• In ancient Greek mythology, Diana was a patroness of virgins and goddess of the hunt, and any man who trespassed upon her privacy was likely to be punished by death. In our less supernal era, Princess Diana had been a virgin cynically used by the so-called "royal family" of Britain, of whom her husband Prince Charles was the most manipulative. And she was the one to be hunted, both symbolically and with a terrifying literalness, to her death. If Diana had possessed any flickering consciousness in these last minutes of her life, it would have been of those human jackals known as paparazzi gloating over their prey: the bitterly ironic end of the hunt.

    But wasn't the princess complicit in her fate? Didn't she, by courting the tabloid media, not only bring her fate upon herself, but deserve it? So commentators have begun to speculate, with that instinct for blaming the victim that characterizes the most puritanical sense of justice. By refusing to live a lie for the sake of patriarchal order, Princess Diana exposed the hypocrisy of the Establishment to the glare of commoners. She did not, or could not, play the role of Prince Charles' wife, but chose rather to live by the truth. And the bad luck, the repeated "poor judgment" of the princess in choosing lovers--isn't this too a symptom of a complicit fate? Isn't such chronic behavior the result of self-loathing?

    In fact, the hunt that resulted in Princess Diana's death began almost 20 years ago. When Diana was in her late teens, and Prince Charles was turning 30, royal courtiers were casting about for a worthy (i.e., unsullied, virginal) bride for the heir to the throne. It would not matter, evidently, that these courtiers, like the members of the royal family, knew of Charles' semisecret relationship with the married woman Camilla Parker Bowles. The princess-to-be was required to be virginal in every sense--to be ignorant of the very conditions of her marriage. With the cruel logic of those fairy tales that don't end happily, the princess-to-be was intended as a sacrifice to the Establishment. Of Diana at the time of the wedding, it was said by a former classmate that she was "one of the few virgins of her age around. She was a complete romantic, and she was saving herself for the love of her life, which she knew would come one day." There is no evidence that Diana would have behaved other than devotedly to her husband and family if she hadn't been forced to acknowledge that her husband wasn't only having a clandestine affair with another man's wife, but had been having this affair for years.

    The drama in the princess's life had exclusively to do, it seems, with her often desperate search for love. This hope to be loved is in fact a wish to be loved for "what I am." Yet for one of Diana's status, to be loved would be as difficult as manning a canoe through treacherous whitewater rapids; for most people, paddling in calmer waters, with no distractions, no temptations, no ravenous paparazzi, no billionaire playboys pressing $205,000 diamond rings into our hands, this quest for love is not nearly so difficult. The paradox of the celebrity's quest is that she must realize that her "admirers" are drawn to her for the very reasons that the crowd is drawn to her; yet she wants to believe that, no, in fact she is loved for herself. (Most of us know we are only loved for ourselves--for what else is there?)

    While still married, she became involved with cavalry officer James Hewitt in a five-year affair that ended in the most humiliating way possible for any woman: Hewitt sold their story in a trashy account, Princess in Love, which was said to have left her heartbroken. Following Hewitt was an equally disastrous relationship with James Gilbey, which ended in scandal when a tabloid publication printed a tape of a private phone call between them. Then came a rugby captain, Will Carling, and then a prominent businessman, Christopher Whalley. Next, Diana was said by the tabloids to have fallen in love with a Pakistani-born heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan, whom she reportedly hoped to marry; except the intensity of public scrutiny may have been too much for Dr. Khan.

    And last was Dodi, an even more exotic figure than his predecessors, an international playboy, who was clearly attracted to Diana as the most celebrated glamour-icon of our time. Yet Diana seems to have had a great hope for this latest love, reportedly confiding in a friend the day before her death, "For the first time in my life I can say I am really happy...I again feel loved." These words strike the ear as naively trusting, almost childlike. For a woman fated to die an imminent, hideous death, they have the ring of unbearable pathos.

    Yet it isn't Diana as the hunted, Diana as victim, that accounts for her phenomenal worldwide appeal. She is mourned by both men and women, but it's her significance for women that approaches the mystical. In Diana, the fairy-tale princess who was cruelly awakened to the world of hurt, betrayal and humiliation, women of all ages found a mirror image of themselves, however magnified and glamourized. In her ordeals, in the courage, stubbornness and idealism of her attempt to reinvent herself as an independent woman, women have found a model for themselves. It was this Diana, stronger for her own suffering, heroic for all that she was vulnerable, with whom women will continue to identify.

    Joyce Carol Oates is the author of a number of works of fiction. Her latest, Man Crazy, is being published this month