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Defining Definition

egoodlett's picture
define  c.1384, from O.Fr. definir "to end, terminate, determine," from L. definire "to limit, determine, explain," from de- "completely" + finire "to bound, limit," from finis "boundary." Definite (1553) means "defined, clear, precise, unmistakable;" definitive (c.1386) means "having the character of finality." Definition is recorded from 1645 as a term in logic; the "meaning of a word" sense is from 1551.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper

In other words, as we discussed in class at the beginning of our semester-long discourse on genre, according to some definitions, “to define” is to trace the boundaries of something. It is to explain a concept by listing what it isn’t. It is an often-heard concept in day-to-day life. “I can’t quite explain X, but I can tell you what it is not…” X being, of course, said unexplainable thing (love, modern fashion, Eddie Izzard…). We also have a tendency to say, for example, when discussing the genre of the academic essay, “I’m not sure how to define it, but I know it when I see it.” Say, then, that we decide to use the exclusive, rather than the inclusive, definition of “define,” and use that while working towards a theory of genre. Can genre, perhaps, be better defined by what it is not, than by what it is?

Let us try, then. Take the genre of a romance, to borrow from Northrop Frye’s essay, The Mythos of Summer: Romance. First, we must begin by defining what is meant by “romance,” or, rather, by defining what we do not mean by “romance.” When I say “romance,” here, I do not mean the type of romance novel you would buy on a grocery store shelf to read at the beach, whose plot is something along the lines of “two lovers meet, various obstacles keep them separated and increasingly frustrated, until they are reunited at the end.” I do not mean a book as fatalistic as Moby Dick, either, though. Nor do I mean a piece of creative nonfiction (although some creative nonfiction could conceivably fall into the realm of romance if, say, the memoirist had a particularly happy life which they decided to write about), in which not everything works out neatly or is cleanly wrapped up in the finale. I do not mean a novel in which the ending is not obviously the ending, and all of the characters are clearly and justly accounted for. And already, my line of definition is beginning to blur.

But alright, assume that it is still intact, unfocused or not, and say that I have now explained what I do not mean by a “romance.” Have I given enough context for a reader to know what I mean by romance, then? They can probably guess that, since I do not mean a novel in which the end is not obvious, that the ending of a romance will be apparent, because all of the characters will be given what they deserve, and all loose ends will be tied up. They can also guess that I do not mean a story in which the ending is predestined to be bad and nothing can be done to prevent it, or a novel that is solely based on a literal romance between lovers. So my readers have some idea of what I don’t mean, at least.

However, there are other possibilities that my reader may mistake for romances, if this is all the definition that I give them. What if, for example, they were to stumble across a parody of something and call this a romance? To prevent this, I will add to my list of definitions. When I say “romance,” I do not mean something that is imitating another genre in order to highlight its flaws in a comedic way. And then the reader might find another piece which fits within the boundaries I have drawn thus far, but does not fit the idea of “romance” that I am trying to describe. Eventually my list would become a very cumbersome way to define my concept of a romance.

How, then, to make my definition simpler, but still an exclusive one. I could say that, by romance, I do not mean any other genre of story. But then, what if I look at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Harriet Beecher Stowe calls a work of realistic fiction, citing the real-life examples from which she derived many of the circumstances and personalities of her characters. That element of her novel is realistic, yes, and so it might be called a realistic fiction story. Yet her characters still appear in the archetypal positions of actors in a romance, the plot of her story corresponds in many ways to a romantic novel, and the idealistic ending of her novel, in which all of the characters are given or find what they deserve, is also quite romantic. In that way, her novel might be called a romance, as well. But my definition says that no other genres can be included in my idea of “romance,” and by including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work that in some lights can be viewed as realistic would have made its way into my category of romance.

Generalizing my definition won’t work as a means of simplifying it, then, or at least trying to make it more easily comprehensible, because it leads to the exclusion of pieces that should not be excluded. Here my “experiment” (I use the word lightly as there are no controls or test groups involved, nor much of a formalized structure) seems to fall short. Defining a genre solely by what it is not becomes an impractically lengthy process, since one could hypothetically spend forever delineating the difference between “romance” and every other genre in existence, and making sure to specify which texts that might be called a mixture of two genres are allowed to cross the definitive line into being named “romance,” and which cannot. To answer my own question, then, no, genre cannot be better defined solely by what it is not.

Is there another way to use this idea of definition (defining something by giving it boundaries), then, perhaps instead of using it alone to define a genre? Say, instead, that a combination of definitions is used. To define, according to the first definition in the 2006 Random House Unabridged Dictionary, is “to state or set forth the meaning of (a word, phrase, etc).” Then, let us begin again by stating or setting forth a possible definition of a “romance.” For this example, I will use my attempt at a summary of Northrop Frye’s proposed idea of the genre. A romance is a piece which places its characters in archetypal roles (this is not to say that the characters are necessarily one-dimensional or flat, though), sends them on a journey or quest which will be physically and/or mentally trying (and which will often times be cyclical), and ends with the triumph of the “good” characters (whether in life or death) and the punishment of the “bad.”

But, if this is the only definition we have, someone might come along and argue that Moby Dick could be construed as one such novel if you think of the whale himself, swimming around the world protecting his fellow whales from the merciless human hunters, as a “good” character. This is not what we meant by a romance, though. So, say that we use our original definition of defining now in order to clarify what we do not mean. We do not mean a novel whose central character in the plot is a “bad” one. If we make this distinction, then the aforementioned argument for Moby Dick as a romance cannot be used, because Ahab is the focal character for the majority of the book, and that argument would only work if he could be judged as “bad.”

Our use of both ways of defining, however, seems to work, at least in this case. Using only the exclusive definition did not prove useful to us in trying to understand genres, but utilizing it in combination with an inclusive definition did seem to be helpful in this trial. It might be an interesting dichotomy to explore as we continue our search for a definition of genres.


Anne Dalke's picture



I'm so intrigued to see you test-driving an "exclusive" definition of genre here (even--or maybe especially--if the experiment eventually falls short, and needs to be combined with an inclusive definition), because that is such a turn from, and extension of, your last project, on the "compendium of genres" that is Moby-Dick.

Here you are experimenting with a different way of thinking about genre, one that is almost mathematical in its conception, and logical in its methodology (if x, then y; if not x, then y; if not x, then not y). It is also a way of thinking that accords with Derrida's argument about the "law of genres," one that has to do with contamination, purity and exemplification.

I very much appreciate the theoretical/general work you do here; I'd like to see you try out your combined definition on a few more concrete instances: what does this theory give us, when applied to Moby-Dick? The Scarlet Letter? Uncle Tom's Cabin? What is its use-value, in practice?