Frye, Northrop

Assigned: Frye, Northrop. “The Archetypes of Literature” (1250-62). Also read the editors’ introduction (1248-50).

“The Archetypes of Literature” (1951)


1. On 1250-51 (“Every organized body of knowledge…”), why, according to Northrop Frye, is it “impossible to ‘learn literature’” or, for that matter, to engage in “teaching literature” (1250)? What key statement about the nature and scope of literary criticism does this insight lead Frye to make? At present, too, what problem with the current state of affairs becomes manifest when the student or teacher of literature turns, logically enough, to the various scientific and sociological disciplines for help?

2. On 1251-52 (“Most of the central area of criticism…”), Frye writes that the current field of criticism is filled with “pseudo-statements” that lead nowhere for the inquirer who wants to “get a more comprehensive idea of what criticism is about…” (1251). What kind of pseudo-statements is he alluding to here? What does Frye have against the “value-judgments” (1252) and similar critical or fashionable appraisals of this or that literary artist? In what sense are they “meaningless criticism” (1251 bottom), and thus to be avoided?

3. On 1252 (“We next meet a more serious group…”), Frye addresses the “more serious” critics who concern themselves with “a structural analysis of the literary work itself,” by which he most likely means formalist critics who confine their inquiries to the text before them. Frye acknowledges the need for rhetorical or structural analysis, but what problems and limitations does he emphasize as besetting this approach to criticism? What is “at present missing from literary criticism,” and what would supplying that lack make possible?

4. On 1252-53 (“The first postulate of this hypothesis…”), Frye identifies the “first postulate” of his hypothesis regarding what is missing from mid-nineteenth-century criticism as “the assumption of total coherence” (1252). He clarifies that he is not referring to literature itself, but instead to the “science” (1252 bottom) of criticism. What, then, is the correct way to think about the body of literature itself, according to Frye? Moreover, on what grounds does he dismiss what he calls “the fallacy of premature teleology” (1253)—what is this fallacy, and why is its premise mistaken?


5. On 1253-54 (“The unity of a work of art…”), Frye offers a partially Aristotelian interpretation of the “the unity of the work of art” (1253), one that treats it in terms of the ancient philosopher’s fourfold theory of causality. First, there is the artist as “efficient” cause, who creates the work’s shape or definition (its formal cause). How does Frye describe the relationship between author and text in terms of the organic metaphor of birth? Describe what you believe to be the significance of this account in your own words. Moreover, what relationship does Frye posit between the critic, the artist (the “poet”), and the work itself (1254 top)?

6. On 1254-55 (“There is still before us…”), Frye discusses the “formal” cause of a work of art, which he puts down to the question of its genre or type. According to him, what “[t]wo conceptions” (1254) of genre are clearly in error? Moving away from these errors, he says, we come to what literary history can tell us about the beginnings of this or that genre, but this proves unsatisfying. How does inquiry into the origins of genre, then, lead Frye to consider a “systematic’ (1255 top) quality in literature that could ground the systematic criticism he calls for in this essay? How might archetypes or primal patterns we find in so-called primitive cultures and onward to the present day (with some adaptations) serve as the ground for the study of literature?

7. On 1255-56 (“This inductive movement towards…”), Frye describes the desired approach to the archetype as “a process of backing up […] from structural analysis, as we back up from a painting if we want to see composition instead of brushwork” (1255). Distance, in other words, provides perspective on the whole. How does Frye illustrate this movement and consequent achievement of a fuller perspective by referring to Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 5, Scene 1, the “Gravedigger Scene” that takes place not long before the revenge tragedy’s bloody conclusion? What do we learn about the play as we take each successive step backwards? Moreover, how does this exercise lend integrity and unity to the act of criticism rather than dispersing it or subordinating it to other disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, and history (1256)?


8. On 1256 (“Some arts move in time…”), in describing the temporal and spatial perspectives that can be adopted by readers of literary texts, Frye writes that “We may call the rhythm of literature the narrative, and the pattern, the simultaneous mental grasp of the verbal structure, the meaning or significance.” How, according to Frye, does the “representational fallacy” sometimes hamper or warp these temporal and spatial perspectives and lead us to misunderstand the nature of what we read? In what he calls the proper usage of terminology (and aside from what was just quoted above in this question), how should we understand the terms “narrative,” “meaning,” and “image”?

