Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

Anatomy of CriticismAnatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I had to choose one book as the foundation for an education in literary criticism and theory, I might choose Anatomy of Criticism; I wish I had read it much earlier. Even if one’s goal were the deconstruction of the concept of literature, this might be the most productive text to deconstruct, because Frye intends his theory as the climax and (to use his typological Biblical language) fulfillment of all prior western literary theory from Aristotle to Eliot.

In his “Polemical Introduction,” Frye rejects prevailing ways of defining the critical project. The goal of criticism, he says, should not be canon-making or politicking, but rather a properly elaborated science of the whole body of literature:

Criticism, rather, is to art what history is to action and philosophy to wisdom: a verbal imitation of a human productive power which in itself does not speak. And just as there is nothing which the philosopher cannot consider philosophically, and nothing which the historian cannot consider historically, so the critic should be able to construct and dwell in a conceptual universe of his own.

This may sound like an arid scientistic or New Critical project, severing literature from life, but, as the end of the book makes clear, it is just the opposite: since criticism addresses itself primarily to rhetoric, and since no concept or emotion can be expressed without rhetoric, criticism in fact addresses itself to everything human. In this, and in his refusal to adjudicate questions of literary quality (which he dismisses as mere “taste,” hence social prejudice), Frye’s seemingly old-fashioned book leads more or less directly to some variant (a non-Marxist one) of cultural studies and multiculturalism.

But if Anatomy of Criticism is known for anything these days, it as a compendium of quasi-Jungian mythical or archetypal theories of literature. Frye argues that the four central types of criticism—the historical, the ethical, the archetypal, and the generic—examine different aspects of literature that can nevertheless be reconstructed by the theorist as a unity. This unity is ultimately based upon categorial human mythoi that refer to the life-cycles of individuals, societies, and the human race. Just as Shelley claimed that every language is “the chaos of a cyclic poem,” so Frye argues that literature in its diversity is made up of primordial images and narratives. For criticism to be a science, Frye believes, it must have an ultimate end in sight, and the ultimate end is literature-in-its-totality’s vision of the human archetypes on their progress through the natural rotation:

The structural principles of literature…are to be derived from archetypal and anagogic criticism, the only kind that assumes a larger context, of literature as a whole. […] Hence the structural principles of literature are as closely related to mythology and comparative religion as those of painting are to geometry. In this essay [on myths] we shall be using the symbolism of the Bible, and to a lesser extent Classical mythology, as a grammar of literary archetypes.

These mythoi, to each of which Frye assigns a season, move in a pattern from birth to death to rebirth and they are narrated in their entirety in The Bible, which Frye construes as a total myth. My brief review, even with selective quotation, cannot really reproduce the psychedelic quality of Frye’s pages on these topics, and I would have to read the book again to be able to account precisely for how the mythoi interrelate across modes and genres. As Frye traces how myth and mode interact, how each literary work and genre can be seen as one element in a total process, his book gives the pleasure of a narrative in which a maddening and chaotic mystery suddenly becomes clear:

The four mythoi that we are dealing with, comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony, may now be seen as four aspects of a central unifying myth. Agon or conflict is the basis or archetypal theme of romance, the radical of romance being a sequence of marvellous adventures. Pathos or catastrophe, whether in triumph or in defeat, is the archetypal theme of tragedy. Sparagmos, or the sense that heroism and effective action are absent, disorganized or foredoomed to defeat, and that confusion and anarchy reign over the world, is the archetypal theme of irony and satire. Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy.

Most people today probably doubt that criticism can be a science in the way that Frye defines it, even though Frye was probably correct to think that literature would not be able to maintain its status in the modern university unless it could defend itself as a disinterested and autonomous contribution to Wissenschaft. But creative writers are happy to present themselves either as crazy people or craftspeople, and literary scholars have been cheerfully selling their birthright for every mess of pottage that has come their way, from structural linguistics to critical sociology to techno-utopianism. Having sawn off the branch they were sitting on (to vary my metaphor), literary scholars have little cause to complain, it seems to me, if they find themselves without support. Why pay a literary critic to do imprecise sociology, imprecise linguistics, imprecise political science, imprecise history, and the rest? Even at that, though, Frye’s Jung- and Frazer-inspired “science” will strike even sympathetic readers as too New Agey to be a sober and scholarly account of a body of historical evidence, however entertaining certain sensibilities (I mean mine!) happen to find it, and however inspiring it is as an attempt to make good on Wilde’s program for criticism: to show “the unity of the human mind in the variety of its forms.”

