If the seasons match the four major genres, what are the pairings, and what do they tell us about fiction and films?
Which season inaugurates a fresh quartet cycle of seasons? Some might want to say that it’s winter, the season we happen to be in when old calendars are thrown out and fresh calendars are put up in their place. Others want to insist that spring is the first of the seasons, because it is when all is brought back to life and the world begins again.
I’m going to stick with this second response, though for a different reason. I take my justification for seeing the first day of spring as the beginning of the cycle from the literary critic Northrop Frye, who matched the four major genres to the four seasons, and each of these pairings to a stage in a person’s progress through existence. Spring represented, he argued, birth and the beginning of life.
I was introduced to Frye’s work on this subject while reading Martin Amis’ Inside Story. In an interstitial chapter between scenes in his main narrative, Amis explores the elements of writing, and here he brings in the major genres – comedy, romance, tragedy, satire – and asks the reader which of these corresponds to which of the seasons. I pose the question to you now, to mull over for a moment before returning to this essay, in which I will give you Frye’s answer (which is also Amis’ and, after some argument and consideration, mine too).
Spring is the struggle against the death and darkness of winter. It makes a mockery of death by overturning it, performing the absurd miracle of rebirth, breaking the rule that says that when a thing ends, that’s it. Spring is an affirmation of life and of the good in life; so too is comedy. It is the genre of the smile, the wryly upturned mouth on the theatrical mask (whose brother is the frowning character of the tragic). Martin Amis notes in Inside Story that the structure of comedy follows the dramatic line of the smile on its mask. Its narrative arc is “a deep descent that levels out and gathers into a fresh resurgence”. Comedy ends in triumph.
It is to our great detriment that comedy has come to be seen merely as a source of laughs rather than anything more substantial. Granted, the “comedy should interrogate culture” defence is readily invoked by comedians the moment the laughs turn to offence, but comedy is rarely viewed as something to take seriously. This modern shift in the public perception of comedy is one reason it might appear to be a genre suited to spring, a season seen as frivolous. Frolicking lambs, sunshine-yellow tulips, the Crayola-greens of fresh growth, and childhood Easter-egg hunts (substituting the weightier Biblical narrative of human sacrifice) make this season one of joyous escape from the depths of winter.
But what if the ancient Greeks were on to something in their belief that comedy came down not so much to laughter, which was a consequent rather than causal element in the genre, but was instead about struggle? Frye went further and defined comedy as a struggle between the young and the old, between innovation and conservation, between the powerless and the powerful. The laughter of comedy comes from the struggle itself, from the absurdity the main player must resort to in their efforts to overcome the obstacles to his goals. I think here of The Breakfast Club and the titular group’s rambunctious, often silly resistance to the self-important authority of the principle, anarchic acts that frequently become farcical. What do these teens have but jokes and tricks with which to commit their rebellion?
Perhaps the two greatest comedies in modern cinema are Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both by director Edgar Wright. They follow the Greek/Frye description of comedy as a battle between opposing forces: in Shaun of the Dead, it is an easy existence against a life of struggle, and people versus zombies; in Hot Fuzz, it is individual freedom against the greater good (“the Greater Good”), and the police versus a criminal village. But also look at how each movie is bookended, with opening and closing scenes that reflect each other in mirrored structure, choreography, and themes. Their endings are reformulations of their beginnings, and in Hot Fuzz this reflects the hero’s journey to fulfilment.
The movie opens with Sergeant Nicholas Angel marching, determined and alone, down an empty corridor. A voiceover lists his remarkable police achievements, leading into the reveal that his hugely successful career has been at the expense of all personal relationships. The balance between work and play, and between the individual and the community, will form the thematic backbone of the film, which ends with Angel and his police partner – the two men having forged a deep friendship during the semi-absurdist struggles of the film’s central narrative – getting into their police car, turning on the siren, and speeding into their next adventure. The two important components of work and life have been unified for Angel, giving us a fairly traditional “happy ending”.*
Comedy is indispensable in being the only genre that can tell stories of everyday nobodies achieving their dreams and becoming better people. Romance exists in the realm of the mythic, so its heroes are already grander than we mere mortals at the start of its stories. Tragedy depends upon failure, not only of its heroes but of everyone else too, no matter how good they are. And satire magnifies vice, even if it is in pursuit of a possible virtue; its point is to point out how flawed things are. If the other major genres reveal the fantastical, or the tragic, or how things really are, then comedy shows us how things could be, what we might aspire to.
Anyway, without the slapstick, the self-deprecation, and the bumbling of the protagonist, tales of the virtuous nobility of ordinary people would come off as sermonising. Most of us would rather hear a good joke.
Summer romance – what better kind? Wine and warm nights; exotic locations; interesting strangers; the hint of danger and thrill of adventure. Just watch Call Me by Your Name and let it make the case for me. But is romance as a genre equivalent to the romance of traditional love stories? Here is romance defined by Martin Amis:
“Romance, classical romance, only incidentally includes sentimental or idealised love stories; neither is it confined to medieval tales of chivalry. Romance, with its delirium and voodoo, identifies itself as being largely indifferent to the cause-and-effect of everyday life ... Anything that reifies fantasy is romance.”
