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Anyone for Theory?

M. Gallagher's picture

Anyone for Theory?


Why We Like Uncle Tom's Cabin Better than Jameson

Like much of the current Eurocentric population, I am a romantic, though perhaps more regrettably than some. I also serve the dual role of “student” in Anne Dalke's “Emerging Genres” course. We have broadly been discussing genre for the whole semester, though more recently we have been specifically applying genre in relation to Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The student perception of the dichotomy of the literature we have read to the literary theory has been noted more thoroughly through distinct distaste and disposal of theory than analytically.

Theory is a term much-bandied these days, yet one rarely finds the avid reader to be one of theory- and certainly not genre theory. The immense population of readers statistically tends to choose the narrative foundational story as their reading. More specifically, they prefer romance. While this may seem an offhand assumption, the examples can be seen in the consumption of both books Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Bible. It has widely been said that Uncle Tom's Cabin was sold and read in the 19th century second only to The Bible; Uncle Tom's Cabin is a sentimental or romantic novel, hence a romance. If the quantity of readers consuming Uncle Tom's Cabin does not appease, consider The Bible. According to Northrop Frye, religious texts like The Bible are, in fact, romance stories. Since religious texts are easily the most widely circulated texts in history, it seems safe to say that romantic texts are far more widely digested than theoretical texts. As a student in a genre theory class, it seemed relevant to consider the role genre plays in our association with theory. To this end, the less-widely (or at least less voraciously) consumed theory is to be contrasted with the more socially accepted form of romance.

Frye defines romance as the “nearest of all literary forms to a wish-fulfilment dream” (89), which allows a ruling class of the era to use the form of romance to embody their ideals allowing the reader (a member of that social construction) to obtain what they desire from a text. However, the “wish-fulfilment” can also be seen as the hero of the tale attaining the goal they desire, thus successfully and succinctly ending the story. Furthermore, romance story arcs follow the same six step process described by Frye. So, even if one has only read a single romance, the others will follow a familiar path comfortable to the reader.

Theory, in contrast, strives to warrant an uptake or response to its conclusions so that a single precept never reaches a fulfilling stopping point. (Freadman). It is an “open-ended commitment” (Culler 15). Theory has no such boundaries as the strict story arc of romance; it is interdisciplinary, incredibly diverse in form and topic even within disciplines, and ever-expanding (Culler 14). There is no correct, no definitive, and no end to theory. Unlike the comforting familiarity of romance, this creates a daunting field which to enter, made even more daunting after one is exposed to the vast immensity of theoretical texts and sees that there can be no mastery of the topic.

Frye stresses that romance has a “persistent nostalgia” and a “perennially childlike quality” as it searches for a prior ideal time when things were right. Romance is also regarded as a form or genre which lacks subtlety and complexity, also adding to the nostalgic and childlike feel (Frye 89). Conversely, Culler states that theory questions even that which is taken for granted: common sense (4). Theory disputes this common sense, defining even it as a sociological construction. This prevents any nostalgia from being cultivated in theoretical works. Also, theory “cannot be obvious” (Culler 2) making it, by definition, complex and subtle. As Culler explains, theory must be a speculation whose accuracy would be difficult or even impossible to establish or else it would merely be a guess (2).

In romance, there is a binary existence to all objects. There is moral good and bad: hero and villain. In The Bible this can be seen in God with an antithesis in the Devil, while in Uncle Tom's Cabin, there are many characters that follow diametric beliefs to fulfill these roles. For instance, since Simon Legree is cruel, of low moral stature, and pro-slavery, he is the epitome of a villain. Tom, as a slave with strong morals, is the main hero. However, all those who believe the institution of slavery is not problematic are cast as villains, while all those who oppose it are heroes to some extent (Stowe).

Theory does not ascribe to binaries for the most part. There is no right and wrong, merely statements which are constantly re-worked by future theorists to get to a central truth or to uncover a homology between dissonant subjects. For example, Frederic Jameson has written a criticism of Northrop Frye's work on romance (used as reference for much of this essay),which calls Frye on his use of a “natural” world- which Jameson feels is historically constructed- as the location of romantic plot. Furthermore, Jameson argues that even the binary good and evil characters are merely mirrors, the difference hinging upon the villain's lack of identity within society; as soon as the identity of the “hostile knight” is attained, the villainy ceases to exist (Jameson 177). The latter example is not a deconstruction of the binary existence of romance so much as a re-working of the good-and-evil concept through a new paradigm of historical context. The evil still exists; it is simply marked as “Other”. However, both of these are illustrations of the shades of grey within which theory operates. Even criticism which seems to be berating a piece of theory is not calling the piece wrong as much as incomplete in its perception.

