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ENGL 2240: Pt. 5: Genre Literature

Lecture Notes

We use the word "genre" to classify, or organize, similar types of literature.  Genre comes from the same linguistic roots as many familiar words we know, like genesis, gender, or genotype (all types of classification).  When used as a literary term we apply genre to any "artistic endeavor with a common form, style, technique, or quality" which allows us to categorize and recognize them by that quality.  You will see this done quite often in libraries:  most will have a newspaper section, a magazine section, or children's section; and on a literary level, you might also find a mystery collection, a western collection, or a biography collection.  Grouping literature means that, most often, they share any number of similar traits.

First up, mystery/detective literature.  In "The Doomdorf Mystery," we have several interesting things to discuss.  First, the story is by Melville Davisson Post, a name some of you might recognize (he is a distant relative of the "Davisson" as in "Davisson Brothers Band").  He was a lawyer born and raised in Harrison Co., West Virginia, who, as a writer of mysteries found it more profitable than his own law practice, and became one of the very first writers to make his entire living by writing.  His most famous character, Uncle Abner, "a Virginia squire in colonial times whose duty to protect his mountain community resulted in his turning detective," remains an important character in the early development of detective fiction.  Post's background as a lawyer was perfectly suited for this style of writing, and audiences clamored for more content featuring the plainspoken, but shrewd gentleman detective.

Also, this particular mystery is a particularly fine example of a sub-genre of mystery/detective-oriented fiction:  the locked room mystery.  All of these feature a crime of some sort, where all of the entrances and exits to the room are locked from the inside, but yet somehow the crime occurred.  These are extremely popular to those who read them, but they all pretty much follow the same set of criteria.  Post tried creating a successful novel series based upon his success with Uncle Abner.  The detective in those books was named Randolph Mason, and he was a "city" detective/lawyer, not nearly as "honest and true" as Abner, and Post was not as well received for these novels as he had been successful with his short fiction and scrupulous, main character/hero.

Post, and, literally, ALL other detectives, famous or otherwise--Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, even Nancy Drew!--owe  debt of gratitude to their one common ancestor, C. Auguste Dupin.  Dupin first appears in the other mystery/detective reading for this week, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."  This is considered the FIRST story where a detective uses logic and deductive reasoning  "to solve" the crime.  It is a part of a three story "trilogy" featuring him as the main character.  (The others are "The Purloined Letter" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget".)  This story may be a bit of a difficult read.  Dupin is French, the story set in Paris (rue = street in French), and the language used is often very detail oriented and exhaustive.  However, if you read it slowly, the writing still draws in the reader, and bit by bit we see Dupin's "ratiocination" (the Art of thinking, or purposeful thought) at work.  We see the clearest example of this later in Sherlock Holmes' solemn reasoning:  once ALL possible explanations have been removed, what remains MUST be the solution.  Simple logic and deduction (rather, a re-duction of possible scenarios), eventually leaves the only possible answer.

Next, we move to science fiction and futuristic literature.  Originally, "science" fiction was just that, fiction that featured something scientific, like "Jurassic Park," DNA and modern dinosaur making.  You may also be familiar with Jules Verne, whose works "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" featured a nuclear powered submarine named the Nautilus, exactly the name the United States Navy chose for its first nuclear-powered submarine commissioned in 1955, nearly a century later (1870) than Verne imagined it.  Other examples from his work include "Journey to the Center of the Earth," and "Journey to the Moon and Back," another "futuristic" title foreshadowing the moon landing in 1969.

Another genre in this field of literature, fantasy, usually explores outer space, other worlds, complete with heroes and villains.  Most of the writing in this particular genre requires a tremendous amount of storytelling--characters, settings, scientific and technical language, etc.--which generally necessitate lengthier pieces of fiction, novels and novellas, so I didn't include any of these.  Although the Le Guin story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," could certainly take place on a planet other than Earth.  We aren't give any specific information which would contradict that particular assumption.

"Harrison Bergeron" and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"  both address social issue of human equality, but with dramatically different outcomes.  In the first, we see what happens when our government controls every aspect of the lives of its citizenry.  This, of course, is hyperbole (gross exaggeration as exemplified in "tall tales") and we see the common issue of equality taken to an extreme conclusion.  Notice the completely absurd number of "Amendments to the Constitution."  (Although not explicitly stated, the reader is most likely to assume the narrator means the US Constitution.  The "violent ends to justify the means" is meant to serve as both as a warning to readers (you must comply, it's the law, and non-compliance = death) and, in the same vein, almost like an Aesopian moral:  be careful what you wish for, you may well get it.  

"Omelas," too, presents a classic example of  literary dichotomy:  appearance vs. reality.  Like "The Lottery," "Omelas" is a "perfect city."  A perfect place, with perfect people (who are all equal), about to celebrate the Festival of Summer.  Also, like "The Lottery," this seems to be an annual event of sorts, a tradition, which on the surface is raucous, colorful, and full of joy (remember the irony of that word from "The Story of an Hour"?).  However, the town's "perfection" comes at a terrible expense:  "They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery."  This revelation, in its graphic detail, is indeed horrific to the reader.  It immediately spurs questions the reader wants to ask:  Who is this child?  Where did it come from?  Who are the "some who understand"?  How did this happen?  Moral questioning, especially of the self, is a hallmark of science fiction.  What would WE do?  How would WE react?  And since we're all human, with either an individual sense of "free will" or a belief in "pre-determined events," we shall all have differing opinions, reasoning, and solutions.  Like "Harrison," perhaps the moral of this story is the noble adage, "It's better to sacrifice the one to save the many."  In ancient Greece, this was known as "summum bonum," meaning "the greatest good for the greatest number."

Lastly, we return again to Poe.  In "The Fall of the House of Usher," we have many of the elements of gothic horror present in the opening paragraph:  a solitary horseman, on a singularly dreary tract of land, who arrives at a "house" (read: castle) with "vacant, eye-like" windows, a dark and dank (stagnant) tarn (a small body of water, like a moat or pond) surrounded by a dank (dead) sedge (trees & shrubs).  The opening paragraph here is ominous, everything is gray, or lead-colored, dark,and mysterious.  However, this is merely sets into motion the tone of the narrator, a voice in the wilderness the reader comes to trust, especially as the horrific events later in the story begin to unfold involving Roderick Usher, and his twin sister, Madeline.  Many of the characteristics we commonly find in today's gothic materials, were launched by the publication of the novella "The Castle of Otranto" by Horace Walpole in 1764.  (His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was England's first "Chief of Police", and that's why they're known today as "Bobbies.")

Upon its publication, "The Castle of Otranto" was an immediate success.  It laid the groundwork for all of the later horror and gothic literature.  Gothic, originally, was a term applied to a style of architecture:  massive buildings--usually churches--using heavy stone, complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses.  Many of the common folks were an illiterate and suspicious bunch.  They truly believed in devils, and witches, and ghosts, and curses, and a myriad of other-worldly creatures (most cultures have an opposing parallel to their understanding of "good and righteous," like God/gods, angels, cherubs, etc.)  However, in literature gothic takes on a more symbolic meaning. There is little left for redemption.  The central characters--like Frankenstein (a scientific creation) and Dracula--are not inherently good, they are generally evil, another unique attribute of gothic fiction. There may be premature burial (another story by Poe even has this title), murder disguised as an evening of debauchery, ghosts, plagues, banshees, werewolves, ANY thing horrific the mind can conjure.