Olive Skin, Chocolate Eyes: The Legacy of The Sheik on Descriptive Patterns of the Italian Romantic Hero in Harlequin Short Contemporaries

Publication year
Journal of Popular Romance Studies

Here's the abstract:

A dominant descriptive pattern of the Anglo-Italian encounter in modern and contemporary Anglophone fiction has been focusing on representing Italy as a unique constellation of counter-values to Anglo-American culture and its ethos. This tradition can be characterized as a discursive formation reiterating the construct of Italy’s exoticism and a particularly complex and multi-layered notion of “primitivism.” Not only literary but discursive at large, this perspective has penetrated different cultural/artistic contexts, including that of Anglophone contemporary romance and its sub-genres. This essay focuses on recent Harlequin short contemporaries and argues that, within this category, the Italian male hero serves as the designated indicator of otherness, in its positive as well as its negative aspects. If Italian heroes are portrayed as sensual and alluringly dark in their physical features, such darkness often indicates a fundamental unreliability of character, irascibility and potential danger. Taking E.M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919) as a text of reference for the construction of Arab and Southern European male exoticism, this essay will highlight a conflation between mainstream assumptions on Southern European machismo and common literary conventions on Middle Eastern cultures based on their perceived discontinuity with the modern world. This paper will shed light on a set of descriptive patterns about Italian heroes specific to the genre, which stages, on the one hand, an endless sequence of charming and wealthy winemakers with exotic accents and large families, and reiterates, on the other hand, a series of conventional and time-honoured tropes on the mysterious, alluring but unreliable nature of the other.