Mary Roberts Rinehart, who lived from 1876 to 1956, was a prolific writer. As her biographer, Jan Cohn, explains, she was the author of some 70 volumes of fiction and essays. She had the capacity to write novels
that captured the loyalty of a mass reading public. Between 1909 and 1936 she wrote eleven best-sellers, the highest number of any novelist in the United States to date. (Cohn 1977, 581). Rinehart's novel, "K," was the fifth best-selling novel in 1915 (H
A critical reader can focus on different aspects of Rinehart's novels to explain their popularity. Among the most telling are the dynamics of the plot structures and how her stories and characters resonated with her readers.
Boris Tomashevsky, a member of the Russian Formalist Group which began to think and write about literary theory in Moscow in 1915 and in St. Petersburg in 1916, analyzed the structure of fiction. He postulated that every novel's theme can be reduced to s
maller and smaller thematic units and when one reaches those which are essential to the whole and unavailable to further reduction one encounters motifs. A story is made up of motifs organized in causal-chronological order. A plot is how an author arrange
s the motifs to engage the readers attention and to develop a theme. The same story may be told by countless bards and poets and novelists and filmmakers over the course of time; the plot is the particular manner of doing so which results in varying forma
l arrangements, different connotations, multiple aesthetic responses in readers.
It is through the principle of motivation that motifs are arranged. "Motivation is a compromise between objective reality and literary tradition." Because readers need the illusion of lifelikeness, fiction must provide it. "The formation of an artistic s
tructure requires that reality be constructed according to a esthetic laws. Such laws are always, considered in relation to reality, conventional" (Scholes 1974, 78). In terms of how stories and plots are motivated, Tomashevsky makes a distinction between
bound and free motifs, as well as those that are static and dynamic.
Dynamic motifs are telling in an analysis of the plot or story of "K" and many other novels appealing to a mass public, for it is a dense ordering of dynamic motifs that propel a story forward and incite the desire of a reader to continue with the text
to find out what will happen next. The dynamic motifs form the chain of the story: an event occurs, this causes another event, which causes another and so on until the story has reached its conclusion.
In "K" the family of the heroine, Sidney Page, faces straightened circumstances. They take in a border, the mysterious "K" Le Moyne, and Sidney, to achieve self-sufficiency and independence, becomes a nurse. "K" falls in love with Sidney, Sidney falls in
love with Dr. Max Wilson, who is sexually attracted to another nurse, Carlotta Harrison. Carlotta returns his attentions with passion. Dr. Wilson proposes marriage to Sidney and Carlotta, in a jealous rage, gives one of Sidney's patients an overdose of m
edicine. Sidney is dismissed from her post. Joe, a neighborhood boy, who also loves Sidney, shoots Dr. Wilson. Carlotta asks the mysterious "K" to operate. He does so reluctantly, saves Dr. Wilson's life, and his identity revealed, is charged with mansla
ughter for having killed a patient some years before. Carlotta reveals the truth that it was she who had engaged in intrigue at the time of the fatal operation in order that Max Wilson, "K"'s assistant at the time, would prosper.
The dynamic motifs of "K" are numerous, resulting in a plot that moves swiftly. They are arranged and presented in a sequence that is chronological; there are omissions of facts that occurred before the novel begins, but there are no flashbacks or distor
tions of time. The story remains close to its own plot. Straightforward and simple to grasp, it does not disorient or confound the reader as a novelist like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, who recreate the flux of human consciousness at work, might do.
With its simple display of dynamic motifs, and the tension of numerous love complications, "K" also offers its readers elements of a mystery story. These relate to the events that happened before the action begins and are hinted at and revealed only slow
ly over the course of the novel.
Victor Sklovsky, also a Russian Formalist, distinguishes between two forms of story-telling in his book "Theory of Prose," (1925):
"1) A story may be told in such a way that the reader sees the unfolding of events, how one event follows another. In such a case, such a narration commonly adheres to a temporal sequence without any significant omissions. We may take as an example of the
type of narration Tolstoi's "War and Peace."
2) A story may be told in such a way that what is happening is incomprehensible to the reader. The "mysteries" taking place in the story are only later resolved. As an example of the latter type of narration let me mention "Knock! Knock! Knock!" by Turge
nev, the novels of Dickens and detective stories." (Sklovsky, 101)
Sklovsky states that what characterizes the second type of narration is temporal transition. When an incident or motif is omitted from a temporal sequence and is presented only after its consequences have been revealed a mystery results.
While "K" is not a mystery story, as are so many of Mary Roberts Rinehart's novels, its hidden line of narrative enables the reader to interpret clues, glean hints, ponder situations which are presented with incomplete information. It offers the reader t
he participatory nature of a novel of detection which has steady appeal for a mass reading public.
"K" has riddles but it must clearly be identified as a romance novel, a genre which has not traditionally been the object of critical attention. It is not included in such reference books as the "Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics," "Benet's Re
aders Encyclopdia," or in dictionaries of literary terms. However, more attention has been paid to the romance in recent years as studies of popular culture have progressed. The genre is the subject of Jancie Radway's 1984 book, "Reading the Romance: Wome
n, Patriarchy and Popular Literature."
Radway bases her study on discussions with a bookstore employee with an expertise in romance novels, interviews with 16 of her customers and responses to questionnaires given to forty-two others. Most were middle-class, married women with children (Rad
These readers concurred that a good heroine in a romance must have "intelligence, a sense of humor and independence." (77) Women who can be productive and accomplished in a sphere that is not domestic are valued the most. (77) At the same time that a wom
an's intelligence, independence, self-sufficiency and initiative are valued, they must also finally capture a man who admits he needs her. (88) A happy ending "restores the status quo in gender relations" (81) and the experience of the novel fashions a ki
nd of Utopia in which conflicting needs and desires coexist. It is to participate in this world that may explain why so many women read this genre. It is a reflection of their own desire for autonomy while at the same time reaffirming the domestic spher
e in which they live their lives.
Sidney Page is a heroine who takes up a career in nursing, carries herself with assurance and dignity, loves an unworthy man who proposes marriage to her, and eventually marries a noble, generous and capable man. The fiction in which she operates offers
the attractions of a straightforward, compelling plot, elements of detection and a world in which the reader finds resonance and order.
Cohn, Jan. "The Romances of Mary Roberts Rinehart: Some Problems in the Study of Popular Culture," "Journal of Popular Culture," 11 (1977), p. 581-90.
Hackett, Alice Payne. "80 Years of Best Sellers, 1895-1975." New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1977.
Radway, Janice. "Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature." Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Scholes, Robert. "Structuralism in Literature: an Introduction." New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.
Sklovsky, Victor. "Theory of Prose." Elwood Park, Il. : Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.