Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My Romance Class (chapter 2)

Well, we had our second meeting last week in DePaul's Senior Seminar on Romance (SSR, for short). I kicked things off in Watcher mode, reminding my students that they'd spent several years and thousands of dollars learning to be English majors, and that after all of that training they really should be able to say more interesting things about a book, about any book, than anybody else. Most of their posts to the class website, however, sounded like the posts they might have done in high school, I continued, and from now on I expected better. I then reassured them that my colleague teaching the Senior Seminar on Ulysses was giving his students the same lecture this week--and in fact he'd written me an email to that effect the night before.
We then opened Bet Me to page 1, chapter 1, and read:
Once upon a time, Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, the world was full of good men. She looked into the handsome face of the man she'd planned on taking to her sister's wedding and thought, Those days are gone.
"So," says I, "what can you do with that?"
The conversation that followed focused initially on the idea of this book as a "fairy tale": a story that alludes, syncretically, to many, many fairy tales, rather in the mode of Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods, which Crusie mentions explicitly in chapter 9. (It is Min's and Cal's favorite Sondheim, we learn in the opening pages of that chapter; it seems also, tidily enough, to be the musical that Quinn's high school will put on in Crazy For You. I smell a paper topic!) The proliferating, even overwhelming number of fairy tale references in the novel seemed to convince some of the more skeptical students that this was, if not a High Modernist text, at least a self-consciously crafted one: an impression that was reinforced when we turned to the ways that the events of the novel bear out not only Bonnie's sense of love as a fairy tale, but also Cynthie's contrasting empiricist account of the "four stages of love."
Some lovely insights emerged from this latter discussion, notably a glimpse of the novel's symmetrical model of amorous psychology. In it, hero and heroine serve as compensatory replacement parents for the failed (or simply critical, pessimistic, and belittling) parent in each other's lives. Cal rebuts and replaces Min's mother; Min, Cal's father. We also honed in on a lovely passage in which we glimpse the source of Min's unconscious "assumption" about what sort of partner / relationship is right for her: namely, the relationship she witnessed, as a girl, between her grandparents, and saw modeled for her in the art-object of the Mickey and Minnie snow globe:

When he was gone, Min walked over to the snow globe and wound it. It began to tinkle the first bars of "It Had to Be You," and she looked into it, and tried to get her breath back. The dome was heavy and perfect, sitting atop a black art deco base, and inside silver glitter and tiny silver stars swirled as Minnie beamed out at her, happy to be in Mickey's arms, and Mickey beamed at Minnie.

Maybe that's what I loved, she thought. That she was so happy and he thought she was wonderful. Plus there was that swirling pink dress Minnie was wearing and the great pink shoes to match. Well, the shoes were a little plain. Min tipped the globe to see, and the glitter and stars swirled again as the song slowed down and ran out.

Just as Harry's assumptions about love have been shaped by Cal and Min, Min's were shaped by her grandparents, and by this associated (metonymic) representation of them. Perhaps by implication the novel itself serves, or could serve, as a model for the reader? A thought worth pursuing, I think.
Our discussion ended before we came anywhere close to finishing the novel last week, so I've asked students to come back to it this week, with particular attention to Bonnie's defense of articulating your HEA, mid-novel, and to the two love scenes that frame the text: the first when Cal "forces" Min to eat a Krispy Kreme doughnut, and then the actual sex scene near the end. We'll see how that goes!
My main goal for tonight, though, is to make sure that my students all "get," and can begin to deploy, the ideas in our secondary texts: selections from Northop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism and from Bruno Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantment (one of the inspirations, evidently, for the Sondheim musical!), first of all; and then, for this week, selections from Pam Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel and Janice Radway's Reading the Romance. At the risk of boring you, let me post here some of the study questions I sent my students over the weekend. I'd love to hear any reactions you have to them, since many would help with other romance novels as well--or so I hope (grin).
Bet Me as a "Fairy Tale"

Crusie's opening and closing sentence signals the genre. So what do our secondary texts tell us about fairy tales?

From Frye, we can place it on a ladder of genres, one step below myth; it is part of romance, broadly speaking, and in it we expect to find certain things, among them a displaced retelling of mythic archetypes and a set of characters and events playing out in a world where “ “the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended” (33, my emphasis).

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.”
Given this placement of romance between myth and mimesis, what sorts of action, event, or character might we expect to find in Bet Me? Do we find them? Examples?

