The Utopian Impulse in Popular Literature: Gothic Romances and "Feminist" Protest

Publication year
American Quarterly

those who argue for the romance's essentially conservative nature tend to focus on the resolution of the narrative itself which invariably establishes its heroine's happiness by throwing her into the arms of a traditionally protective male. Those who disagree note instead that a good portion of the romantic narrative permits the reader to identify with a heroine who is either wrongly abused by men or who remains unusually independent. The story must be termed at least mildly feminist, they reason, because it provides the reader with the opportunity to express anger at patriarchal domination and to identify with a woman who does not fully adhere to conventional sex-role stereotypes.
[...] The contradictory hypotheses arise because neither group combines an analysis of the entire narrative structure with an assessment of the manner in which the developing story engages and manages real readers' responses. A full accounting of the meaning of the popular romance depends on the ability to indicate how the narrative develops for the reader, to speculate on her likely response to that evolving account, and finally, to explain the social function performed by eliciting and controlling her reactions in that specific manner. (142-143)

Radway therefore looks at the characters and plot development in gothic romances before turning to look at women's place in US society after the Second World War and concluding with an analysis of how she thinks readers interacted with the novels and why the gothic fell out of favour after the publication of Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower.