Do romantic novels and films set us up for disappointment?
Updated: Jan 27
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Poisonous, corruptive, and bewitching novels. Portals to worlds beyond our grasp, and therefore places of unsatisfied desires and dashed dreams. Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel Madame Bovary explores the disappointment created by romantic idealism in literature. The titular character, Emma Bovary, is a sentimental young girl, desperate for excitement and fanatical about novel reading. Raised in dull, provincial France, Emma yearns to ‘find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.’ It is not an unrecognisable foundation for a character: dreams of finding adventure, gaining knowledge of the world. It is hard to conceive of many characters who don’t share a similarly undefined desire for exhilaration and fantasy. My mind turns to Disney’s Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Emma Bovary and Belle read romance novels, both a symptom and a cause of, as Belle so succinctly puts it, their want of ‘adventure in the great, wide somewhere’. Why, then, is Emma Bovary’s fate so perilous? Is Flaubert suggesting there is something inherent in young women that makes them vulnerable to the damaging effects of romantic books? Indeed, what are these damaging effects? Do they still persist today? In the case of Emma, her love of romance novels is emblematic of her inability to be satisfied with what she has. If stoicism is on one side of the spectrum, we might imagine Emma Bovary on the other. Her endless desire to accrue more beauty and glamour, paired with an insatiable restlessness, leads her into debt and adultery. Here, a question arises: is Emma intrinsically restless, or is her restlessness an effect of her novel reading? What came first: the novel or the discontent? The dangers of the novel were set out in many periodicals of the 19th century. The Western Gem, equated sensationalist novels to alcohol in 1853, naming it ‘the beverage of Romance, blasting soul and body.’ Novels were intoxicating, addictive and encouraged loose morals. Women were not deemed to have the intellectual capacity to differentiate what they read in novels from real life. The fictional death of a novel-reader such as Emma Bovary seems to present itself, quite harrowingly, as a warning. Whilst novel reading today is not quite so dangerous – I feel most of my morals have remained intact throughout my English Literature degree – the legacy of romanticism and its effect on women’s expectations remains. The ‘chick-flick’ has been accused of propagating unrealistic views of romance, consequently damaging women’s relationships. Hollywood profits off of everyone’s dreams and desires, so why is such romanticism only villainised in regards to women? No one criticises Transformers for giving men an unrealistic desire for women who can fix steaming cars whilst looking effortlessly beautiful. This disparity might be explained by the legacy of believing women lack the intellectual capacity to differentiate between fantasy and reality. Are the novels and films themselves really the issue, or is it the societal insistence upon labelling romance and folly as inherently female, in contrast to the more ‘serious’ films and the realism, the exciting and the mundane. Only then may we begin to live an authentic life; not chasing after a dream only realised in a novel or a film but finding joy in the magic of the everyday.