The Macksey Journal


The term “romance novel” might bring to mind a novel being half-heartedly shielded by a reader on a train, its cover bearing a man with long hair caressing a half-dressed woman. They are vulgar, atrociously written, an emblem of a culture that has become over-sexed and under-appreciative of good literature. Romance novels have been around for nearly as long as novels themselves, however; Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740)is an early example of the qualities every romance has to have—a meeting between the heroine and hero, an account of their attraction to each other, an obstacle that threatens their ability to be together, a moment when their union seems impossible, an overcoming of the barrier, a declaration of love, and betrothal or implied betrothal. All romance novels, from beloved classics like Pamela and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre(1847) to recent bestsellers like Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (2005) and E.L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey(2011), also push a narrative of consumption—physically, financially, and emotionally. Only when consuming can the hero and heroine achieve their happy ending, which is a physical and financial union that cements a lifetime of comfort. The linear, proscriptive romances described in these novels are both a reflection and a product of capitalism, making similarly unachievable and irresistible promises of economic and personal gains, manufacturing a set of feelings that Lauren Berlant refers to as “cruel optimism.” These novels generate desires they can never fulfill. As time goes on, cruel optimism evolves, and the promises these novels make come to reflect the present ideals of capitalism, maintaining a constant appeal throughout the ages and the promise of a better life, just out of reach. Historically tracing the romance novel from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries, this essay shows how the romance novel tracks the evolution of capitalism itself.