Genre Critical and Close Studies | HSC English

Genre Critical and Close Studies

Tegan explains about Genre Critical and Close Studies.

  • Genre

    A genre is a loose set of rules or elements for a category of composition. Genres may have many conventions – but texts which belong to the genre are not required to display all of the conventions. Many works cross into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining conventions from different genres.

    In genre studies, the concept of genre does not suggest a lack of originality. All works are recognised as either reflecting on or participating in the conventions of a genre. Some very rare texts reinvent, or subvert, the rules of a genre or manage to invent a brand new genre. These texts almost always become classics.

    You should consider the ways in which your prescribed text adheres to genre conventions. There is probably more than one genre your text could arguably fit into – you may have to argue for why your text suits the conventions of one genre over another in your HSC exam.

  • Why Genre evolves

    Genres can be conceived of as evolving from a family tree, where some genres are more closely related than others. Genres are thought to evolve in response to new social values or fears, or in response to new mediums, text-types and technologies. Understanding the social mores around the time your text was created will help you determine which genre your text fits into.

    At the dawn of literature, there was only one genre: the epic or heroic tale about warrior kings. Then this genre split into comedy and tragedy, which were generally about restoring balance, through death or marriages, to a ruler’s kingdom. From tragedy, we got naturalised or realistic drama, and gothic and horror, which were generally about middle-class people having their rational minds challenged by the supernatural.

    From comedy, medieval romance and political satire developed. The epic eventually evolved into the more modern historical genre, and from the gothic, we got our first science fiction, which speculated about ways technology might improve or impact on the human experience, and fantasy.

    Every modern genre we know today, even reality television, sit-coms and soap operas, are evolution of genre which reflect culture and technology. Sit-coms and soap operas, being television mediums, have to account for story instalments as episodes – in a sit-com, everything returns to normal in time for next week’s show, and in soap operas, there is always a dramatic cliff hanger to make you tune in next time.

    Consider whether the conventions of your prescribed text’s genre fulfil a social need, or reflect a fear that was important to its context.  In what ways might genre have contributed to your text’s success in its time period? Researching the context of your prescribed text will help you answer this question.

  • Hamlet: Tragedy, the cult of melancholia

    Tragedy has early origins in Greek legends, and is supposed to have been the first form of literary art. Although many plays can be considered tragedies because of their miserable content and culmination in death and loss, there are various modes of tragedy. For example, the great man’s tragedy in Greek legend was a curse from the gods, and therefore fated. This fatalist streak is part of Aristotlean Tragedy, and Revenge Tragedy too.

    It is important to realise that Shakespeare does not believe in fate, and that Shakespearean Tragedies are always brought about by humans – the great tragedy is usually that the outcome could have been avoided if people had made different decisions. The true protagonist of a Shakespearean play is usually the villain – the one who drives the action on – but in Hamlet, it is Hamlet who plays this role.

    During the early 17th century, a curious cultural and literary cult of melancholia, or depressive writing,  arose in England. It was believed that religious uncertainties caused by the English Reformation and a greater attention being paid to issues of sin, damnation, and salvation, led to this effect. The cult of melancholia obsessed over death and mourning, and its meditations on death and religious skepticism are a result of the humanism of the late Renaissance.

  • Hamlet: Conventions of Revenge Tragedy

    The revenge play or revenge tragedy is a form of tragedy which was extremely popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. The best-known of these are Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The only clear precedent and influence for the Renaissance genre is the work of the Roman playwright and philosopher Seneca the Younger. The Senecan model, though never followed slavishly, makes for a clear definition of the type:

    • A secret murder, usually of a benign ruler by a bad one
    • A ghostly visitation of the murder victim to a younger kinsman, generally a son
    • A period of disguise, intrigue, or plotting, in which the murderer and the avenger scheme against each other, with a slowly rising body count
    • A descent into either real or feigned madness by the avenger or one of the auxiliary characters
    • An eruption of general violence at the end, which (in the Renaissance) is often accomplished by means of a feigned masque or festivity
    • A catastrophe that utterly decimates the entire cast, including the avenger


    In the English plays, the avenger is either stoic or struggling to be so; in this respect, the main thematic concern of the English revenge plays is the problem of pain. Politically, the English playwrights used the revenge plot to explore themes of absolute power, corruption in court, and of faction–all concerns that applied to late Elizabethan and Jacobean politics as they had to Roman politics.

