Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Romance . . .

as narrative, plot, or story
of individual on a quest or mission, overcoming tests or trials
to reach a transcendent goal

(i.e., "not just a love story," though it might be)

(see also Romanticism; genres; narrative genres; melodrama)


In popular use today, "romance" means love or a love story, but in literary studies romance means a broader, more inclusive type of story or narrative that usually features a hero's or heroine's journey or quest through tests and trials (often involving a villain or antagonist) in order to reach a transcendent goal, whether love, salvation or rescue, or justice (usually revenge).

The narratives or story-lines of most popular movies and novels can be characterized as romances. A familiar variant or combination in film is "romantic comedy" (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, etc) which typically involves a journey or plot in which two charming but mismatched characters endure mistakes and obstructions to arrive at a common union and save each other through love (which ends the story).

But macho action-adventure movies like Rocky, Rambo, Taken, and The Transporter are also romances, often involving a quest for vengeance for the death of a loved one, or the rescue of a loved one. A love-element may be present but is often de-emphasized for the sake of the larger narrative quest and its context.

Learning challenge: Overcoming or resolving "cognitive dissonance" between "romance as women's love story" and "romance as hero-story of quest, trial, and transcendence."

Many students understand these distinctions as instructor explains or reinforces them, but few exams or essays refer to the romance narrative (or they continue referring to romance exclusively as a love story), indicating that previous associations overpower the new information, which is not reinforced except in advanced literary studies.

Instructor continues to teach the difference for sake of preparing students who may encounter academic uses of the romance narrative in the future or the few who will remember it when they watch pop-culture narratives like action-adventure or science fiction movies, or read pop-culture narratives like popular novels or graphic novels.

Intellectual outcome: Romance is the essential narrative of popular literature, and since popular literature succeeds primarily on a surface level instead of an intellectual or critical level, only a few people can be expected to know or care, but they should!


from A Handbook to Literature, by C. Hugh Holman (3d ed.), Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.

Romance:  This word was first used for Old French as a language derived from Latin or "Roman" [now known as "romance languages" incl. Spanish, French, Italian] to distinguish it from Latin itself . . . .  Later romance was applied to any work written in French, and as stories of knights and their deeds were the dominant form of Old French Literature, the word romance was narrowed to mean such stories. . . .  Special modern uses of the word romance may be noted from the account in the New English Dictionary: "romantic fiction"; "an extravagant fiction"; a "fictitious narrative in prose of which the scene and incidents are very remote from those of ordinary life" . . . . 

Medieval Romance:  Medieval romances are tales of adventure in which knights, kings, or distressed ladies, acting under the impulse of love, religious faith, or the mere desire for adventure, are the chief figures. . . .  Structurally, the medieval romance follows the loose pattern of the quest. . . .

from Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

            In the form in which we possess it, most of [European fiction] has already moved into the category of romance.  Romance divides into two main forms: a secular form dealing with chivalry and knight-errantry, and a religious form devoted to legends of saints.  Both lean heavily on miraculous violations of natural law for their interest as stories. (34)

from Oxford English Dictionary. (historical dictionary) (UHCL Neumann Library) (UHCL)

Romance A. (noun) I. As a literary genre, and derived senses.
 1. A medieval narrative (originally in verse, later also in prose) relating the legendary or extraordinary adventures of some hero of chivalry. Also in extended use, with reference to narratives about important religious figures. (Originally denoting a composition in the vernacular [French, etc.] as contrasted with works in Latin.) (first historical usage app. 1300CE)

3.a. A fictitious narrative, usually in prose, in which the settings or the events depicted are remote from everyday life, or in which sensational or exciting events or adventures form the central theme; a book, etc., containing such a narrative. (first historical usage 1589)

5.a. The character or quality that makes something appeal strongly to the imagination, and sets it apart from the mundane; an air, feeling, or sense of wonder, mystery, and remoteness from everyday life; redolence or suggestion of, or association with, adventure, heroism, chivalry, etc.; mystique, glamour. cf. Romantic, Romanticism.

5.b. Ardour or warmth of feeling in a love affair; love, esp. of an idealized or sentimental kind. (first historical usage 1858)

6. A love affair; a romantic relationship. (first historical usage 1844)

7. A story of romantic love, esp. one which deals with love in a sentimental or idealized way; a book, film, etc., with a narrative or story of this kind. Also as mass noun: literature of this kind. (first historical usage 1901)

II.Senses relating to language. In later use with capital initial.

8 Originally: the vernacular language of medieval France, as opposed to Latin. In later use also: any of various related Romance languages, such as Provençal (Occitan) and Spanish. Now esp.: the Romance languages collectively.

etymology: see

Attributes of romance narrative:

plot or story-line: journey, quest, mission, self-transformation, or adventure involving tests or trials that strengthen or refine the protagonist.

              separation & reunification as recurrent actions or cycles (as in rescues, recoveries)

              desire & loss as mechanisms for pushing the romance narrative forward.

characterization: simple, moralistic, symbolic: good guy-bad guy; fair lady-dark lady; innocent child and corrupt adult (contrast tragedy's mixed characters)

              heroic individualism

settings: extreme, idealized, long ago and far away or deep into the future or a fantasy-world (contrast with realism, which concentrates on here and now)

codes of honor, chivalry, gallantry, purity (or these qualities oppositional counterparts: shame, indecency, base motives)

conclusion as transcendence (or escape or deliverance from prior struggle): The fairy tale as a romance narrative concludes with conflicts ended and the couple "living happily ever after." In tales of chivalry, the knight slays the dragon, wins the hand of the fair lady, or sees the Holy Grail. In westerns, the cowboy cleans up the town and (maybe with his girl) "rides off into the sunset." Rambo or some other action hero flies off in his helicopter or drives off in his hot car. Also, "Let's get away from it all."

