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Romance and the ‘Meaning of Life’

In response to last week’s guest post by Zoe Brouthers on feminine sacrifice in Romance, author Moriah Jovan wrote a very thoughtful comment on the role that faith plays in so many people’s lives, despite its marginalization in mainstream Romance not tagged as inspirational. What especially caught my attention was this part of her comment:

I find it really rather odd that romance protagonists mostly don’t have any driving philosophy or faith. They don’t talk about their deities or their engagement with their philosophies. And I find the lack of mention of a church as part of their daily lives (belief not being necessary) in historicals inexplicable.

So to use Kaetrin’s “accumulation effect,” to me, the lack of characters having either a faith or a driving life philosophy is a huge gaping maw I can’t ignore anymore.

I have lately been complaining to friends that much of the books I’ve tried to read suffer from what I’m calling a “lack of suspense.” But as soon as I read Jovan’s comment, I realized that what I was really missing was a sense of both purpose and purposefulness in the way people in Romance novels live – beyond, of course, the goal of ‘finding love’ or a generalized sense of happiness or ‘completion.’

A driving philosophy is often something we think of in religious or spiritual terms, but it doesn’t have to be. Professions that operate within a strict ethical structure (physicians, lawyers, judges, therapists, etc.) also provide opportunities to articulate a sense of purpose or meaning that goes beyond the physical or emotional attraction we see at the surface level of romantic attachment

However, in the US, particularly, we are seeing a powerful divisiveness when it comes to religion, where those who come from certain religious traditions (especially evangelical Christianity) feel marginalized by society as a whole, even as those who identify as non-religious, and especially non-Christian, feel the same way. This post on “open secularism” making the rounds is a good illustration of this phenomenon (the article plus the 400+ comment thread, that is).

One of the results of this divisiveness seems to be that religion has become a difficult subject in mainstream Romance outside inspirationals. There was a great discussion of the difficulties in rendering Christian themes in historical Romance in the comment thread to Sunita’s review of Piper Huguley’s The Preacher’s Promise. This series seemed to divide Romance readers, as I saw comments by some who would not touch the book for its religiosity, while others were drawn to both the historical accuracy of this element and the role spirituality played in the story and in the development of the characters and the romance. And it’s an interesting element of our discussions about historical accuracy that we so often seem to ignore the really central role that religion – or at least the church – played in many people’s lives. As Sunita pointed out in a discussion about this topic last night, for many people the Church as an institution was very much a locus of social exchange. So it wasn’t just about faith, but also about where people gathered and spent time and exchanged in a variety of activities that may or may not have been directly connected to the overtly religious aspect of the church.

At the same time, we have sheik novels where religion may play a central role, but there are legitimate concerns about the realism with which Islam, for example, is rendered. Often the religion in play isn’t even named. Ditto for novels featuring Native Americans, which may or may not (often not) portray realistic/fact-based religious and/or spiritual belief systems.

Taken together, I think this portrays a bunch of mixed signals in regard to how faith is represented in Romance, signals that suggest a desire for deeper meaning, as long as it’s not confined within certain religious dogmas or traditions. Similarly, so-called “issue” or “cause” books can divide readers, as well, and I just want to clarify that I’m not referring to these kinds of books when I talk about meaning and purpose.

Not so long ago, Jane had an acutely insightful take on the popularity of motorcycle Romances, comparing them to Scottish Highlander stories and Medievals, in part because of the culture of the “tribe.”

I’ve read a ton of MC books and frankly most of them are pretty bad but I believe that the reason it is so popular right now is because of the tribe based culture of the club. Tribes have a long history in literature and romance. The first tribe based romance books I ever read were Scottish Highlander stories. The structure of a Highlander novel is not unlike an MC book.

Both include a militaristic hierarchy with a leader, several strong wingmen, and others that live within the confines of the primary property whether it is hold, fief, or armory. Both types of stories feature warring clans vying for power. Often the head of the tribe is a male with a patriarchal power structure.  The concept of loyalty along with external signage (whether it be plaids–although those came much later in history than depicted in many romances–or cuts) is vital. Scottish stories could (and sometimes did) feature a female clan leader. Medievals often followed the same structure.

