Soledad Reyes on "The Romance Mode in Philippine Literature"

Soledad Reyes writes* that Philippine literature favored by more Filipino readers belong to the Romance mode. Preference for this mode, she argues, is consistent with the people’s desire to make sense of their lives as they consume literature with conventional formats. Yet most literary works in the Philippines are evaluated against their closeness to reality. Those criticisms measure literary works using catch phrases such as “texture of lived life” to give them a stamp of critical acclaim. 

Criticism’s upholding of literature that mirrors reality dismisses works which are created for entertainment. Reyes says that this focus on the relationship of the writer to social realities tends to diminish the reader’s contribution in giving multiple meanings that enrich the text. The masses who consume more of the Romantic works become marginalized. 

During the Spanish occupation, the awit and corrido which are local versions of European medieval romance were popular entertainment. Most early Filipino Romance novel’s structures are close to that of the awit and later novels repeated the same pattern. One of the earliest novels in the Philippines, Pedro Paterno’s Ninay (1885) projects a vision of a perfect society. Meanwhile, Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891) reflect the social ills of the time. Further in their Romantic mode, these novels apply what critic Gillian Beer calls, as quoted by Reyes, a “peculiar vagrancy of the imagination.”**

Romance mode stories are explicit in their depiction of motive and intention. The “idyllic or demonic” frame of such journeys involves highly stylized characters and supernatural beings. Character types abound, mostly two dimensional. There is always the polar good versus evil, poor versus rich, and ugly versus beautiful. A “symbolic view of the world” considers reality as simply the beginning because the unseen world exists. The relationships of animate and inanimate beings are legitimate concerns of the author-creator who expects a reading that is other than literal.

In medieval times, readers found allegorical associations and many layers of meaning in the narratives. But while they looked for deeper meanings in  tales of chivalry and idealized characters, around them, flawed beings perpetuate every imaginable evil. Thus Romance stories somehow also “reduced” complex realities “to the spectacle of the honor of princess and the virtue of knights.” Out-of-this-world romance tales also encouraged nostalgia for the “idealized setting far back in time” and “subverted the reality it could not reflect.”

As for Philippine realities not reflected in Romance novels, Reyes notes this may be the case on the surface. But she adds, “The text is never free for it is determined by the writer’s historical conditions and is therefore not to be banished into a realm outside time… the people who responded to the texts, and who were themselves producers of meaning are also bound to a definite historical moment.”

For the reader, escape is not for long, because the Romance mode will also force them to a new appreciation of reality.

Read Soledad Reyes translations of Filipino Classic Novels and  Other Translations.