How Genre Works
We’re not supposed to judge a book based on its cover, but for some reason, we just can’t help it. Sure, we may not be able to tell if we’re going to enjoy the book, nor can we tell what exactly it’s about, but we can tell the tone, set our expectations, and most importantly, guess at the genre. Look at these three book covers and note how they perfectly show their genres - Sci-Fi, Horror and Life Drama, respectively.
Genre is a way of categorising media. We split books, film and music into genres in order to better talk about them and because humans have a strange desire to sort and categorise things. Within whatever medium, genres display certain structures, characters and tropes that audiences expect from that genre. Audiences like to be able to tell the genre of a text because it’s comfortable. If I go to see a superhero movie I expect wacky costumes, cliche dialogue and a final battle scene that the heroes win - were these expectations not to be met, I would likely be a little bit peeved off.
But why should you care about genre in VCE Literature? It’s not on the study design?
Well, not explicitly. In each AoS of the study design, you must engage with ‘the ways the literary forms, features and language of texts affect the making of meaning’, and/or ‘the ideas of a text and the ways in which they are presented’. Genres are a feature of texts and are one of the ways that a text will present its ideas. Horror is the most notable example of a genre that uses its tropes to send a message - It Follows is a horror where the monster stands in for sexually transmitted disease, Carrie uses horror to show the horrors of high school, Frankenstein is a criticism of those who would ‘play god’. In the Literature study design, the horror genre is represented by Bram Stoker’s 1897 masterpiece, Dracula.
For an overview of the Literature study design, check out The Ultimate Guide to VCE Literature.
Dracula + The Gothic
I invite you to think hard about the horror films you’ve seen and to try to place Dracula into our modern view of horror. It’s hard to put Stoker’s vampire on the same stage as the Babadook, Annabelle or even the ‘70s slasher craze. This gives us an incredible opportunity to consider how audiences engaged and continue to engage with genres. In order to analyse genre, it is essential to recognise what the audience’s expectations were of a genre, and how the author has utilised those expectations for their own ends. Let’s consider Dracula in context.
Dracula is a horror novel. But, we usually don’t think about those uptight Victorians reading texts that were designed expressly to scare. The Victorian era was actually one of the golden ages of horror literature though. But, it is distinctly different from our modern understandings of horror as defined by trailblazers like Stephen King. So, why is it different? It is here we must consider the sub-genre. If you have read anything about Dracula, you’ll note that it is referred to as a ‘gothic horror’. The gothic genre of literature encapsulates some of the 19th century and certainly the Victorian period’s (1837-1901) best literature. Dracula of course belongs to this group, but it blows up around 1818 with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Edgar Allen Poe, with his short stories and poetry, is widely lauded as the ‘Father of American Gothic’, with ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ published in 1839. Note the dates here. Stoker published Dracula in 1897, a good 79 years after Frankenstein began haunting readers. Which means he had an established and large genre to work with. So, how did Stoker use the gothic in Dracula?
Tropes of the Gothic
1) The Gothic Monster
The vampire myth used by Stoker is turned into the quintessential gothic monster. Dracula existed in the Victorian mind alongside Frankestein’s monster, Mr. Hyde, and Poe’s mixture of humans made monstrous and surreal monsters like that in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. The defining feature of the gothic monster is its role in the story as a representation of something wrong with society, whether it’s increasingly amoral medicinal science, human greed or perverted desire.
2) The Creepy Castle
The creepy castle doesn’t have to be a castle. It can be a mansion, a university or the graveyards of London. The important thing is that the setting of the gothic novel should always be - by default - terrifying and evoke a sense of danger. You can never get comfortable in Dracula’s castle, nor in Seward’s asylum, and neither can the characters.
3) Damsel/s in Distress
For sure an outdated trope, but a constant in the gothic. It’s a quick and simple way to show that the innocence of young women is threatened by a malignant force. In Dracula, look to Mina, Lucy and Mrs. Westenra. But what happens when the damsel saves herself?
4) Omens, Portents, Visions
Visions in dreams? Random wild animals escaping from ships? Ships docking with a completely dead crew? Random changes in the weather? You might be dealing with a gothic villain, or going mad. In either case, Renfield, Dracula, Mina and Jonothan all deal with portents and visions.
And This Is Important Because…
Stoker has followed the predominant tropes of the gothic horror genre. Why is this important for our analysis of Dracula? The ways in which authors use genre and other stylistic elements like form, voice or plot relate directly to their intentions. If we investigate the particular aspects of Stoker’s use of the gothic, we may better understand the views and values that he is promoting. For instance, let’s take Dracula as the gothic monster. Since the gothic monster is always a way to reflect society back onto itself, how is Stoker doing that? A feminist analysis might take Dracula as a reflection of sexual deviancy, which then ties into his constant threat towards women. A post-colonial analysis might question the foreignness of Dracula, and view him as a part of the intrusiveness of foreigners in English society. Either way, you’re touching on a view or value presented by Stoker, and tying it to an aspect of the gothic genre in a way that conveniently also touches on characterisation.
