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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1378

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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 anagogic phase is the domain of the imagination, an infinite and eternal world, without natural and social bounds. The metaphor best expresses anagogic meaning because it can transcend logic by presenting two separate entities as identical in the way the Trinity represents the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as one. Like the Trinity, individual literary works form a unified body of literature. Thus, one part is an aspect and representation of the whole.

The third essay, “Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths,” distributes archetypal images into categories called apocalyptic, demoniac, and analogical. Apocalyptic imagery expresses fulfilled human desire at its highest level, or Heaven. In opposition, demoniac imagery expresses the greatest threats to human desire, or Hell. Between Heaven and Hell lies analogical imagery of human experience. Writers adapt or displace apocalyptic and demoniac imagery to fit the credibility requirements of one of the literary modes: romance, realism, or the ironic. For romance, the imagery is of innocence. For realism and the ironic, the imagery is of experience.

Another approach to archetypal criticism revolves around plot. Literature can be categorized as comic, tragic, romantic, or ironic. The comic plot is analogous to spring because problems are miraculously resolved and a new and lively world emerges. Historically, comic characters and plots have remained consistent. For example, a young couple thwarted by a harsh father figure is the standard comic situation. Comedy has phases distinguishable by the change of society at the end of the story, ranging from no change, escape, a better world, or disintegration.

Romance is associated with summer because the world is in full bloom or idealized, and the protagonist possesses maximum human powers. Romance is an adventure story, a quest for the epitome of a cultural value. Conflict underlies romance. Good and evil are clearly delineated. The protagonist prevails in his or her quest. Even death becomes a resurrection. Romance has phases matching the sequence of birth to death (for example, the mysterious birth of the hero).

Tragedy is associated with autumn because the bountiful fruits of nature are destroyed by the inexorable change of seasons. Tragedy creates a sense of loss because a life of great potential ends in ruin. The tragic hero is at the top of the wheel of fortune about to plummet into catastrophe. He or she is greater than normal human beings but no match for such forces as God and fate. In some fashion, the tragic hero disturbs this higher order and must sacrifice his or her life as punishment or nemesis.

Irony and satire are associated with winter because they represent the cold and lifeless aspects of life. Irony and satire destroy conventions, illusions, ideals, and values. The world of experience consumes the smaller world of rational thought. In irony and satire, the heroic is mocked or absent. The different phases of irony and satire depict human life in its decline from the foolish to the macabre. Even more than tragedy, irony and satire expose the malevolent forces in human life to be avoided.

The essay “Rhetorical Criticism: Theory of Genres” defines four literary genres: epos, fiction, drama, and lyric. Each genre is distinguishable by how it is presented. In epos, the author directly speaks to a listener, while in fiction, words are in print and read. In drama, actors perform language before an audience, and in lyric, a speaker converses with him- or herself.

In addition to these relationships between a writer and audience, genre is distinguishable by its rhythm. In epos, language is recurrent; the accent, meter, and sound pattern are regular and repetitive. In this respect, epos is akin to music. In contrast, the language of prose fiction is continuous; sentences represent the pattern of thought without metrical breaks. In other words, prose is shaped by semantics. In drama, language conforms to decorum; the words must match the characters and their situation. The author’s own voice is silent. In lyric, language is associative; the writer freely associates sounds and images in an irregular and unpredictable fashion. Metaphors combine such oppositions as sensation/reflection and abstract/concrete. Dream images predominate because they are more suggestive than descriptive. Moreover, the lyric expresses the mystery of primordial human experience as a mediation or revelation.

From the modes, phases, and plots delineated in the three essays of Anatomy of Criticism, Frye constructs a comprehensive circular scheme for categorizing the numerous specific forms of drama, lyric, epos, and prose. Even though Frye describes exemplars for each form, he emphasizes that most literary works combine elements from various forms. The Bible is a prime example of such a composite work, termed “encyclopedic form.” Frye argues that the Bible is the most influential work in Western literature in part because it is a comprehensive myth.

Frye postulates that literature and the humanities share a common verbal structure. Therefore, literary criticism should play a central role in interpreting any text. Furthermore, both literature and literary criticism should contribute to a general liberal education that enables a person to see contemporary social values in the context of culture as a whole and to perceive the unity of human knowledge and experience.


Critical Essays