What do we mean when we talk about an author’s style? This question was served up as the starting point of Professor Patrick Hogan’s Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Lecture on October 16. Hogan, an English and Comparative Literature professor at UConn for 30 years, provided a close look at one of the most commonly used terms of literary analysis. In order to understand what it is exactly that lets us recognize stylistic differences between literary works, Hogan used a structuralist approach and related his findings to the writings of William Shakespeare.
Style, Hogan defined, is a “distinctive pattern” which you may identify in a single work like James Joyce’s Ulysses or in a literary movement like Realism. At best, Hogan continued, style “is […] isolated by reference to a set of partially interrelated, generative principles”. A particular word choice, perspective, sequence of action, and more are generative principles that make up literary style. In his talk, Hogan zoomed in on genre.
In earlier works, he developed a working description of genre-as-prototype. Hogan detects so-called story universals that appear to have psychological significance across cultures, namely: romantic, heroic, sacrificial, familial, seduction, and revenge and criminal investigation stories. While literary works may focus predominantly on just one of those prototypes, Hogan argues that Shakespeare’s style is characterized by the integration of various story universals. Romeo and Juliet, for instance, combines basically all of them. Notably, we don’t find distinct subplots that deal with love, sacrifice, family, etc. one after the other. Instead we see how Shakespeare actually intertwines the genres and, in this way, motivates the plot. Here the hero Romeo kills Tybalt in an act of revenge, which leads to Romeo’s exile and the separation from Juliet. The lovers’ sacrifice will eventually reconcile the political feud embedded in their love story. In the discussion following his talk, Hogan elaborated that this mixing of genres complicates our interpretation with regard to the goals and motivations of protagonists. Did Hamlet, for instance, love Ophelia or did he merely seduce her? Shakespeare’s complex integration of revenge, familial, and heroic genres, Hogan suggests, allows both readings.
By Maria Reger