The Theorist’s Fear of the Undefined

Why the literary fantastic should remain literary

7 minutes to read
Academic paper
Suzanne van der Beek

Many theorists have tried to define the literary fantastic – without great success. Maybe this question should remain unanswered as a reminder of our fear of the theoretically unknowable.

A theoretical question

It has been proven very difficult to define the literary genre of the fantastic. No two theorists seem to agree on the group of literary texts which belong to this genre, and there is even more discussion on the reasons why they shouldn't. In this short text I would like to discuss how this theoretical problem can be viewed in the light of fantastic literature itself.

The most famous definition of the fantastic was formulated by Tzvetan Todorov in his Introduction a la literature fantastique. However decisive he is in defining the fantastic, his ultimate definition shows how difficult it is to classify texts into the genre. Todorov identifies three conditions for the fantastic. The first of these is a hesitation from the reader. ‘Hesitation’ seems a very unstable notion indeed to ground a literary theory, but more importantly, it forces Todorov to introduce the debatable notion of the ‘implied reader’ so as to avoid including the actual reader's unpredictable state of mind. 

The second criterion lies with the hesitation of the protagonist, with whom the reader can identify. This does not constitute a stable factor in his definition either because Todorov himself points out that it is not a necessary element of the fantastic. 

As a third condition Todorov proposes that the (implied) reader must adopt an attitude towards the text that is neither allegorical nor poetic, and thus construes the fantastic in a negative way. Ultimately, Todorov positions the fantastic as the boarder zone between two sub-genres: the fantastic-uncanny and the fantastic-marvelous. Instead of trying to define the fantastic in a positive way, he points out where it cannot be found and between which two established genres it should be found; it becomes a genre that is defined by the absence of its neighbors.

A different understanding of the fantastic can be found in the works of Rosemary Jackson. She acknowledges the fantastic as a literary phenomenon that “has so successfully resisted generic classification.” (Jackson 13) Therefore, she suggests an understanding of the fantastic as a ‘mode’, rather than a genre. This mode would be able to adopt several generic forms and is situated between the mimetic and the marvelous. Thus, Jackson ends with a description of the way the fantastic works as a dependent mode.

Yet another theorist, Christine Brooke-Rose, assigns the fantastic an even smaller role in the literary field. She points out that Todorov’s definition allows a great number of texts to remain fantastic for a long time, before it can finally be explained. She remembers Todorov’s question: “We may ask how valid a definition of genre may be if it permits a work to “change genre” by a simple sentence.” (Todorov 42) This brings Brooke-Rose to the conclusion that the fantastic is not so much a genre as it is an evanescent element.


A literary answer

All this theoretical squirming lures one back to the realm that has less trouble with the fantastic – that of literature. H. P. Lovecraft, a known enthusiast and expert in the field, proves in many ways to be a better writer than he is a critic. Then again, he does not seem to be searching for a scientific classification of the fantastic genre. Indeed, he states: “Naturally we cannot explain all weird tales to conform absolutely to any theoretical model.” (Lovecraft 15) Even so, Lovecraft has some ideas about the elements that do and do not belong to the ‘weird tale’. It is not “the mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome”, but it entails the “unexplainable dread of outer unknown forces.” (Lovecraft 15) Furthermore, he points out that “atmosphere is the all-important thing”, along with the “creation of a given sensation.” (Lovecraft 16) It seems obvious that this would hardly be grounds for a generic classification, but Lovecraft’s text does point out an interesting problem in defining the fantastic. His text shows explicitly the problem with which all theorists above seem to struggle. 

The fantastic as a literary genre is a phenomenon which is experienced by everyone, but which proves difficult—if not impossible—to pin down. Critics are able to draw up rows of thematic elements and literary techniques which belong to the aimed genre, but are unable to classify it in a positive, determinate way. Todorov proposes a negative definition of a border-genre, and Jackson and Brooke-Rose a diminished, more flexible mechanism. Indeed, Todorov’s realization that the fantastic is a genre that does not offer clues about the way in which a text should be understood, points out that it is a phenomenon that questions the very nature of a genre. It seems that the fantastic is a phenomenon that never coincides with a definitive classification, almost as if it were a signified without a signifier.