Just as summer is, in many ways, spring taken to an extreme – hotter, brighter, longer days and supercharged energy – romance is comedy with a heightened tone and elevated content. If comedy charts the rise and eventual success of mere mortals, then romance, which deals in the mythic, charts the ascendant journeys of fantastic figures, of gods and superheroes, or of people who exist in realistic worlds but are more than most of us are in our ordinary lives.
This is why an otherwise superhuman character like Thor can only be made funny, as Taika Waititi miraculously achieved with Thor: Ragnarok, by humanising him, bringing him down to our level. We don’t laugh when he takes off his shirt to reveal the slabs of granite he calls muscles and heroically launches himself into battle, but we belly laugh when his arrogance upends him and he falls flat on his face. This otherwise silly comedy becomes romance only when the hero “levels up” in the final act to become the God of Thunder.
Even in the form of romance we recognise most readily today – boy or girl meets boy or girl, falls in love, marries – the object of desire is usually some heightened representation of an ideal. I suspect Fifty Shades of Grey and its various shades of wish fulfilment would have been less well-received had Christian Grey not been an obscenely wealthy entrepreneur with the physique and stamina of Adonis, but the slightly chunky butcher down the street. Where the members of the romantic duo are more ordinary – Billy Crystal’s deeply neurotic Harry to Meg Ryan’s beautiful but naive Sally – these are romantic-comedies, which invest the melodrama of romance with the earthiness of comedy.
The other notable distinction between these two genres is that where the narrative consequences of the hero’s efforts in comedy are humorous, in romance they are exciting. Instead of laughs, we have thrills. Romance is alive with the electric excitement of grand narratives of life and death, in which archetypal values of Love, Truth, and Beauty take the stage, and the stage is nothing less than the human condition itself. If comedy is made up of stories of becoming oneself, of finding victory in being, then romance is made up of stories of becoming more than what one already is.
This is why Casablanca should be regarded as one of the great romantic movies. When we first meet Rick Blaine, he feels himself to be neutral to global politics and war, not invested in either side of the fight, but happy to play for any team as long as he is on the winning side. By the end of the movie, Rick stands up for what is right, his own selfish desires be damned. Forcing himself to watch the love of his life leave with another man – the man more noble than he, who can do more for the “good fight” against the Nazis than Rick can – he has come to see that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”. He has become more than he was by realising the small but vital role his own selflessness can play in favour of the good of humanity.
In comedy, people find happiness; in romance, they find transcendence. If this sounds rather high-flown, purple, melodramatic even – good. Romance is meant to be bigger than real life.
In autumn’s beginning is its end. Unlike summer – which is heralded by the stretching out of daylight, the slowing of time, the thickening of heat, but ends with the opposite of each – autumn announces itself (in hints and hesitant starts that gather momentum and then roll) with decreasing daylight and lessening warmth, the slow dying that leads to death in winter.
I would be quite content in a three-season climate in which autumn didn’t succumb to winter but rolled into spring. But the terminus is unavoidable. This might be why Northrop Frye saw autumn as representative of tragedy. The great tragic feature in tragedy is its inevitability. As the curtain rises on Shakespeare’s story of young lovers from warring houses, Romeo and Juliet may well be “star-crossed lovers” but theirs is, as the Chorus warns us ahead of the action, a “death-marked love”.
The tragedy of tragedy is that there is no escaping its fate, although its magic can be said to be that in spite of this assuredness, our hope is renewed each time we revisit the story. Every time I revisit a tragic movie or novel, I can’t help but believe, against knowledge and reason, that this might be the time it turns out right. Romeo and Juliet: just ignore the Chorus, maybe they will elope safely in the end. Moulin Rouge: perhaps she will just get over the TB that leads to the death we were told about at the very beginning. The Virgin Suicides: a linguistic trick possibly or a simple mistake when the narrator reveals early on that all five of the sisters will kill themselves...
It seems that no warning will suffice to totally ward off hope. These wishes are useless, of course, because I already know they cannot be fulfilled, but that is what is so unique to tragedy: that it can give away the ending and lose none of its potency. It invokes a yearning that promises to never be happily sated and yet cannot be quashed.
I feel this very way every autumn, as the darkness begins to swell and swallow the days, a reminder and promise that this season ends only with the darkness and death of winter. After this opening to the season, life levels out with a blissful, willed ignorance in which the joy of colour, of raining leaves, of homey, cosy smells – wood smoke, spices, the mulch of soggy leaves piling high in the gutters – establish an atmosphere I feel I can live with so long as it doesn’t get any colder, any darker, the seasonal depression keeps itself at bay. There is even, beneath all of this, the unspoken, tenuous hope that somehow this winter will be bearable in a way no previous winter has been, that – maybe, magically – winter won’t come this year.
