Northrop Frye

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Northrop Frye : biography

July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991

Criticism for Frye, then, is not a task of evaluation — that is, of rejecting or accepting a literary work — but rather simply of recognizing it for what it is and understanding it in relation to other works within the ‘order of words’ Cotrupi, Caterina N., (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.) ISBN 978-0-8020-8141-4 (Cotrupi 4). Imposing value judgments on literature belongs, according to Frye, "only to the history of taste, and therefore follows the vacillations of fashionable prejudice" (Anatomy 9). Genuine criticism "progresses toward making the whole of literature intelligible" (Anatomy 9) so that its goal is ultimately knowledge and not evaluation. For the critic in Frye’s mode, then,

. . . a literary work should be contemplated as a pattern of knowledge, an act that must be distinguished, at least initially, from any direct experience of the work, . . . [Thus] criticism begins when reading ends: no longer imaginatively subjected to a literary work, the critic tries to make sense out of it, not by going to some historical context or by commenting on the immediate experience of reading but by seeing its structure within literature and literature within culture (Hamilton 27).

A theory of the imagination

Once asked whether his critical theory was Romantic, Frye responded, "Oh, it’s entirely Romantic, yes" (Stingle 1). It is Romantic in the same sense that Frye attributed Romanticism to Blake: that is, "in the expanded sense of giving a primary place to imagination and individual feeling" (Stingle 2). As artifacts of the imagination, literary works, including "the pre-literary categories of ritual, myth, and folk-tale" (Archetypes 1450) form, in Frye’s vision, a potentially unified imaginative experience. He reminds us that literature is the "central and most important extension" of mythology: ". . . every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted and diversified by literature" (Words with Power xiii). Mythology and literature thus inhabit and function within the same imaginative world, one that is "governed by conventions, by its own modes, symbols, myths and genres" (Hart 23). Integrity for criticism requires that it too operates within the sphere of the imagination, and not seek an organizing principle in ideology. To do so, claims Frye, . . . leaves out the central structural principles that literature derives from myth, the principles that give literature its communicating power across the centuries through all ideological changes. Such structural principles are certainly conditioned by social and historical factors and do not transcend them, but they retain a continuity of form that points to an identity of the literary organism distinct from all its adaptations to its social environment (Words with Power xiii).

Myth therefore provides structure to literature simply because literature as a whole is "displaced mythology" (Bates 21). Hart makes the point well when he states that "For Frye, the story, and not the argument, is at the centre of literature and society. The base of society is mythical and narrative and not ideological and dialectical" (19). This idea, which is central in Frye’s criticism, was first suggested to him by Giambattista Vico.

Frye’s critical method

Frye uses the terms ‘centripetal’ and ‘centrifugal’ to describe his critical method. Criticism, Frye explains, is essentially centripetal when it moves inwardly, towards the structure of a text; it is centrifugal when it moves outwardly, away from the text and towards society and the outer world. Lyric poetry, for instance, like Keats’s "Ode on a Grecian Urn", is dominantly centripetal, stressing the sound and movement and imagery of the ordered words. Rhetorical novels, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are dominantly centrifugal, stressing the thematic connection of the stories and characters to the social order. The "Ode" has centrifugal tendencies, relying for its effects on elements of history and pottery and visual aesthetics. Cabin has centripetal tendencies, relying on syntax and lexical choice to delineate characters and establish mood. But the one veers inward, the other pushes outward. Criticism reflects these movements, centripetally focusing on the aesthetic function of literature, centrifugally on the social function of literature.