Romance Genre: Definition, History & Characteristics

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:26 History
  • 2:45 Characteristics
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

From antique poems to modern paperbacks, the romance genre has certainly left a mark on the literary world. Explore this lesson to find out more about this genre, its characteristics, and its place in history!


Why do audiences love The Princess Bride? Why does The Notebook move so many readers? We're often drawn to works like these because they let us believe that life can be a little brighter than it is in reality. While its optimism is sometimes deluded, the romance genre - which includes verse or prose works dedicated to idealism and associated with love and daring deeds - has been providing respite from the real world for centuries.


This branch of literature has been around for some time, so there's a substantial history to discuss. However, for matters of simplicity, we'll be looking at three broad periods in the genre's lengthy development - ancient, medieval, and modern - to get a sense of where it comes from and where it might be headed.

Though not yet written in the Romantic tongue, Greek novels of the 1st to 4th centuries A.D. laid the foundations for what would become known as 'romantic' literature. Of such novels, only five remain, one of which is Heliodorus' Ethiopian Romance. In this novel, the author employs several epic conventions such as the use of lofty or exaggerated language to demonstrate the noble virtues of Ethiopia's countrymen.

During the Middle Ages we discover the romantic literature that we're perhaps most familiar with, in which tales of knights and chivalry abound. The romantic works of this period generally belonged to one of three groups, one of which - the Matter of Rome - recalled its ancient epic and mythic origins with such examples as Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. The remaining two groups - the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France - centered on the tales of Arthurian legend and the historical but embellished life of Charlemagne, respectively.

The death of romance as it had been for over a millennium occurred with the publication of the first part of Don Quixote in 1605, which satirized the idealistic virtues of knight errantry against a much harsher reality. Cervantes' masterpiece prompted a shift toward realism, and the romance genre accordingly suffered, almost dying out entirely until the late-18th to mid-19th centuries. At that time, Gothic writers adopted the genre and steered the romantic flights of fancy in a much darker direction. A perfect example would be Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Nowadays, it's easy to find a variety of works that might be classified as 'romance.' Many of them, of course, focus on some aspect of romantic (and sometimes erotic) love, which is what most readers would associate with the genre today. However, even modern Harlequin paperbacks and more religious romantic stories continue to have readers expect the unexpected, from fortuitous twists of fate to the most improbable instances of happenstance.


There are several common characteristics of the romance genre. First is their popularity. Until the shift toward realism beginning in the early 17th century, works in the romance genre enjoyed much widespread popularity. Since the re-invigoration of the genre with Gothic romances of the 19th century, romance literature has regained and is even broadening its popular appeal, accounting for almost $1.4 billion in book sales in 2008 alone!

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