The American HEA

Modern American romance readers expect a happy ending. Are these expectations unique? In other countries and cultures, do the ‘rules’ for romance and love stories allow for endings that would leave American readers feeling betrayed? Scholar Eric Selinger looks at what makes the American HEA romance different from and similar to the global archetypal love story.


Is happily ever after uniquely American?

Well, the RWA has a very interesting, and I think a very thoughtful and much argued-out, definition of what we’re looking for at the end of a romance novel. After a great deal of debate both within the committee and then out into the community at large, the RWA eventually arrived at a two-part definition: a central love story, everyone agreed on that, and an optimistic, emotionally satisfying ending. So they don’t say the couple has to be together, they don’t say a betrothal, they don’t say a wedding. And this was very deliberate on the part of the authors who were involved in this discussion, when they tried to think about what it was that romance readers expected at the end of the book. What was the contract? What’s the deal you have made with an author and with a publisher when you buy something that is a romance novel?

And what that group of authors decided was it had to do with the feeling you were left with at the end of the book. That you were left feeling emotionally satisfied, not fraught, not disturbed, not unhappy, not troubled, but emotionally satisfied and optimistic. One of the things that readers have said about the effect of reading romance for decades is that it instills or reinforces a feeling of optimism and emotional resilience. So the RWA didn’t want to specify how that feeling will be achieved in terms of the configuration of the hero and the heroine, or the hero and the hero, heroine and heroine, or whatever triad or community some new author comes up with. But they wanted to hone in on what’s the effect that we’re looking for.

And it’s that sense of optimism, that sense that even if the ending of this particular narrative isn’t leaving the characters in the configuration that I might have wanted—there’s no actual proposal, there’s no actual acceptance, there’s no betrothal, there’s no happily ever after in the Disney sense or the fairy tale sense—we have the sense that whatever problems these characters have faced with the world around them and with each other have gone from the level of “boy, this looks insurmountable” to “yeah, we can do this.” And at that point the narrative can end at whatever stage it is, that’s the feeling that we’re left with.

Now why this is adopted is an interesting question, because if you compare the definition that the Romance Writers of America have on their website—two parts: central love story, optimistic and emotionally satisfying conclusion—to the definition at the Romantic Novelists Association, which is the equivalent British authors’ association, what you find on the British site is central love story—and that’s it! Nothing about the ending. The British website lists Dr. Zhivago and Anna Karenina as romantic novels, neither of which by any stretch of the imagination meets the RWA definition. So how do we account for this?

One thing that we can say is, there is around the world a narrative archetype found in culture after culture, configuration after configuration, which is the story of a romance, a courtship, a couple. That is what a literary scholar named Hogan refers to as the romantic tragicomedy. What he means by this is, you have a story in which you have lovers who are separated, who are torn apart, who can’t get together for some reason or another. There’s a barrier between them, and if the novel ends there with them unable to be together, it’s the tragic version [. . .] usually with some implication that these lovers, if they’re not together now, are together in the afterlife, are together in death, are together when they are reborn, right, if you have a culture that believes in rebirth. They couldn’t be together in this world, but the next time around they get their chance. So he sees that as being fundamentally the same narrative structure as a narrative structure that ends with a couple together in this world, in this life. That in both cases what you have is together, separate, together. Where that final together happens is almost irrelevant from his point of view.

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