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The Problems Defining Genre

The Problems Defining Genre

Genre denotes a systematic way to categorize literature. The term might be considered academic jargon; however, it produces up a set of expectations that allow us to judge literature. These expectations or criteria also allow us to compare with other literature in the same as well as different genres. In spite of these expectations, genre does not dictate a set of rigid rules; in fact, genre is more descriptive than prescriptive.

Problems in defining genre often arise because there are frequently sub-genres: romantic comedy might be considered a sub-genre of comedy, revenge tragedy of tragedy and gothic horror of horror. It becomes increasingly difficult to see where one sub-genre ends and another begins. Also these categories are seldom pure. For example, Hamlet, a revenge tragedy, includes aspects of romance and even a comic scene or two. Our popular culture makes defining genre challenging because what is vital one day might disappear the next. An example of this is the current insistence upon a happy ending. Since tragedy is often characterized by an unhappy or “right” ending, according to Aristotle, popular culture no longer welcomes the tragedy with the relish it did at other times in history.

Our Town being the exception that comes to mind, as well as the one-man shows. Poetry makes frequent use of this voice. In Daddy by Sylvia Plath, the author address “Daddy” throughout the poem. Shannon Chamberlain’s use of Aesop’s fable The Parrot and his Cage was another example of this single voice narrative. A second voice option is the drama or dialogue that involves talking between two characters with no narration. All of the plays we are reading in class fit this category as well as Stacy Burleson’s example of Merlin as a legend in film. Finally, the combination of the narrator plus dialogue is just as it seems, a narrator talks to the audience (or reader) but the characters talk to each other. The TV shows The Fugitive, Dragnet, and Twilight Zone come to mind as examples of this.

Narrative genre, by contrast, focuses on the storyline or plot. Tragedy frequently introduces a problem, there is struggle for control, finally a realistic and often unhappy ending that resolves the problem.

The Relation between Comedy and Tragedy

The Relation between Comedy and Tragedy

On the surface, comedy and tragedy seem to be complete polar opposites of each other. In terms of the actual narrative, examining the consequences of the character’s actions reveals the biggest contrast. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’ ‘sin’ of not listening to the Gods and trying to avoid his fate assisted in his downfall. Not only does his internal blindness result in him marrying his mother; it also results in a “plague” across his land. In addition, the blindness towards his own fate causes Oedipus to display a decidedly unkingly side when he accuses Kreon of being the source of the woes of the state. The consequences of Oedipus’ actions result in his exile from the state and an unhappy ending to the play. In contrast, a key facet to the comedy genre is a lack of consequences. Oberon, for example, never faces any type of punishment when he deceives Titania. In fact, he is rewarded with being back in Titania’s good graces and the young boy!

The character development in comedy and tragedy is also very different…

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