overwhelming—the lover takes on agency in the experience and finally completes the realization of true love.

Lovers in Roberts’ popular romance novels take on the necessary agency in the declaration of love, which is constituted by uttering the deceptively simple words “I love you.” The communicative nature of the declaration of love distinguishes it from the earlier, interior linguistic realization of love. In uttering the words “I love you,” the lover openly declares his love to the other and transforms the status of his love from private to public. As love becomes a shared knowledge between the lover and the beloved, it also becomes part of the world outside the self and, consequently, requires a place within that exterior world. The successful declaration of love signals the lover’s free will to assign love that place in the world, to freely and completely accept the potentially overwhelming experience and give it a meaningful place in his reality, as we can see in this example of a successful declaration scene:

I love you. [ . . . Y]ou’re my breath, and my pulse, my heart, my voice. [ . . . ] I’ll love you even when all of them stop. I’ll love you, and only you, until all the worlds are ended. So you’ll marry me, Blair. And I’ll go where you go, and fight beside you. We’ll live together, and love together, and make a family. (Dance of the Gods 313)

The lover first re-establishes the truth of the love-phrase by explicitly referencing the body and then places his declared love in the meaningful, recognizable socio-economic and cultural order of the world by tying it to the culturally conventional institutions of marriage and family. In this way the lover takes on agency in the experience of love as he performs the choice to accept and embrace the potentially overpowering natural phenomenon and places it in the meaningful world of culture. The subject’s cultural placing of love in the conventional entities of marriage, home and family checks love’s natural, potentially uncontrollable power and transforms it into a steady and strong basis for the protagonists’ lives together.

Although the successful declaration of love that completes the realization of true love is always constituted, in Roberts’ popular romances, by the phrase “I love you,” the words alone are not enough. “I love you” is only successful as a declaration of love when it performs the lover’s volition to place love in the cultural order and to make romantic love into the foundation of the culturally conventional entities of marriage (a lifetime spent together), home and family.[7] That simply speaking the words “I love you” does not constitute the successful declaration of love becomes clear when we look more closely at one of the few unsuccessful declarations the corpus of this study includes. In One Man’s Art, for example, the protagonists declare their love to one another for the first time about halfway through the novel, but these declarations are ultimately unsuccessful (the relationship still falls apart afterwards). A closer reading of the scene reveals the problem:

[Hero Grant:] “I feel like someone’s just given me a solid right straight to the gut. [ . . . ] So now I’m in love with you, and I can tell you, I’m not crazy about the idea.” [ . . . ]

[Heroine Gennie]: “If you’re in love with me, that’s your problem. I have one of my own because I’m in love with you.” [ . . . ]

[Grant] “We both would have been better off if you’d waited out that storm in a ditch instead of coming here. [ . . . ] I’m in love with you, and damn it, I don’t like it. [ . . . ] I love you [ . . . ] I don’t like it, I may never get used to it, but I love you. [ . . . ] You make my head swim.” (405-7)

Although both hero and heroine speak the conventional words of love—words which are, moreover, explicitly connected to the body, so the material truth of this love is not in doubt—the characters do not perform the free choice to accept that love. Grant’s repeated assertion that he “does not like” being in love with Gennie signals his lack of agency in the experience. The love he speaks of is the one over which he has no control and in which he makes no choice; it is the powerful, dangerous, potentially overwhelming kind of love which has not yet been brought into the cultural system—love without a place in the conventional cultural order. This unplaced love, though physically real and linguistically declared, is a “problem” to which neither character, in this stage of the story, has the solution. This problem is solved in the final scene of the novel when the protagonists’ declarations of love lead to a marriage proposal and, implicitly, the perspective on a shared home and family (492-98).

As a successful declaration of love, the phrase “I love you” then works in a very particular way in Roberts’ romance novels. Declared under the appropriate circumstances and conveying a particular set of meanings, the declaration realises—actualises, makes real—true love and thereby literally changes reality. Indeed, it is precisely in saying the words that true love is realised: the declaration “I love you” performs true love. “I love you” functions as a performative speech act in all of Roberts’ romance novels, but this functioning is especially clearly illustrated in the paranormal romance Morrigan’s Cross, in which the story’s paranormal setting is used to explicitly depict the reality-changing impact of the declaration of love.

“I love you.” She saw his eyes change. “Those are the strongest words in any magic. I love you. With that incantation, I already belong to you.”

