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Genre Definition and Interplay in Cervantes' Fiction

ArribaAbajo Introduction

Peter N. Dunn

Wesleyan University

Genres may be approached by way of various critical avenues. In the Aristotelian strain we recognize genres as kinds within a system of classification. These categories beg further definition, so there is a history of, on the one hand, the refinement of divisions and subdivisions, and on the other a Platonic search for the 'essential' qualities of tragedy, comedy, epic poetry, and so forth. But we are readers before we are literary historians, and genres, whether we are aware of them or not, help us to formulate our expectations as readers. By the recognition of genres we begin to find our way in the universe of verbal artifacts with their feigned discourses, and to train our expectations upon the experience that lies in wait for us1. To recognize things by their types or their categories in order to become receptive to them is a part of a basic literary competence acquired through experience, but this need to recognize things by their kind is not an exclusively literary one. Rather, our encounters with all the products of culture require that we recognize initially the 'kind' to   —6→   which they belong, within broad or narrow limits, so that we may perform the ongoing task of structuring our experience and, quite simply, knowing what we are doing and judging our performance. In this country there are banks that resemble churches and churches that resemble banks, a situation that may provoke annoyance, cynical amusement, or witty speculation, among the many possible reactions to this phenomenon. The ordinary citizen expects to be able to tell which is which without having to read the sign outside, and that is the expectation that is thwarted in this example, by their sharing a common visual code which says 'solid respectability and high standing in the community.' Genres, then, are more than a system of classification employed by historians and critics, and their function has always been something more than the ascription of themes and subjects to forms and styles.

From an anthropological viewpoint, genres are a grid through which our non-reflexive experience of our culture can be mapped and its contents made accessible to conscious perception and eventually presented for critical reflection. From a different point of view, that of the phenomenology of the reader or viewer of any cultural product, genre is that which enables us to make a provisional recognition of the thing and hence to adopt a decision as to what is the appropriate attitude of expectancy. We have already noted that genre recognition is not only an essential part of the extremely complex process of reading, but it is one of the first operations we perform when we open a book. From this it is no great distance to the pragmatic sense of genre as a kind of contract between the producer and the consumer, the artist and the public, as to what codes carry what significance2.

This last sense, the contractual one, is perhaps an appropriate one from which to begin the discussion of generic interplay -the topic of our symposium. Cultural forms are characterized by a certain stability and continuity, and are dependent upon recognition and acceptance by whatever group constitutes their audience. The stability and continuity are maintained by a consensus that enables cultural forms, including literary genres, to become institutionalized, and consequently to have a history. As Tzvetan Todorov, Alastair Fowler and others have observed,   —7→   new genres develop out of old ones3. The generic expectations aroused by a traditional folk tale, a fabliau or an adventure story can be rendered newly significant and complex by combining it, by framing it within another narrative, or by breaking the traditional association between the social role of the protagonist (e. g. priest, knight, merchant) and the story type. Recombinations, parodies, changes of social focus and modulation of this level of discourse are basic methods of widening the range of narrative, of challenging the reader through disturbing or even disrupting his system of expectations4. The post-medieval, early modern period that witnessed so many innovations in social, religious, administrative and technical fields, saw a correspondingly vigorous activity in the elaboration of its symbolic forms and in philosophical discussion of them.

Literary genres, then, are not mere pigeonholes nor are they fixed templates, but insofar as they are classes of works they are no less a part of the total signifying order of the culture than are the individual works. For a century or more critical attention has been given to genres as separate phenomena, with their separate history (tragedy, comedy, tragédie larmoyante, ode, Bildungsroman, philosophical dialogue, to name a few at random). Only recently, however, have we begun to notice that genres, like other signifiers, always participate in a synchronic system which is the totality of the expressive modes which are operative in a culture at a given moment. The critic looks for order, process, and structure, but writers and artists, besides being aware of the past of their art, are alert to the presence here and now of other expressive forms. Their principal criterion is practical: usability. They do not attempt to map the literary or artistic terrain, but to live off the land. They may be hostile or indifferent to much of what they see, but inevitably it is all part of their own artistic horizon, shaping their world of possibilities.

The age of Cervantes, Góngora and Quevedo was one in which the ecology of genres was exceptionally rich, and Cervantes contributed variously to the interplay of forms and styles. He did not only develop a broad range of genres in prose narrative fiction, in poetry and in drama, but he combined and grafted and interlaced the   —8→   various kinds in a single work. Consider Don Quijote. What makes it so interesting in this regard is not the range of literary genres that are to be found in it, but how these react upon one another. And likewise, how the fictions and the discussions on fiction react upon one another. Don Quijote is ineluctably dialectic. It begins and ends as the strange case history of a nonentity. By a discursive shift it is immediately transfigured into a quest narrative in which the teleology of epic is mediated by the discourse of chivalric romance. As we continue reading, however, it is not long before we discover that the hero's adventures consist not of slaying dragons, destroying monsters, righting wrongs, rescuing damsels in distress, humbling proud malefactors, and making the world safe for innocent virgins, as he would wish, but rather of listening to other peoples' stories. The other people that he meets create new surprises and suspense for the reader and, taken all together, they contribute greatly to that sense of inclusiveness that is part of the book's fascination. The newcomers in the story are characterized in large measure by the kinds of stories that they tell. The stories of their lives belong to recognizable conventions: pastoral, picaresque, maritime adventure, etc. It is through these conventions that these new story tellers present themselves, announce their identities, and define the world to which they belong.