What else can we say about this genre of fairy tale / romance, from Frye? Two key terms: design and desire.

We know that romance is nearer the overt design pole of literary art; that is, it’s a genre in which the element of design, which is to say authorial desire, is visible. In realism, this element is supposed to be more or less invisible, so that it seems to us that events are simply happening as they do in real life; in naturalism, events are playing out according to some theory of “the way things are.”

Thus on 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.”

And this, on 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.
What would be some examples of Crusie’s “pure literary design” in the novel? (There are many; let’s find as many as we can.) What versions of (incarnations of, names for, examples of) this “ineluctable fate or hidden omnipotent will” do we see at work in the novel, and where?

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).

What would be some examples of mythic patterns (archetypal ones, say) suggested in this novel?

In romance, as in myth, we find a tendency towards “abstraction” in the characters (good guy / bad guy, etc., as opposed to inwardness and believable psychology).

Thus “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.”
Any examples of this, in major or minor characters? Can we address any objections to the novel as “unrealistic” through this idea—or through the idea of “design”?

We will also find characters who are in some way “idealized,” that is to say, associated with (although not literally) gods, goddesses, natural phenomena, etc.

Thus on 138: “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.”
How does Crusie establish these associations for us for her characters? Give examples!

But the notion of desire does not simply mean that the actions and characters are determined by the authorial desire for a design in the text. It also means that in such stories we can see human desires playing out in relatively overt and unfettered forms, one step removed from myth (in which anything can happen). Says Frye, in myth and romance actions occur “near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136), and romance more specifically “is the nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfillment dream”: a form with a “perennially child-like quality” signaled by “its extraordinarily persistent nostalgia, its search for some kind of imaginative golden age in time or space” (186).

What desires does this novel articulate, or what wish-fulfillment dreams? Do we see in it this “nostalgia” for an imaginative golden age?

When we are dealing with a quest romance this proximity to wish-fulfillment allows us to read the romance psychologically, as well as mythically. “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” (193-4).

Can we read Bet Me as a quest romance, for both Cal and Min? Does that quest involve a search for “fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality”? Is there, in this novel, any “victory of fertility over the waste land,” with fertility meaning “food and drink, bread and wine, body and blood,” and sexual union? What to make of Cal and Min’s desires not to have kids, then?

Now, if we’re thinking about fairy tales in terms of psychology, we’re heading into Bruno Bettelheim country. What can we find in him that’s of use?

From Bettelheim, we learn something about what fairy tales teach: a message that “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence—but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” Fairy tales confront us with “basic human predicaments” such as “death…aging, the limits of our existence, [and] the wish for eternal life (8). “Fairy tales intimate that a rewarding, good life is within one’s reach despite adversity—but only if one does not shy away from the hazardous struggles without which one can never achieve true identity. These stories promise that if a child dares to engage in this fearsome and taxing search, benevolent powers will come to his aid, and he will succeed” (24)

Compare that passage (above) to this, from Crusie’s essay “This Is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella”:
Theme is the spine of the story; rip that out and the whole plot puddles at your feet. And theme in fairy tales is very consistent. As Luthi has argued, the fairy tale introduction of “once upon a time,” or in the Breton, “once there was, one day there will be,” means that “what once occurred, had the tendency continually to recur,” and that the fairy tale theme is for all time (47). Propp has shown the universal fairy tale theme to be that if you have a lack in your life and you quest for an answer, you will be rewarded. And Pace in his discussion of Levi-Strauss has noted that behind the idea of Cinderella's social mobility is “the belief that there is an innate justice within the social system and that wrongs will eventually be righted” so that even though the Grimm's Cinderella is pretty much a passive wimp, she succeeds anyway because good triumphs and the world is a just place (254). These thematic aspects are present in Ross's story because, in romance, there is an underlying certainty that love really does conquer all, that (to paraphrase Pace) there is a belief in a kind of innate justice within the emotional system of human beings.
Also, consider this passage from Crusie:
The generic fairy tale theme is embedded so strongly in the structure and motif of the genre that it has already become obvious in this course of this paper: society is emotionally just and good, and therefore a woman will be rewarded with unconditional love if she remains true to herself (and her culture's concept of a heroine). This becomes evident thorough a cursory survey of the romance genre over the past thirty years. Early heroines were active in their plots but passive in relationships with the heroes. Rape romances were common in the seventies, inspired by the success of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower , but these romances, as distasteful as they seem today, actually reinforced the romance theme. For although the hero initially rapes the heroine through a misunderstanding, her innate strength and courage force him to love her unconditionally, thereby making the heroine the powerful secure figure at the end of the story. Today, rape romances are anathema at publishing houses because our culture now recognizes that there is no misunderstanding that will excuse rape, but this shift shows only that society's perception of what is acceptable in a hero and heroine have changed, not that the theme of romance has changed. The heroine still achieves security and unconditional love simply because of who she intrinsically is because her society is part of an emotionally just universe. The romance genre has planted its roots firmly in the universe of the fairy tale.
How might these descriptions of the core “theme” and “message” of fairy tales illuminate Bet Me? Detail the parallels.