This is again the tragic yearning of tragedy, for the inevitable to be preventable somehow. Always “somehow”. The very thing Roth once called “blessed mysterious somehow!” The same “somehow” that allows us to live our inevitable lives, which is to say lives of inevitable mortality. We each know precisely how our story ends – it ends – but we wake, shower, eat, love, live, work, play, every day of life as if we don’t really know what we know, or as if it might end differently – somehow.
It’s often claimed that the modern, romanticised view of an ideal Christmas (snowy, cosy, love- and charity-filled revelries of goodwill to all people), which we never really experience for ourselves but imagine must have been the norm once, and which we pay homage to in modern Christmas decor and greeting cards, was largely established by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Ask a variety of readers why they believe this and you will get a variety of answers, some more and others less compelling. One of the more pervasive is that the sentiment of the Spirits (or the sentimental spirit) in Dickens’ story is one of anti-consumerist rejection of the material, and that this is the “true” meaning of Christmas. This is, however, to have read the story after one too many Christmas sherries. After all, Scrooge’s great failing is not in being too rich but in being miserly with it; his grand transformation consists of spending more. Dickens did not write a polemic against capitalism but a prescription for wider economic circulation.
This fundamental acceptance of the status quo, calling only for a few tweaks to the way individuals operate within it, means that according to Northrop Frye’s conception of the seasons as genres, A Christmas Carol might be a festive book but it is not a seasonal one. Winter is a time for satire. Winter is a season for the sharp lashing of a witty tongue, not for the sake of mere provocation, but to point out weakness so that we can see what needs strengthening. If we can survive the astute criticism, if we can survive the harsh winter, we will be the better for it.
Whether or not Dickens is the inventor of what we call Christmas, we can credit the author with bestowing on us the nickname with which the Christmas-obsessed smugly chastise those who don’t celebrate to an appropriate degree, in the required ways, at all times: “Oh,” they say dismissively, “you’re such a Scrooge.” The Scrooge character is an object of ridicule, scorned for mistaking the cynical sneer for healthy scepticism. He is, in this way, not so far from the trendy so-called ironists of postmodernity who confuse destructive sarcasm, intended to tear down structures, for the constructive if sharply biting criticism of true satire.
The difference between pessimism and parody (or, more accurately, between cynicism and satire) is the very reason that satire is the genre of winter. Pessimism is a defeatist’s lament, the opium of the cynical, and its chief output is the complaint and the parody. Its jokes are intended merely to turn the source of anguish into one of temporary humour, which is why parody is content simply to replicate its target and magnify its failures to levels of humorous reductio ad absurdum. But this is not what the ebb of winter means to the flow of life. Winter is not absolute death or a total ending. Every year, the world returns, changed and renewed. We embrace winter not as an end in and of itself, but as a necessary clearing out of nature and of life, to make way for something fuller and more joyful in spring.
Similarly, satire is not invested in its own permanence; successful satire seeks its own redundancy, exposing flaws in the hope of finding a fix. Voltaire’s Candide would be a failure in one important sense (it is a clear success by other measures) if its original context were still immediately recognisable to us, as this would mean his work hadn’t changed the world, hadn’t critiqued the philosophy of Leibnizian optimism deeply or sharply enough to affect it.
Winter doesn’t just end things (the year, the sunshine, nature, growth, and life), it ends. It is itself a reminder that all things pass, many are renewed, and death can make room for new life. Satire, too, is not merely a call for an end to hypocrisy, cruelty, or injustice; it is an invitation to something new, something better.
Eventually, the cycle ends, and in doing so, the cycle begins itself again. Life goes on, as do our stories, and the point of them is not any kind of final end, but to shape the journey along the way. “To every thing there is a season,” the Bible tells us. “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” In these mortal tasks, our stories and their genres don’t only reflect life, they can help us to shape it, telling us tales that guide how we live out our times of birth and of death, of planting and of plucking. There is, our genres reveal, a season for every story.
* Shaun of the Dead subverts the heroic narrative: After a prologue in the pub, during which the major themes of apathy and adventure are established (Shaun’s girlfriend wants to do more with her life and wants Shaun to “want to do it too”), we watch Shaun stagger lazily into his front room, drop onto the sofa, and begin playing video games with his deadbeat friend. At the film’s end, Shaun repeats this sofa scene, except his girlfriend has replaced Shaun’s friend on the sofa, and she is now content with their go-nowhere lives rather than pushing for more. This subversion of a “happy ending” places Shaun of the Dead in the camp of parody, but in this reversal of the norm, it acknowledges the usual structure of comedy.
• Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye (1957)
• The Breakfast Club, dir. John Hughes (1985)
• Inside Story, Martin Amis (2020)
• Shaun of the Dead, dir. Edgar Wright (2004)
• Hot Fuzz, dir. Edgar Wright (2007)
• Casablanca, dir. Michael Curtiz (1942)
• Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare (First Folio 1623)
• The Breast, Philip Roth (1972)
• A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (1843)