In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Northrop Frye

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Literary and Critical Theory Northrop Frye
Diane Dubois
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0035


Herman Northrop Frye (July 14, 1912–January 23, 1991) was misunderstood for decades as a literary taxonomist or member of the archetypal school of literary criticism. Since the late 1970s his work has been subjected to wide reappraisal, revealing not only that his entire output was the result of a highly personal project but also that a spiritual quest and social mission runs throughout. While wrestling with William Blake’s perplexing symbolism as a divinity student in the 1930s, the centrality of biblical imagery in the literary canon became clear to him. From this project Frye’s critical method evolved, as he attempted to perfect a systematic approach to literature that could render any text comprehensible. Frye was astoundingly prolific, writing over thirty books and producing hundreds of book chapters, journal articles, book reviews, editorials, lectures, occasional papers, and sermons. Frye usually wrote about literature, but he also wrote on Christianity and other religions, on education, culture and politics, film, and painting. Situated within the University of Toronto for most of his life, he championed Canadian literature and art before it was fashionable to do so and even produced a handful of short stories. His writings have been assembled and edited to form the Collected Works of Northrop Frye, a collection of thirty volumes published by the University of Toronto Press in an immense project that began in 1993 and took just under two decades to complete. The Pratt Library of Victoria University at the University of Toronto holds a huge archive, including copies of literary works hand-annotated by Frye, these notations providing the most recent primary texts for Frye scholars to dig through for fresh material and insight. Despite his enormous output, Frye tells the same story over and over, of the revelatory and redemptive power of the written word. Frye believed that an education in the humanities was the basis of a democratic society. His “concern and freedom” thesis promotes a stance that is both imaginative and critical; laying between the two extremes of conservatism and radicalism, it promotes thinking beyond the simple reiteration of societal norms and values, without tipping into a potentially hazardous laissez-faire. Politically, Frye can be best described as a left-leaning liberal who, so committed to his belief in the social mission of literary criticism, frequently produced populist and accessible versions of his key ideas to disseminate these to a general audience.

Anatomy of Criticism

Frye 1957 is the most comprehensive statement of Frye’s ideas about literature and is a must-read for every Frye scholar. Frye begins by defending the need for a systematic literary criticism that does not rest on “taste” or value judgements or borrow its methodology from other disciplines or extraliterary concerns. The first of Frye’s four essays divides literature into five modes—mythic, romantic, high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic—each associated with, but not rigidly aligned to, a specific historical period; revising ideas first worked out in Frye 1950, the second essay shows how literary symbols operate in accordance to five phases, ranging from simple descriptive function to the most profoundly revelatory, which he calls anagogic. In the anagogic phase, all archetypes are intertextually connected, providing a revelatory and transcendental apprehension of literature as an autonomous and self-generating Order of Words. His third essay aligns the four mythoi of romance, irony, tragedy, and comedy to the seasons of summer, autumn, winter, and spring, showing how literature embodies the entirety of human desire and also its demonic inversion; see also Frye 1957 (cited under Shakespeare). In the fourth essay, Frye formulates a rhetorical criticism, and, in his conclusion, Frye begins to speculate on the social role of literary criticism; for more on the latter, see entries under Politics and Cultural Theory.

  • Frye, Northrop. “Levels of Meaning in Literature.” The Kenyon Review 12.2 (1950): 246–262.

    This material is incorporated into the second essay of Frye 1957. Draws on Dante’s notion of polysemy, stated in a letter to Can Grande della Scala, where Dante, using a medieval method also used by biblical exegetes, described his own work as polysemous, that is, having multiple layers of meaning, ranging from the literal, through the allegorical and moral to the most profound, revelatory level, the anagogic.

  • Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

    Making reference to a staggering breadth of material, Frye presents a persuasive literary typology. Then, in his final essay, Frye writes about Menippean satire, a “creative treatment of exhaustive erudition” and delivers his punchline—that another name for Menippean satire is the anatomy (p. 311). Thus Frye playfully acknowledges that his book is a creative, utopian fiction, positing, while simultaneously satirizing the (im)possibility of an encyclopedic overview of literature.

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