The Language of Love and Desire: Convention, Affect, and Intimacy in the Contemporary Romance

Master Thesis


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Contemporary romance is a genre which is often denigrated to the realm of popular fiction or “chick-lit”. However, contemporary romance is in dialogue with a much older tradition, and it serves a purpose beyond mere entertainment. In this dissertation, I analyse four works of contemporary romance which demonstrate a keen awareness of the conventions that precede them and offer a range of new imaginative, romantic possibilities. Narratives of love and desire play a crucial role in societal perceptions of love as it relates to gender, marriage, sexuality, autonomy, and belonging. In Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), the banality of ideas of fate and soulmates is revealed in a world of falseness informed by the communist state in Czechoslovakia. While in Possession: A Romance (1990), A.S. Byatt self-reflexively questions traditional romantic assumptions of love as belonging as well as more feminist, postmodern concerns of desire. Byatt also reappropriates the mythical figure of Melusine to recentre feminine desire. Furthermore, Sally Rooney's Normal People (2018) addresses recent romantic tropes such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, along with the problems with the social pressure to appear “normal”. Lastly, I consider Nthikeng Mohlele's Illumination (2019), a novel that is at once a love story and a story of fractured existence in post-apartheid Johannesburg. Using a mixture of feminist, queer, and postcolonial theories, I examine the ways in which these authors redefine love relations. These novels demonstrate that the language of love and desire is one of nuance and complexity which cannot be reduced to clichéd expressions or neatly wrapped in conventions of marriage or tragedy. Lovers are situated in space and time, and in language. By reappropriating, subverting, and questioning various romantic tropes, these four contemporary novels offer new and productive ways of thinking about love and desire. All these works of fiction challenge dominant, normative notions of romance and prompt a critical reconceptualization of love and desire.