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Love and Denial: The Bridges of Madison County and Other Romances With Ideology

Diane Ackerman is heavily invested in understanding love as something separate from the material and social reality in which it occurs. But...
Ed Korthof

Issue #21, September 1995

It drove Ovid to anguish and Stendhal to exquisite suffering. It may be ignited by a sidelong glance or a good head of hair. To Plato, it was the yearning for a sundered second self. To some contemporary scientists, it may be a biochemical cocktail of oxytocin and phenylethylmaine.
— from the cover of A Natural History of Love, by Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman's book, A Natural History of Love (1994), attempts to describe and explain the experience of love, and the evolution of the concept of love. Ackerman's first example is telling: she discusses Cleopatra, first noting that "[Cleopatra's] legend tells us more about our own fantasies and yearnings than about the woman herself." She notes that most of what we know of Cleopatra is filtered through the Romans who fought and defeated her, and, further, "Cleopatra's greatest charm was Egypt itself, the wealthiest kingdom in the Mediterranean, and any Roman who yearned for mastery of the world needed her power, her navy, and her treasury." So Antony and Caesar were looking "for power, not love, even if [Cleopatra] was supremely lovable, as she may well have been." Ackerman mixes this in with historical information (and misinformation) about Cleopatra. She finishes by saying that her "intuition is that Cleopatra and Mark Antony shared an exuberant love and respect, along with a sense of divine mission."

Ackerman is heavily invested in understanding love as something separate from the material and social reality in which it occurs. For example, she writes about how a woman from ancient Egypt would be confused by modern technology, but would instantly understand two lovers kissing. She ignores the fact that in some cultures kissing in public would not be so easy to understand. Kissing could mean anything from a polite formality to an insult. What is interesting is that, like many popular representations of love, she seems to want to view love as a thing which transcends other experiences. She seems to understand that it's not necessarily "logical" to imagine love this way, yet she takes pleasure in doing so.

What I want to talk about is the way in which love functions within ideology as a form of denial. A common example of how love functions as denial when it hides class boundaries; this can be seen in movies as early as Red-Headed Woman (1932), where the protagonist, played by Jean Harlow, tells us that it's as easy to fall in love with a rich man as with a poor man. By extension, it's as easy for a rich man to fall in love with her as it is for a poor man; and, in fact, several rich men do. This can also be found in movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and Pretty Woman (1990). What this type of story does is to deny class lines between rich and poor, and to imagine that our relationships are not influenced (sometimes dominated) by our economic situation and status. Thus people are all equal before the "deity" of love; any of us can fall for anyone else. Since love is, in this context, an overpowering, almost supernatural force, there's nothing we can do to stop it. Despite the fact, reported in studies like the book Sex in America (1994), that people overwhelmingly marry and have relationships within their own class, if we believe that people are all equal in the arena of love, the issue of economic inequality is not as pressing as it might otherwise be.

As individuals, love allows us to deny certain desires. One of the ways love is seen is as a way of allowing intimacy, especially for men. I use this example because it's pretty much the first way in which I experienced love. In high school, around the time a group of my friends were leaving for college, I fell in love. The person with whom I fell in love didn't want to have a romantic relationship, but she was interested in being friends. That was fine with me, because what I actually wanted was to be able to be intimate. Though it proved rather unstable and unhealthy, the relationship we had allowed me to do that in a way I'd not been able to with the group of friends I'd had, either as a group or as individuals. I couldn't imagine intimacy except as an aspect of love; rather than feeling like I could find people with whom I could talk about my personal feelings, I felt like I had to fall in love with a person even to be able to try being intimate. And had it been more successful, I would probably have been satisfied.

There are other things which love allows us to experience, which we're not allowed or expected to experience except when we're in love. Vulnerability, sex, being known as a person, intimacy — all of these things are heavily associated, even conflated, with love. They are also, with the exception of being known as a person, things we're not expected or encouraged to do outside of romantic relationships. For example, Ackerman writes "love requires the utmost vulnerability. We equip someone with freshly sharpened knives; strip naked; then invite him to stand close." If intimacy, or vulnerability, are as dangerous as she makes them seem, then logically we should restrict them as much as possible: we should restrict them to romantic relationships. This doesn't mean that they only (or even generally) happen within such relationships, only that ideologically, they're often restricted to romance. The effect this has is that, to the extent that we're interpellated by ideologies which have restrictions like this, we allow ourselves to experience intimacy, sexuality, vulnerability, and so forth, only in romantic relationships.