Without penetrating any deeper than this into the Quijote we can see that the meeting of different narrative conventions will raise many questions for us. Does the mingling of genres in fact enlarge our sense of a complex reality, a whole boundless fictional universe? How do the different genres coexist? At the level of formal analysis, does their coexistence sharpen our critical awareness of them as genres and reveal the limits of the possibilities of each one? At the level of narrative discourse, we perceive them as rhetorical artifice, the shift from narrator to narrator, from frame narrative to contained narrative and back, being marked by changes in stylistic and linguistic register. But within the world constituted by each new discourse, other problems are posed, concerning the 'naturalness' of any particular discourse, and of the inevitability of narrative form for the communication of personal experience. We may ask whether there is a mutual critiquing taking place between and beneath and around these different modes of narrative concerning, for example, issues such as authenticity or truth value. Bearing in mind the fact that their common ground is the world of Cervantes' novel one might presume that this is the case.


Don Quijote himself has his own ideas about who he is, and also about how who he is is defined by literary genre. Of course, he fudges: can he really have failed to perceive what kind of 'history' Ariosto wrote for his Orlando, as he undertakes his 'penance' in Sierra Morena? But then, is his self-estimate modified by the encounters with all those other story tellers? Wouldn't he like to be the hero in Marcela's story? And in Ana Felix's? Is his lust for fictional roles insatiable?

As to the book Don Quijote, it is, as we all know, a bewildering and fascinating tissue of intertextualities, and there is no need to labor over the obvious. The games that Cervantes plays with chivalric style and plot, with chronicle, with epic, are well known. The presence of the pastoral episodes signals frustration or tragic self-deception as the consequence of a dangerous toying with illusions of primal innocence. It is significant, then, that the hidalgo establishes the pastoral myth of the age of gold as the moral basis for his program of heroic action. Can such a work as this be assigned to a genre? Could one find a method to describe the dynamic process of the interactions that take place within it? Is it compatible with any sixteenth-century theory of genres? The questions that could be asked are seemingly countless, and it is not surprising that the four papers ask quite different questions about genre and its functions. Yet they all have something valuable to tell us about genre as a code by means of which certain kinds of experience may be communicated (or miscommunicated) in narrative discourse.

John Jay Allen's paper shows the range of styles that may be generated by pastoral narrative when this is contextualized within a comic parody. The reader is made to perceive the events now through the screen of chivalric romance, and now as comic realism. The instability is deliberate. A different kind of uncertainty is that studied by Edward Dudley, with reference to the episode of the mazos de batán (DQ I, 20). There both Don Quijote and his squire invoke models by which the unseen 'adventure' may be classified and hence interpreted and its significance drawn. This is a fascinating example of how within the world of the book, people use literary genre as a grid for interpreting, not a story they are in the process of reading, but a 'real' experience, when what is being experienced is still 'in the dark.' The often repeated claim that Don Quijote begins a new genre -the novel- is confirmed by Anthony Cascardi who argues that its generic multiplicity is resolved when we understand it to be «the representation of a world».


With respect to the Novelas ejemplares, critics have long debated the question of the unity -the elusive or illusory unity- of the collection as a whole. In recent years the question has been reframed in terms of generic contrast between novel and romance5. But we are also finding that the individual stories are not pure romance or pure novel (assuming that we know what these terms mean, which is not always the case)6. In his recent studies of the Novelas, Alban K. Forcione has shown how Cervantes drew upon such specialized kinds of literature as the miracle narrative, and writing of the Coloquio de los perros he refers to «its assimilation and refashioning of traditional genres -including the picaresque novel, the Lucianic satire, the philosophical dialogue, the miracle narrative, the devotional and consolatory treatise, the sermon, the fable, the aphorism, and the anecdote»7... In his paper on La Gitanilla, E. Michael Gerli shows the 'romance' elements of the story being challenged, made more ambiguous by the intrusive novelistic realism. The reader's expectations concerning the moral values of romance, of questing heroes, of court and country, noble and plebeian, are questioned and left in suspense.

All of these papers will, I feel certain, generate further thought and discussion, The books by Colie and Fowler and other investigators show that while most theorists in the classical tradition were concerned with defining and analyzing the ancient genres (epic, tragedy, comedy, and so on) a very few of them as well as writers of handbooks of composition and rhetoric were paying attention to the minor forms where the concept of genre becomes blurred. Shifting our ground to the idea of genre as signifier, as I mentioned earlier, the episode of the mazos de batán is but one instance of that 'problem of the sign' that runs all through Don Quijote. Then again, if the knight's difficulty is caused by the fact that the world of chivalry does not recognize fulling hammers, Cervantes is giving us evidence of repression in two distinct but mutually illustrative realms. Don   —11→   Quijote characteristically seeks to repress the realities that are not written into his adopted role. But this reveals also something that we readers characteristically fail to notice: that a genre is also a repressive institution insofar as there are experiences and data and aspects of reality that are excluded from it as being inappropriate, contrary to decorum. Hence the mixing of genres may enable a writer to retrieve what has been lost through the traditional setting of boundaries, prescribing of style, topics, tropes and so forth. The four papers are all different in method and scope, concerned with different problems in Cervantes' work, and with different aspects (functional, philosophical, rhetorical) of genre. These approaches are all valid, and give evidence of the complexity of the field of genre study and its many applications at different levels of the literary text.