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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 936

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Northrop Frye is considered by many the most important literary theoretician of the twentieth century. For decades after his publication of Anatomy of Criticism in 1957, no other work of literary criticism had achieved anything like its influence or recognition. Yet in spite of its prestige and its proved adaptability to classroom teaching at all levels, it did not succeed in transforming the study of literature into a process with the objectivity of an exact science, nor did it stimulate new developments in literature. On the contrary, American disciples of deconstruction, postcolonial criticism, and other poststructuralist critics would criticize the work as tendentious and inadequate.

After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1933, Frye went to Emmanuel College in Toronto and became ordained in the United Church of Canada in 1936. He concluded his formal education at Merton College, Oxford, where he received his M.A. in 1940. Returning to the University of Toronto, he took up residence at Victoria College and rose through the academic ranks to become chancellor of the university in 1978, a post he held until his death in 1991. Over the course of his career he would periodically teach or lecture at hundreds of Canadian, American, British, and other universities around the world. He wrote scores of books on literary theory and criticism; contributed hundreds of essays, chapters, and journal articles; and edited more than a dozen books. He received dozens of doctoral degrees in literature from some of the world’s most prestigious universities, and through his editorships he shaped the course of literary studies in North America and abroad from the elementary through the university level.

In his first book, Fearful Symmetry, Frye investigated the visionary English poet William Blake; his approach, which revolutionized the reading of Blake’s work, laid the groundwork for what developed into his characteristic method of criticism. Before Frye’s interpretation Blake’s poetry, particularly that of his prophetic books, was considered eccentric, obscure, even perverse; it had been perceived largely to resist explication. Frye succeeded in uncovering the unifying element in Blake’s system, the fact that everything sprang from the nonrational, visionary imagination, which was for Blake—as it was for Frye—the primary agent of human creativity.

Blake emphatically rejected the analytic intellect, the norm of the scientific method, as a valid instrument for human development. Instead, he believed in the priority of vision, which transcends and supersedes reason. Frye showed that everything in Blake’s poetry flows from that belief, which led the poet to a new unifying concept of symbol and myth. In the process of thus deciphering Blake’s mythological system, Frye discovered that the secret of its consistency lies in the relevance of recurrent motifs to one another: Comparison of similar motifs disclosed the underlying pattern of Blake’s unconscious mind. Frye began to suspect that all symbols, all myths, and all narrative sequences might be tied together in the same way and that generalizing the method that had worked for Blake might yield the key to the unconscious imagination of all humankind.

After completing Fearful Symmetry, Frye intended to see whether the principles he had derived from Blake’s poetry could be applied to Edmund Spenser’s use of allegory in The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). He discovered, however, that whenever he tried to write about Spenser, he ended up with generalizations about the abstract structure of literature. Eventually he abandoned Spenser to write about literature, and ten years later he published Anatomy of Criticism, whereby Frye transformed the nature and the practice of criticism.

Anatomy of Criticism, which consists of four essays enclosed by a “polemical introduction” and a “tentative conclusion,” sets forth a schematic structure intended to do for literature what the general field theory does for biology. These scientific analogies are not misplaced; in fact, they are at the heart of Frye’s system, which attempts to provide for literature what Aristotle in his De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) provided for tragedy: both a synoptic, all-inclusive overview and a schematic framework in which all literary works could be systematically shelved. To do this he first had to reveal the shortcomings of the existing literary theories, which he does in the polemical introduction by demonstrating that the critical vocabulary commonly in use does not enable even adequate communication. Frye fills that need by inventing a taxonomy for literature, claiming that only in this way, and by making criticism objective and free of value judgments, can criticism become a true intellectual enterprise.

In the first essay Frye establishes that mythic patterns underlie all narratives and that the history of literature reveals an evolution of forms which can be precisely charted by such simple methods as assessing the role and nature of the hero. In the second essay he analyzes symbolism and demonstrates both the existence and nature of multiple levels of meaning. The third essay delineates how the archetype and the myth recur throughout literature and elaborates a theory of “displacement” to explain the relationships of literary works to one another. Finally in his fourth essay he analyzes genres and classifies them according to rhythm and pattern and to the relationship of the authorial voice to the work in question.

Because of the enormous influence of the Anatomy of Criticism, a host of books that apply his theories of the autonomy of literary studies to education are often overlooked. Frye believed that literature frees human beings from being enslaved to the arts of persuasion, especially propaganda and advertizing, and from the bondages of ideology and superstition. He further develops these ideas in the many books and papers that followed.


Critical Essays