The Wages of Sin

The movie The Bridges of Madison County (1995) glorifies the idea that love transcends other social relationships. It tells the story of a farm wife who has an intense, brief affair which changes her and her lover for the rest of their lives. We hear this through the eyes of the wife's children, who read her diaries after she's died so that they will understand her burial wishes. The woman, Francesca, lives in Madison, Iowa, as a farmwife. She isn't happy there: near the beginning of the movie, she confesses to her children "I know it sounds bad, but I couldn't wait for you to be gone [to the State Fair]." Her husband, Richard Johnson, isn't a bad man — he's kind to her, and has provided her with a house and a family — but there's clearly no passion in their marriage. When Robert Kincaid, the photographer with which she has the affair, asks her about her husband, her first description is that "He's very clean."

Francesca isn't unhappy enough with her marriage to want to end it. She can't bear the thought of hurting her husband, or her children, and she is comfortable in her role as a housewife. Richard is kind to her, and has given her a quiet stability. She even says that she does feel love for him, though it is not as strong as her love for Robert.

Before their affair is over, Robert asks her to go away with him. She packs her bags, then tells him that she can't — that "no matter how many times I turn it over and over in my head, it just doesn't seem right." She says that she would miss her family, that it would hurt, and that eventually she would stop loving Robert if she went with him. Her solution is a kind of martyrdom. She and Robert will continue to love each other, and if it's ever possible (ie. if her husband dies or wants to divorce her), they'll get back together. Otherwise, they'll just long for each other, tragically.

Thus it is that she tells her children they should cremate her, and throw her ashes off Roseman bridge, because she has "given her life to her family," and wants to give what's left to Robert (he's already died, been cremated, and had his ashes thrown off that bridge). But "the wages of her sin" — staying with her husband until his death, before trying to contact Robert, while longing tragically for Robert — were exactly what she wanted. She wanted to stay with her husband, so she could set a good example for her children.

Francesca and Robert's martyrdom is what redeems them. While it's true that they have an affair, it's a very brief one, and, after one letter from Robert to Francesca, neither hears from the other again, until his death. So Francesca and Robert are only really united after their deaths. If she had gone with him, we'd be left with the question: should she have stayed with her family? And since her and Robert's relationship probably would have turned sour, as she described, had she gone with him — if only because she feels it would be wrong — she would have been abandoning her family for something unsure anyway. What makes Francesca and Roberts' love so special is that they stay in love although on the surface, it seems neither of them gets anything out of doing so. As someone I spoke with said, rather than ruining their lives, they kept the affair "special;" I think the person meant something like "unsullied."

The celebration of martyrdom, like the celebration of masochism Carol Siegel speaks about in the introduction to her book Male Masochism (1995), is a way of denying the appropriateness of romantic relationships for shaping a person's life. If love, in its best form, means being a martyr, then it's easy to understand that while we may get a masochistic pleasure out of it, we won't try to build our lives on it. This also helps us deny our own personal needs, the ones which make us want to be in relationships (or in love): those needs become something we are expected to have pleasure denying, and which are merely part of this primitive, biological need which doesn't necessarily make sense for us in modern life.

Denial of Social Context

One of the pervading lines of discourse about love is that love is destiny, a supernatural force beyond our control. Within this framework, love floats above social relations as we know them, occasionally forcing (or allowing) two people to fall into true love. Sleepless in Seattle is a movie which presents this idea of love. Love as destiny denies the characters' agency, and denies the material or social factors which might explain their falling in love.

