SparkNotes and Your Soul

What’s wrong with SparkNotes? I’ve always joked with my English students that SparkNotes will make them shallow, but I’ve never articulated to them (or myself) exactly why. Continue reading SparkNotes and Your Soul


Wedding Crashers & the Comic Mode

The term comedy doesn’t necessarily mean “ha ha” funny—it also describes a basic plot structure. Comedy as a structure deals with “the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it” (Frye).  Man is a social creature, but tension always exists between individual wills and social demands. Comedies revolve around the fact that at some point, to some extent, we all have to get along to get along. Something like teenage rebellion is natural, even healthy, but the resolution of most comic works comes when the angsty young adult finds a way to fit back into society—a society which is strengthened and changed for the better through the young person’s rebellion and return.

Comedies often end with weddings because marriage may be the ultimate example of figuring out how to get along. Weddings signify a bond between man and woman, honor the bond between parents and children (parents giving their blessing to marry, family names passed on, dowries or inheritances acquired, the father walking his daughter down the aisle), they involve family and friends, and they suggest the bringing-forth of new life and so the continuation of society.

But comedies begin with rebellion: a rejection of social norms, a challenging of parental authority, a breaking of some social standard. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and the women of Greece refuse to sleep with their husbands. Shakespeare’s Hermia disobeys her father’s order to marry Demetrius. And in the opening scene of Wedding Crashers, John Beckwith and Jeremy Gray tell a couple going through a nasty divorce that:

Guys, the real enemy here is the institution of marriage. It’s not realistic, it’s crazy! Hey, don’t do this for the other person. It’s about saying yes to yourself, and saying yes to your future. And have some opportunities for yourself . . .

I’d like to focus on this opening scene for a bit, so here it is if you need a quick refresher:

First we hear the bickering couple—a shrill and petty cacophony. Next we see the two main characters (John and Jeremy), both bachelors, literally in the middle of the marriage fight. John and Jeremy don’t have to say anything in these first few seconds—their silent expressions suggest to the audience that the two bachelors are the only sane ones in the bunch. The divorcing couple hurls insults back and forth while their impotent attorneys (literal representatives of society’s laws) sit by, unable to take any meaningful action. Finally Jeremy steps in with the first authoritative words of the movie, and John and Jeremy succeed in calming the couple down by shifting blame away from the individuals and onto the social institution of marriage. Classic comic rebellion! And we’re only three minutes in.

John and Jeremy appeal to individual will and desire over all else. Don’t do this for the other person. Say yes to yourself. The problem is the institution of marriage. Look at us bachelors—we’re the calm ones, we’ve got everything under control, we’ve successfully avoided the unrealistic demand of marriage that society forces on young adults and which ends inevitably in a battle of the sexes. It’s not too far a cry from the poo-pooing of marriage done by Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (watch Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh act out some of those lines here).

Through this short opening scene, we get to know two main characters who have (so far) successfully escaped the institution and responsibilities of marriage. And they’ve done more than escape—they actively mock marriage and make their money in the divorce business. However, to a degree, their rejection of the social institution of marriage puts John and Jeremy on the fringes of society. As bachelors, they cannot fully participate in the family life and child rearing that actually perpetuates society. This parallels their fringe participation in the weddings they crash; though they appear to be the life of the party, John and Jeremy never participate as their true selves. They never participate as true guests—they only ever play pretend. It’s all rather funny and rather impressive, but we get the feeling that John and Jeremy won’t get to ride this wave forever. When Owen Wilson’s character hints that maybe this wave isn’t one he wants to ride forever anyway, I’d bet that most of the audience sympathizes more with Owen Wilson than Vince Vaughan at this moment:

A shift is occuring, but we’re not out of the comic mode just yet. The next post will review the imagery that Frye found associated with the comic mode, and look at how a shift in imagery in Wedding Crashers accompanies a shift in the story’s mode.

