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The Importance of Genre

Authors, readers, and those in literary circles use the term ‘genre’ to classify the different modes of expression used in individual works of literature. The importance of this term can most easily be understood when examining the human tendency to classify the majority of items in our society. When examining literature, using the term ‘genre’ can be tricky. For example, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley can be categorized as a Gothic novel. However, this work also has elements of a Supernatural Story and a Horror novel.

Therefore, with all of the various genres that overlap or bleed into others, pigeonholing a particular novel into one genre can sometimes be impossible. There are, however, two facets of genre that do not mesh together: representational genre and narrative genre. Representational genre can be broken down into three individual parts. Narrator or single-voiced occurs in a work when there is one person telling the story. Typically, this can takes the form of a monologue (such as a one-man show in theater) or a work that has no dialogue.

Drama or dialogue occurs when the characters are talking to each other. There is no narrator involved. This is most clearly seen in plays, such as Desire under the Elms or Night Mother. Narrator plus dialogue basically encompasses all novels and some movies and television shows. For example, The television show, Survivors, shows the day to day activities of a group that is stranded on a deserted island. However, there are also segments where the individuals relate personal feelings into the camera in a diary format.

To extend this thought process; it should be noted that when breaking a large work into sections, all three representational genres could be present. For example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a type of narrator in the form of Oberon keeping the audience up to date about the happenings of our star crossed lovers, dialogue plus narrator when Helena is bemoaning her fate with Demetrius (page 331), and drama throughout the play. The Narrative genre refers to the type of story line that a text has. The four top-tier Narrative genres are tragedy, comedy, romance, and satire.

While each of these main genres has some distinct qualities, it is important to note that they can flow into each other. Hamlet, for example, is mostly a tragedy. However, there are distinct elements of comedy (with the gravediggers) and romance (with the separation of Ophelia and Hamlet). Overall, the idea of genre when teaching younger students literature presents a problem that may be difficult to overcome. Even though an educator can explain that the genres bleed together in some cases, in our society we tend to want our children (and adults) to ‘think outside of the box.

Any classification system has a tendency to inhibit or crush freedom of thought and expression. For example, a student may find Ophelia’s ramblings comic, not tragic. While this may be hard for the teacher to understand, if the student can back up his or her thought process with a well thought out essay the educator may be hard pressed to say that the student is wrong. Basically, it is of the utmost importance that the educator emphasizes the existence of this problem.

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