Illustrating the Imagination

[Part 3 in the Wedding Crashers series] The four modes of human story-telling identified by Northrop Frye tend to follow the pattern of the four seasons. Though we feel it less directly in more urban areas, our existence depends upon harmonizing our life cycle to the cycle of crops and so the cycle of the seasons. I think this is why the seasons occupy so frequent and fundamental a place in all our creative works: each season plays an important and a unique role in our very existence.

Consider Frye’s pairings of season and story-mode below. Do you see similarities between each season and mode? (The one difficulty is that Frye’s names for the modes have slightly different meanings than we’re used to 2012; if we clarify these names, I think you can see the connections more easily.)

Romance for Frye means the quest (not Romance novels). The Romance or quest mode echoes summer: hard work and toil under the sun, yet with eyes fixed on the distant harvest; characters undertake a great journey for a greater reward; heroes seek the golden apples of the Hesperides, the treasure of Smaug, the Holy Grail.

Tragedy fits with the melancholy of fall. Summer fades, the year grows old. Death approaches, withers the trees, withers the characters, strips away temporary garments, and leaves all shivering in the wind.

Winter embodies the ironic mode. Frye isn’t talking about hipsters when he talks about irony—the ironic mode is a progression beyond tragedy, just as winter follows fall. Like fall/tragedy, the ironic mode carries a sense of loss, but it’s less poignant and more bitter like a winter wind. The land is barren; characters in the ironic mode are barren (literally, figuratively, or both). There is no growth.

And, ah, the comic mode. The comic mode is the springtime—the year is young, the world green and bright, the birds and the bees go about their business, and human characters follow suit. Clouds may pass over the sun, but in the comic mode, the point is that they’re just clouds and they’re passing. In the comic mode, The Merry Wives of Windsor pull their ridiculous pranks, bumpkins and fairies make mischief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Earnest isn’t earnest in The Importance of Being Earnest, and John Beckwith and Jeremy Grey enjoy wedding season.

The montage that occurs near the beginning of Wedding Crashers epitomizes the comic mode: food and families abound, champagne flows, jokes are told, and we see John and Jeremy repeatedly at the center of a grand party:


One of my favorite professors at GMU pointed out that, on the silver screen, comedies primarily use mid-range shots because comedies take place at mid-range. Characters in the comic mode have depth, but not the deep exploration of psyche that you have with someone like Iago or Hamlet in the tragedies. Stories in the comic mode center more on the relationships between characters and how those relationships fit into and form the larger society.

Notice how those scenes above all show John and Jeremy as part of a crowd, part of society. Because comedies deal with the integration of the individual into society, it follows that the visuals reflect this. Not that the producers of Wedding Crashers sat down and said “you know, this segment of our film really illustrates what Northrop Frye called the comic mode, so we should probably rely on midrange shots that place our guys in a social context with lots of flowers and young folk to connote the spring of life”—I’d eat my hat if they said that. Rather, it’s natural for images like you see in the clip above to accompany stories told in the comic mode. Frye’s theory of modes is descriptive—it describes patterns he found in literature, not patterns he wanted to impose—and so it can help us to better see and perceive what already surrounds us.

After all the frolicking and rolicking in the comic mode, Wedding Crashers shifts briefly into the opposite mode: tragedy. In the tragic mode, the hero is driven from society and may suffer death at its hands.

Wedding Crashers doesn’t quite have true tragedy—you’ll have to go to Russian literature or To Kill a Mockingbird for that—but for the sake of illustration there is a moment that can serve.

I don’t have a clip, but imagine the scene with Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams) and John (Owen Wilson) talking outside, right after Bradley Cooper’s character proposes to Claire. John hasn’t yet told Claire the truth of his identity, but she clearly has feelings for John, and we hope maybe something can work out. Then bam! Gunshot goes off, Claire’s family and crazed fiancé storm out, and the jig is up.  They’ve learned that John and Jeremy aren’t related to this powerful, upper class family, they don’t orbit in the same circles, they don’t know how to sail, they aren’t venture capitalists, and so they can have nothing to do with the Cleary daughters. In a way, the rigid social structure drives the would-be heroes away from the idyllic property and away from love. After John and Jeremy admit the truth about themselves, they’re sent trudging down a dusty road like exiles from Eden.

In the tragic mode, although the hero suffers, society usually recognizes and regrets the loss in the end. Othello finally realizes his dead wife’s innocence. Lear rediscovers the dead Cordelia’s goodness. The Montagues and Capulets repent of the fighting that destroyed their children. In spite of loss, meaning remains intact. But sometimes, the tragic mode can slip into the ironic mode. And in the ironic mode, meaning falls apart, and even the sensitivity to loss becomes numbed. After he’s driven from Claire, John Beckwith’s story spirals into the ironic mode.

I think it’s especially important for us in the 21st century to be able to recognize the ironic mode and where it leads, so in the next post, we’ll follow John Beckwith on his downward spiral. Yes, all the way down to Chazz Reinhold’s ma’s house.

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