The book, The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert Waller, differs from the movie mainly in its point of view; instead of viewing it through the eyes of the children, we are told that we're viewing it through the eyes of a writer who was persuaded to write the book because he was impressed by the depth of Robert and Francesca's commitment to each other — he writes "in a world where personal commitment in all of its forms seems to be shattering, and love has become a matter of convenience..." So the story is presented as a story about true love, love which can survive total separation intact and unharmed. Further, the writer reads the journals Francesca wrote as research. She wrote those journals about twenty years after the events she describes actually happened — and each year, we learn, she would relive and "remember" the experience so it would be burned into her brain, as it were. And, inevitably, her memories would have been colored by how she wanted to remember the affair.

In the book, Robert is played up as a kind of modern primitive, a person who is "far back along the stems of Darwin's logic." He hasn't evolved as far as modern men in certain ways, and can't really deal with modern society; and he's "the last of the cowboys." He is like a fantasy of how we might imagine men (or people) "unweakened" by modern civilization — faster, stronger, possibly more aggressive, and certainly more intelligent. But if we choose not to take him at face value, an interesting picture emerges. He works as a photographer for National Geographic, the ethnographer's magazine. Photography itself is a very technologically advanced science, one with which Robert "didn't just wait for nature, he took it over in a gentle way, shaping it to his vision, making it fit what he saw in his mind. He imposed his will on the scene...". Controlling nature makes Robert distinctly modern. And it makes sense to see him not as a primitive, but as a modern man in love with the primitive.

In that context, his love for Francesca makes perfect sense. He's in Madison County, taking pictures of the covered bridges there. That is, he's taking pictures of "primitive" rural white folks and their anachronistic bridges. Francesca is a housewife/farmwife who has no other job — yet another anachronism which is seen less and less in modern life. Further, her marriage is in many ways a marriage of economics: "[Francesca] was more of a business partner to [Richard] than anything else." In other words, she didn't marry for love: She married Richard because she saw few other decent options for herself. And the social setting of the small town is very much like that of a tribe. The fact that she can be a "primitive" within modern society — America, the home of progress — makes her exactly what Robert wants to be.

Robert photographs her, and in his photographs she is transformed. Later, she says that she "never looked that good before or afterwards. It was him." The way he photographs her is much like how he photographs nature, shaping the image he gets. The primitives Robert imagines probably never existed; primitive men never had the mobility, or the freedom, that he has. But in a woman like Francesca, who seems so earthy, honest, and yet vital, he can imaginatively find the qualities he's in love with. And the fact that she won't leave her husband allows his image of her to live up to his expectations of her as a traditional woman. Long after he's left, to comfort himself, he pictures her "going out to [her] garden, sitting on [her] front porch swing, standing at the sink in [her] kitchen."

Robert remains utterly dedicated to Francesca, though he never hears from her or sees her again. He never has sex again or any other relationships. This makes sense when we understand that he saw himself as doomed, the end of a chain of evolution which was beautiful while it lasted, but has no place in modern society. In that context, a doomed love would be the perfect affirmation of his own self image. Further, by accepting a masochistic relationship like this, he can feel like he's in control of his life, himself, and his destiny. Before he dies, it seems, he destroyed all of his photographs. In the same way, he destroyed his body by cremation. And again, in that way, he moved without notifying Francesca or the National Geographic, whom he'd told Francesca to contact if she wanted to contact him. After her husband dies, Francesca doe try to contact him, but can't find his new address. That is, consciously or unconsciously, Robert makes it nearly impossible for her to find him if she should decide she wanted to be with him after all. Doing so allows him to keep his image of her untarnished by reality, and it also assures him that he'll never stop feeling pain because of their separation.

Francesca falls in love with Robert right after he falls in love with her, "in the catch of the moment." First, of course, he complements her looks and she, realizing "[h]is admiration was genuine...reveled in it, bathed in it, let it swirl over her." It's also the case, however, that Robert treats her well — he helps her cook, offers her beers, respects her, and has managed to draw her out far more than it would seem her husband has. And Robert seems far more romantically inclined than her husband. So it isn't just that she falls in love with him because he fell in love with her — but that is a large part of it.

