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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 714

The essays that form the heart of Anatomy of Criticism—dealing in turn with historical, ethical, archetypal, and rhetorical criticism—were reworked from articles appearing in literary and scholarly periodicals; their substance was also presented in a series of public lectures given in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1954. Intended primarily for those who practice and teach literary criticism, the book also attempts to map out the territory and define the discipline of the literary critic for a wider audience.

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In “Polemical Introduction,” Northrop Frye, a Canadian-born professor of English, contends that literary criticism, if it is to be a true discipline independent of philosophy, history, or religion, must develop for itself a comprehensive language and a coherent ordering principle to describe and relate all the verbal works of human imagination. The purpose of literary criticism (as with any science) is not to deliver value judgments (Frye leaves that task to book reviewers) or to propose a list of great works, but to locate a given work in its appropriate place in the vast grid of literary invention—much as biology, using the organizing principle of evolution, produces its own taxonomies.

The literary critic must not fall prey to current social convention, for that would produce only propaganda, nor must he hinge his analyses on the biographies of the authors he considers, nor yet on some “literary experience.” Social convention, biography, and experience are mere contingents and not part of any true science. A fully developed literary criticism, in Frye’s view, is a body of knowledge, like pure mathematics, which is for the most part internally coherent and only indirectly applicable to the real world. In “Tentative Conclusion,” Frye suggests that like mathematics, literary criticism is (or ought to be) an autonomous enterprise—theoretical, inclusive, and schematic—which explains how each element within its universe is related to or functions with every other element. The theoretical comprehension of all literature is the great gift of literary criticism to human society.

The four essays themselves, consciously abstract, provide four integrated approaches to the universe of literature Frye considers appropriate for his nascent science of literary criticism. Ostensibly empirical, Frye’s method harks back to the spirit, if not the letter, of Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics). As one might stand back from a painting to observe its grand design better, so Frye has attempted to stand back from literature to observe how the multiple products of human verbal expression fit together in a broad framework. Frye sees literature arranged by genre, symbol, mode, and archetype into what he terms “conceptual space,” with a controlling generalization of literary criticism at the center. For Frye, this controlling generalization is the quest-myth, man’s falling away from, and return to, the source of his creativity, reason, and purpose.

Those taking issue with Frye’s approach question how much Frye has poured his own private vision of literature into his “empirical” investigation, but it is generally acknowledged that Frye’s schema, which is able to place Homeric epic and bureaucratic jargon in their appropriate conceptual space, is itself the work of a...

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