Taken as "romance narrative":
hopefully happy family separated by evil intruder;
super-dad or hero-brother avenges evil,
rescues & reunifies family's lost children,
transcends to "happily ever after"
(or until the next sequel)

Visuals below: The romance narrative's most familiar origin is that of the medieval knight on a quest, sometimes for a transcendent vision of the Holy Grail (Christ's communion cup), signifying purity of heart and devotion to service. That service often involved rescuing fair ladies (damsels in distress) from impure or villainous rivals. 

Frank Dicksee (1853-1928), Chivalry (1885)

Below: A popular American variant on the romance narrative is the Western. Good guys wear white hats instead of shining armor and bad guys wear black hats instead of appearing as the "dark knight" or "black knight." Again characters are starkly divided into good and bad, and love-romance involving rescues of women are common.

One way to tell good guys and bad guys apart in Westerns and other masculine romance-adventures is that good guys are polite or "chivalrous" toward women, while bad guys may threaten dishonor or abuse to women.

Below: Science fiction stories resemble tales of western cowboys and medieval knights by using romance narrative and characterization. Fairly all science fiction novels are romances. H.G. Wells, one of the "fathers of science fiction," referred to his science fiction novels as "scientific romances"

Below at left, Darth Vader as the black knight (of the darkside) battles the good and pure Luke Skywalker, a "Jedi Knight."

Below at right, love-romance continues to feature but does not necessarily define or limit the romance narrative. 

Below: Gender-bending in recent romance narratives (Hunger Games, Game of Thrones) features women characters as heroic individuals using men's weapons on their own quests and not waiting to be rescued. 

Description of romance narrative: (for other narratives, see narrative genres)

The story may open as though all is well, but action usually begins with a problem of separation. Characters are separated from each other (e. g., a true-love romance), or a need arises to rescue someone (a lost-child story; the protagonist will be a rescuer or "savior"); or characters are separated from some object of desire (as with the search for the Holy Grail or Romancing the Stone or a lottery ticket).

Action often takes the form of a physical journey or adventure; characters may be captured or threatened and rescued. Episodes in the narrative may involve trials, tests, or ordeals in which desire or vision or protagonist is tested.

Action may take the form of a personal transformation or a journey across class lines, as in Cinderella, Pretty Woman, or An Officer and a Gentleman, or Dirty Dancing. 

Protagonists are motivated by desire for fulfillment or a vision of transcendent grace; cf. desire and loss.

The conclusion of a romance narrative is typically transcendence—“getting away from it all” or “rising above it all.” The characters “live happily ever after” or “ride off into the sunset” or “fly away” from the scenes of their difficulties (in contrast with tragedy’s social engagement or comedy’s restored unity).

Characters in romance tend to be starkly good or bad, in contrast with tragedy’s “mixed” characters. The problem that starts the action is usually attributed less to a flaw in the hero than to a villain or some outside force.

(Most Hollywood movies and most popular novels are romances, but some “independent movies” involve tragedy.)

  • romantic comedy or upbeat romance: the couple is elevated to a transcendent moment like a wedding or dance; or the macho hero honorably vanquishes his dishonorable antagonist.

  • tragic romance: the hero or couple desires a goal so high or daring as to be forbidden > tragic loss!

The romance narrative derives primarily from Europe or Eurasia. How does it adapt to an American setting?

Western movies:

  • cowboys as mounted knights
  • white hats and black hats as good guy-bad guy color code

  • codes of honor, chivalry towards women

Compare "frontier romances" like The Leatherstocking Tales (e.g. The Last of the Mohicans)

Country & Western music: are singers troubadours?

Batman and Robin—"the Dark Knight"

Variation on usage: the "Family Romance"

This narrative theme is derived from several writings by Freud. The idea is that in the life of every child is a repressed desire that the child's parents be superior to what they are and that the child, by extension, be a princess, a prince, or some other "more than mortal" sort. Think of the line, "Maybe I have a rich uncle somewhere," or the practice of some families to research their genealogies in the interests of finding an ancestor who raises their families above the common lot.

Indeed, for many mythic or religious heroes, a "divine parent" (or some variation) is developed in order to create a noble background for a common person who rises from the common folk.

·       Oedipus, found by peasants, given to king and queen.

·       Moses (a reverse pattern), passing from the Hebrew slaves to the daughter of Pharoah

·       King Arthur, evidently a simple squire, but when he pulls the sword from the stone it is revealed that he is the son of Uther, the old King.

·       Jesus, apparently the son of a carpenter but attributively the son of God.

·       President Clinton's handshake with John Kennedy may be a recent variant.

In literature:

In Last of the Mohicans, the tortoise tattoo reveals that Uncas, instead of being a common captive of war, is the descendant of the "first people" and the chiefs of the Tortoise clan.

In any number of popular romances or fairy tales, the theme that "someday my prince will come" and elevate the dreamer to an elite status.

In general, the "elevation" theme of the "family romance" corresponds to the "transcendence" theme of the romance narrative.

fantasy-based reality competition series on ABC TV network 2014-15