What is more, this ‘theme’ in the theorization of the fantastic, is mirrored in the very genre of the fantastic. Todorov points out that fantastic texts use ambiguous language which never seem to offer definitive knowledge. For example: “It seems to me that I was returning to a familiar house … An old servant whom I called Marguerite and whom I seemed to have known since childhood … I believed I was falling into an abyss”. (The Saragossa Manuscript cited in Todorov 38) Jackson notes: “Themes of the fantastic in literature revolve around this problem of making visible the unseen, of articulating the unsaid.” (Jackson 48) The most famous example in literature is probably the monstrous Cthulhu, created by Lovecraft. A monster that defies all description and carries a name that cannot be uttered by a human voice. 

I would not go as far as to suggest that the literary fantastic is an unearthly force which lies asleep, waiting for the return of his universal reign. I would, however, like to point to some other encounters with this theme, such as in “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, wherein narrator Douglas attempts to tell his story but finds himself “to be really at a loss how to qualify it”; “It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.” (Henry 8) Similarly, Captain Walton in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein writes to his sister: “So strange an accident has happened to us that I cannot forebear recording it.” (Shelley 20) The narrator in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale “The Sandman” encounters the following problem while trying to write his story: “You wanted to draw the picture in your mind in all its glowing tints, in all its light and shade … But every word, everything that takes the form of speech, appeared to you colorless, cold and death. … No form of language suggested itself to my mind which seemed to reflect ever in the slightest degree the coloring of the internal picture.” (Hoffman 17-9) 

Does not this recurring notion, of not being able to put into words what can so clearly be felt and experienced, mirror the very problem that the above discussed theorists encountered while trying to define the literary fantastic? Do they not all set out to classify the fantastic and in the end settle down cautiously for a moderate version? The literary fantastic is a type of literature that is easy enough to recognize. The reader experiences a certain vibration that can only be brought about by this sort of literature (if this were not the case, there would not be the notion of the fantastic genre at all). But to clarify this genre in a theoretical language proves to pose the same difficulties as those of the characters that encounter it in literature of the very same genre. The narrator in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The fall of the House of Usher” brings both struggles together when he states: “There are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our dept.” (Poe 199)


The fear of the undefined

If this is so, and we as theorists are unable to qualify the literary fantastic in a definite manner, why do we still put our efforts into this enterprise? The answer may again be found with Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (Lovecraft 12) This may be the very reason for the ongoing discussion about the literary fantastic. That which we cannot describe and classify, remains unknown to us and therefore frightens us. This same idea is put forth by Jackson when she states: “That which is not seen, that which is not said, is not ‘known’ and it remains as a threat, as a dark area.” (Jackson 49) This hunting down of the unknown force, the presence of which is felt but not understood, is again a well-known theme in fantastic literature. Brooke-Rose notes that what is unique in this century’s crisis is that “man is now wholly decentralized … man is now faced with a philosophy of indeterminacy and a multivalent logic.” (Brooke-Rose 7) This anxiety seems something that is felt by theorists as well.

Hoffmann’s story suggests a different way of exploring the fantastic: “If, like a bold painter, you had first drawn an outline of the internal picture with a few daring strokes, you might with small trouble have laid on the colors brighter and brighter and the living throng of varies shapes would have borne your friends [listeners, readers] away with it. Then they would have seen themselves, like you, in the picture that your mind had bodied forth.” (Hoffmann 18) This again, seems to be Lovecraft’s vision too. Earlier I have indicated that I do not find Lovecraft’s theory a workable one, but it does show us something that only such a text could; perhaps the literary fantastic is something that can and should remain literary.



Brooke-Rose, Christine. “A Rhetoric of the Unreal Studies in narrative and structure, especially of the fantastic” Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Hoffmann, E.T.A. “The Sandman” Trans. John Oxenford. New York: Mondial, 2008 [1816]

Jackson, Rosemary. “Fantasy: The literature of subversion” London and New York: Methuen, 1981.

James, Henry. “The Turn of the Screw”  London: Penquin Group, 1994 [1898]

Lovecraft, H.P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature” New York: Dover Publications, 1973.

Poe, Edgar Allen.  “The Fall of the House of Usher” In: The Complete Edgar Allen Poe Tales New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1984 [1840]

Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Fantastic A structural approach to a literary genre” Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Cornell UP, 1975.

Shelley, Mary. “Frankenstein” Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999 [1818]