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  • The Mode of Romance Revisited
  • Pierre Vitoux

The starting point of this essay1 is a summary of Northrop Frye's classification of Modes in Anatomy of Criticism,2 with some incidental remarks later developed into a general Discussion. The revised Chart proposed at the end is tentative and heuristic, not final and dogmatic. And it is still what Frye calls a "conceptual framework" (7). It is concerned with modal and generic archetypal transtextuality, and thus may help to determine the coordinates of an individual work on the map of romance fiction, but only as a preliminary approach to a critical study.

I. The Outline


The hero is a divine being, and thus superior in kind both to "other men," which really means to "all of us, men," since he is divine, and to the environment of "other men," that is of all those who are defined as "mortals" by the Greek term brotoi. But Frye adds that "such stories," though they have an important place in literature, "are as a rule found outside the normal literary categories" (33). We shall see later on the implications of that reservation. We may note here that myth does not figure as a specific poetic mode in Aristotle, for whom muthos characterizes the narrative form, that of the epic as opposed to the dramatic form of the tragedy. If we take myth to mean a story about gods, it is the presentation of a world for which the operation of the mimesis, as a representation of human life, is unthinkable, and it thus falls outside the scope of Aristotelian Poetics.


The hero is superior in degree both to other men (though identified as a human being), and to his environment, since he moves in a world where "the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended" (33): he is naturally capable of prodigious feats of courage, but he also enjoys the benefit of talismans, enchanted weapons, etc. We have moved from myth to legend, folk-tale.

High Mimetic

The hero is superior in degree to other men, being a leader, but not to his environment, and he may fall a victim to it. He is the hero of the epic and of the tragedy, which are the genres Aristotle had principally in mind. [End Page 387]

Low Mimetic

The hero is "superior neither to other men nor to his environment," and thus he is "one of us." And that is the mode "of most comedy and of realistic fiction" (34). Aristotle (in Poetics I 3) says in general terms that men can be represented "either as better than they actually are, or worse, or exactly as they are." A few lines further on, however, in his definition of the two basic literary genres, he says that "the aim of comedy" is "to exhibit men worse than we find them, that of tragedy, better," leaving out the "as we find them." The difference appears to come from the fact that his first definition is "ethical," concerned with the object of the representation, the ethos or comportment of men, whereas the second is "poetic," referring to mimesis as a mode of representation which is not imitation in the sense of a mere copy of what is represented, but heightens it, in one way or the other, in order to be significant, to convey "a general truth." The distinction is still required to avoid confusion in any discussion of so-called realism as well as of romance in fiction, as we shall see later. Fielding's Preface to Joseph Andrews is an attempt to define the genre which will later be called the novel, le roman, but also to give it legitimacy by making it fill the niche left unoccupied in Aristotle's Poetics, that of narrative comedy, symmetrical with the epic. So, he describes the genre as a "comic romance," or "a comic epic poem in prose," in which "the ridiculous" in the form of affectation appears as the source of the comic. He can thus easily differentiate the genre from "the voluminous works commonly called romances"(all those he mentions belonging to a well-defined type of seventeenth-century French fiction).3 But...


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pp. 387-410
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