  • Hamlet: Conventions of an Aristotelian Tragedy

    A hero, usually of high birth, who is neither totally good or totally evil, and whose downfall comes about because of an error in judgement or a tragic weakness, which sets them on a path of inescapable fate brought on by the gods.

    A Greek tragedy must have these following properties:

    1. Harmatia: the hero must have a tragic flaw
    2. Hubris: the hero must have overbearing pride
    3. Anagnorisis: the unfolding or denouement of their fate. This can also be when the hero learns a lesson as the result of his downfall.
    4. Peripeteia: a sudden change, surprise or reversal of circumstances.
    5. Nemesis: a source of harm or ruin – sometimes retributal justice – a fate that cannot be escaped.
    6. Catharsis: A purifying cleansing of the emotions such as pity or fear, by the audience.


    Feel free to consider the Aristotelian Tragedy model, but it is generally considered difficult to apply to Hamlet especially when you consider the perfect fit of Aristotelian Tragedy with other of Shakespeare’s works, such as Othello. It is probably not a compelling interpretation to choose.

  • Jane Eyre: Gothic fiction

    The term “Gothic fiction,” relates to literature that developed in the eighteenth century and is still highly popular today. Bronte’s Jane Eyre was evidently influenced by aspects of Gothic.

    This novel has been classified as belonging to any number of genres, including the Bildungsroman and the Romance novel, but the story of how poor, plain orphan Jane finds work and eventually a husband at Thornfield also relies heavily on key Gothic conventions.

  • Jane Eyre: The Haunted Castle

    Thornfield is not exactly a castle, but this huge, imposing house has a mysterious and threatening atmosphere. Jane grows to love the house as she loves its master, but parts of it are dark, chilly and gloomy: “the staircase window was high and latticed; both it and the long gallery into which the bedroom doors opened looked as if they belonged to a church rather than a house.

    A very chill and vault- like air pervaded the stairs and gallery, suggesting cheerless ideas of space and solitude” And although she’s not exactly a ghost, Rochester’s wife seems to haunt the place.

  • Jane Eyre: Madness, Secrets and Lies

    Thornfield is also the home of mad Bertha, Rochester’s secret wife. She is kept locked in the attic, and both Jane and the reader are unaware of her presence there for some time. Thus when we hear her ghostly laugh,” a curious laugh; distinct, formal, mirthless” we are unsure how to interpret it.

    Jane assumes the laugh belongs to servant Grace Poole, but the reader is unconvinced by this and knows that some terrible secret must lurk in the mysterious attic.

    A similarly ghostly and frightening atmosphere is evoked when Jane describes her first sighting of Bertha: “ ‘It seemed, sir, a woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back. I know not what dress she had on: it was white and straight; but whether gown, sheet, or shroud, I cannot tell’ ”

  • Jane Eyre: The Hero

    The moody Mr Rochester is a Byronic hero, a figure that has become familiar to fans of Gothic. He is charismatic, well-travelled, bad-tempered, and has a huge secret lurking in his past.

    The moment that Jane first lays eyes on him is significant, indicating Jane’s belief in the supernatural as well as Rochester’s elusive and enigmatic nature: “close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog…it was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash—a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head…The man, the human being, broke the spell at once.

    Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone; and goblins, to my notions, though they might tenant the dumb carcasses of beasts, could scarce covet shelter in the commonplace human form”

  • Jane Eyre: Aspects of the Supernatural

    Jane Eyre is full of unexplained or partially explained occurrences: the light that she sees in the Red Room which she takes to be the spirit of her dead uncle but might just be somebody walking out side with a lantern; the splitting of the oak tree by lightening just before the wedding, seemingly indicative of the stormy times ahead; Jane’s prophetic dreams.

    The novel has been criticised for its use of coincidence: Jane goes wandering and just happens to end up at the house of her cousins. The turning point of the novel rests upon such an unexplained event. Jane returns to Thornfield because she hears Rochester calling for her help, and travels back to find the house burned down and Rochester maimed.

  • W B Yeats: Late Romanticism

    William Butler Yeats was influenced the Romantic in  his early years. Such poetry has strong emotion as a source of aesthetic experience, emphasising trepidation, horror, terror and awe – especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature.

    Romanticism revived medievalism; it also attempted to embrace the exotic, unfamiliar, and distant harnessing the power of the imagination to envision and to escape. The modern sense of a romantic character may be expressed in Byronic ideals of a gifted, perhaps misunderstood loner, creatively following the dictates of his inspiration rather than the rules of contemporary society.

    There was a strong recourse to historical and natural inevitability, a zeitgeist, in the representation of its ideas.

  • W B Yeats: Modernism

    A common notion of Modernist poetry was: “A poem should not mean, but be.” Under the influence of Modernism, Yeat’s poetry became more hard-edged becoming cynical about the state of the modern world, with poems like ‘Second Coming’ featuring an apocalyptic sense of chaos and disorder.

    The political content of poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ shows the sense of cynicism that was common to the period but especially apt for occupied Ireland which was still being oppressed by the English and was not granted independence until the 1920s.

    Yeats broke from the rhyme and order of previous poems and pursued free-verse, as Modernism was about formal experimentation. There is also a sense of internationalism in Modernism – Yeats became interested in Japanese Noh theatre, and reading translations of ‘oriental’ writing was rather trendy at the time.

  • W B Yeats: The Celtic Revival

    Probably because Ireland was occupied for so long, it developed a strong sense of its own culture and engaged in a revival, over the 1800-1900s, of traditional Celtic art, myth and folklore. Traditional Irish chronicles of the country’s history often perceive history to move in grand cycles which are antagonistic to eachother – the archaic, medieval Celtic histories being fractured from modern life and history.

    Yeats and his followers wrote about an essentially aristocratic Gaelic Ireland, but he also developed his own personal spiritual philosophy of ‘gyres’ or cycles that described the archaic and modern worlds as being joined by the event of the Trojan War, where, according to Yeats, myth ends and history begins.

    While Irish authors like Jonathan Swift or James Joyce are often known for their satire and long-standing political rancor, Yeats was less biting in his commentary, and indeed, lived in England for parts of his life. However, he was certainly interested in the question of Irish nationalism.

  • Citizen Kane: Film Noir

    The term ‘noir’ means ‘dark’ and is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style, known as chiaroscuro. Film noir is more of a style than a strict genre, as it has been associated with various other genres like classic Hollywood gangster and hard-boiled detective films of the 40s and 50s, but it can be loosely defined by its themes of corruption and moral ambiguity and its settings in urban environments that emphasise cynical attitudes and sexual motivations.

    Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was innovative and influential upon other noir films. The film’s splintered narrative structure, the divergent points of view of people whom the journalist interviews, and the interweaving of past and present via a series of flashbacks are now typical of film noir.

    The careful composition of each shot, in where the frame is divided into fragments of light and shadow, is also a noir device. Although Kane is a titanic figure, a man of destiny, he is often placed within the frame in such a way as to suggest confinement and limitation. Low angle shots, which magnify Kane’s physical stature, also contain ceilings which seem to weigh down on the character and to diminish him.

