Westley: I told you I would always come for you. Why didn't you wait for me?Buttercup: Well... you were dead.Westley: Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.(The Princess Bride)
Beneath the garish and embarrassing covers of romance novels lies a vivid picture of the natural law that is written on the hearts of humanity. It is not easy to recognize, but it is there, and it shows us ourselves. The actual covers are predictable. Lovely maidens (struck, no doubt, but a sudden stroke or fit) arch backward in the arms of a gentleman who is having a dreadfully difficult time keeping his clothing fastened. You would think that even before they invented zippers, they would have figured out how to carve buttons or something. Even the more sedate covers are silly enough to signal their genre.
If we took these covers seriously, we would learn a lot of odd facts about people from past eras.
(Beautiful women discovered shampoo and conditioner
long before the rest of the unwashed masses)
(Apparently, the men of past centuries all waxed their chests)
(Regency gentlemen liked to wander around
in rose gardens whilst half naked)
(Historically, women didn’t have heads)
(Or if they did have heads, they kept them turned away)
(Or just wore masks)
Few heroines of romance novels make eye-contact with the reader. They gaze to the side. They turn their back. They poke their heads above the frame. They are intended to provide readers with an avatar for fantasy, and their own identity does not much matter. Since novels provide consumers with something they want, what do the books tell us about those women—and about the natural yearnings and beliefs of all humanity?
Surely the biggest, most obvious issue is this: women are disappointed by men. The fantasy that these novels offer is not the opportunity to be the heroine, but instead it is the chance to spend time with the hero (how often do you see a romance cover in which the man’s head is cut off?). Real men do not measure up to women’s expectations and do not love them in the way they wish to be loved. Yet women yearn to believe that somewhere, a marvelous, amazing, perfect man exists and wants them madly. They want to believe in the power of this man’s love. It will be strong enough to overcome a myriad of insurmountable obstacles (obstacles that will be neatly trampled underfoot in the last two chapters), deep enough to wash away character flaws and past sins (the couple will redeem each other), and exciting enough to reveal the joy and meaning of life. It will be eternal love.
Women want to be chosen by this love.They want to be special. They want to be the one girl who can hold the heart of a former playboy (no matter whether he is a laird of Scotland or a dreamy, washed-up stockbroker). They want to be the first woman to stir the emotions of a hardened ex-con. They want to rescue a lonely prince from his isolation. They want a man to need them because they are the only one who can save and complete him.
All of this tells us something about women, and about humans. The reason we all want to be loved, chosen, and special is because we want to know that we have value. Unlike animals who are content to merely eat, breed, and sleep, we need this knowledge. We need to know who we are and what we are made for. These stories show us that the answer to our need for knowledge does not lie within ourselves. Just as romance readers seek external validation through their attraction of a soul-mate, we all look to the people around us to prove that we have value.
Romance novels illustrate that human beings need meaning and that we seek it in some kind of external, eternal, powerful love. That is part of what it means to be human. That is merely the natural law, written on our hearts, revealing to us a little bit of truth from the world that God created. Yet it is not wholly true. It does not give us lasting peace. The people around us do not satisfy. They fall short, they betray, they put themselves ahead of us. That is why some of us turn in disappointment to romance novels. Even then, the yearning is not filled. Witness the proliferation of such books—none are sufficient to quiet the soul. That is because the knowledge of natural law is not enough. It stabs us with the problem yet offers no solution to the perpetual bleeding of our open wound.
It is only through Divine Revelation that we find truth and meaning. Natural Law may drive us to seek a man or a god, but only the true God can give us the answer to our search. He comes to us in the form of a man. His love does overcome all obstacles: the obstacles of our sin, guilt, and spiritual deadness. He redeems us and gives us meaning. His love is not the love of the romance novel (that clichéd cycle of velvety lips, miscommunications, and perfect abs). Yet it is the answer to the need we express when we stand in the grocery store aisle and buy a book with a picture of a swooning couple. It is truth.