(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In his empirical investigation, Frye notices that classical literature, and Western literature since the first century, evidence change over time in correspondence with changes in the status of the hero of a work of fiction. Historical criticism deals with these changes of mode but is careful not to allude to any “progress” in literature or form over time. Premedieval literature, for example, appeared in the first mode, in which the hero is a divine being, differing radically from other men; the Christ figure is an appropriate example. Medieval romances (such as stories of chivalry or the deeds of saints) portray the hero as human but superior in degree to others, as well as to his environment; this is the second mode. With the Renaissance comes the high mimetic mode, in which the hero is somehow superior to others but must answer to his environment; Shakespearean tragedy exemplifies this mode. With the rise of middle-class culture, the low mimetic mode came into view, wherein the hero is on the same level as the audience. In this mode, so-called realistic fiction and comedy constitute the “center of gravity.” From the late nineteenth century onward, Frye notes, the ironic mode has dominated most serious fiction; here, the protagonist is inferior to his audience in intelligence and freedom, with the audience watching the action from above, unencumbered by the entanglements of the ironic hero. This, the fifth mode of literature, is the world of the “all-too-human.”

These historical categories help Frye map out his conceptual space. Each mode will reinterpret symbols, myths, archetypes, and genres in accordance with the place of the hero; works of literature, then, can be placed not only historically (as Frye defines it) but in accordance with his other categories as well. Such placement is the substance of literary criticism. Literature must be interpreted for what it is in Frye’s conceptual space and not for what it should have been (in the view of a particular critic), for that judgment would reflect merely contingent values.

Fiction in each mode, to take the matter further, may be divided into comedy and tragedy, the former showing an integration of the hero into society, the latter portraying the hero as isolated. In the first mode, a mythic tragedy would be the story of a dying God, Christ dying on the cross, excluded from the Trinity. Mythic comedy would incorporate the central character into the society of the gods, such as in the Christian conception of salvation. In the fifth mode, to take another example, tragic irony would provide a place for the scapegoat, the Job figure whose character does not merit the terrible tragedies that befall him. Yet Job is also entangled in the world “below,” in which grief and trouble are inescapable. Job’s troubles are inevitable in a fallen world, but they are at the same time incongruous, because the righteous Job seems singled out for special misery. This invests Job with a kind of dignity, an innocence, which, despite its striving, never rises from irony to the high mimetic mode of tragedy. Thus, an understanding of the Book of Job for Frye would in part consist of placing the work within the category of tragic irony (with the observation that despite the label “historical,” a tragic ironic work can be produced in any era). For Frye, the modes are circular, not linear: He suggests that hints of myth in the tragic ironies of Franz Kafka and James Joyce show the fifth mode circling back on the first.

Central to Frye’s vision of literature is what he calls the displacement of myths. That is,Myths of gods merge into legends of heroes; legends of heroes merge into plots of tragedies and comedies; plots of tragedies and comedies merge into plots of more or less realistic fiction. But these are change of social context rather than of literary form, and the constructive principles of story-telling remain constant through time.

The central myths of culture recur throughout literary history, are displaced, and are made for a time more plausible, only to dissolve again into myth.

Frye also applies his historical sequence to thematic literature, in which internal characters disappear or are insignificant, and there is a fictional persona addressing his or her audience. In lyric poetry and in essays, the thought or theme becomes the focus, rather than the plot. Even here, Frye cautions, literature must work on its own internal hypotheses: The direct address of the real author to his real audience would cease to be literature. Thematic and fictional categories interpenetrate one another, but whatever the proportions, the poet—that is, the creator of literature— makes a literary whole which runs on its own internal principles. The literary critic must not fall victim to the intentional fallacy (judging a work by the biography of its maker), but must lay bare the form of a work (which for Frye amounts to uncovering the work’s true content). Such a process is rarely anachronistic. If the work is a comedy, it must end happily; succeeding explications can deepen an appreciation for the way the characters function within the story, but reference to the author or his intentions is unnecessary.

Those who have been critical of Frye’s seeming removal of literature from its...

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