A novel is a world unto itself. More than likely, there are elements in the novel that reflect or refract elements of the author's life and experience, but since the author isn't going to be on hand to explain all those nuances to each and every reader each and every time the book is read, the world of the novel must be complete, whole, and self-contained.
Even if it's not, it will be taken that way.
Which is why authors must be very careful about any and all messages that can be taken from the text they create.
We readers all know that we're perfectly capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction. We know that romance novels -- as well as mysteries, fantasies, westerns, science fiction, supernatural horror, etc. -- are not true stories. "Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union," Sam Goldwyn said, and the same philosophy is often applied to popular fiction. It's not meant as educational material.
But contrary to that famous (or infamous) Goldwynism, can stories -- whether in books or films -- carry messages, even unintended ones? Is even a simple, simplistic "Love Conquers All" or "Crime Doesn't Pay" enough of a message to qualify?
Is it possible to determine a novel's message, assuming it has one, just by reading the text itself? Can a book have a message even if the reader doesn't "get it"? Can a reader "get it," but get the wrong message?
One of my all-time favorite historical romances is LaVyrle Spencer's Hummingbird. The only problem I had with that story was that Abby treated David so badly. He hadn't done anything to deserve being jilted the way she dumped him, even if he wasn't the Great Love of Her Life. Spencer did something similar in Twice Loved and also in The Fulfillment. I felt especially uncomfortable with the treatment of the second "hero" in Twice Loved; at least in The Fulfillment the "rejected" suitor was fully aware of -- and even had a part in -- his own failure to win the heroine. But the heroines of both Hummingbird and Twice Loved didn't seem to feel much remorse over their cruelty toward decent men who loved them.
Was this a pattern? Was Spencer intentionally or unintentionally saying that it's okay to hurt innocent people who love you and to justify your behavior because you're just so much in love with someone else?
I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that element of those three books didn't sit well with me, even though I enjoyed all of them.
Another book that has legions of devoted readers/fans but that I absolutely couldn't stand is Patricia Gaffney's To Have and to Hold. The heroine has been horribly abused, emotionally and psychologically as well as physically, and is just released from prison into the hero's custody. Fabulously wealthy, politically powerful, and of course devastatingly handsome, he has her completely at his mercy. She can do nothing without his consent, and because she has no money, she is utterly dependent upon him for her very sustenance. She has no recourse when he sets out to seduce her.
And of course she falls in love with him even though he gives her no other choice. (Or does she?)
To Have and to Hold is often compared to Mary Jo Putney's Dearly Beloved, in which the heroine is brutally raped by the hero after he has been tricked into marrying her. Realizing what he has done, and acknowledging both his guilt and his responsibility, he abandons her but resolves not to divorce her and to support her. Eventually she uses the funds he provides for her to set herself up in a position to exact revenge upon him. Of course she falls in love with him. . . .
Why did I enjoy the Putney book and despise the Gaffney story, even though they had many similarities? I puzzled this for a long time and then just recently determined that it was the balance of power that made the two stories so completely different. Gaffney left her heroine totally vulnerable, totally powerless, and allowed the hero to take merciless advantage of her. He did not do anything to heal her for her own sake, except as it would benefit him. He did not want her to be a whole person; he only wanted her to be what he wanted her to be.
Putney, on the other hand, allowed her heroine to become whole. When she and the hero meet years later and she is about to put her plan for vengeance into action, she is not powerless, not utterly at his mercy. She can give as good as she gets, in that sense. And the irony, of course, is that she is able to do that because of him. Not just in spite of him, but because he has given her the means to do it.
Are there messages in these books? Did Gaffney set out to say that if the guy is hot enough and rich enough, anything he wants and anything he does is fine and dandy, and the woman he dominates and forces to submit to him owes him her love?
Well, frankly, that's the message I took from that book. I've read it twice and still can't reconcile Sebastian's behavior as suitable for a hero. He never seems, in my mind, to atone for his sins against Rachel, never seems to experience real remorse. Oh, he has his moment where he (sort of) realizes what an ass he's been toward her, but he doesn't change his course, doesn't alter his behavior. It's as if his character arc is a flat line.
Putney's hero Gervase, on the other hand, immediately acknowledges the depravity of what he has done. He does not excuse it or justify it, though he did try to justify it beforehand. He assumes a burden of guilt -- not all of it deserved -- and shame that Sebastian never does. And it's through that acceptance of responsibility that Gervase grows and changes and becomes a hero worthy of the heroine he has created.
Gervase's rape of Diana is brutal and forced. There is no seduction, no coercion. He is angry and drunk, has been tricked into marriage with a total stranger against his will, and he rapes her.
But is his physical brutality any more or less an invasion of the heroine's personhood than Sebastian's relentless seduction of a person over whom he not only has the power of life and death but to whom he makes that power known constantly? Does Rachel ever have the free will to give her consent to anything?
I was able, as a reader with my own perspectives, to accept Gervase's growth into hero material much more readily than I ever could have Sebastian's.
What each of us brings to a book or film or story affects how we react to it, whether positively or negatively. For this reason, reviews and ratings and reactions to books differ. That's something all authors have to keep in mind -- not everyone is going to like the "message" they read in the book. It may not be the message the author intended to convey. Or the reader may disagree with that message. But authors do need to be aware that readers can and will take messages from the stories they read. If the author has a specific message she wishes to impart, it is up to her to make sure that message is both as clear and as subtle as she can make it -- and then she has to let it go.