“Once I speak it, it’s alive. Nothing can ever kill it. [ . . . ] I love you.” A single beam of light shot out of the sky, washed over them, centred them in a circle of white. (249-50)

“I love you” is considered an “incantation,” “strong [ . . . ] magic[al]” words which perform the belonging to each other that romantic love implies. This scene emphasizes the power the spoken love-word has in Roberts’ romances: once love is spoken, it is “alive. Nothing can ever kill it.” The words, moreover, not only have an immediate effect on the body (“his eyes change”), but also literally change reality (“A single beam [ . . . ] white”).

This performative speech act, which can only be realized by a lover whose body and mind are harmoniously unified within the self, completes the lover’s journey and often heralds the beginning of the romance novel’s (in)famous happily-ever-after ending. The unification between body and mind—between the order of the material and of the immaterial—that is ultimately achieved in the experience of true love in Roberts’ romance novels turns these happily-ever-afters into epistemologically very appealing fictional universes. In these implied fictional worlds the radical insecurities that are part and parcel of the (post)modern condition are overcome and replaced by epistemological certitudes. These are worlds in which the self is unified, the body displays truth and the truth can be spoken. In these worlds true love not only exists, but becomes the epistemological, emotional, cultural, and economic foundation on which all else rests. These are, in short, the massively appealing fictional worlds that Belsey claims the popular romance novel promises but fails to deliver.


If Nora Roberts succeeds where, at least according to Belsey, other romance authors fail, is this success then the secret to Roberts’ unprecedented popularity? According to the terms set by Belsey’s older study, this would be the logical conclusion indeed. If Belsey is right in claiming that the massive appeal of popular romance fiction lies in its promise to unite mind and body and if Nora Roberts is the only author to actually consistently achieve this fictional unification, the logical outcome would be that it is Roberts’ mastery of this particular construction of romantic love that underlies her exceptional popular success.[8] This suggestion is certainly intriguing and deserves further scrutiny in future work. But for the moment methodological rigor—of a kind that is characteristic of the further maturation of the field of Popular Romance Studies discussed in the introduction to this paper—urges caution in an attempt to avoid hasty conclusions.

A number of questions in fact remain open. While it is, for example, clear that this construction of romantic love recurs in Roberts’ romance novels, it remains unclear whether it is specific to Roberts’ work. Comparative analyses of other authorial romance oeuvres are necessary to determine the wider occurrence of this pattern. If the construction turns out to be specific to Roberts, further sociological or anthropological study of the reception of these novels is necessary to substantiate Belsey’s theory-based claim that it is precisely this particular representation of romantic love that determines the massive appeal of Roberts’ oeuvre. If the construction is not specific to Roberts’ oeuvre, it is possible that this study points towards an important wider historical shift in the romance genre. It is imaginable, for example, that the representation of the body and the mind as it was recorded by Belsey is a textual reflection of a particular cultural moment of anxiety about female sexuality. In the more than two decades that have passed since the publication of the novels used in Belsey’s study, this cultural anxiety surrounding female sexuality has lessened. Roberts’ representation of romantic love might in fact be a textual trace of this wider socio-cultural evolution. Further study is necessary to substantiate such speculations.

As the scholarly study of popular romance fiction enters its fifth decade, transformations in the practice of this scholarship are in full swing. While these transformations necessarily imply a certain degree of distancing or separation between older and younger generations of romance scholars, the discussions in this paper illustrate the continued relevance of older studies to the present generation of popular romance scholars. Although we might be inclined to reject many of these older studies because of their (over)generalizing approach to the genre (see e.g. Selinger (2007)), this paper has shown how such general claims continue to be valuable as they provoke new and interesting analyses of the genre. The future of the study of popular romance fiction lies neither in the outright rejection of older claims nor in the uncritical acceptance thereof, but in our ability to use the powerful tools we find in earlier work to further our growing understanding of this complex and evolving genre.

Works Cited

Belsey, Catherine. Desire. Love Stories in Western Culture. Cambridge (U.S.A.): Blackwell, 1994. Print.

Betz, Phyllis M. Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008. Print.

Frantz, Sarah S.G. “Darcy’s Vampiric Descendants: Austen’s Perfect Romance Hero and J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood.” Persuasions 30.1 (2009): n. pag. Web. March 14 2012.

Goris, An. “Response to Pamela Regis: Matricide in Popular Romance Scholarship?” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): n. pag. Web. August 30 2012.

