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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2164

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.”

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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 historical context (despite his examination of the so-called historical modes in the first essay) have charged him with absolving the poet of any ethical responsibility. In the second essay, which deals with the theory of symbols (defined as any piece of literature on which critical attention can be focused), Frye suggests that within the self-created world of literature, part of the poet’s function “is to visualize the goals of human work.” A poem must not be subjected to “outside” standards of truth or beauty, for that would be a kind of idolatry. Instead, the literary universe must have its own coherence, but it is a coherence not of the individual work itself, but of a universal order, at the center of which are a group of archetypes to which all literary creations inevitably give acknowledgment. These archetypes, which by Frye’s definition are recurrent symbols in the literary universe (not the racial memories described by Carl Jung), areimages of things common to all men, and therefore have a communicable power which is potentially unlimited. Such symbols include those of food and drink, of the quest or journey, of light and darkness, and of sexual fulfillment, which would usually take the form of marriage.

The entire sweep of literature, embodying these archetypes, is precisely the space where human imagination is liberated. The purpose of ethical criticism is to delineate the structure of this liberation; though poetry stands within the universe of literature, it has a potential relationship to the actual world. Frye is much influenced by the mystical vision of poet William Blake (indeed, Frye’s first book, published in 1947, was titled Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, and in Frye’s consideration of Blake’s imagery and symbolism Anatomy of Criticism was born); it seems clear that embedded within Frye’s comprehensive taxonomy is the assumption of the almost metaphysical standing of literature as a whole.

The recurrent images of the archetypes are ritualistic (marriage is an example, or a rite of passage), but they are at the same time expressions of the fulfillment (or the blocking) of desire (what Frye calls “dream”). Desire builds civilization and is never content; the poet expresses the outworking of this desire, this work of building, as a “verbal hypothesis.” Thus, the archetypal critic would analyze plot by referring to its ritualistic aspects and analyze the significance of the work by referring to the outworking of the desire as it takes tragic, ironic, or comic shape. These analyses in turn have meaning by reference to the great myths that have shaped human civilization.

Myth, in Frye’s exposition, unites ritual and desire (plot and theme) in a grand vision of “literature as leading to the conception of an order of nature as a whole being imitated by a corresponding order of words.” In Western culture, exposition of the structures of literature in the light of the classical and Christian heritage provides apocalyptic myths uniting man with the gods, or God. Straight myth deals with gods and demons; slightly displaced, it becomes romance; still more displaced, it produces ironic literature, which in its frequent demonic references harks back to undisplaced myth. Myth in its undisplaced form provides for Frye a “grammar of apocalyptic imagery.” In the mythical mode heavenly imagery prevails, in the ironic mode that of the demonic. Between the two extremes, myth in the romantic mode brings forth images of innocence; in the high mimetic, images of the world of nature and reason; and in the low mimetic, images of the world of experience. Here is where man must work to eke out his existence.

These forms of literature constitute meaning, a type of musical key in which narrative finds its “voice.” Frye’s third essay considers archetypal criticism as a theory of mythos, or narrative, in which images of the animal, vegetable, mineral, and human spheres (appropriately expressed in each mode) fall into four phases corresponding to the four seasons of the year. Comedy is the mythos of spring, romance of summer, tragedy of autumn, and irony and satire of winter. Each image within each season has a cyclical nature (the sun’s course, water’s cycle from clouds to the sea and back again), like the seasons themselves. The seasonal movement within nature, says Frye, is one of two basic narrative movements; the other is a movement from nature to the heavenly world. These movements are prior to any particular genre of literature; thus, any genre can embody them.

Within each mythos, or generic plot, Frye finds six phases, each group of three parallel to the nearby mythos. Comedy passes from its most ironic phase (wherein a comic society very nearly comes to destruction but is saved at the end), passing through the world of experience, into an ideal world of romance, to the sixth phase, with the collapse or womb-return of the comic society. The sixth phase is the world of the ghost story, the strange and the marvelous.

Tragedy’s first phase places the greatest possible dignity on the hero; by the sixth phase, the hero has been cast into a demonic world. In satire and irony, the first phase uses an Everyman as a foil for showing up the absurdities of society. By contrast, the sixth phase pictures the world as sinister and dark. At each end, one phase blends into its neighboring phase. Though the twenty-four phases offer convenient receptacles for literature—providing those works with a signature and an identity in the entire scheme—Frye’s larger point is that the four major phases themselves are part of one central myth, the quest-myth.

In the quest-myth there is the conflict itself (corresponding to the wonderful adventures of the hero in romance), the death of the hero or of his monstrous foe (corresponding to the catastrophe of tragedy), the disappearance of the hero from the scene of the action (corresponding to the confusion or anarchy that reigns in irony or satire), and, finally, the reappearance and recognition of the hero (corresponding to the rise of a new society around “a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride,” the theme of comedy). Thus, the whole of literature is dancing to the tune of the quest-myth, and romance is its name.

The theory of genres, Frye’s final consideration, is most significant not in its classification of various forms of literature, but in concentrating on the relationships among them. Rhetoric, defined as persuasive or ornamental speech, organizes grammar and logic to produce literature, and the relationship of the audience to a genre is part of what the literary critic must elucidate. In epos, or oral address, the author speaks directly to his hearers; in fiction (used by Frye in the fourth essay to describe the literature of the printed page), both the author and his characters are in effect hidden from the reader; in drama, the characters on the stage confront the audience directly, but the author is hidden; and in lyric, the audience is concealed from the poet. Frye’s project, as he mentions in regard to poetry proper, is “not to ‘fit’ poems into categories, but to show empirically how conventional archetypes get embodied in conventional genres.” That is, certain genres, each with its own rhythm, lend themselves to the expression of recurring images.

It is fitting that in his consideration of prose works, Frye notes that besides romance, confession, and novel, there is the anatomy, defined by him as a type of utopian satire, characterized by its stylized and encyclopedic presentation of thought and idea. Anatomy of Criticism is itself the work of a powerful imagination, exemplified by polemical thrusts and a utopian, even apocalyptic vision.

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Critical Context