9. On 1257 (“Rhythm, or recurrent movement…”), on 1256, Frye discusses the temporal and spatial aspects of literary texts (see previous question). What insights does he go on to offer on 1257 regarding “Rhythm, or recurrent movement”? How is this phenomenon grounded in the cyclical events of the natural world; namely, the perennial generation-to-death-to-rebirth cycle of the seasons? How, in turn, does humanity’s “will to synchronize human and natural energies” at key points in collective agricultural life lead to what Frye calls “ritual”? What is the relationship between this kind of ritual and narrative in literature, and in what sense does ritual tend to become “encyclopedic” (1257)?

10. On 1257-58 (“Patterns of imagery, on the other hand…”), Frye turns to imagery. What qualities of the “[p]atterns of imagery” in literary works differentiate them from the rhythmic, “ritual” properties of narrative in literary works? What key similarities does Frye also mention? How is “myth” (1257) vital to both the ritual and the “oracle” (which latter term connects to the “patterns of imagery” Frye has been discussing)? On 1258, Frye offers a table designed to elucidate the fertility myth. Briefly summarize this four-part table.

11. On 1258 (“The quest of the hero also tends…”), how does Frye assess the foundational status and importance of the “quest myth” for the understanding of literary works? Why, in addition, must a myth critic begin his or her studies with “the sacred scriptures of religions” before moving to the study of partly or entirely secular literary texts, with better understanding of genre, lyric, and other key forms and considerations?

12. On 1259-60 (“Some words of caution and encouragement…”), Frye addresses the relationship between criticism and other disciplines as it works to develop itself as fully as possible. How does the critic who wants to follow out the vitality of the “quest-myth” relate to psychology and anthropology? By contrast, what will the critic who deals mainly with “the principles of literary form” (1259) find it necessary to consider most intently? Finally, what complications does criticism’s relation to religion introduce? In this regard, why do dreams at once seem particularly important to the critic, and what startling attitude towards “ordinary waking consciousness” (1259-60) and “any theory of actuality” (1260) does Frye boldly set forth for the critic?

13. On 1260 (“We have identified the central myth…”), Frye proposes to view the quest-myth (which he has called “the central myth of literature”) as “a pattern of meaning” rather than solely in terms of narrative. How does concentrating on the dream-world or dream-state make this possible, and lead us to an understanding of the purpose or “final cause” (1260) of art? What “vision” best describes the “social function of the arts” and demonstrates the legitimacy of literary criticism among its fellow social sciences?

14. On 1261-62 (“In the comic vision the human world…”), Frye sets down a table listing what he considers “the central pattern of the comic and tragic visions” (1260). Briefly summarize the contents of each of the five headings on 1261, and choose two for more detailed analysis. How helpful do the contents seem to you as a means of understanding literary texts? Finally, read Yeats’ short poem “Sailing to Byzantium” since that is the illustrative sample Frye mentions—how does this poem exemplify the images and forms that Frye says constitute the comic vision?

15. General question: In his 1951 study “The Archetypes of Literature,” Northrop Frye suggests that we can arrive at a totally coherent theory of literary criticism, though he is careful to point out that literature itself should be thought of as inexhaustibly productive of variety and meaning. Do you think this ideal of “total coherence” or full scientific status for criticism is attainable? Why or why not? Do any varieties of criticism today seem either partly or entirely to endorse the kind of vision Frye sets forth, or is it no longer possible to find such an endorsement? Explain.

16. General question: The Norton editors point out that contemporary theorists criticize Northrop Frye’s strong assertions in “The Archetypes of Literature” about the centrality of myth and ritual to literature as well as his belief that we can arrive at a fully scientific, coherent theory and practice of criticism. Focus on one type of theory that “has a problem” with Frye, and explain its objections as fully as you can. How do you suppose Frye himself might respond to such critics?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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