Northrop Frye

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M. H. Abrams

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[Professor Frye's Anatomy of Criticism is] a big, packed, compendious, and audacious book. He undertakes specifically a "science" of criticism which, following the model of the modern natural sciences, is constructed on the basis of "an inductive survey of the literary field." His aim is to achieve what criticism has always lacked, a body of knowledge which, like any genuine science, will be systematic, coherent, and progressive…. This knowledge is not to be exclusive but "synoptic"; that is, it will incorporate everything that is valid in existing approaches to literature. Aristotelian poetics, aesthetic criticism, literary history and scholarship, the new criticism of text and texture, the newer criticism of myth and archetype, mediaeval hermeneutics—all are accepted and given their due places in a single critical system. Frye puts his claim modestly: the book consists of tentative "essays … on the possibility of a synoptic view." But it is clear that, however subject to refinement and expansion, these essays are conceived as the prolegomena to any future criticism…. Constantly [the book] yields a freshness of insight by cross-cutting the traditional perspectives and stereotypes of criticism. It is a strikingly original achievement, of bewildering scope and complexity. And it raises a host of questions which will provide topics of literary debate for years to come; the book will be attacked and it will be defended, but it will not be ignored. (pp. 190-91)

In Frye's conspectus, the field of criticism falls into a diagrammatic form with multilateral symmetries…. There are, for example, five modes of criticism, in parallel with five phases of symbolism; then three kinds of archetypes, each exhibited in seven matched categories, and falling, in their narrative forms, into the four cardinal mythoi (comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire), arranged in a circle so that each has two neighbours and an antithetic form; furthermore, each mythos incorporates, mutatis mutandis, the same four character-types, and is subdivided into six phases or species; these in turn divide neatly down the middle, three approximating ever more closely to the myth-form on the right and three to the myth-form on the left; and so on. The whole is reminiscent of the mediaeval encyclopedic tables designed to comprehend the omne scibile; instinctively though in vain the reader looks for an appendix that will open out into a square yard of tabular diagram.

Undeniably, systematic classification is necessary to order and make manageable any field of knowledge, and it can be charged that any classification, however indispensable, to some extent falsifies the phenomena it subsumes. The solution to this difficulty lies in keeping the system as open and flexible as possible, and in maintaining a balanced responsiveness between the categories and the data. Systems which are too elaborately symmetrical tend to keep order by tyrannizing over the unruly facts. And once you begin an intricately ordered pattern, it seeks closure by reproducing mirror-images of itself…. The danger is that when the total gridwork is completed, not only have you a place for everything but every place must have a something; and that thing automatically inherits a complex set of attributes, correspondences, clan-relationships, and oppositions. In its fearful symmetry Frye's critical system repeatedly raises the question: to what extent are the inevitable sequences of repetitions, variations, parallels, and antitypes genuine discoveries, and to what extent are they artefacts of the conceptual scheme?

A second matter which is bound to become a causa belli is Frye's contention that evaluation must be strictly excluded from a critical theory, either in its premisses or in its application to individual works of literature. His point appears to be that a science...

(This entire section contains 1944 words.)

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of literature, like all sciences, must be objective, that all evaluations are "subjective," an "illusion of the history of taste," and that all hierarchies of literary values express concealed—and temporary—social or moral prejudices…. According to Frye's view, it seems, "critical evaluation" becomes a contradiction in terms.

Let it be said that there are considerable grounds for Frye's impatience with the usual rôle of evaluation in theory…. But Frye seems to me to put the part for the whole. Theory certainly differs from direct literary experience, but the total separation between them is, in practice, neither possible nor desirable to maintain. A well-grounded theory opens our senses to literary possibilities, and, as Coleridge said, though meditation (theory) without observation is vacuous, observation without meditation is blind. (pp. 191-92)

[If] in his own theory Frye tries to be a scientist, evaluation is always breaking through, even the kind of evaluation which implies a literary hierarchy: "Aristophanes' … greatest comedy," "one of the greatest masterpieces of tragic irony in literature, Plato's Apology," "the greatest contemporary tragedian, Racine…." And ironically enough, the whole book serves, in effect, to transvaluate established literary values, by putting not only primitive but "popular" literary phenomena on an equivalence with Homer and Shakespeare as the basis for critical generalizations—including melodrama, soap operas, advertising copy, science fiction, nursery rhymes, college yells, and political cartoons.