Looking at these differences in broader terms of genre-type may help define the differences. As seen in class, romance fits into the genre of a narrative foundational story (Dalke). It is telling a story through a “sequential and processional” plot driven by adventure, which makes it a narrative. It uses nostalgia to build upon previous romance, history, and cultural influences creating a form that still adheres to the “wisdom of the past” (Grobstein) with similar six-part story arcs and archetypal characters. Theory, as a body of work, is also trying to tell a narrative, even if it is only the story of the subject upon which it is theorizing. It may be incredibly dense; there may be no end, nor moral ground upon which to stand, but there are the threads of something being woven with a chronological existence as authors, like Jameson, read and comment on one another's works. However, unlike the foundational story of romance, the theorists necessarily assume that the choices of the past were not the only correct ones. Like Paul Grobstein described the emergence stories, theory is written as if everything can be improved upon. There is always a new to strive for. This is supported by Culler's description of theory as an endless open commentary. Thu, theory is placed in the “narrative non-foundational” genre, or emergent story.

The genres constructed above differ in foundational aspects. While both types of text are narratives, the romance, readily consumed by avid readers, is a foundation-based text. Theory, on the other hand, is a non-foundational text. This suggests that one of the main differences between romantic and theoretical works is their differences in foundational bases; this possibly illustrates why romance is more widely accepted as a genre. At the same time, it indicates that foundational stories are more easily accessible, enjoyable, and craved. While technical writing styles differ from romance to theory, and thus also likely play a part in the volume of their respective readerships, the difference in their respective genres also must play a role.

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. 1-16. New York:

Oxford University Press. 1997.

Dalke, Anne. “Exploring the Utopic.” 24 March 2008. /exchange/courses/genre/s08/archives/day16.

Freadman, Anne. “Anyone for Tennis?” Genre and the New Rhetoric. Ed: Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. Taylor & Francis, 1994. 54.

Frye, Northrop. “The Mythos of Summer: Romance.” Modern Genre Theory. Ed: David Duff.

Grobstein, Paul. “Evolution and Literature: Notes on Change and Order.” 14 February 2008.

24 March 2008. /exchange/node/2061.

Jameson, Frederic. “Magical Narratives: On the Dialectical Use of Genre Criticism.”

Modern Genre Theory. Ed: David Duff.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Dover Publications. 2005.


Anne Dalke's picture

Looking Backward


This essay seems to me an extension of (and in some ways a response to) Marina's post, a few weeks ago, about how useless theory is to learning about literature; her citation of Culler as back-up for this claim led me to the sharp realization that (and our class to an extended conversation about how) theory could be identified as genre with very specific qualities

---a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions
the unsettling of anything that might have been taken for granted.

What I see you doing here is teasing out that frustratingly open-ended genre, and setting it (ironically?) in binary opposition to romance, which is so satisfyingly end-focused. Your comparision between the open-endedness of theory and the closure of romance is akin to the binary Jessy develops between tragedy, which "takes us endward," and comedy, which restlessly refuses to. I'd really like to get the two of you talking/playing further with this analogy; would you say, then, that romance is tragic, theory comedic? And that "we" (who is "we" in this essay, anyway?) prefer the tragic, because--even though sad--it's conclusive? (This might well be Ahab's position, over and against that of the exploratory theorist Ishmael....)

Another question I have is where this exploration leaves you, both as a reader and theorist. You begin by identifying yourself as a (regretable?) romantic, and your classmates (I assume including yourself) as generally distasteful of theory. After you've done this very nice job of spelling out the distinctions between romance and theory, and grounded the difference in the "foundational" qualities of the first, vs. the "non-foundational" or "emergent" qualities of the second...

do you find yourself more inclined to like/learn from/go exploring further with theory? Or have you rather demonstrated to yourself why you so prefer the backward looking nostalgia that is romance?