Fairy tales are not about morality so much as about “assurance that one can succeed. Whether one meets life with a belief in the possibility of mastering its difficulties or with the expectation of defeat is also a very important existential problem” (10).

Does Bet Me show this issue of “assurance” in action for its characters? Does it inculcate a “belief in possibility” in this way? How might we factor in this passage from Crusie’s essay “Romancing Reality”:
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, one of the biggest names in romance today, experienced that empowerment after she was already successful. She writes that, as a best-selling novelist and happily married wife and mother, she sat down after a tense time in her life to relax with a stack of category novels. &She goes on to say that “I didn’t have to read for long before something magical happened. I felt better. Calmer. In control.” She writes that the novels did not offer the fantasy she thought romance novels would, “that of a wonderful man or a glamorous, fulfilling career. I already had those things.” Instead, she writes that the “fantasy” they gave her was “one of command and control over the harum scarum events of my life--a fantasy of female empowerment” (55). This is a beauty of a fantasy, especially since it’s not fantasy at all. Phillips already had command and control, and to this day she remains one of the most empowered women I know. The romance fiction she read simple reminded her of her own capabilities, thereby reinforcing her own experience of reality.
Bettelheim says that fairy tales will be “unrealistic,” for a reason: “In a fairy tale, internal processes are externalized and become comprehensible as represented by the figures of the story and its events. […] The unrealistic nature of these tales…is an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner processes taking place in an individual” (25).

Specifically, “in the tales’ content, inner psychological phenomena are given body in symbolic form.” We don’t take everything literally; rather, “the fairy tale offers fantasy materials which suggest to the child in symbolic form what the battle to achieve self-realization is all about, and it guarantees a happy ending (36, 39).

What would Bet Me look like if we read it this way, with every character and event the externalization of an internal process, the working-through of ambivalences and desires?

The tales offer “fantastic symbolic images for the solution of problems,” although “the problems presented in them are ordinary ones: a child’s suffering from the jealousy and discrimination of his siblings, as is true for Cinderella; a child being thought incompetent by his parent, as happens in many fairy tales….” (40). They offer symbolic narratives about the internal process of growing up: “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue; that while what these stories tell about does not happen in fact, it must happen as inner experience and personal development; that fairy tales depict in imaginary and symbolic form the essential steps in growing up and achieving an independent existence” (73).

What sorts of real problems, symbolic victories, and unreal truths might this novel be said to offer?

So what do these tales do? First step is to take internal confusion and ambivalence and sort it out into a set of distinct, clear-cut characters: “When all the child’s wishful thinking gets embodied in a good fairy; all his destructive wishes in an evil witch; all his fears in a voracious wolf; all the demands of his conscience in a wise man encountered on an adventure; all his jealous anger in some animal that pecks out the eyes of his archrivals—then the child can finally begin to sort out his contradictory tendencies. Once this starts, the child will be less and less engulfed by unmanageable chaos” (66). This splitting is all about turning chaos into order: “As he listens to the fairy tale, the child gets ideas about how he may create order out of the chaos which is his inner life. The fairy tale suggests not only isolating and separating the disparate and confusing aspects of the child’s experiences into opposites, but projecting these onto different figures” (75).

How might all of the secondary characters in this novel “sort out” the chaotic and ambivalent parts of the reader’s self? Can we take Min (and maybe Cal) as versions of the reader, then?

