His lasting reputation rests principally on the theory of literary criticism that he developed in Anatomy of Criticism, one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century. Frye engaged in cultural and social criticism and was the recipient of some 39 honorary degrees.
In 2000, he was honoured by the government of Canada with his image on a postage stamp. An international literary festival The Frye Festival, named in Frye's honour, takes place every April in Moncton, New Brunswick.
Northrop Frye Centre , part of Victoria College in the University of Toronto, was named in his honour, as was the Humanities Stream of the Vic One Program at Victoria College and the Northrop Frye Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto.
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).
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.
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 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).
. . . 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.
While some critics or schools of criticism emphasize one movement over the other, for Frye, both movements are essential: “criticism will always have two aspects, one turned toward the structure of literature and one turned toward the other cultural phenomena that form the social environment of literature” (Critical Path 25). He would therefore agree, at least in part, with the New Critics of his day in their centripetal insistence on structural analysis. But for Frye this is only part of the story: “It is right,” he declares, “that the first effort of critical apprehension should take the form of a rhetorical or structural analysis of a work of art. But a purely structural approach has the same limitation in criticism that it has in biology.” That is, it doesn’t develop “any explanation of how the structure came to be what it was and what its nearest relatives are. Structural analysis brings rhetoric back to criticism, but we need a new poetics as well . . .” (Archetypes 1447).
Because of its important social function, Frye felt that literary criticism was an essential part of a liberal education, and worked tirelessly to communicate his ideas to a wider audience. “For many years now,” he wrote in 1987, “I have been addressing myself primarily, not to other critics, but to students and a nonspecialist public, realizing that whatever new directions can come to my discipline will come from their needs and their intense if unfocused vision” (Auguries 7). It is therefore fitting that his last book, published posthumously, should be one that he describes as being “something of a shorter and more accessible version of the longer books, The Great Code and Words with Power,” which he asks his readers to read sympathetically, not “as proceeding from a judgment seat of final conviction, but from a rest stop on a pilgrimage, however near the pilgrimage may now be to its close” (Double Vision Preface).
See Also: Archetypal literary criticism
However, it was Blake, Frye’s “Virgilian guide” (Stingle 1), who first awakened Frye to the “mythological frame of our culture” (Cotrupi 14). In fact, Frye claims that his “second book [Anatomy] was contained in embryo in the first [Fearful Symmetry]” (Stubborn Structure 160). For it was in reflecting on the similarity between Blake and Milton that Frye first stumbled upon the “principle of the mythological framework,” the recognition that “the Bible was a mythological framework, cosmos or body of stories, and that societies live within a mythology” (Hart 18). Blake thus led Frye to the conviction that the Bible provided Western societies with the mythology which informed all of Western literature. As Hamilton asserts, “Blake’s claim that ‘the Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art’ became the central doctrine of all [Frye’s] criticism” (39). This ‘doctrine’ found its fullest expression in Frye’s appropriately named The Great Code, which he described as “a preliminary investigation of Biblical structure and typology” whose purpose was ultimately to suggest “how the structure of the Bible, as revealed by its narrative and imagery, was related to the conventions and genres of Western literature” (Words with Power xi).
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