Anatomy of Criticism, a book that is similar to an anatomical chart depicting parts and functions of the human body, proposes a holistic system for reading and understanding literary works. Northrop Frye wrote Anatomy of Criticism, which consists of four interrelated essays, to explore the nature of literature and how it functions as an art form. His ultimate objective is to direct literary criticism toward a comprehensive system of theories, principles, and techniques, and away from personal reactions and ideological interpretations.
One essay in the book, “Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes,” posits that literature can be divided into five categories, or fictional modes. These modes correspond to the range of the protagonist’s power of action. Stories about gods belong to the mode of myth, and stories about extraordinary human beings with supernatural powers belong to the mode of romance or legend. Stories about extraordinary human beings subject to the powers of nature and the constraints of society belong to the mode of high mimetic, and stories about ordinary people belong to the mode of low mimetic. Stories about powerless people belong to the ironic mode.
These five fictional modes can be either tragic or comic depending on whether the protagonist fails or succeeds at the end of the story. Thus, there are complementary patterns in each mode (for example, a dying god in which nature is destroyed in contrast to a resurrected god in which nature is restored). Furthermore, a narrative in the five modes may emphasize either plot or theme. The purpose of plot-oriented or fictional literature is to entertain, whereas the objective of thematic literature is to educate the reader.
The second essay, “Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols,” provides perspectives called phases for classifying and interpreting symbols. The literal and descriptive phases are antithetical. Literal writing creates its own meaning inside the text itself and creates verbal patterns for aesthetic delight. In contrast, descriptive language objectively depicts some external reality outside the text.
The formal phase focuses on the use of symbols in a single work. The arrangement of symbols may have a concrete and specific meaning or ambiguous and multiple meanings. Accordingly, literary works can be plotted along a continuum ranging from allegory to paradox. Furthermore, symbols create verbal patterns and designs with aesthetic significance, like a melody in music. Frye views a literary work as a creation of the imagination, providing a reader with a vision and spiritual freedom beyond mere facts.
In the mythical phase, the symbol is an archetype, that is, a recurrent image in the whole of literature. Like words, archetypes are a fundamental means of communication. In this function, archetypes are known as conventions. Besides nature, writers derive their material from other works of literature. Writers imitate, adapt, or reject techniques, images, and forms established through time or tradition. The study of an archetype in a poem leads to a study of it in poetry, then to a study of the role of poetry in civilization. Archetypes are adaptable building blocks that writers use to represent the values and the state of society. Moreover, archetypes reveal the universal aspects of human life.
(The entire section is 1378 words.)