It is safe to predict that the storm-centre of debate about the Anatomy of Criticism will be its adoption of the mediaeval doctrine of four-level meaning, regarded as applicable to all works of literature, no matter how literally the poet may have intended his work to be read. Some form of polysemism, indeed, is necessary to Frye's thesis that all forms of criticism—including textual, thematic-image, and myth criticism—discover meanings which are simultaneously and objectively existent in any poem. As Frye points out, he modifies the mediaeval conception of the levels in order to incorporate some peculiarly modern concepts. For example, he interprets the "literal" level so as to involve the current view of a poem qua poem, or self-contained universe of discourse; and he translates the mediaeval moral and tropological level into the archetypal mode of reading, which discovers the ritual-and-myth-patterns that constitute the underground of even the most sophisticated literary structures. Of the four levels, the archetypal level has the central rôle and is given the most prominence and space; it also raises the most basic and troublesome questions. (pp. 192-93)

Unlike most other archetypal critics. Frye explicitly disavows the standard attempts to give a causal explanation for the recurrence of archetypes. Jung's "collective unconscious" (in effect, a theory of the inheritance of acquired mental characteristics) is "an unnecessary hypothesis"; the ritual origin of dramatic forms is merely speculative history; and archetypal patterns are not, like conventions, dependent on the mimicry of literary originals. The patterns, Frye says, are simply there, "however they got there."… Which brings up the questions: how do we know they are there? what is the evidence for the existence of an archetype? And these take us back to Frye's conception of a science of criticism.

The qualifications he cites for a science are coherence, inclusiveness, and the possibility of progress. Many pseudo-sciences, however, exhibit these attributes. Astrology, physiognomy, and the theory of humours were systematic theories that undertook to comprehend all relevant phenomena, and all showed great possibilities for development through the centuries. What seems indispensable to a genuine science is a fourth qualification: it sets out from and terminates in an appeal to facts which enforce agreement from all sane, knowledgeable, and disinterested witnesses, in independent observations. It is relevant to inquire whether Frye's literary data do enforce agreement from all qualified readers. Are they discoverable by independent observations? Could even an initiate predict, in advance of publication, that Frye would discover … "displaced" forms of the dragon-killing myth in the cave episode in Tom Sawyer and in the hero's release from the labyrinth of past time in Henry James's The Sense of the Past? (pp. 193-94)

[The] odd thing about evidence for an archetype is not that you cannot prove that it is present, but that you cannot help proving it, and that there is no way of disproving it. Any extended and complex literary work can, by the omission of unsuitable elements, be made to resemble almost any archetypal shape. Since there is no firm possibility of negative observations, archetypal statements are empirically incorrigible, and incorrigible statements are not good grounds for a science of criticism; one may doubt whether many archetypal statements are even, in the strict sense, significant empirical propositions. This point is perhaps implicit in Frye's assertion that "it is not sufficient to use the text as a check on commentary," for "the poet unconsciously meant the whole corpus of his possible commentary …"…. (pp. 194-95)

Frye maintains that criticism, like science, needs … "a central hypothesis" in order to see individual phenomena "as parts of a whole,"… and that the only cure for the endless proliferation of conflicting literary commentary is the view that "criticism has an end in the structure of literature as a total form."… But the regress to one hypothetical Urmythos behind the multitude of individual literary phenomena does not correspond to the ever widening generality of the sequence of physical hypotheses, from Kepler to Newton to Einstein; nor does the concept of an archetype of archetypes have the function in criticism of Einstein's unified-field theory in physics. Its function, in fact, is not scientific but metaphysical, and its relation to literary particulars is like the relation of the one to the many in Neo-Platonic philosophy, in which the method of reasoning is a steady movement from the multitude of particulars back, through a progressively narrowing sequence of types, to the One or the Absolute. This yields a "certainty," indeed; but it is not the certainty of empirical proof, it is the security of an ultimate abiding place for the monistic compulsion of the human spirit.

What I have said about the Anatomy of Criticsm will be misunderstood if it is taken as an attempt to refute or disparage this notable book. My intention is rather to isolate and identify the nature of its particular achievement. On the literal level, or in its many other aspects which can be translated in literal terms, it provides as large and varied a body of critical insights as any book in recent years. Many of these can be looked upon as valid elements in a science of criticism, according to the criterion for a science which, Aristotle suggests, is the only one an educated man will apply: that it yield just so much precision and certainty as the nature of a particular subject will admit. As for the remainder, though it is not science, it is a thing no less valid or rare—it is wit, "a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike."… Such criticism is animating; though only so, it should be added, when conducted with Frye's special brio, and when it manifests a mind which, like his, is deft, resourceful, and richly stored. An intuitive perception of similarity in dissimilars, Aristotle noted, is a sign of genius and cannot be learned from others. Wit-criticism, like poetic wit, is dangerous, because to fall short of the highest is to fail dismally, and to succeed, it must be managed by a Truewit and not by a Witwoud.

Professor Frye argues eloquently that the theory and practice of literary criticism is a humanistic and liberal pursuit; and one of the functions of both criticism and a liberal culture, as Matthew Arnold pointed out, is a free and disinterested play of mind. The Anatomy of Criticism is a remarkable instance of that free and delightful play of ideas around literature which has always been a distinction of the urbane and civilized mind. (pp. 195-96)

M. H. Abrams, "Reviews: 'Anatomy of Criticsm'," in University of Toronto Quarterly (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press), Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, January, 1959, pp. 190-96.


Frank Kermode


John Holloway