Pushing that concept a bit further knocks it right into Jovan’s insight about the lack of “driving philosophy or faith” in Romance protagonists and the desire for meaning without having it be explicitly religious or even spiritual. Whatever the sexual politics of these groups, they are, without question, organized around a kind of faith or dogma, and that belief system structures both the way they live their lives and the way any Romantic attachment will theoretically be carried out. Of course, when that philosophy comes into collision with another philosophy, the resulting conflict can be catalyze exactly the kind of melodrama that powers an emotionally rich Romance novel. You can have conflict between characters that, when it’s done well, forces each of them to question their own beliefs and sense of purpose, and perhaps come to a new, better, more synergistic understanding of themselves and each other.

Although I would never describe myself as religious, I do often enjoy Romance novels where faith is a factor (Barbara Samuel’s A Bed of Spices, Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish, for example), because the romance between the protagonists must be built on multiple levels of character development in order to be successful. Attraction isn’t enough, nor is the general attractiveness of the characters. Love often isn’t even enough, especially if there is a clash of beliefs or the perception of unsuitability on the part of either protagonist within the belief system of the other. And often protagonists must consciously work through these obstacles, which allows the reader to be engaged by understanding and vicariously experiencing the characters’ struggle.

Thinking back to some of the military-themed books I’ve enjoyed, that sense of mission and idealism can provide depth and dimension to a Romance, even when I find myself in political conflict with certain aspects of the novels. Ditto for sports-themed books or even certain romantic suspense Romances. The more integrated the values of someone’s profession are into who they are on the page, the more likely I am to find them interesting, even when my own beliefs may not align with theirs. What this means is that these philosophies are not superficially or mindlessly executed, but rather that they are authentically enmeshed in the character’s sense of being to be meaningful in that person’s life, and therefore, in their relationships.

For a long time I did not understand the really focused attention that some historical Romance authors and readers trained on titles, social standing, and manners/rules. But if I think about it in these terms, those social structures can themselves operate as a kind of philosophy, one that provides both structure and boundaries to behavior, and thus, love, which is, as we all know, a most unruly and unstructured emotion, and one that can, when it comes into contact with strict social mores, give rise to delicious conflict and raised stakes for and in the relationship.

And one of the reasons I think I tend to give a pass to some of the historicals that Sunita critiqued in her recent post on ahistoricty, is that even though the issues tackled in the books may be displaced historically (and yes, that comes with some problematic implications), at least some of these books are actually driven by a sensibility that deepens the romantic relationship and grounds it in an issue that is bigger than the protagonists but simultaneously imposing itself on their chance at happiness together. In my hierarchy of tradeoffs, I’ll often choose a more global sense of purposefulness over historically authentic engagement, although certainly both would be ideal.

Although not everyone is driven by an overweening search for meaning, I do think our lives are very much structured by philosophical belief systems, even if those are the rituals and values we’ve inherited from our parents and never questioned or shed. Whether it’s a belief about how the universe is organized, about the existence and nature of a supreme being, or a sense of dedication to a social, political, or personal ideal, there’s an extent to which people thrive in an environment that coheres with their sense of self. And that environment is always built on one or more belief systems, even if they are not overtly articulated.

I do wonder, though, if there is more and more reluctance on the part of authors to engage with driving philosophies or belief systems, either from a fear of offending readers (perhaps with perceived religiosity), or from a sense of pressure to produce shorter books on a faster timeline. And so many Romance tropes have become shorthand for these philosophical systems – military Romances, biker club Romances, Scottish highlander Romances, etc. – that perhaps we’ve been lulled into a perception that only certain kinds of belief systems are fit for mainstream non-inspirational (and non-religious) Romance.