But the book represents their romance as something not determined by their personal desires or their social context. It starts with the first time they see each other. When Robert looks at Francesca, "something [jumps] inside," and she feels the pull of "ways that rearrange the molecular space between male and female, regardless of species" — that is, they feel an animal attraction. But the animal attraction is somehow more than natural: "[t]he power is infinite, the design supremely elegant. The ways are unswerving, their goal is clear ... Francesca sensed this ... at the level of her cells." When they have sex, Francesca says, "Loving him was ... spiritual. It was spiritual, but it wasn't trite." Robert talks of how he's spent his whole life coming to the time he has with her — that "[t]his is why [he's] here on this planet, at this time ... Not to travel or make pictures, but to love [Francesca]." In this way, the social context of their affair is played down and covered over. That is, we're told that they came together because of biology or fate.

Francesca shows a similar disregard for the context of her actions. She is surprised at herself because, upon first meeting Robert, she offers to show him the bridge he's looking for. Afterwards, she can conclude only "that Robert Kincaid had drawn her in somehow, after only a few seconds of looking at him." This, despite the fact that she admits to living for twenty years "the close life, a life of circumscribed behavior and hidden feelings," with which she seems unhappy. We're also told that the steer her family has gone to the state fair to exhibit "received more attention than she did." It is little surprise that she would be a bit forward with an attractive stranger; the surprise is that she doesn't connect that with her dissatisfaction with her family and her marriage. Francesca tells Robert that life in Iowa is "not what [she] dreamed about as a girl." But rather than understanding that she isn't happy with her life or her marriage, and that is why she has the affair, she convinces herself that it was beyond her control; and that it wasn't the result of unhappiness, but rather of Robert's specialness. Since falling in love is destiny, she doesn't have to grapple with the question of whether or not she should stay in her marriage. She should, even though she's more in love with another man than she is with her husband, because marriage, stability, and family are good, and love is something which isn't good or bad, it just happens. In this way, love functions as denial: her love for Robert takes the place of her longing for something more than her family or her marriage offer her. As she tells her children in a letter, if she hadn't had the affair, she probably wouldn't have stayed on the farm all those years.

The book doesn't really address the effects of Francesca and Robert's actions on others, save that everyone thinks they're beautiful. The narrator is supposedly enchanted with the story of their love, as are others who hear of it, but, in contrast to the movie, we don't hear how it affected her children. In the movie, The Bridges of Madison County, the effects of her actions are considered in greater depth. Her daughter is married to a philanderer, of whom the daughter says "[he] shouldn't be married. Or at least, he shouldn't be married to me." Nonetheless, the daughter as stuck out the marriage — to the age of 40 — because of the example their mother set. Francesca's son casually ignores his wife and takes her for granted in a creepy way. Reading the diary does seem to help though. If we ignore his bad acting, at the end, he suddenly realizes his error, and tells his wife that he wants to make things better between them. Though Francesca wanted to do something good, it's not clear that the example she set helped her children lead happy lives. I would argue that the reason for this is that she wasn't honest, and that she did use her love for Robert Kincaid as a way of denying her own desires and needs — for sexuality and for being known as a person rather than for her function within her family.

Free Love

The idea of free love was one attempt to reimagine and recreate the idea of love, to make it go beyond the narrow effect romantic love generally has. One of the problems with romantic love is that it isn't social, beyond two people. It can affect them, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad ones, but it won't generally involve anyone else — except possibly children. The idea of free love — that love is natural and should be given freely to whoever wants it — has been influential, but ultimately not successful by itself. But it does point out that the idea of love can be used for different ends, and that love is political.

Love can be constructive; it can also be destructive. What I want to argue for is a less mystical, religious understanding of it. We fall in love for reasons which are often comprehensible, and we generally stay in love because we're getting what we want out of the relationship. Sometimes it's more pleasant not to come to terms with that, but it is important, even necessary, to try.

I would like to thank Annalee Newitz for her comments and suggestions, in particular with respect to primitives.

Ed Korthof studies math at UC Berkeley. He is a member of the Bad Subjects production team. He can be reached at

Copyright © 1995 by Ed Korthof. All rights reserved.