On the threshold
I am fascinated by that period in a romance novel when it looks like the wished-for union cannot possibly happen. The publishing industry calls this the “dark moment.” Literary critic Northrop Frye, who read everything and understood it better than everybody else, dubbed it the “point of ritual death.”
Romance novels old and new incorporate this moment. Beneath it, according to Frye, lies a myth of death and rebirth like the story of Persephone.
Briefly, Persephone, a virgin, is loved by Hades, who abducts her and carries her off to his kingdom of death to be his wife. Her mother, Demeter, goddess of agricultural bounty, searches for her, leaving the earth barren. Persephone is returned to her mother, and fruitfulness is restored.
The poet A.E. Stallings, in “Hades Welcomes His Bride” offers us the next act in the abduction, before Persephone’s rescue, as Hades conducts his victim on a tour of her new residence—in hell—an ironic inversion of the groom carrying his bride over the threshold.
In the poem, Hades explains that she must adjust her sight to the darkness. He leads her past thrones made of black diamonds, past the loom he has set up for her and furnished with the unraveled silk of shrouds, dyed black. He leads her past her new maids, who have neither mouths nor eyes. When they arrive at the final room—their bedroom—he says:
Ah! Your hand is trembling! I fear
There is, as yet, too much pulse in it.
With that chilling “as yet,” Hades promises death: the antithesis of life, union, children, family, and society’s reordering. The antithesis of the ending of romance.
At the point of ritual death in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) Jane is the Persephone character. Having fled Rochester’s attempt to commit bigamy by marrying her, she wanders on the moors, soon to collapse, unconscious, on the doorstep of strangers:
I sank down where I stood, and hid my face against the ground. I lay still a while: the night-wind swept over the hill and over me, and died moaning in the distance; the rain fell fast, wetting me afresh to the skin. Could I but have stiffened to the still frost—the friendly numbness of death—it might have pelted on. I should not have felt it….
Prone, still, uncaring, longing for the “friendly numbness of death,” Jane fits squarely in the Persephone role.
In Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me the point of ritual death begins at a wedding that the bride, the heroine’s sister, calls off at the altar. The scene is typical of Crusie the arch-ironist. Instead of a wedding, we get a general melee among the bridal party. At one point two bridesmaids, nicknamed “Wet” and “Worse” confront each other:
Wet said to Worse, “You slept with Greg?,” and then somebody tapped Greg on the shoulder just as Wet lunged for Worse, and Greg turned around and met George’s fist as Wet yanked hard on Worse’s chignon, and Worse went ass over elbow into the front pew.
Despite Crusie’s slapstick, the moment still represents the bride’s dashed hopes of happiness with Greg, the groom. She’s the Persephone stand-in and Greg is Hades, just one “I do” away from abducting the bride into a marriage based on false promises.
The aborted ritual death for this bride spirals into the “dark moment” between the novel’s heroine and hero. They argue, renewing their worst fears about each other and themselves. Each keeps saying “to hell with” the other and thinking “oh, hell” to him or herself. Each goes home alone and miserable, refusing to call. Hell, indeed.
Whether presented as anguish or slapstick, the moment is crucial, with life, union, children, family, and society’s reordering hanging in the balance.
Pamela Regis is a professor of English at McDaniel College and author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Find out more about Pamela Regis.