Northrop Frye

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Northrop Frye : biography

July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991

The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with (Anatomy 5).

This "declaration of independence" (Hart xv) is necessarily a measured one for Frye. For coherence requires that the autonomy of criticism, the need to eradicate its conception as "a parasitic form of literary expression, . . . a second-hand imitation of creative power" (Anatomy 3), sits in dynamic tension with the need to establish integrity for it as a discipline. For Frye, this kind of coherent, critical integrity involves claiming a body of knowledge for criticism that, while independent of literature, is yet constrained by it: "If criticism exists," he declares, "it must be an examination of literature in terms of a conceptual framework derivable from an inductive survey of the literary field" itself (Anatomy 7).

Frye’s conceptual framework for literature

In seeking integrity for criticism, Frye rejects what he termed the deterministic fallacy. He defines this as the movement of "a scholar with a special interest in geography or economics [to] express . . . that interest by the rhetorical device of putting his favorite study into a causal relationship with whatever interests him less" (Anatomy 6). By attaching criticism to an external framework rather than locating the framework for criticism within literature, this kind of critic essentially "substitute[s] a critical attitude for criticism." For Frye critical integrity means that "the axioms and postulates of criticism . . . have to grow out of the art it deals with" (Anatomy 6).

Taking his cue from Aristotle, Frye’s methodology in defining a conceptual framework begins inductively, "follow[ing] the natural order and begin[ning] with the primary facts" (Anatomy 15). The primary facts, in this case, are the works of literature themselves. And what did Frye’s inductive survey of these "facts" reveal? Significantly, they revealed "a general tendency on the part of great classics to revert to [primitive formulas]" (Anatomy 17). This revelation prompted his next move, or rather, ‘inductive leap’: I suggest that it is time for criticism to leap to a new ground from which it can discover what the organizing or containing forms of its conceptual framework are. Criticism seems to be badly in need of a coordinating principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole (Anatomy 16).

Arguing that "criticism cannot be a systematic [and thus scientific] study unless there is a quality in literature which enables it to be so," Frye puts forward the hypothesis that "just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not a piled aggregate of ‘works,’ but an order of words" (Anatomy 17). This order of words constitutes criticism’s conceptual framework, its coordinating principle.

The order of words

The recurring primitive formulas Frye noticed in his survey of the "greatest classics" provide literature with an order of words, a "skeleton" which allows the reader "to respond imaginatively to any literary work by seeing it in the larger perspective provided by its literary and social contexts" (Hamilton 20). Frye identifies these formulas as the "conventional myths and metaphors" which he calls "archetypes" (Spiritus Mundi 118). The archetypes of literature exist, Frye argues, as an order of words, providing criticism with a conceptual framework and a body of knowledge derived not from an ideological system but rooted in the imagination itself. Thus, rather than interpreting literary works from some ideological ‘position’ — what Frye calls the "superimposed critical attitude" (Anatomy 7) — criticism instead finds integrity within the literary field itself.