Anatomy of Criticism Essay - Critical Context

Northrop Frye

Critical Context

Literary criticism, according to Frye, must throw off its narrow focus on individual works and cease to be a tool of any dominant cultural fashion. This assertion was seen by some as an antidote to the New Criticism which had arisen in the United States in the middle third of the twentieth century. Though New Critics were correct in their contention that the text is the final authority in interpretation, rather than cultural context and biography, their methods were inadequate, because New Criticism had no unifying vision of literature as a whole.

In the last third of the twentieth century, with the structuralist and deconstruction movements, the whole of literature was in view but was seen as tainted by the power structures of the societies that produced it. Each text must be read “at the moment,” without the presuppositions of the dominant culture (which had to be identified). Presumably, such presuppositions would include the Western classical and biblical focus of Frye’s own work.

Frye’s work, then, provides a mediating influence, insisting on the consideration of relationships within an autonomous literary universe. His critical theories trained a generation of academics, though critics of Frye have wondered if his neatly enumerated cycles and phases were more expressive of Frye than of literature itself. Others have challenged the historicity of the grand quest-myth, but Frye has replied that, historical or not, the story of the quest has had a seminal influence on the shape and meaning of human verbal constructs.

After the publication of Anatomy of Criticism, Frye devoted his literary energies to fleshing out his theories in such works as A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (1965), The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics (1965), Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (1967), and The Great Code (1983). With other works, most notably The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society (1970) and The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism (1971), Frye attempted to respond to criticism that his literary universe was elegant but too autonomous.