    Cutting him down to size, the low ceilings provide an ironic counterpoint to Kane’s dominant personality. Welles’ careful placement of all his actors within the frame restricts their freedom; their restricted movement together with the pervasive images of visual entrapment gives the film a claustrophobic quality that later noir thrillers emulate.

    Film noir is also known for its use of low-angle, wide-angle, and skewed, or Dutch angle shots. Other devices of disorientation relatively common in film noir include shots of people reflected in one or more mirrors, shots through curved or frosted glass or other distorting objects.

    Films noir tend to revolve around heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another. The characteristic protagonists of noir are described by many critics as ‘alienated’ and ‘filled with existential bitterness’. Film noir is often associated with an urban setting, and a few cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, in particular—the city is presented in noir as a labyrinth or maze.

    Bars, lounges, nightclubs, and gambling dens are frequently the scene of action. The climaxes of a substantial number of films noir take place in visually complex, often industrial settings, such as factories, train-yards, power plants, and in the popular imagination, in noir it is always night and it always rains.

  • Citizen Kane: Mystery Film

    Kane, of course, is not a crime film, but in the way it tells its story, with its journalist assuming the role of the investigating detective, and its quest for the meaning of Rosebud substituting for the whodunit motif of the traditional murder thriller, Kane is constructed like a mystery.

    Mystery is a sub-genre of the more general category of crime film. It focuses on the efforts of the detective, private investigator or amateur sleuth to solve the mysterious circumstances of a crime by means of clues, investigation, and clever deduction.

    The successful mystery film adheres to one of two story types, known as Open and Closed. The Closed, or whodunit mystery conceals the identity of the perpetrator until late in the story, adding an element of suspense during the apprehension of the suspect, as the audience is never quite sure who it is.

    The Open mystery, in contrast, reveals the identity of the perpetrator at the top of the story, showcasing the “perfect crime” which the audience then watches the protagonist unravel, usually at the very end of the story, akin to the unveiling scenes in the Closed style.

    Suspense is often maintained as an important plot element. This can be done through the use of the sound track, camera angles, heavy shadows, and surprising plot twists. Until at least the 1980s, women in mystery films have often served a dual role, providing a relationship with the detective and frequently playing the part of woman-in-peril.

    The women in these films are often resourceful individuals, being self-reliant, determined and as often duplicitous. They can provide the triggers for the events that follow, or serve as an element of suspense as helpless victims.

  • In the Skin of a Lion and Sixty Lights: Post-colonialism

    Post Colonialism is a specifically post-modern intellectual discourse that consists of reactions to, and analysis of, the cultural legacy of colonialism, and the adoption or imposition of Western ways of thought.

    Post-colonial literature often involves writings that deal with issues of de-colonisation or the political and cultural independence of people formerly subjugated to colonial rule. It is also a literary critique of texts that carry racist or colonial undertones, exploring how they were influenced, and how they helped to shape a societal fantasy of European racial superiority.

    Post-colonial fiction writers might interact with the traditional colonial discourse by attempting to modify or subvert it. Protagonists in post-colonial writings are often found to be struggling with questions of identity, experiencing the conflict of living between the old, native world and the invasive forces of hegemony from new, dominant cultures.

    The “anti-conquest narrative” recasts indigenous inhabitants of colonised countries as victims rather than foes of the colonisers. This depicts the colonised people in a more human light but risks absolving colonisers of responsibility for addressing the impacts of colonisation by assuming that native inhabitants were “doomed” to their fate.

  • In the Skin of a Lion and Sixty Lights: Historical Fiction

    Historical fiction is fiction that often portrays fictional accounts or dramatization of historical figures or events. Writers of stories in this genre, while penning fiction, attempt to capture the spirit, manners, and social conditions of the persons or time period presented in the story, with due attention paid to period detail and fidelity.

    Historical fiction presents readers with a story that takes place during a notable period in history, and usually during a significant event in that period. Historical fiction often presents actual events from the point of view of people living in that time period.