Still, I find myself yearning for more books with a “driving philosophy,” to use Jovan’s term, that isn’t necessarily religious. So much of what I enjoy about Romance is the way intimate engagement between protagonists forces them to contemplate issues and questions beyond those that sexual attraction and emotional attachment answer – questions like ‘how does this person fit into the world as I see it?’ or ‘what are this person’s values and how do they align with mine?’ or ‘what does this person believe about the world, and how do those beliefs challenge or clash with mine, and is that conflict significant to our future happiness?’ Questions, in other words, about how fundamental values affect and are affected by a romantic relationship.

Although I would love to see a more balanced approach to religion and spirituality within Romance, even more I’d like to see less reluctance to characters with “driving philosophies” of every kind. We often talk about Romance protagonists as “heroic,” which is an aspirational category in which something symbolically significant is making the lives of these characters interesting to readers. Is it merely the exercise of falling in love, or is it more than that, and if so, what, for you, makes the reading experience meaningful? By contrast, what do you actively avoid, and why?

GUEST OPINION: On Romance and Sacrifice by Zoey Brouthers

GUEST OPINION: On Romance and Sacrifice by Zoey Brouthers



Zoey Brouthers is an avid reader with degrees in Music who likes to have intelligent arguments. She has one self-published short story to her name and lots and lots of books on her shelves.

I love romance novels. There’s something for everyone, and with few exceptions, there’s always a happy ending. Whether you’re reading the groundbreaking tomes of Kathleen Woodiwiss or the ridiculously entertaining books of Katie Macalister, you can count on that happy ending. But there’s something else you can almost always count on that I find less agreeable: feminine sacrifice.

Don’t start freaking out, I don’t mean that old “virgin sacrifice” trope. No, I’m talking about something far more insidious. I’m talking about the sacrifices the heroine makes for the hero.

Sacrifice for love is rampant, not only in romance novels, but in movies, on television, and (of course) in society. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, and, in fact, many of its iterations. What I object to is the blatant inequality of the sacrifices made in romance novels. This is particularly true in older books, such as the aforementioned Woodiwiss’. Considering the time at which they were written, as well as the often historical settings, it really comes as no surprise, even if it does irk. The problem is that, though feminine sacrifice is less noticeable in modern contemporary romance, it is still there.

What really brought this to my attention was a recent re-reading of Linda Howard’s Sarah’s Child. While it is now removed from truly contemporaneous novels by a decade or three (it’s older than I am!), it’s got several references to feminism and equality of the sexes. But don’t worry, I’ll be bringing a more recent publication into play, too. Just bear with me.

In Sarah’s Child, Sarah has been in love with Rome for years, despite him being married to her best friend. Unfortunately, the best friend and Rome’s young sons die, leaving them both devastated. But after a few years, Rome and Sarah finally give in to their mutual attraction, and emotions happen. There’s sex and emotional growth; there are misunderstandings, fights, and resolutions; there’s a child; and, of course, there’s a happily ever after. Now let’s look at the quantifiable sacrifices made by the hero and heroine in order to achieve that happily ever after.

Sarah gives up her job, at the same company where Rome works, because they form a romantic relationship. She gives up her old, comfortably safe apartment to move into a new place with him once they’re married. She believes she’s given up the possibility of children, though she would take them in a heartbeat.

Rome, on the other hand, sacrifices…his widower/bachelor status.

There’s good news, though! Sarah’s first sacrifice, her job, wasn’t really one. She states, in her thoughts and to Rome, that she’s been thinking of quitting anyway, and has no intention of remaining jobless. And, happily, she sees that through. She ends up owning her own business, through which she develops new (wonderful) friendships. It makes her happy, though it alternately impresses and annoys her husband. Mostly annoys.

Her second sacrifice is less easily brushed aside. Sarah is a very private person who needs to feel safe and stable, particularly in her own home. Upon moving into their wedded home, she has a minor breakdown because she can’t find anything. Even though it’s all her old stuff (presumably), the layout is different, and it freaks her out. Admittedly, this is a normal concern for anyone moving into a new place, one that can be resolved by time, but for Sarah it’s more. She’s temporarily lost some of her peace of mind. However, because it is temporary, we can wave off this second sacrifice with a sigh of relief.

