Analysis of romance literature is fuzzy

August 31, 1994|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

Suzanne Juhasz ignores men in this book.

tTC In a sense, the book's purpose justifies this. But sometimes it's hard to see what the book's purpose really is. Is it to bring the reading life alive? Is it to study love stories through a feminist/psychoanalytic perspective? Is it to make the classics politically correct? Is it to bash men?

As Ms. Juhasz, professor of English at the University of Colorado, explains the thesis of her critical study, "Reading from the Heart: Women, Literature, And The Search For True Love," several purposes suggest themselves. Here's one: "I read for intimacy, for identity -- for recognition. Whether I am reading as a daughter or a mother or both, I try to enter a relationship with author and text that keeps me from being lonely. Maybe it's as simple as that, although I hope that I have demonstrated something about the complexity that generates the state I refer to as lonely."

Dr. Juhasz has demonstrated that complexity, although her point often gets lost in wordiness and fuzzy thinking. Generally, she tries to find out what makes an absorbing love story and why.

She analyzes 10 or so love stories by and about women from several perspectives; the psychoanalytic, the feminist, and the personal (the average female reader -- Dr. Juhasz -- as an adolescent and as a mature woman). Mostly, these stories are classics by such authors as Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott and the Bronte sisters, although Dr. Juhasz includes some lesser-known authors such as Isabel Miller and Valerie Taylor, writers of lesbian romantic fiction.

"Reading . . ." Dr. Juhasz says somewhat condescendingly in the Author's Note, "is my first book written specifically for a general readership, for 'real people,' as I tend to put it." As the Author's Note continues, she states her purpose: "I wanted not so much to study the reading life as to bring it alive in my book."

Several pages later, in the prologue, Dr. Juhasz restates her purpose: "I wanted to understand my passion for romance fiction, and because I am an academic, the habit of doing research is well ingrained in me . . . Looking in contemporary psychoanalytic and feminist psychology, I discovered a plot that was as exciting to me as a novel." She then mentions D.W. Winnicott, Daniel Stern, Nancy Chodorow, Judith Jordan and Jessica Benjamin -- several psychologists whose theories have contributed to her thinking in this book.

Further in the 24-page prologue, Dr. Juhasz suggests another purpose: "I want to enter the world of the book and show what happens when I am in the presence of an author-mother; what it means to feel her care and love. . . . But of course, all writers do not mother their readers, in this fashion. . . . Some authors are, in fact, not mothers at all." Then Dr. Juhasz -- ignoring the men (Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Hardy, Flaubert, Lawrence to name a few) who have written great romantic love stories -- says, "There are daughter-authors too."

Besides ignoring love stories by male writers, Dr. Juhasz also ignores maleness in her critical analyses. The book's several purposes do not justify this. The book becomes ludicrous when she discusses "Wuthering Heights," and sees Heathcliff as a mother figure. "Heathcliff in his wildness and otherness, supports the acultural maternal principle. . . ." But dark, brooding, muscular Heathcliff seems anything but maternal. Neither does Mr. Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice" seem like the "good mother." Nor was I convinced that Mr. Rochester's purpose was to rescue Jane Eyre from her association with the "bad mother."

According to Dr. Juhasz, "Jane Eyre," like the other novels

discussed here, seeks to "replicate the mother-infant bond." As such, she suggests, it is a story about the attainment of "female selfhood." But it isn't. "Jane Eyre" is a story about an imaginary woman who -- like most women -- falls in love and eventually marries. If Dr. Juhasz began with this premise, she might figure out more easily why the book makes such absorbing reading.

Title: ""Reading from the Heart: Women, Literature, And The Search For True Love"

Author: Suzanne Juhasz

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 292 pages, $22.95

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

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