Modern Romantic Fiction

The Romantic era – that post-Enlightenment phase of literature and expression that embraced both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – knew how to feel the feels. Commentary wasn’t limited to the placid appreciation for love and beauty; it necessarily included extremes in human emotion. Wordsworth may have reflected in tranquility, but Mary Shelley brought horror and rage to the page via Frankenstein’s monster while Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean was a Superman before Superheroes even existed. Given a numeric representation, the characters experienced their fictitious lives at about a 14 on a scale of one to 10.

In modern-day experience, we have romantic characters hanging out with absolute intellectuals who are then tossed in with amoral and/or immoral characters who remind us of the complexity of all humans. We can even drop all these character traits into one setting and call it the Starship Enterprise (tip of the hat to Star Trek). Our heroes are either charismatic mavericks who rely on intuition and sidekicks (Harry Potter, Captain Kirk) — or they can be mutant geniuses who could control the minds of people but who are so clearly good they would never willingly do so (Professor X). The occasional character of ethical and moral ambiguity can enter the fray, but they usually end up fighting for some version of “right” (Deadpool, Wolverine, pick most of the Marvel characters).

Why ponder the Romantic genre? For one, why not, but for two because the notion of romance doesn’t have the same connotation it used to. One of the reasons that literature is so fun is that I like to play connect-the-dots between characters and current events. Whether the good guys are in the Resistance or the morally ambiguous guy wants to tell his beloved that he’s still alive, I take comfort in knowing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Jean Valjean may have morphed into The Fugitive and Frankenstein’s monster may have morphed into an X-Man or the Hulk, but our characters are not as desensitized, or as desensitizing, as we might think at first glance. We’re still feeling on a level 14 even as we’re pretending to be all aloof and cynical. Romance novels may have morphed from breast-beating protestations of innocence to bodice-ripping flights of fancy, but people still like it when the good guy emerges victorious.

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