The final sacrifice she makes is problematic because, as indicated by the title, a child happens anyway. But – and this is a big but – her pregnancy is an accident. Had she recovered her brains a little quicker after being seriously ill, she would not have chosen to risk her relationship with Rome by possibly becoming pregnant. She had already made the decision to give up on having children until Rome might change his mind, but with very little hope that he would.

So, despite wanting children herself and hoping that someday Rome will want them, too, she sacrifices that option in order to have any sort of romantic relationship with him. If they hadn’t accidentally gotten pregnant, that sacrifice would have been lasting.

As for Rome, he loses nothing. Not. A. Thing. At least, nothing he’s not better off letting go. True, he gives up being a single man, able to sleep with a different woman every night, but is that really a sacrifice? For some men it might be, but not for Rome. Because we get his perspective as often as not, we know that Rome prefers “domesticity.” He likes being married and focusing all his sexual attention on one woman. That vaunted bachelorhood? He could take it or leave it. And he does leave it, without a second glance.

You could argue that Rome makes emotional sacrifices to be with Sarah, but I think not. All of the emotions and feelings he lets go of are negative: grief, anger, guilt, pain, selfishness. What he’s actually doing is finally working through the loss of his wife and sons, releasing himself from negative emotional shackles so that he’s free to form (and, incidentally, remember) positive emotional ties. As wonderful as that is, it is not sacrifice.

In the end, the only reason you might be able to argue that neither the hero nor heroine sacrifices anything is that accidental pregnancy. Keyword: accidental. That makes all the difference.

Well, that, and that Sarah does choose to give up her job, her security, and the possibility of children. Each of those is her choice, and that is the saving grace. And, if we can trust in the depth of her love (it’s a romance novel, of course we can), even if she and Rome had never had children, she would not regret loving him. If the author hadn’t done such a good job of showing Sarah consciously choosing her path, it would be a different story. Pun intended.

Okay, that was one book from the eighties. Feminine sacrifice tally: one. Let’s have a look at something a little more recent, shall we?

In JR Ward’s novel Dark Lover, vampires are the name of the game. Leaving out many of the details that separate Ward’s vampires from other authors’ (and the logical/biological issues with which her world is riddled), the plot goes something like this: Wrath, sort of abdicated, almost-blind king of the vampires, sort of promises to help a friend’s half-human daughter (Beth, the heroine) through her transition from human to vampire. They fall in love. If I remember correctly, he then takes responsibility and ascends the throne. There’s a whole lot more that happens, of course, but that’s the bare-bones version. So what do Wrath and Beth each sacrifice in order to be together?

Not necessarily in chronological order, Beth gives up her job, her human friends/contacts, and her independence. She keeps her cat. Wrath gives up some of his prejudice against humans, his abdicatin’ ways, and almost his life.

All right, now we’re cookin’ with gas! Three to three, much better than the ratio from Sarah’s Child. One at a time, though, one at a time.

First: the job. Beth is a reporter at the local newspaper and, though kept from much success by her sexist boss, loves her work. As soon as she goes vampire, though, pfft! It’s too dangerous for a lady vamp to be out in the world where lessers (undead bad guys) can find her! While that’s true enough, Beth doesn’t replace her old job in the human world with a new one in the vampire world. She just…sits at home all day, petting the cat?

The Beth we get to know in the beginning wouldn’t stand that for long. She’s had a lot of shocks in a short amount of time, though, so we’ll let her have her peaceful work-free time, for a time. But the book ends without resolving this character issue. It is the first in a series, so it is conceivable that something changes later[1]. For the purposes of this article, though, we’ll stick with it being a sacrifice.

Second: friends. This one is trickier, because while Beth does lose a few friends (namely the good cop, José), she also gains the whole Black Dagger Brotherhood, their awesome butler Fritz, and she gets to keep Butch, a human ex-cop. (The lack of female friends on either side of the equation is fodder for a whole other article.) Because she gains more than she loses, we can toss this particular sacrifice out the window.

