Note: In Anatomy of Criticism Part 1, I open a discussion of Northrup Frye’s key work Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Frye distinguishes among five genres: drama, epic, lyric, history, and novel. In other words, Frye does not have a notion of genre in terms of what we now call genre fiction.
I have long been interested in understanding what I’ll call the romance condition, that negative interpretation of the contemporary romance novel that wafts so persistently in the air we all breathe. I read Frye hoping to find some understanding of this condition, and he provided it – if indirectly.
Frye’s first essay is entitled Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes. The first division he makes – and he makes a lot; he’s a man of his times and a structuralist, after all – is between Tragedy and Comedy.
Tragedy occurs when the hero is excluded from the social group to which he is trying to belong. The leader falls. The family breaks up.
Comedy occurs when the hero is accepted into the social group to which he is trying to belong. The leader prevails. The family unites.
I apply Frye’s definition to say that modern romance novels are comedies, no matter how serious the tone or topic.
Frye further identifies five modes. All five come in both a tragic and a comic variety. They are distinguished by who the main characters are with respect to the audience.
Myth. If the characters are deities, the story is myth.
Romance. If the characters are superior to other men and to their environment, the story is romance.
The hero’s actions may be otherworldly, but he is a human being. Frye writes:
“The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him” as are enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and so forth (33).
In romance the hero’s mortality is a natural fact, the sign of his humanity. I offer the example of the 12th-century Chanson de Roland. In the end Roland dies by treachery but heroically. He achieves a kind of resurrection by being immortalized in song.
Frye notes that the romance mode follows a general dialectic structure, which means that subtlety and complexity are not much favored. If a quest is at stake, for instance, characters are either for or against it.
“If they assist it,” he says, “they are idealized as simply gallant and pure; if they obstruct it they are caricatured as simply villainous or cowardly. Hence every typical character in romance tends to have his moral opposite confronting him, like black and white pieces in a chess game” (194).
Romance came of age in the 11th through the 14th centuries.
High mimetic. If the characters are superior to other men but not to their environment, the story is high mimetic. The hero is a leader, but he is subject to both social criticism and the order of nature.
In high mimetic tragedy the hero’s mortality is a social and moral fact. Think: Hamlet, MacBeth, and King Lear.
Low mimetic. If the characters are one of us, the story is low mimetic. Now the term hero starts its waffle. The main character might be identified as the hero, however unheroic his actions may be. Enter the anti-hero.
Ironic. If the characters are below us, the story is ironic. The reader may empathize, but the reader will feel a greater degree of freedom. Kafka’s characters are examples, and the bizarre, complex, and illogical world in which they are trapped is rightly called Kafkaesque.
Frye’s analysis is historical. He observes that during the last fifteen centuries European fiction has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list. In the last 100 years he says most serious fiction has tended to be increasingly ironic in mode.
So now I can tease out at least two reasons for the romance condition. First, the cool kids are writing in the ironic mode, not the romantic mode. Romance is unfashionable. (We already knew that, but now I have clear labels to play with.)
Second – and more importantly – the term romance is currently fraught in a way that it is not in Frye’s work. The problem stems from the fact that most contemporary romance novels do not operate in the terms of Frye’s romantic mode.
It is also true, however, that chunks of the romance mode cling to the contemporary form. The main characters are still conventionally called – here come loaded terms now – the hero and the heroine, no matter how flawed they may be.
There are, furthermore, plenty of idealized heroes and heroines untroubled by subtlety and complexity living between the covers of romance novels. There are also plenty of plots that read more like wish fulfillment than real life. Fifty Shades of Grey is a suitable example.
However, more often than not, the characters in contemporary romance novels are those of the high mimetic, low mimetic, or ironic modes. And the themes and subjects are as psychologically complex and gritty as anything found in any other contemporary novel.
In short, romance novels have developed quite a lot in recent years. The literary valuation of the form, hindered in part by the historically complex meanings of the term romance, has not kept pace.
In my next blog post I examine Frye’s historical understandings of the development of literature.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen