On romance and realism, and why they don’t have to be at odds.
Although I only made it the focus of one paragraph in this post on additions to my American Literature II syllabus, I believe I laid out clearly there the engagingly multi-layered nature of Abraham Cahan’s short story “A Sweatshop Romance” (1898). So check that out if you would, and then come on back for a bit more on this great American story.
Welcome back! One of the most important aspects of Cahan’s multi-layered approach is captured in his title: realistic settings and themes that focus on the worlds of work and labor activism, combined with a romantic plot that focuses on a love triangle. Those elements could be seen to be competing with one another for the reader’s attention, as Helen Hunt Jackson seems to have admitted when she said of her historical novel Ramona (1884), which depicts such painful historical issues as Native American genocide and Mexican American displacement within the frame of an idealized love story, “I have sugared the pill.” Given that Ramona’s romance and its doomed lovers Ramona and Alessandro have spawned a sizeable Southern California tourist industry, including an annual pageant, it’s fair to say that audiences have frequently focused on the sugar, perhaps to the detriment of their understanding and engagement with the novel’s medicinal, historical themes and contexts.
I don’t necessarily believe that those elements are truly at odds in Jackson’s novel, though (I wrote more about Ramona in my first book, if you’re interested)—and I know for sure that they’re not in Cahan’s short story. For one thing, Cahan’s love triangle isn’t just between three co-workers at the titular sweatshop—it’s between a young woman torn between two men with drastically distinct perspectives on issues of work and labor activism, making the romance very much centered on realistic questions of how workers navigate those worlds and debates. And another, related thing, when it comes to human beings we don’t separate out romance from reality, romantic relationships from workplace ones (or any other ones)—they’re all part of our lives and identities, all part of how we move through and experience and respond to the world. Cahan’s wonderful story illustrates those interconnected elements of its characters’ lives and identities, and in so doing helps us think at least as much about our own moment and world as about its own.
Next short story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Short stories (or other works) you especially love?