Wedding Crashers with Northrop Frye

If I could take just one lesson from my English classes over the years, I’d choose Northrop Frye’s theory of modes.

Northrop Frye was a literary critic who lived from 1912 to 1991 and is probably best known for his Anatomy of Criticism (published in 1957). In the introduction to that book, Frye argues that

The first thing the literary critic has to do is to read literature, to make an inductive survey of his own field and let his critical principles shape themselves solely out of his knowledge of that field. Critical principles cannot be taken over ready-made from theology, philosophy, politics, science, or any combination of these.

In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye follows his own advice and presents his findings. He goes out and studies literature of all kinds from a variety of times and places. And he finds that literature does not appear “as a huge aggregate or miscellaneous pile of discrete ‘works.’” Rather, “total literary history gives us a glimpse of the possibility of seeing literature as a complication of a relatively restricted and simple group of formulas that can be studied in primitive culture” and that “there seems to be a general tendency on the part of great classics to revert” to these primitive formulas.

In other words, there are several basic story forms that persist from the earliest myths to, say, The Hunger Games. Frye considers these recurring forms and finds that four basic types or modes of storytelling emerge which can be identified by their basic plot structure, the relationship of the central character to human society and the natural environment, and associated imagery and settings.

If you aren’t about to take a quiz on the basic ideas of Northrop Frye, why should any of this matter? Well, consider the importance of stories. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “human intellect is incurably abstract [. . .] yet the only realities we experience are concrete,” and stories often form a bridge between. When we struggle to explain ourselves, we turn to stories. When we try to teach kids abstract mathematical concepts, we turn to stories. When we wish to honor a loved one at a funeral, we don’t just recite a list of adjectives—we turn to stories. Stories have the potential to carry emotion, wisdom, mystery, abstract ideas, concrete realities—all the paradoxes and contradictions of our human experience.  That stories from all times and places generally fall into one of four modes suggests a sort of fundamental, shared, imaginative experience and sheds light (theory comes from Greek roots meaning “to see” and “to consider”) on how we process and comprehend the world and ourselves.

So what are the four basic modes? According to Frye, they are:

1. Comedy (or “low mimetic”)

2. Tragedy (or “high mimetic”)

3. Irony

4. Romance

These terms require some clarification, though, since Frye doesn’t use them in the way most of us do in everyday conversation. I think the best way to explain these terms is with—surprise!—a story. And I realized while watching it with my roommates the other night that the movie Wedding Crashers provides some great examples of all four modes. So ask your ma to make you some meatloaf and check back for part two of this post!

What this blog is for

I love to write, but my current job (which I thoroughly enjoy!) doesn’t require me to do much of my own writing — mostly I post the publications of other more experienced writers on various websites. So, in part, this blog is just an exercise for me so my own writing muscles don’t atrophy any further. But I’ve also had the good fortune to have great English teachers over the years and have always wanted to share more of what they taught me. So most of these posts will take something from one of my old classes as a starting point — hopefully you can glean something of interest!

Why bother with things learned in English lit. classes? A maxim I learned from a professor at GMU sums it up best:

History tells you what happened; Poetry tells you what always happens.

Poetry, and literature more generally, have the ability to speak to the things that are lasting in human nature; to the things we in 21st century America with our blogs and iPhones and reality T.V. and human genome sequencing and nuclear weapons share with the likes of Saladin the Great, the house of Atreus, and the authors of the Psalms.

It’s tempting to look at the marvels of technology in our age and consider ourselves superior to men and women of the past, but the differences between us and them are not nearly as significant as the things we have in common. As G.K. Chesterton put it, these

things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. […] The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature.

Literature from all ages and all places helps us to better recognize the things we hold in common, and so helps us to a better understanding of what “the miracle of humanity itself” is. It requires humility to see what we can learn from an old king who wouldn’t have known the first thing about Facebook, but, as T.S. Eliot writes in his Four Quartets:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

I try to post something once a week — hopefully it’s worth your while, at least every once in awhile!