Third: independence. Beth’s independence is sacrificed in multiple ways, some more aggravatingly than others. For one thing, in addition to losing her job, she also loses her home. Again, this is due to the lessers that threaten, mostly. Of course, in order to be with Wrath, she’d have to move out anyway, considering vampires are a secret from mankind and he’s not exactly subtle, with his massive bod, tattoos, widow’s peak, attitude, and fangs. But, much like the friends “sacrifice,” Beth trades up. Instead of a ratty apartment, she gets at least one mansion, left to her by her late vampire father. They’re in her name, or at least belong to her, so she could conceivably kick out everyone else and retain that level of independence.

Even if the home situation isn’t much of an issue, the fact that Beth can’t step a foot outside the house without a male escort is. While she is still pre-transition she can get away with it, but once she goes full-on vampire, no way. It’s explained that vampire females are precious, lessers are out to get them, they have to stay hidden from humans, blah, blah, blah. What’s really being said is that vampire males don’t trust their females (at least Beth) to be smart and careful. So she ends up staying at home, worrying about her man – excuse me, male – who’s off fighting, with nothing to keep her busy except the housework she can’t do without sending the servants into spasms. And watch TV. The women of this series watch a lot of TV.

Now let’s examine Wrath’s sacrifices. The first: prejudice. Hmmm. Do I really need to say anything about this? I feel like I covered the “letting go of negative stuff is not sacrifice” thing with Rome. It might be difficult, it might effect change (no, duh), but it’s nothing he’s not better off without. One sacrifice down[2]!

The second: his freedom from kingly responsibilities. Wrath is the hereditary king of the vampires, but he refuses to officially take up the position because reasons. The one I remember most strongly is that he prefers to be out in the field, killing lessers, to dealing with the glymera (vampire high society). Who can blame him? The glymera are pretentious pains-in-the-butt. But they’re not the only vampires, just the wealthy and (en)titled ones.

That’s the reason Wrath gives for ignoring the throne, but the real reason is that he’s afraid. Afraid he won’t do a good job, afraid it will emasculate him, afraid he won’t be able to go out and fight anymore, afraid to take on the problems of vampire society, which are legion. And what do we say about letting go of a negative emotion like fear? All together now: it is not a sacrifice.

The biggest kicker against this particular “sacrifice” is this: Wrath does not give up going into the field when he takes the throne. True, he goes out less often, but he does still fight and kill lessers on a regular basis. He loses nothing (except, perhaps, some patience) by shouldering his royal responsibilities.

His final sacrifice, however, is real: his life. Don’t worry, he doesn’t actually die, but he comes close, which counts. When Beth is captured by lessers (because they get lucky, not because she does anything stupid), Wrath flies to her rescue, getting shot in the process. It takes the vampire equivalent of a blood transfusion to keep him from dying. He nearly sacrifices all to save his beloved, a time-honored tradition of alpha-maleness. Even if it is a little cliché, it’s still a mark in his favor, leaving the sacrifice score at two to one.

Dark Lover’s ultimate feminine sacrifice tally: one. The same score as Sarah’s Child, a book from the eighties with an already uneven sacrifice count. At first glance, the hero and heroine of Dark Lover appear to stand on equal ground in terms of sacrifices for love, but in the end, the heroine sacrifices more.

Because this article’s grown longer than I intended, I won’t examine other novels here, though there are many examples to be had. But I will say that there are authors out there who do an excellent job of creating lovers who sacrifice equally. For example, Nalini Singh and Jennifer Crusie, though writing completely different types of romance novels, know how to balance the equation. Sometimes, that means that neither heroine nor hero truly sacrifices anything. Compromise, yes; sacrifice, no. Frankly, I’ll take that over unequal sacrifice any day. What do you think?


[1] SPOILER: it sort of does and sort of doesn’t. She helps Wrath with royal paperwork. She’s a glorified secretary, and even then, Saxton (a male) takes over.

[2] Side note: it’s not very lasting, either. Through the whole series, vamps refer to humans as “rats without tails,” which I guess is supposed to be uncomplimentary, despite rats being rather intelligent survivors, even without their tails.