The Anatomy of Criticism

Anatomy of Criticism

Northrop Frye, 1957


It is impossible to learn literature because literature needs to be dis-furnished from the study of it—or criticism.  Literary Criticism has many neighbors, including: Psychology and Sociology.

Frye covers the Fictional Modes first.  Myth, Romance, Epic, Tragedy, Vanity Fair and Ironic.  Western Europeans move from Myth to Romance to Epic/Tragedy to Vanity Fair to Ironic.

The Tragic Stories of Dionysus, which was the story of the dying Gods. The solemn sympathy of nature is what is called Pathetic Fallacy.  The Tragic Hero has be great in his society so his fall is just as great as the fall of his society.  There should be a sense of supremacy to the natural law as well.

Romance, therefore is characterized by the acceptance of pit and fear, which in ordinary life related to pain. Romance turns terror into adventure and dread into melancholy.  These romance are tear jerkers that appeal to pity or self-pity.  The root of idea of pathos in romance is that the individual is on his or her own. They are separate from the social group from which they are dying belong.

The heroes of Gothic Thrillers are gloomy. The result of these tales is not tragedy so much, as it is a sort of melodrama. It is sometimes like a comedy without humor.

Ironic fiction is where the writer depreciates himself and says, like Socrates, that he knows nothing.

The old comedies blend the heroic with the ironic.  New comedies blend include erotic intrigue. It usually centers on a man and woman and the obstacle to their romance.

There has been an anti-romantic movement in modern times. George Bernard Shaw and the Fabian Society were part of this anti-romantic movement.

Thomas Hardy and George Bernard Shaw both flourished in the early 1900s. They were both interested in evolution. Hardy was about tragedy—stoicism. Shaw, who wrote comedies, saw evolution as creative, leading to revolutionary politics, the advent of Nietzsche’s Superman, and whatever metabiology is. Hardy and Shaw were primarily writers, but they were also philosophical.

Poetry is often political. They can also be tragic or epic stories told within verse. Poetry was said to be inspired by the Oracle. It was a song to the divine.  It is a relationship to the divine.  Memory is the mother of the Greek Muses after all.  Plato’s book Phaedrus deals largely with Poetry as Myth and forms a commentary on Plato’s treatment of Myth.

Frye moves on to talk about The Theory of Symbols.  There are Outside Symbols and Inside Symbols. Literary meaning may be described as hypothetical or assumed relation to the external world as imaginative.  The tautological is purely verbal.

Works of Literature move in time like music and spread out like images in a painting. He suggests listening to a poem.

Symbolism is extreme naturalism. The criticism as well as the creation of literature reflects the distinction between the literal and the descriptive aspects of symbolism. Symbols can be images as well.  Archetypes are Symbolism too.  These types of people or roles exist only in literature, but they become so well-known because they are universal.

Some symbols are images common to all—like food, drink and sex.  The journey or quest and the presence of light and dark are all universal.

Frye then moves into Archetypal Criticism or the Theory of Myths.  The divine world and society of Gods turned into One God in Christianity.  The human world and the society of men turned into One Man.  The animal world is the sheepfold that turned into the One Lamb.  The vegetable world turned into the One Tree—the Tree of Life.  The mineral world which is the city became the Temples or Churches. Christianity is Three Gods in One.

Apocalyptic Symbolism is presents the infinitely desirable in which the lustful or ambitious man can identify with the Gods. The Tragedy clearly implies that we must clearly implies that we must come to terms with the possession of power—even in our thoughts.

The narrative structure of the Mythos follows a pattern.  The divine world is cyclical—like sun god dying at dawn, etc.  Then there is the fire world of heavenly bodies. The Human way is midway between the Spiritual World and the Animal World.  The darkness of desire lies here. The Animal Cycle is represented in pets and other domesticated animals—like Odysseus’s Dog.  The Natural World is represented in the cycles of the season. Fortunes Wheel represents life and death. There is often water symbolism in the form of rivers, lakes and oceans.

The Mythos of Summer Romance is a wish fulfilment dream. The plot element is adventures and it happens in a particular sequence.  Two people are often in conflict and there is usually a hero and a villain. Jung is a good critic to use for critiques of Romance.

The Myth of Autumn is the Tragedy.  In Tragedy usually the characters are more rounded or fuller.  The sense in Greek Tragedy is that the Fates are Stronger than the Gods.  The heroes act has thrown a switch in a larger machine than their own lives.  The hero must fall, but it is too bad that he falls.

The Myth of Irony and Satire are based on patterns of experience.  The wit or humor involved is based on fantasy though.  The first phase is moral intensity and the second phase is escape.  The fourth phases is ironic tragedy. The fifth and final phase is the fantastic.  There is an emphasis on the natural cycle of things.

Frye’s fourth essay in the book deals with Rhetoric Criticism. He goes over grammar, rhetoric and speech and how they apply to drama, poetry, the epic and prose.  Each has its own rhythm. Prose is all about the rhythm of continuity, drama is about the rhythm of decorum and the lyric is about the rhythm of association.

Frye’s tentative conclusion is that, “one of the tasks of criticism is that is the recovery of function, not of course the restoration of original function, which is out of questions, but the recreation of function in a new content. Literature, like math, is a language and a language  in itself represents no truth, though it may provide the means for expressing any number of them.”


About carilynn27

Reading and writing and writing about reading are my passion. I've been keeping a journal since I was 14. I also write fiction and poetry. I published my first collection of short stories, "Radiant Darkness" in 2000. I followed that up with my first collection of poetry in 2001 called "Journey without a Map." In 2008, I published "Persephone's Echo" another collection of poetry. Since then I've also published Emotional Espionage, The Way The Story Ended, My Perfect Drug and Out There. I have my BA in English from The Ohio State University at Mansfield and my MA in English Lit from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I also have my Post BA Certificate in Women's Studies. I am the mother of two beautiful children. :-)
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