Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Frye on Romance

One advantage of blogging seems to me that I can jump around from topic, and hope somehow that it all coheres in the end. Blogging with others, group blogging (grogging?) multiplies the likelihood that we'll skitter from topic to topic in a sometimes-random, sometimes-provocative way.

Tonight, for example, I'm not going to discuss my first romance course at all, except to say that one of the most useful approaches we took to the genre last fall turned out to be a very old-fashioned one, influenced not at all by feminism or cultural studies. I gave my students a handful of passages from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism--passages on romance, on comedy, and on various literary "modes"--and used them to situate a number of our texts, starting with Sarah Bird's The Boyfriend School. With each version of the class, I've added a few more passages to the mix.

Here's the most recent version--I hope it's useful to someone out there! If anything here strikes a chord, I'd love to hear about it.


Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton UP, 1957

Notes in brackets [like this] are paraphrased; notes in quotation marks are actual quotations.

33: [Fictions may be classified by the hero’s power of action, which may be greater than ours, less than ours, or roughly the same. If “superior in kind” to nature and to us, then “the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth”; “if superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being.”

33: In a romance, “the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale, marchen,” etc.

33-4: Other steps down the ladder of genres are: High Mimetic Epic and Tragedy (hero is superior to other men, but not order of nature or social criticism) >> Low Mimetic comedy and realism (hero is one of us, and we demand some everyday probability to the story) >> Irony / lit of the absurd (hero is inferior in power and intelligence to us, so that we look down from above, and “we judge by the norms of a greater freedom”)

37: “Romance…is characterized by the acceptance of pity and fear, which in ordinary life relate to pain, as forms of pleasure.”

44: “New Comedy normally presents an erotic intrigue between a young man and a young woman which is blocked by some kind of opposition, usually paternal, and resolved by a twist in the plot which is the comic form of Aristotle’s “discovery,” and is more manipulated than its tragic counterpart. At the beginning of the play the forces thwarting the hero are in control of the play’s society, but after a discovery in which the hero becomes wealthy or the heroine respectable, a new society crystallizes on the stage around the hero and his bride.” In some comedies, like Shakespeare’s, “the struggle of the repressive and the desirable societies” can play out as “a struggle between two levels of existence, the former like our own world or worse, the latter enchanted and idyllic.”

51: “the mimetic tendency itself, the tendency to verisimilitude and accuracy of description, is one of two poles of literature. At the other pole is something that seems to be connected both with Aristotle’s word mythos and with the usual meaning of myth. That is, it is a tendency to tell a story which is in origin a story about characters who can do anything, and only gradually becomes attracted toward a tendency to tell a plausible or credible story.”

52: “We may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude, and then, with irony, beginning to move back.”

131: In visual art, “’Realism’ connotes an emphasis on what the picture represents; stylization, whether primitive or sophisticated, connotes an emphasis on pictorial structure.” In literature, too, this contrast applies.

134: “The mythical mode, the stories about gods, in which characters have the greatest possible power of action, is the most abstract and conventionalized of all literary modes, just as the corresponding modes in other arts—religious Byzantine painting, for example—show the highest degree of stylization in their structure.”

135: “The occasional hoaxes in which fiction is presented, or even accepted, as fact…correspond to trompe l’oeil illusions in paining. At the other extreme we have myths, or abstract fictional designs in which gods and other such beings do whatever they like, which in practice means whatever the story-teller likes.”

By MYTH we mean stories in which actions occur “near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136).

“Myth, then, is one extreme of literary design; naturalism is the other, and in between lies the whole area of romance, using that term to mean…the tendency…to displace myth in a human direction and yet, in contrast to ‘realism,’ to conventionalize content in an idealized direction. The central principle of displacement is that what can be metaphorically identified in a myth can only be linked in a romance by some form of simile: analogy, significant association, incidental accompanying imagery, and the like. In a myth we can have a sun-god or a tree-god; in a romance we may have a person who is significantly associated with the sun or trees.”

138: the interest in this sort of displaced myth “tends toward abstraction in character-drawing, and if we know no other canons than low mimetic ones, we complain of this.”

139: “This affinity between the mythical and the abstractly literary illuminates many aspects of fiction, especially the more popular fiction which is realistic enough to be plausible in its incidents and yet romantic enough to be a ‘good story,’ which means a clearly designed one. The introduction of an omen or portent, or the device of making a whole story the fulfillment of a prophecy given at the beginning, is an example. Such a device suggests, in its existential projection, a conception of ineluctable fate or hidden omnipotent will. Actually, it is a piece of pure literary design, giving the beginning some symmetrical relationship with the end, and the only ineluctable will involved is that of the author.

In romance we see a “tendency to suggest implicit mythic patterns in a world more closely associated with human experience,” while in what we call “realism” the tendency is to “throw the emphasis on content and representation rather than on the shape of the story,” although if we step far enough back from the text, we can often see the “mythopoeic designs” that structure the material (139-40).