    In some historical fiction, famous events appear from points of view not recorded in history, showing historical figures dealing with actual events while depicting them in a way that has not been previously recorded.

    Other times, a historical event is used to complement a story’s narrative, occurring in the background while characters deal with situations, personal or otherwise, wholly unrelated to that historical event. Sometimes, the names of people and places have been in some way altered.

    As this is fiction, artistic license is permitted in regard to presentation and subject matter, so long as it does not deviate in significant ways from established history. If events should deviate significantly, the story may then fall under the genre of alternate history, which is known for speculating on what could have happened if a significant historical event had occurred differently.

    On a similar note, events occurring in historical fiction must adhere to the laws of physics. Stories that extend into the magical or fantastic are considered historical fantasy. Sixty Lights may be considered Historical Fiction.

  • In the Skin of a Lion and Sixty Lights: Poetic Novel

    A poetic novel is a genre or style which reflects a poetic rhythm and diction whilst maintaining prose form. It may use poetic settings, characterisation or other notions which are romanticised in a delicate or artistic fashion.

    Poetic novels often focus on images, allowing the image to convey the meaning of novel, in much the same way metaphor is used in poetry.

  • Cloudstreet: Magic realism

    Magic realism is a genre in literature in which magical elements are blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality. These magical elements are explained like normal occurrences that are presented in a straightforward manner which allows the “real” and the “fantastic” to be accepted in the same stream of thought.

    It has been widely considered a literary and visual art genre. Magic realism is what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something ‘too strange to believe’. However, it may be that this critical perspective towards magical realism stems from the Western reader’s disassociation with mythology, a root of magical realism more easily understood by non-Western cultures.

    Westerner’s confusion regarding the style of magical realism is due to the “‘conception of the real'” created in a magical realist text; rather than explaining reality using natural or physical laws as in typical Western texts, magical realist texts create a reality “‘in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality’.”

  • Cloudstreet: Fantastical elements

    Magic realism is a kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the ‘reliable’ tone of objective realistic report, designating a tendency of the modern novel to reach beyond the confines of realism and draw upon the energies of fable, folk tale, and myth while maintaining a strong contemporary social relevance.

    The fantastic attributes given to characters in such novels — levitation, flight, telepathy, telekinesis — are among the means that magic realism adopts in order to encompass the often phantasmagorical political realities of the 20th century.”

  • Cloudstreet: Plenitude

    The layering of elements, which translates easily into the post-colonial or transcultural atmosphere where much of magic realism flourishes. Mixing ethnicities grow together, and the space in between is where the “magical real” can be seen.

  • Cloudstreet: Metafiction

    This trait centers on the reader’s role in literature. With its multiple realities and specific reference to the reader’s world, it explores the impact fiction has on reality, reality on fiction and the reader’s role in between.

    First of all, where a fictitious reader enters into the story within a story while reading it, it makes us, the reader, self-conscious of our readerly status, and secondly, where the textual world enters into the reader’s world.

  • Cloudstreet: Authorial reticence

    Authorial reticence is the “deliberate withholding of information and explanations about the disconcerting fictitious world”. The narrator does not provide explanations about the accuracy or credibility of events described or views expressed by characters in the text.

    The narrator is indifferent, a characteristic enhanced by this absence of explanation of fantastic events; the story proceeds with “logical precision” as if nothing extraordinary took place.

  • Cloudstreet: Sense of mystery

    Magic realist literature tends to read at a very intensified level. The reader must let go of preexisting ties to conventional exposition, plot advancement, linear time structure, scientific reason, etc., in an attempt to disregard natural assumptions in order to reach a state of heightened awareness about all life’s connectedness or life’s ‘hidden meaning’ “to seize the mystery that breathes behind things”

  • Cloudstreet: Collective consciousness

    Magical realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel toward the world, or toward nature.

  • Cloudstreet: Political critique

    Magic realism contains an implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite. This is a mode primarily about and for “ex-centrics”: the geographically, socially and economically marginalised.

