The power of romance

Scholar Catherine Roach studies and writes romance novels. How, she asks, can we understand the romance narrative? What place does the romance story have in American culture, on the page and beyond it?


Why are romance narratives so powerful?

One can understand the romance narrative as one of the most powerful—or the most powerful—narrative in popular culture [. . .]

You see this “find your one true love and live happily ever after” narrative or trope in all sorts of places. In Hollywood movies, in other types of popular fiction, in the advertising industry that uses it all the time. The wedding industry is making billions off of it. And then in high culture forms—in religion, in art, in high literature, as well.

What drew you to the romance narrative?

I’m interested in the big questions, sort of the perennial, ancient questions. What constitutes a good life? How are we to live? What is our calling, our quest, here, in order to live a good life, in the human condition. So what constitutes fulfillment? What constitutes happiness? What is the good that we are called to do, in terms of sort of an ethical life?

And this notion of “find your one true love” is a huge part of the answer to that part of that question, “how to live happily ever after?” There’s other cultural narratives—I mean, if you’re thinking about American culture, American popular culture in particular, you can think about sort of the narrative of the rugged individualist who, you know, pulls himself—it’s usually him, but it could be a her—up by his own bootstraps through the force of education, or self-education, pluck, hard work, is able to craft a life. And you can think of the cowboy and the Western frontier and the whole notion of capitalist enterprise, the self-made millionaire. So the rugged individualist who by hard work and good luck is able to succeed.

So that’s a very powerful narrative in the pop culture also. But even that narrative is incomplete unless he gets married at the end, right? He’s got to settle down, find his true love, reproduce, have a family, have someone to share it with, pass it on to, or otherwise it’s sort of—there’s something sort of pitiful about the lonely self-made millionaire who never has a community, has love, has fulfillment.

So in that sense, the “find your one true love,” the romance narrative trumps the rugged individualist narrative. Or it completes it. So that’s what I mean when I say I think it’s the most powerful narrative—arguably, the most powerful narrative at work in popular culture [. . .]

[. . .] In another part of my work, my academic background is in the study of religion, comparative religion, function of religion in culture. So I’m interested in how this romance narrative plays out or parallels very ancient notions of the Christian story, the Christian narrative, as well. I live in the American South. Evangelical Protestantism is strong there, although that’s true in much of America.

And, really, this notion of “find your one true love and live happily ever after” can play perfectly as a description of evangelical Protestantism, too, of Christianity. Jesus Christ as the one true love, you have to accept Jesus as your personal savior, find your one true love, in that sense, orient your heart, your life, appropriately toward your savior, and then you will live happily ever after in this life. But even more importantly, you’ll be right with God and experience the afterlife of Heaven.

So in that sense, too, it’s not a new, current idea, it’s a very old idea of finding love. And love in various forms—erotic romantic love, the agape of Christian love as essential orienting feature which is necessary for happiness, for fulfillment, for righteous living.

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