162: “Tragedy and comedy contrast rather than blend, and so do romance and irony, the champions respectively of the ideal and the actual. On the other hand, comedy blends insensibly into satire at one extreme and into romance at the other; romance may be comic or tragic; tragic extends from high romance to bitter and ironic realism.”

167: “Comedy usually moves toward a happy ending, and the normal response of the audience to a happy ending is ‘this should be,’ which sounds like a moral judgment. So it is, except that it is not moral in the restricted sense, but social. Its opposite is not the villainous but the absurd, and comedy finds the virtues of Malvolio as absurd as the vices of Angelo.”

169: “The society emerging at the end of comedy represents…a kind of moral norm, or pragmatically free society. […] We are simply given to understand that the newly-married couple will live happily ever after, or that at any rate they will get along in a relatively unhumorous [meaning “not ruled by fixed emotions, or ‘humors’ in the old medical sense] and clear-sighted manner.”

169-70: “the movement from pistis to gnosis, from a society controlled by habit, ritual bondage, arbitrary law and the older characters to a society controlled by youth and pragmatic freedom is fundamentally, as the Greek words suggest, a movement from illusion to reality. Illusion is whatever is fixed or definable, and reality is best understood as its negation: whatever reality is, it’s not that. Hence the importance of the theme of creating and dispelling illusion in comedy: the illusions caused by disguise, obsession, hypocrisy, or unknown parentage.”

170: “Comedy regularly illustrates a victory of arbitrary plot over consistency of character.”

170: “Happy endings do not impress us as true, but as desirable, and they are brought about by manipulation. The watcher of death and tragedy has nothing to do but sit and wait for the inevitable end; but something gets born at the end of comedy, and the watcher of birth is a member of a busy society.”

171: a 3-part structure of comedy: “the hero’s society rebels against the society of the senex and triumphs, but the hero’s society is a Saturnalia, a reversal of social standards which recalls a golden age in the past before the main section of the play begins. Thus we have a stable and harmonious order disrupted by folly, obsession, forgetfulness, ‘pride and prejudice,’ or events not understood by the character themselves, and then restored.” […] “of course very often the first phase is not given at all: the audience simply understands an ideal state of affairs which it knows to be better than what is revealed in the play, and which it recognizes as like that to which the action leads. This ternary action is, ritually, like a contest of summer and winter in which winter occupies the middle action….”

179: “An extraordinary number of comic stories, both in drama and fiction, seem to approach a potentially tragic crisis near the end, a feature that I may call the “point of ritual death”—a clumsy expression that I would gladly surrender for a better one.” […] “Sometimes the point of ritual death is vestigal, not an element in the plot but a mere change in tone.”

181: “The presiding genius of comedy is Eros, and Eros has to adapt himself to the moral facts of society. […] Ambivalent attitudes naturally result, and ambivalence is apparently the main reason for the curious feature of doubled characters which runs through all the history of comedy.”

181: “The action of comedy, like the action of the Christian Bible, moves from law to liberty.”

182: “Shakespeare’s type of romantic comedy” may be called “the drama of the green world, its plot being assimilated to the ritual theme of the triumph of life and love over the waste land.” […] “The action of the comedy begins in a world represented as a normal world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world.”

183: “The green world charges the comedies with the symbolism of the victory of summer over winter.”

183-4: “The green world has analogies not only to the fertile world of ritual, but to the dream world that we create out of our own desires. This dream world collides with the stumbling and blinded follies of the world of experience, of Theseus’s Athens with its idiotic marriage law…” and other examples. “Thus Shakespearean comedy illustrates, as clearly as any mythos we have, the archetypal function of literature in visualizing the world of desire, not as an escape from ‘reality,’ but as the genuine form of the world that human life tries to imitate.”

186: “The romance is the nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfillment dream, and for that reason it has socially a curiously paradoxical role. In every age the ruling social or intellectual class tends to project its ideals in some form of romance, where the virtuous heroes and beautiful heroines represent the ideals and the villains the threats to their ascendancy. […] Yet there is a genuinely ‘proletarian’ element in romance too which is never satisfied with its various incarnations and in fact the incarnations themselves indicate that no matter how great a change in society, romance will turn up again, as hungry as ever, looking for new hopes and desires to feed on. The perennially child-like quality of romance is marked by its extraordinarily persistent nostalgia, its search for some kind of imaginative golden age in time or space.”

193: “the reward of the quest [in romance] usually is or includes a bride”

193-4: “The quest romance has analogies to both rituals and dreams…. Translated into dream terms, the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality. […] Translated into ritual terms, the quest-romance is the victory of fertility over the waste land. Fertility means food and drink, bread and wine, body and blood, the union of male and female.”

195: “The characterization of romance follows its general dialectic structure, which means that subtlety and complexity are not much favored. Characters tend to be either for or against the quest. […] Every typical character in romance tends to have his moral opposite confronting him, like black and white pieces on a chess game.” We may thus have a contrast “between the lady of duty and the lady of pleasure,” for example, or noble characters paired with rustic clowns, Sancho Panza figures who offer a contrasting note of realism.

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