Romance as a Genre: Some Notes

By Professor John Lye

Romance has a very long and complex history. It was once the place of knights, dragons, quests, magic, spells, wizards, heroic deeds; it dramatized serious moral and political issues through its allegorizing powers, psychological and theological complexities through its symbolism, and it entertained.

Romance disappeared as a force in literature in the 17th century with the rise of empirical thought, rationalism, a theology based on analogy to the natural world and the advent of the bourgeois mode of realism, although it retained a slim foothold through pastoral.

However as the immediacy of the Holy threatened to disappear from the culture in the later 18th century under pressure of naturalistic explanation, and as industrialization and urbanization started taking its toll on the countryside and the people, romance arose again (the most powerful response to the loss of the Holy was the introduction of the idea of the Sublime, an idea incorporated into some aspects of romance). The period was marked by literary expressions of the sublime, of the mysterious, and of the strange; by a return to the imagination of the mediaeval that marked pre-romantic period, so that the mediaeval was the place of historical reference and allusion; and by an idealization of the lives of the country folk (Wordsworth's "Michael," for instance), especially the folk of times past.

Romance took two main forms in the English novel -- this in the early part of the 19th century:

  1. Gothic romance, which specialized in symbolic exploration of the unconscious through the strange, the haunting, and irrational. Like many romances the Gothic tended to be set in distant lands or on barren, threatening countrysides. Gothic romance exposed and dealt with deep anxieties in persons and the culture; Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, for instance, is a dark foreigner and hence culturally the Other, that against which we define and defend our humanity and civilized state, he a man with no parentage, a waif from the slums of Europe; and he is a figuring-forth of the force and terror of evil and of the irrational, a force of energy without civility. He is inexplicable but compelling because he sums the fears of his time and, to an extent, ours. Frankenstein's monster showed us the terrors that scientific interference in the holiness of the human held for us.

  2. Historical romance, as modeled by Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels, which novels evoked the past -- the past of the people, of the Scottish nation, full of both Lords and peasants -- as a source of value and meaning, that place where life was more concrete, vivid, adventuresome and, well, 'romantic'. James Fenimore Cooper (The Deer Slayer, The Last of the Mohicans, etc.) was the "American Scott."

America took gothic romance to its bosom. Hawthorne (eg. in The Scarlet Letter) defined the romance as opposed to the novel as, briefly, a place of more mystery, less specific description of concrete reality, a place where, if you will, both elemental and spiritual forces could be put in play in a landscape that was full of symbolic, almost allegorical, potential. He set his romances, as romances are often set, in places distant, where different rules could apply, or in the past. Today we have still both gothic and historical romance, and romance is generally associated with the strange and mysterious, the adventurous, with the lure of foreign lands, with something slightly magical, with a story which refuses to be tied to the realist tradition and explores phenomena which are unusual, allegorical, symbolic. Of course, we have True Romance, and the localization of the long tradition of courtship stories in our culture in romance settings, whether it be haunted homes, the wild west, or bleak, wind-swept shores.

Romance tends to be more allegorical than realist fiction can be, to dramatize elemental forces, psychological undercurrents, and conflicts on the battlefield of the human heart and soul. It is more subversive, more revolutionary, more bipolar (good/evil, etc.), more allegorical, more symbolic, more evocative, more open to magic, the effects of atmosphere, and the strange.

There follows a set of binary oppositions related to historical romance, as suggested by George Dekker in The American Historical Romance:
Cultural values

natural / artificial
spontaneous / labored
natural graces / studied graces
liberty / order
wildness / boundaries
mystery / reason
poetry / prose
individuality / the mass
sublimity / correctness

Physical features

mountains / vales
paths / highways
excursions / marches
soaring / fettered

Two quotes on Romance:

Many writers of romances require not only strange circumstances and abnormal psychology to portray their visions, but exotic scenery, as well. But their imaginary landscapes provide a way to reality, not an escape from it, and their faraway islands are not discoverable on any map only because, as Melville says, "true places never are."
Edwin M. Eigner in Pastoral and Romance
Curiously enough, the fascination for the bizarre, the individual peculiarity, the monstrous [of gothic romance] seems to have led more significantly to a fictional discovery of the true depths of human nature than to a mere exploitation of the sensational and the perverse. By its insistence on singularity and exotic setting, the gothic novel seems to have freed the minds of readers from direct involvement of their superego's and allowed them to pursue daydreams and wish fulfillment in regions where inhibitions and guilt could be suspended. Those regions became thereby available to great writers who eventually demonstrated that sadism, indefinite guiltiness, mingled pleasure and pain (Maturin's "delicious agony"), and love-hate, were also deeply rooted in the minds of the supposedly normal....With Mary Shelley's Frankenstein ....For the first time in gothic fiction characters take on the full symbolic resonance of inner psychological reality..... The gothic hero easily shades into what is commonly called the romantic hero....Both share an essential loneliness and the feeling of incommunicability; both are generally scapegoats or guilt-haunted wanderers... [Heathcliff as a gothic character].
Lowry Nelson, Jr., ibid.

One aspect of romance, especially gothic, is the idea of the monstrous -- as it happens I have a binary set for monstrosity, which I borrowed from Prof. Sue Spearey.