In particular, these stories seem to sort out ambivalences about Mom and Dad—and maybe especially Mom? See 69: “The typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother serves the child well. It is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits anger at this bad ‘stepmother’ without endangering the goodwill of the true mother, who is viewed as a different person. […] The fantasy of the wicked stepmother not only preserves the good mother intact, it also prevents having to feel guilty about one’s angry thoughts and wishes about her—a guilt which would seriously interfere with the good relation to Mother” (69).

Where do we see such ambivalence about Mother in this novel? How does it play out for Cal and for Min? Is a symbolic “splitting” visible?

Note Bettelheim’s description of the daughter’s relationship with the mother as represented in fairy tales:
In a girl’s oedipal fantasy, the mother is split into two figures: the pre-oedipal wonderful good mother and the oedipal evil stepmother. […] The good mother, so the fantasy goes, would never have been jealous of her daughter or have prevented the prince (father) and the girl from living happily together. […] The little girl can love her real father all the better because her resentment over his failure to prefer her to her mother is explained by his unfortunate ineffectuality (as with fathers in fairy tales), for which nobody can blame him since it is due to superior powers; besides, it will not prevent her from getting her prince. A girl can love her mother more because she puts out all her anger at the mother-competitor, who gets what she deserves—as Snow-White’s stepmother is forced to put on “red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped dead.” (114-115)

We might particularly expect to find this splitting take place in terms of the parents’ opinion of their child: See Bettelheim on 135: “Almost every child is convinced that his parents know better about nearly everything, with one exception: they do not think well enough of him. To encourage this thought is beneficial, because it suggests to the child that he should develop his abilities—not to do better than the parent, but to correct the parent’s low opinion of the child.
In respect to excelling the parent, the fairy story frequently uses the device of splitting him into two figures: the parent who thinks little of the child, and another figure…who gives him sound advice on how to win out…. The parent is thus split into his doubting and supporting aspects, with the latter winning out.”

Can we read Bet Me in terms of this “girl’s oedipal fantasy”? What changes do we need to make to the fantasy in order to have it match Bet Me? If we read the book this way, is Cal Dad, or Mom?

Finally, consider this passage from “This is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella” about romance novels and fairy tales:
“That is what all the romance revisions of fairy tales accomplish: they take the general elements that resonate from all fairy tales and recast them using just enough concrete detail from the original tales so that the reader can recognize the tale that's being reworked. The reading of the recasting becomes tremendously satisfying because this time, the reader isn't left out of the story anymore; now it's about her.”

Can we use this to describe not only what Crusie does with fairy tales in Bet Me, but how she does it? What “concrete details” are used, and how have the stories been revised so that the reader can feel that the story is now “about her”?


  1. Eric, there's a huge amount to chew on there.

    Just because you were mentioning myths and goddesses

    Once upon a time, Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, the world was full of good men.

    I can't help but wonder if there's some significance to Min's name, i.e. Minerva, who's the goddess of wisdom (Min's always calculating risk) but also good at war, when she wants to, and often better than Mars (so David and Cynthie maybe don't know what they're taking on), virginal (David was annoyed she wouldn't have sex with him) and she springs fully-formed from Zeus' brain (metafictional possibilities there, certainly, particularly given the headaches that she was causing Crusie ;-) ).

    The time when 'the world was full of good men' makes me think of the myth of the Golden Age in Greek/Roman mythology.

  2. I would be interested in what your class made of the decision of H/H not to have children? This kinda struck out for me because the norm is for the H/H to be fruitful and multiply as part of their HEA. If the H/H were a real life couple, I would correspond it to something like what Alice Miller pointed out in her book THE DRAMA OF THE GIFTED CHILD: the H/H were the adults in their relationships with their parents since the parents were not emotionally mature and that conversely, they have decided to be children later by "playing house" and retiring with their pets and eating Krispy Kremes.

    Despite the repetious (and I do mean repetious)sprouting of the characters' various theories on love, I found the 2 companions of both Cal and Min to be so one-dimensional that they came across as angel/devil on the shoulders -- one very pessimistic, the other nihilistic.

  3. You're providing proof to back up Jennifer's theory that in my experience, it's easier to write a thorough, impassioned essay on a novel you dislike or don't agree with than one which you thought was a "fun read!". Seems to me that even if Eric's students hate Bet Me they should have lots to say about it.

