Anatomy of Criticism, Part 4

by | September 3, 2015 |

Note: I have devoted three previous blogs to Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Please see them before reading this: Anatomy of Criticism IAnatomy of Criticism II, and Anatomy of Criticism III

Here I repeat in bold type the three facets of Frye’s historical approach I outlined in the previous blog. Then I apply them to an understanding of the contemporary romance novel.

1) Frye sees the development of Western literature in protean terms, how characters and themes that were alive and well in ancient tragedy and comedy mutate and come forward through time.

Frye assigns Austen to the category novel and Brontë to the category romance – a categorization that makes sense in his terms.

Note: I’ve been using the phrase contemporary romance novel. For Frye it would be a contradiction in terms. He is certainly aware that no pure examples of any form are ever found. However, his point is to discern the overall tonality of a work so that it can be properly assessed. My point is that the contemporary romance novel no longer fully fits his conception of the romance mode.

Many contemporary romance writers would identify Jane Austen as one of their inspirations, myself included. And many comedies of manners (a criterion Frye believes is characteristic of the novel) are currently considered by their authors and their readers as romance.

What, then, of Austen has mutated and come forward into the contemporary romance novel?

Austen’s novels are marriage plots. In Pride and Prejudice, the reader receives a good review of the qualities and flaws to be found in Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth and Darcy, the ultimate prize, are together and interacting with one another on about 30 pages out of 300.

Note: For my analysis of Elizabeth see my blog The Romance Heroine.

Georgette Heyer was perhaps the first, beginning in the 1930s, to let the marriage plot fade. In her Regency romances she brings forward what the contemporary romance reader would recognize as the main event, namely the portrayal of the development of the love relationship between the main characters, the hero and heroine.

Note: Although the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett may live for all time, the balance of the pages in Gone With The Wind (1936) is not devoted to depicting their relationship.

The plot is organized to both thwart and facilitate the development of the love relationship, to put the characters together, so that their individual personalities as well as their chemistry together are revealed.

The narrative may begin with a marriage, end with a marriage, or have one mid-way. In the contemporary romance novel, the path to marriage is no longer the plot, it is reduced to a plot point. Sometimes it even vanishes.

The lineage back to Austen is, nevertheless, traceable. It is if authors have asked themselves, “What would the narrative be if it focused exclusively on Elizabeth and Darcy?”

2) Frye understands that works of art are enmeshed in the historical dynamics of their day.

The contemporary romance novel began to take form after the publication of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss in 1972. It is still going strong today.

In 1972 the Equal Rights Amendment was big news. It had passed both houses of Congress and was submitted to the state legislatures for ratification. It seemed likely to be approved until Phyllis Schlafly mobilized conservative women in opposition, arguing that the ERA would disadvantage housewives.

In 1972 the first issue of the liberal magazine Ms. was published by Gloria Steinem.

In 1973 Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States. Women now had the right to choose. A sexual revolution was in the making.

I offer these three events as shorthand to say that in the past 40+ years discussions of the role of women in the home, the workplace, and society in general have been in the forefront of domestic issues. The changing role of women necessarily affects the role of men.

The contemporary romance novel has been a very fertile site for exploring the many dimensions of male-female relationships – and more recently gay and lesbian relationships – in all their many configurations, from the most conservative to the most liberal.

3)Frye says that in the past fifteen centuries European literature has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list of his five modes. Nevertheless, his list is not linear but circular. And, indeed, they are all present in every age.

The question now becomes: How does the critic identify the center of gravity? Is it possible that in the 60 years since Frye’s book that new developments have taken place?

I am not fully prepared to answer those questions, but I can answer the ones I asked in Anatomy of Criticism I.

When did genre fiction begin to be called genre fiction?

It had to have come after 1957. Otherwise Frye would have taken note of such a distinction.

What is the difference between so-called genre fiction and so-called literary fiction?

For Frye there is none. The distinction between literary fiction and something akin to (current notions of) genre fiction does not exist.

Hats off to Frye here. Prose fiction is prose fiction.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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