Contemporary romance stories involve a relationship but historically they have been concerned with a hero on a quest. That quest must involve the hero learning something about themselves and overcoming a challenge. These quests are often spiritual in nature as the hero is forced to contend with their fears.
Definition and Explanation of Romance
“Romance,” etymologically, comes from the Anglo-Norman and Old French word “romanz,” meaning a story of love, chivalry, and bravery. While it can refer to relationships, such as in “contemporary romance,” (see below), it is most often used in literature to refer to romantic stories with chivalrous or gallant/courtly, feats— those that defined a man of the time. These stories usually involved heroes, like knights, and their quests to rescue damsels in distress.
Types of Romance
- Historical: takes place in the past in a time that feels romantic due to its setting and the facts of the time. The lifestyle of the characters is different from that of the reader making it easy to romanticize the events of the story. For example, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper.
- Gothic: this kind of romance is concerned with dark characters and settings. The genre became popular in the 19th century and often includes elements of suspense, the supernatural, and dark emotions. Some examples include Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
- Contemporary: also known as modern romance, these stories focus on relationships that have a happy ending. They usually fit into one of the following subgenre: comedy/romance, serious romance, satire/romance, and tragic/romance.
Examples of Romance Literature
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th-century romance with an unknown author. The story, which is one of the most popular King Arthur stories ever written, follows Sir Gawain, one of his knights. He accepts a challenge from the Green Knight. The story includes two popular themes for Arthurian stories, that of the beheading game and the exchange of winnings. It is written in stanzas of alliterative verse that were popular at the time.
The knight dares Gawain to strike him with an ax. He will then return the blow in a year and a day. He beheads the man with a single blow and his morality is called into question over the following year by a test. Here is an excerpt from the poem in which the narrator describes how virtuous Gawain is:
Therefore it suits this knight and his shining arms,
For always faithful in five ways, and five times in each case,
Gawain was reputed as virtuous, like refined gold,
Devoid of all vice, and with all courtly virtues
Here, he is emphasizing the fact that everyone knew that Gawain was “virtuous, like refined gold.” It wasn’t just something the narrator knew.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
In Jane Eyre, Brontë includes many elements of a gothic romance. There are unexplained and irrational events as well as prevailing darkness that affects the mood of the story. The characters are mysterious, as are their backstories. It’s clear that everyone is keeping a secret of some kind. The tragedy is also a part of this story. It has filled the main character’s life and it also influences the lives of those she meets. Here is a quote from the novel in which Jane recalls a night she spent in the red-room at Gateshead:
I thought the swift-darting beam was a herald of some coming vision from another world. My heart beat thick—my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing wings; something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated; endurance, broke down; I rushed to the door and shook the lock in desperate effort.
The Count of Monte Christo by Alexander Dumas
The Count of Monte Christo, Dumas’s most famous novel, was written in 1844. It takes place in Europe and is concerned with themes of bravery, forgiveness, courage, and more. The novel follows a man whose wrongly sent to prison, his escape, and his acquisition of a fortune. He sets out on a journey of revenge, finding everyone who was responsible for incarcerating him. This choice sets a series of dark events in motion. Here are a few lines from the novel that demonstrate the style and genre:
If a man has tortured and killed your father, your mother, your sweetheart, in short, one of those beings who leave an eternal emptiness and a perpetually bleeding wound when they are torn from your heart, do you think society has given you sufficient reparation because the blade of the guillotine has passed between the murderer’s trapezius and his occipital bone […]
Why Do Writers Write Romance?
Writers engage with the romance genre in order to work with complex and interrelated themes. By some scholars, it’s considered to be the only genre that’s capable of teaching morals lessons through adventure. It’s in these lessons that writers can explore spirituality, goodness, and general morality that applies and may appeal to readers. While romance has evolved today, it still contains some of the elements of the chivalric literature of the past. In romance novels relationships hinge on the dynamic between two people, overcoming adversity, and building something with one another. Contemporary romance appeals for all those same reasons as well. Readers want to see themselves in the roles that characters play in modern romance novels and films.
Related Literary Terms
- Gothic: that which deals with themes of death, the supernatural, sorrow, fear, loss, and more.
- Science Fiction: a literary genre that focuses on imaginative content based in science.
- Biography: an account or description of a person’s life, literary, fictional, historical, or popular in nature, written by a biographer.
- Historical Fiction: a genre that fictionalizes real places, people, and events.
- Horror: a genre of fiction that plays with human fear, feelings of terror, dread, and repulsion to entertain the audience.