First Love and the Conventions of Plot

In today’s post-modern, hyper-deconstructed, energetically hyphenated age of literary criticism, it may seem curiously old-fashioned to ponder plot conventions for different types of narratives. A historically sensitive analysis of certain types of plot narratives, however, can point to elements that writers find consistently appealing and constantly effective. In this case, a critical analysis of the plot formula for First Love can point to some of the compelling aspects of the novel as a modern and post-modern device.  In the interest of working with a manageable amount of data, this comparison will encompass Ivan Turgenev’s narrative, “First Love,” from 1860, Joyce Carol Oates First Love: A Gothic Tale, from  1996, and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, from 2011. [i] While The Marriage Plot does not deal exclusively with the plot structure for first love, it is a self-conscious narrative about all narratives that take on the topic of young love.

The first curiosity about the plot pattern for first love is the season when it occurs: it is first and foremost a narrative of summer loving – yes, feel free to enter your favorite Grease reference here.[ii] The narrative starts with the season of the year reflecting the chronological status of the narrator/main character. The narrator is in the threshold adolescent stage, at the beginning of their reproductive cycles. In Turgenev’s narrative, the narrator channels his sixteen year old persona. In Oates’s First Love, her narrator channels her eleven year-old self. The narrators narrate of the experience of first love as a past event, an experience that allowed them to figure out the societal constraints that would control their future selection of a spouse.

These narratives prove curiously didactic in nature, as the conclusion of these tales emphasize not the triumph of emotion and sentimentality, but rather the way that social relations turn a supposedly romantic endeavor into a lesson of how to pick a proper spouse. The presence of an implied spouse, something like Booth’s implied narrator, haunts all of these narratives, imbuing the narrator’s voice with an effect similar to science fiction’s ubiquitous temporal paradox, where characters from the future come in to document past events yet cannot get involved in them for fear of affecting a fixed future timeline, or in this case a fixed unstated narrative line. Turgenev’s “First Love” is actually the main narrator’s recollection of his first romantic experience as a middle aged man. Joyce Carol Oates’s narrator, while not clearly specifying from what future reality records her experience, speaks as the knowledgeable narrator from the future.

The idea of summer as a transition period from childhood to adulthood has proven one of those narrative conventions that authors have used over the centuries. Yes, at times this literary fixation with summer as the time of young love has become at times a painfully overworked cliché – reference again the opening sequence of the musical Grease. However, talented writers have saved this convention from banishment into the trite and overused clearance rack of the bookstore. The emergence of youthful desire has merged with the elemental aspects of summer, particularly the easy access to the outdoors caused by the heat, to reflect the vegetative state of reproductive ardor seen in the world around them.

One thing that has struck me when reading these narratives is how much more sense they make if one has actually physically experienced the difference between summer heat and winter snow. People from the Caribbean, for instance, can take for granted a perpetual state of vegetative reproduction, with year-round access to a variety of fruits as the standard, as well as the need to constantly upgrade you beach wardrobe every six months. This type of body lacks the physical reaction to an environment that for over half of the year can prove too cold for external activity. Summer vacation becomes particularly valued because it coincides with the time of year when you can readily step outside of the house with little forethought put to what you wear or what you need to bring with you. The body feels the difference between the intense tightening of the muscles that occurs during freezing cold weather, and the immense relaxation of muscles that occurs in warm weather. In Russian literature, the knowledge that summer is just intensely short plays an important part in this awareness of first love – a brief, fleeting moment, comparable to the life cycle of a lightning bug. In Joy Carol Oates’s case, the presence of summer weather serves as a plot device that helps lead the main character into the unexpected relationship she eventually shares with her cousin. (Yes, this is putting a G rated spin on an R rated topic!) As the seasons once again turn from winter into seemingly sudden summer in the Mid-Atlantic region, as I watch my female students change into curve revealing garments, as I watch myself ponder if I can get away with a skirt for a day, as I find my eyes itching from all the blooms, it becomes almost inevitable to wonder what new revelations will come with the next summer narrative awaiting on my shelf.


[i] For the purposes of bibliography, I will be referring to the  Constance Garnett translation of Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love,”, First Love: A Gothic Tale, by Joyce Carol Oates, New York: The Ecco Press, 1996, and The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

[ii] Grease, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Randal Kleiser, director, 1977.