    Do you think that any decision by a couple not to have children would be an indication that they'd decided to be 'children playing house' or is that just your feeling about this particular case? I'm thinking you're meaning the latter, but I just wanted to double-check. My feeling is that having experienced first-hand how badly parents can mess up their children emotionally, Cal and Min have been put off the idea of parenthood. But they do care about other people's children.

    Re the companions, do you mean Liza and Bonnie, and Tony and Roger? I know Liza was cynical about love, but I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call her pessimistic or nihilistic, and to me Bonnie was very optimistic, as was Roger. Tony's chaos theory idea could maybe be thought of as nihilistic, I suppose, though I wouldn't have put in those terms myself, and I'm not even sure he was serious about it: I got the impression he said it mainly because he thought it made for an interesting and effective chat-up line.

    I hadn't thought of them as being 'one dimensional' but if they're not as fully developed in some ways as Min and Cal could that be because of the fairytale aspect of the story? Liza is a fairygodmother and Bonnie is like a happy fairytale princess, with Roger her prince.

  4. Hi, Laura! Hi, Seton! Thanks for reading the post so closely, despite its length.

    Laura, you're quite right about Min's name--and Cal even comments that she is a "goddess" when he calls her at work to arrange their lunch date after the kiss in the park. (She, of course, repeatedly says that he kisses "like a god.") In class we talked about this partly as you did, in terms of the attributes of the goddess Minerva, although we couldn't find much to match this for Calvin. (John Calvin? Seems a stretch!) It seems an example of what Frye talks about as the projection, in romance, of mythic material onto the world of low mimetic "realism": a myth would be about Minerva, the goddess; a romance can be about a woman named Minerva, whose relationship to the goddess is associational, rather than one of actual identity. (Sorry--fell into academo-speak there, but you get the drift.)

    Seton, the decision not to have kids came up in our second discussion, last night, and we took it in a different direction from yours. Yours makes a lot of sense to me, and fits really well with the low mimetic side of the novel: that is, it's a psychologically believable way for these characters to behave, given their parents, etc. (I love the idea of these two "playing house" in their donut eating, etc.--and if memory serves, there's even an Elvis song to that effect: "Come on over baby, I want to play house with you." Crusie doesn't mention the song, or at least I don't remember it, but the novel is such a coincidence magnet that I'll simply bow and call it Fate.)

    In class, though, we addressed their decision not to have children as part of Crusie's revision (feminist, perhaps) of the mythic pattern that Frye identifies in "quest-romance": that is, the victory of fertility over the waste land. When characters in the novel tell Min that she'd "make a great mom," as David does early on, it actually seems a way to deny her attractiveness, her sensuality, her pleasure. The forecast of literal fertility, for Min, is thus just part of the "waste land" situation she finds herself trapped in as the novel begins.

    Instead, the novel embraces a metaphorical "fertility" that plays out in two ways: first, as Min's sexual pleasure, which "gives birth" to a new community around her (or around her and Cal, I suppose); and, second, her "reproduction" as an erotic ideal in the mind of Harry, who grows up to marry a zaftig woman clearly modeled on Min. She is the metaphorical "mother" of many, precisely by virtue of being the literal mother of none. (This might fit with her name, at least if memory serves. If Minerva is the Roman version of Athena, she's the patron deity of a polis rather than the mother of anyone in particular.) It's as though the myth found itself transplanted into a low-mimetic world that includes birth control, and has had to "decide," as it were, whether the victory of sexuality Frye describes really means the victory of reproduction, or the triumph of pleasure, which in this novel equals the triumph of the couple (whether or not they have children).

  5. although we couldn't find much to match this for Calvin. (John Calvin? Seems a stretch!)

    What about Calvin and Hobbes/Calvin and (Min) Dobbs? A bit of a stretch? I haven't actually read any of the Calvin and Dobbs cartoons but from what I can gather from Wikipedia, there would be some parallels:

    Calvin is an impulsive, sometimes overly creative, imaginative, energetic, curious, intelligent, and often selfish six-year-old [...]. Despite his low grades, Calvin has a wide vocabulary range that rivals that of an adult as well as an emerging philosophical mind

    Cal's dyslexic, which explains his low grades and if he is a bit like this Calvin, it would tie in with the idea of him being sort of childlike. And having Minerva and Calvin together makes this a clash of the classical versus popular culture, and makes them seem apparently incompatible, which is what they think about each other to begin with.

    Well, it was only a sudden flash of inspiration/confusion, so I could well be completely wrong.