    Therefore, magic realism’s ‘alternative world’ works to correct the reality of established viewpoints. Magic realist texts, are subversive, revolutionary against socially dominant forces.

  • Speeches: Rhetoric

    Rhetoric is the art of using language to communicate effectively. It involves three audience appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos: or reason, emotional response, and ethics. In rhetorical theory, these are known as the ‘artistic proofs’. The rhetoric studied in ancient Greece and was originally intended to help citizens plead their cases in court.

    Though the early teachers of rhetoric, known as Sophists, were criticized by Plato and other philosophers, the study of rhetoric soon became the cornerstone of a classical education.

    At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a revival of rhetorical study, due to the increasingly media-driven environment of the twentieth century and through the twenty-first century, with the media focus on political rhetoric and its consequences. As defined by Aristotle in his Rhetoric (4th century BC), there are the three branches or genres of rhetoric.

  • Speeches: Deliberative Rhetoric (legislative, to exhort or dissuade)

    Deliberative rhetoric is speech or writing that attempts to persuade an audience to take (or not take) some action. Whereas judicial rhetoric is primarily concerned with past events, deliberative discourse, says Aristotle, ‘always advises about things to come.’ Political oratory and debate fall under the category of deliberative rhetoric.

  • Speeches: Judicial Rhetoric (forensic, to accuse or defend)

    Judicial rhetoric is speech or writing that considers the justice or injustice of a certain charge or accusation. In the modern era, judicial (or forensic) discourse is primarily employed by lawyers in trials decided by a judge or jury.

  • Speeches: Epideictic Rhetoric (ceremonial, to commemorate or blame)

    Epideictic rhetoric is speech or writing that praises or blames. Also known as ceremonial discourse, epideictic rhetoric includes funeral orations, obituaries, graduation and retirement speeches, letters of recommendation, and nominating speeches at political conventions. Interpreted more broadly, epideictic rhetoric may also include works of literature.

  • Speeches: Common conventions or structures

    • Fable. A fictional narrative meant to teach a moral lesson. The characters in a fable are usually animals whose words and actions reflect human behavior. Some of the best known fables are those attributed to Aesop, a slave who lived in Greece in the sixth century BC.
    • Chreia (anecdote). In classical rhetoric, the speaker comments on a famous event or saying. The Greek rhetorician Hermogenes of Tarsus described methods to write about a chreia: praise of the speaker quoted, an expanded restatement of the chreia, its rationale, a statement of the opposite view, a statement from analogy, a statement from example, a statement from authority, and an exhortation to follow the advice of the speaker.’ In modern speeches, an anecdote or personal story may be provided to illustrate an argument without proving it, or to humanise the speaker or argument.
    • Proverb (maxim). A short, pithy statement of a general truth, one that condenses common experience into memorable form. Many proverbs rely on antithesis: ‘Out of sight, out of mind’.
    • Refutation. The part of an argument in which a speaker or writer counters opposing points of view.
    • Confirmation. In classical rhetoric, the main part of a speech or text in which logical arguments in support of a position are elaborated.
    • Encomium. A formal expression of praise, a tribute or eulogy honoring a person, an idea, a thing, or an event. In classical rhetoric, encomium was regarded as a type of epideictic rhetoric.
    • Invective. Abusive language or argument that casts blame on somebody or something.
    • Syncrisis (comparison). A rhetorical strategy and method of organization in which a writer examines similarities and/or differences between opposite people, places, ideas, or things, usually in order to evaluate their relative worth. Syncrisis is therefore a type of antithesis. e.g: I saw the crescent; You saw the whole of the moon!
    • Ethopoeia (characterisation). In classical rhetoric, putting oneself in the place of another so as to both understand and express his or her feelings more vividly.
    • Ekphrasis. A visual object (often a work of art) is vividly described in words.
    • Thesis. The main idea; to argue the case decisively for one side or the other.


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