Bond in love
In the 2006 adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, a young, hotheaded, non-womanizing James Bond falls in love with the lady-like accountant Vesper Lynd. Icy, intelligent, and beautiful, Vesper knocks him for a loop. Their first meeting shows her to be more than a match for the brash agent and he appears to acquire a three-dimensional personality in her company. As they follow the villain to the eponymous casino, Bond plays both suave spy and caring companion, risking his life to save hers.
It’s the beginning of romance for Bond—and the beginning of the end. After many car chases, defibrillators, and passionate kisses, including the hope of a happy-ever-after in Venice, our hero discovers that Vesper has been playing him in order to save another man’s life. And when Bond tries to rescue her from an elevator in a collapsing Venetian palazzo, in the film’s climactic scene, she chooses—spoiler alert!—to die.
The dead heroine is an oft-encountered figure in literature. The recent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina drives home the point quite forcefully. Even before Keira Knightley’s Anna starts to come unglued for love amid social ostracism, train wheels thunder madly across the screen, each thud a countdown to her final leap from the platform. Indeed, Edgar Allan Poe, writing in Graham’s Magazine in 1846, said “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” Many, including Erich Segal, the author of the bestseller Love Story (1970), seemed to have taken him at his word.
Ian Fleming didn’t go quite as far—the “bereaved lover” Bond doesn’t speak of Vesper much—but the idea of the dead woman and the recurrent death of romance is fundamental to the 007 franchise. What can popular romance scholars make of this motif?
One useful approach might come from comparing the Bond romance trajectory—from love to betrayal to death—with the one we find in Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003). According to Regis, the eight defining elements of the romance novel include a meeting between protagonists (we have that in Bond), attraction (check), one or more barriers to their getting together (betrayal would do nicely here), and a “point of ritual death” when it seems that the couple cannot possibly get together. Naturally, when the heroine cannot return from what Regis terms the “point of ritual death,” the rest of the romance novel’s story arc becomes an impossibility. We can have the other elements (a “recognition” that brings down the final barriers, declarations of love, a betrothal), but once the point of ritual death is literalized, and final—well, we’re not in a romance novel anymore.
For anyone who likes watching or reading about successful relationships with living women, therefore, Casino Royale is a cautionary tale. Even when M eventually explains to Bond that Vesper’s suicide was an indication that she had fallen in love with him and didn’t want to be the traitorous albatross around his neck, he never—never—returns to love. Immersing himself in the world of espionage and female objectification, where women are disposable, he is condemned to live in a society that cannot be knit together again. The “corruption of society” element, as Regis calls it, ultimately prevails.
Fleming may not have intended to be a political novelist, but his work is clearly marked by a sense that the Empire has been lost and the vandals are at the gates of civilization. Men like Bond are the last bastion against complete chaos and they are not to be allowed the luxury of a romantic happy ending. If the popular romance novel needs the point of ritual death to establish a better society (or heal a damaged one), the 007 novel needs the point of actual death to cancel out any possibility of heart(h) and home that would take the spy out of action.