Let’s complicate things a little more. The ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope is clearly evident in Dracula, but what view or value is Stoker commenting on by its inclusion? The simplest answer is that, by showing that women cannot save themselves, Stoker is saying that women are inherently weak and need to be saved by men. But this answer isn’t sufficient for a number of reasons. Firstly, what are the women weak to? Is it a physical mismatch between the women and Dracula, keeping in mind that Dracula is also stronger than the novel’s men? Or is it a symbolic weakness to some aspect of Dracula’s character, be it sexuality or magic? Secondly, and more importantly, are all the women victimised by Dracula the same? Well, obviously not.
It could very well be argued that Stoker is subverting the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope by actually giving us a woman who is able to be her own saviour (which is actually becoming a trope in itself nowadays!). The dichotomy between Lucy and Mina is a crucial aspect of the text, and the way that Mina’s character doesn’t quite fit into the ‘Damsel in Distress’ archetype is a major interpretative dilemma. By considering the genre tropes, Lucy is clearly a ‘Damsel in Distress’ who cannot save herself and is unduly victimised by Dracula. It can be argued that her implicit promiscuousness is punished through her murder, but in whatever case, she is distressed and must be saved. Mina, however, has an entirely different view of her distresses. Not only does Mina take on a caring role towards Jonothan - in which Jonothan becomes a ‘Master in Distress’ - she actively supports the attempts to save her and kill Dracula. By compiling the journals, letters and newspaper clippings into the epistolary that we the audience are reading, and using herself as a window into Dracula’s mind through their psychic connection, Mina proves to be a means by which to save herself from her distress. So, the question of what Stoker actually thinks about women is still quite open: Lucy is seemingly punished for her character flaws, which indicates a misogynist view of women’s sexuality, but Mina is praised for her use of masculine qualities like leadership and stoicism. Is Stoker saying women should be more masculine? Less masculine and more traditionally feminine? This entire discussion revolves around how and why the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope is being followed or subverted.
Using Genre in VCE
Whilst a genre-based analysis (or a structural analysis) can be a fantastic way to open up discussion and leads to important questions about views and values, the way I have presented it may appear to be another useless and long-winded thing you have to try to shove into an essay when you already have to balance so much in Literature! Fear not, because there are a couple of really easy ways to fit genre into essays without taking up loads of space.
Option one is to use a genre trope as the basis of a paragraph. If your essay contention is that…
‘Stoker presents the dangers of foreign immigration to England at the height of its colonial empire’
…then you can easily write a paragraph discussing that…
‘Stoker employs the gothic trope of a supernatural monster in Dracula, using this vampire as a stand-in for foreigners in England’.
This paragraph would discuss Dracula’s characterisation, and the settings of Transylvania and London, whilst investigating Stoker’s views on England’s colonialism and race. In a Developing Interpretations or Close Analysis essay, you’ve just touched on several key criteria, including the author’s views and values, your own credible interpretation of the text and how the text presents its messaging (through characterisation and setting). You can do all these things without mentioning genre, but by explicitly using the language of genre analysis you are likely separating yourself from the student next to you - who had a similar idea but described it in a less interesting way. This is the utility of understanding genre, it gives you the words and concepts necessary to improve your writing and interpretation. The ‘Gothic monster’ is an easy way to describe an otherwise GIANT concept.
Another way is to add it to other analyses in passing. Instead of saying “Dracula presents Lucy and Mina as foils to demonstrate the ways in which modern women’s promiscuity is ultimately harmful”, you can say “the presentation of Lucy and Mina as two ‘damsels in distress’ in dichotomy with each other demonstrates the differing ways in which Victorian women could doom or save themselves”. The latter sentence has not significantly changed the content of the first, still referring to the women’s opposition to each other, but by phrasing it with ‘damsels in distress’ I leave open the possibility of discussing not just Lucy’s promiscuity, but also Mina’s conservative womanhood.
Finally, you need not even mention genre or its tropes in the essay, just use it as a thinking tool. If you go back through the previous section of this blog, you’ll see just how many questions I am asking about the tropes and ideas I am discussing. By using the trope as a jumping-off point for a series of questions, I can develop a nuanced understanding of multiple views and values and the ways in which they interconnect. Take a trope like the ‘creepy castle’ and ask:
“Why would Stoker put Dracula manor in the text?”
“Because it sets up the ‘otherness’ of Dracula.”
“Why do we need to know that Dracula is the other?”
“Because he represents a supernatural foreignness that we need to be scared of.”
“Okay, but why is it right at the start, why is it from Jonothan’s perspective?”
All of these questions offer ways of breaking down the text and they will naturally lead to questions about structure, characterisation and views and values. In doing this, you can start to come up with ways to turn those questions, or the order of those questions into an essay structure. Moreso, this type of questioning is what your teacher, tutors and top-tier Literature students are doing. It is a constant process of asking, answering, reconsidering, reasking and synthesising. And genre is an easy way to start the process.