Lennard, John. Of Modern Dragons and Other Essays on Genre Fiction. Humanities-Ebooks, 2007. Ebook.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge, 1982. Print.

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Print.

Olivier, Séverine. “ “Femme, je vous aime…”? Nora Roberts, une inconnue sortie de l’ombre dans l’univers sentimental.” Belphégor 7.2 (2008) n. pag. Web. 4 May 2010.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

—. “Complicating Romances and Their Readers: Barrier and Point of Ritual Death in Nora Roberts’s Category Fiction.” Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 3.1-2 (1997): 145-54. Print.

—. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance?”  Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2:1 (2011): n. pag. Web. August 30 2012.

Roberts, Nora. Dance of the Gods. New York: Jove Books, 2006. Print.

—. High Noon. London: Piatkus, 2007. Print.

—. Irish Thoroughbred. 1981. Nora Roberts. Irish Hearts. New York: Silhouette Books, 2000. 9-205. Print.

—. Montana Sky. 1996. New York: Jove Books, 1997. Print.

—. Morrigan’s Cross. London: Piatkus, 2006. Print.

—. One Man’s Art. 1985. Nora Roberts. The MacGregors Alan-Grant. Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette Books, 1999. 249-498. Print.

—. Suzanna’s Surrender. 1991. Nora Roberts. The Calhoun Women. New York: Silhouette Books, 1996. 361-506. Print.

—. Tonight and Always. 1983. Nora Roberts. From the Heart. New York: Jove Books, 1996. 1 – 166. Print.

—. Valley of Silence. New York: Jove Books, 2006. Print.

Selinger, Eric Murphy. “How to Read a Romance Novel (and Fall in Love with Popular Romance).” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Eds. Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 33-46. Print.

–. “Re-reading the Romance.” Contemporary Literature 48:2 (2007):307-324. Print.

Thurston, Carol. The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Print.

Valeo, Christina. “The Power of Three: Nora Roberts and Serial Magic.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Eds. Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012. 229-240. Print.

[1] This paper could not have been realized without the help and support I received from Professor Eric Selinger; I thank him most cordially for his feedback. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers who reviewed earlier versions of this piece and provided many valuable suggestions.

[2] For a more extensive discussion of the development of the study of popular romance fiction and the relation between older and more recent studies of the genre see Regis (2011) and Goris (2011).

[3] That vastly less scholarly attention is paid to Roberts than to other contemporary bestselling author of genre fiction is indicated, for example, by data in the academic databank JSTOR which stores bibliographical information about scholarly articles. Several sample searches of JSTOR in September 2010 and September 2012 resulted in 599/800 hits for the search term “Rowling” (“Harry Potter” gave 607/1064), 1158/1449 for “Stephen King”, 213/264 for “John Grisham”, but barely 11/17 for “Nora Roberts” (three of these articles are about a different Nora (Ruth) Roberts and none of them are actual studies of the romance author).

[4] The most important academic discussions of Roberts’ oeuvre are by Pamela Regis (“Complicating Romances” and Natural History 183-204), John Lennard (2007), Séverine Olivier (2008) and Chris Valeo (2012). A first academic monograph on Roberts is currently being prepared by the author of the present paper and is expected to be published by McFarland in 2014.

[5] Given the popular romance genre’s infamous history with rape, an important distinction has to be pointed out here: while Roberts unabashedly emphasizes the violent force of the desire within the self, this violence does not translate into any kind of forced sexual interaction. Choice and free will are of paramount importance in Roberts’ romance fiction and the texts never leave any doubt that the protagonists fully consent to all sexual interaction they have. There is, arguably, one exception in Roberts’ entire oeuvre: in Tonight and Always (1983) the hero comes very close to raping the heroine. Although she eventually “stop[s] struggling … soften[s] and surrender[s]” (142) to him, it can be debated if this is consensual sex or so-called “forced seduction.”

[6] For similar scenes in these and other novels in this study, see: One Man’s Art 348, Susanna’s Surrender 431, Montana Sky 426, Dance of the Gods 228 and High Noon 282.

[7] The idea that “I love you” functions as a performative speech act in popular romance novels has been developed and discussed much more extensively by Lisa Fletcher in her ground-breaking study Historical Romance Fiction; see in particular pp. 25-48.

[8] The keen reader notes a logical inconsistency here because Belsey in fact suggests that the disappointment readers supposedly feel over the failed unification of mind and body drives the desire to read more romance. From this perspective, Roberts’ exceptional success is inexplicable according to the terms set out by Belsey.