Breaking Down the Barriers: Love and Walls

By Jodi McAlister, Deakin University

Image: Unknown, Guillaume de Lorris, and Jean de Meun (French, about 1240/1260 - 1305), Roman de la Rose, about 1405. Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Image: Unknown, Guillaume de Lorris, and Jean de Meun (French, about 1240/1260 – 1305), Roman de la Rose, about 1405. Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

 

In Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s thirteenth-century romance Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), the hero – the male Lover – must overcome Reason, Jealousy and Resistance to pluck the Rose which grows at the centre of the Enchanted Garden. This is an allegorical text, and not a subtle one: the fortress which the lover penetrates is the female body, and the rose he plucks is her virginity.

It is also not an unusual text. There is a long literary tradition of the female body – especially the body of the female virgin – being imagined as a locked building. Anke Bernau notes that it is continually referred to as ‘an enclosed garden, a shut door, a sealed fountain, a fortified castle’,[1] while Kathleen Coyne Kelly traces this notion back to the Song of Songs, where the female body is figured as both a wall and a door, ‘produced through a series of mystifications as closed, sealed, intact’.[2]

Roman de la Rose1.jpg
Image: Unknown, Guillaume de Lorris, and Jean de Meun (French, about 1240/1260 – 1305), Roman de la Rose, about 1405. Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

There are obvious sexual and hymeneal implications here, but there are also emotional ones. While Le Roman de la Rose and many other texts in which the woman’s body is likened to a locked building are regularly called ‘romances’, there is only one romantic actor: the male lover. He is the actor, and she is the acted upon – to the extent where she is literally figured not as a person, but as an inanimate object, incapable of any kind of feeling. Texts like Le Roman de la Rose are extreme examples of Penny Schine Gold’s claim that,

romances would not exist without women, yet the female characters are attendants to the central drama of the stories rather than participants. In the romance, we do not see men and women working together toward a common goal but, rather, we see a goal pursued by men alone, with woman as one object of that pursuit.[3]

If we follow Monique Scheer, who argues that ‘[f]ictional representations in literature, theatre, and film can be analyzed as artifacts used by actors in their emotional practices, as providers of templates of language and gesture as well as mediators of social norms,’[4] then what we see in woman-as-fortress romances is not only a literal objectification of the female body, but also a disquiet with female emotions, to the extent where they are emptied out of the narrative entirely.

The modern romance genre is – as anyone who has read even one romance novel will know – entirely different. A genre largely written by and for women, it is a form that centres the emotional inner life of its characters, especially (and, in comparison with other genres, unusually) its female characters. The plot of the modern romance novel is governed and structured by emotion. The Romance Writers of America association states that the romance novel must have a ‘central love story’ and ‘an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending’.[5] Pamela Regis contends that the romance novel has eight essential elements, one of which is the declaration of love: a declaration which, importantly, both characters must make.[6]

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 10, Illustration by HM Brock. c. 1898. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 10, Illustration by HM Brock. c. 1898. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

However, despite the fact that this is quite different – almost opposite – to the conception of the medieval romance by Schine Gold, this curious imagery of the wall or the fortress remains. Another of Regis’ eight essential elements is the ‘barrier’ between the two protagonists: that is, the reason that they cannot be together (and, by implication, cannot declare their feelings to each other). A third element is the ‘means by which the barrier can be overcome’, where a breaking down of this barrier is equated with emotional declaration and the possibility of romantic union.[7] Frequently, there is both an external and internal barrier between the protagonists. Regis uses Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to explain this concept, noting that the external barrier between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy is their differing social circumstances, while the internal – and ultimately more important – barrier is emotional: he must overcome his pride, she her prejudice.[8]

While the genre has developed, the wall has remained, but it has been repurposed. Instead of being a wall that a male protagonist must penetrate in order to gain control and ownership of the passive female protagonist, it has become a wall between the two protagonists – one that must be broken down for their romance to flourish. Curiously, as in Pride and Prejudice, some of the building blocks of the wall may be emotional, but until it is levelled, true romantic connection is not possible.

This wall does not exist solely in structuralist criticism of the romance genre – it exists in common parlance. As any viewer of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette will know, the ‘wall’ or the ‘guard’ is almost as common a linguistic occurrence in the show as ‘chemistry’, ‘connection’, or ‘here for the right reasons’. Here, it is frequently invoked as an internal barrier: ‘I feel like you’ve got a wall up’, the Bachelor/ette might say to a contestant. The implication is that unless the contestant is emotionally honest with the Bachelor/ette – especially in declaring their love for them – then a romance between them will be difficult, if not impossible.[9]

In The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, as in romance fiction, and as in medieval romances like Le Roman de la Rose, for the romance to take place and for love to flourish, the barrier must be broken down. However, there is a key difference here between how romantic love was imagined in medieval romance versus modern romance. In medieval romance, the male protagonist was responsible for breaking down the barrier in order to claim the female protagonist. In modern romance, where both protagonists are imbued with agency (although this might be token, in the case of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette), it is the responsibility of the individuals to overcome their own barriers before they can meet on the ground where the wall once stood, declare their love and live happily ever after.

Jodi McAlister is a Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University in Melbourne, and was an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the history of Emotions in 2017. She is the author of multiple articles and book chapters on romantic love and popular fiction, as well as the young adult novels Valentine (2017) and Ironheart (2018), published by Penguin. She recaps The Bachelor and The Bachelorette regularly for the website Book Thingo.

[1] Anke Bernau, Virgins: A Cultural History (London: Granta, 2007), p. 137.

[2] Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 42.

[3] Penny Schine Gold, The Lady and the Virgin: Image, Attitude, and Experience in Twelfth Century France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 28.

[4] Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and Is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion,’ History and Theory 51.2 (2012): 217–18.

[5] Romance Writers of America, ‘About the Romance Genre,’ myRWA, n.d. https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=578

[6] Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), p. 30.

[7] Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel, p. 30.

[8] Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel, pp. 36–37.

[9] For more on the peculiarities of language in The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, see Jodi McAlister, ‘Take One Sip When Someone Says “Connection”: Passion Versus Intimacy in The Bachelor/ette Australia’, in Small Screens: Essays on Contemporary Australian Television, edited by M. Arrow, C. Monagle and J. Baker (Melbourne: Monash University Press, 2016), pp. 65–78.

 

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