Frye does envision an ultimate “ethical” or social mission for literature, as he reveals in Anatomy‘s extraordinary “Tentative Conclusion.” There he defines the study of literature as a humanizing force that provides students with a repertoire of images for the just society that humanity will probably never attain but must always strive for. Readers of Fredric Jameson will recall the ease with which Jameson—playing Hegel to Frye’s Kant, as it were—was able to set Frye’s static archetypes into motion to appropriate his theory for Marxism. But Frye takes a hard line against Marxism, correctly observing that revolution and politics, by denying the autonomy that legitimates literature’s utopianism and by interfering with the freedom of writers and scholars to pursue their visions, actually curtails human development in the guise of pushing it forward. Frye, to be sure, is something of an optimist, and his ultimate view of our species’s progress seems to be something on the order of “Don’t push the river—it flows.” This will anger conservatives for its somewhat cavalier attitude toward tradition and it will anger radicals for its passivity; in short, Frye has constructed one of the most ingenious defenses of liberalism known to me. (I have posted a long quotation from Frye on this political theme over at my Tumblr to avoid lengthening this review: see here if you’re interested.)

Why read this book today if you aren’t convinced of its politics or its theoretical presuppositions? Joshua Rothman gives the best reason: Frye’s lucid exposition of literary genres and modes expands our vocabulary for talking about novels, poems, plays, films, and other imaginative forms. When Frye protests against labelling any work of prose narrative a “novel,” insisting on the contrary that there are in fact four genres of prose narrative—romance, novel, confession, anatomy—you can feel the literary universe get a bit bigger. In that sense, this might be the most affirmative book of literary criticism or theory I have ever read. Frye ultimately implies that knowledge and pleasure should be concomitant in the attention we pay to the arts. The more we understand about a work’s tradition, the more we will be able to value it for what it is rather than censuring it for what it is not: as Frye says, we should not judge a romance by the standards of the novel and vice versa.

(Though some might understand what I mean if I say I am bit disappointed that Rothman has to use this theory to explicate the middlebrow genre-inflected literary fiction of today, whereas Frye’s own essay on genre climaxes in an attempt to explain the avant-garde achievements of Joyce: Frye praises Ulysses as a “complete prose epic” that contains all four prose genres in perfect balance, and he claims that Finnegans Wake goes further even than that to attain something like scriptural status.)

While some may think that Frye’s compendium of jargon and his intense schematism might neutralize literary appreciation by taking the passion out of it, it instead increases appreciation by imparting more and more language with which to express one’s knowledge about what one reads. I do believe, however, that it would be a disaster to try to create a great work by conforming to Frye’s categories: that would probably result in Joseph Campbell, Star Wars, and other such simplistic stuff that piles up cliches and calls them myths. Even if we accept Frye’s postulate that a critic must be a scientist, we can agree that it is the scientist’s business to account for nature, and not nature’s business to tailor and circumscribe itself for the benefit of the scientist.

In any case, I doubt this will be my only reading of this learned and mind-expanding book. I would advise every student of literature, professional or amateur, to read it sooner rather than later.



  1. What a splendid appreciation of Frye’s Anatomy, which has been a touchstone for me for over forty years. It does indeed repay repeated attention, and leads to Frye’s important work on Blake and other Romantics, in addition to his “sequel” to AOC, The Great Code.

  2. […] From its Chaucerian title and Swiftian epigraph to its Orwellian afterword, then, The Handmaid’s Tale places its main narrative—an impassioned, intelligent monologue associated with the realist novel and akin to those of Moll Flanders, Pamela Andrews, or Jane Eyre—within a tradition of satire (of which the dystopian, with its caricatural extrapolation of bad present-day tendencies into a future defined solely by them, is a subgenre). Of satire, Atwood’s teacher Northrop Frye observes in The Anatomy of Criticism: […]

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