The narrative pleasure of knowing the story


“In 1973, Susanna Rowson, a writer of the ‘sentimental novel,’ remarked, ‘I wonder that the novel readers are not tired of reading one story so many times, with only the variation of its being told different ways.’ While Rowson’s observation could, with even more justic today, be applied to most popular novels, which are, of course, deeply conventional, it pertains most forcibly to Harlequin Romances, for the company which produces them requires its writers to follow a strict set of rules and even dictates the point of view from which the narrative must be told. The peculiar result is that the reader who reads the story already knows the story, at least in all its essentials. I will show that this situation both reflects and contributes to a mild ‘hysterical’ state – using this term in its strict psychoanalytic sense. In his famous case study of Anna O., Josef Breuer, who, with Freud, worked with female hysterics, discusses the way the patient’s early ‘habit of daydreaming’ to escape from her ‘monotonous family life’ prepared the way for the extreme hysteria she was to develop. Eventually, she began to experience a kind of ‘double conscience,’ as Breuer calls it, which, among other symptoms, was manifested in a need to tell stories about herself in the third person and in a feeling that even when she was at her most ‘insane,’ a clear-sighted and calm observer sat… in a corner of her brain and looked on at all the mad business.’ This kind of duality exists, as we shall see, at the very core of romances, particularly in the relation between an ‘informed’ reader and a necessarily innocent heroine.” (p.32)

“Despite the significant differences,” Modleski goes on to say, “…both [Harlequin Romance and Gothic Romance] texts share in common a sense of the insufficiency of female selfhood. The reader of Harlequin Romances finds herself, in ‘hysterical’ fashion, desiring the subversion of the heroine’s attempts at self-assertion, and the reader of Gothics identifies with a heroine who fears hereditary madness or who feels literally possessed by the spirits of other women from out of the past. However, feminine selflessness reaches its extreme in the ‘family romances’ of soap operas. And this not so much because the women portrayed on these programs embody it as an ideal; rather, because of the special narrative form of soap operas (because it has no end, because, properly speaking it has no center), the spectator is invited to disperse herself into a variety of situations which never come to a full and satisfactory conclusion. The spectator becomes the ideal woman, emptied of self, preoccupied by the perennial problems of ‘all her children’. Moreover, in directing the spectator’s hostility towards the one woman who repeatedly tries to gain control over feminine powerlessness, soap operas further insure against the possibility of somen’s becoming more self-assertive. The ‘villainess’ often figures largely as a character in Harlequins and Gothics too…[but] the emotional energy the audience invests in [this character] appears to be most extreme in soap operas. This emotion cannot be defined as one of simple loathing, however; it consists of a complex mixture of anger, envy, and sneaking admiration.” (p.33)

Ref: Tania Modleski (1982) Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. Archon Books: Hamden, Connecticut


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