Renowned Canadian academic Northrop Frye, outlines the shape of fiction in his book Anatomy of Criticism:
In the second paragraph of the Poetics Aristotle speaks of the differences in works of fiction which are caused by the different elevations of the characters in them. In some fictions, he says, the characters are better than we are, in others worse, in still others on the same level. This passage has not received much attention from modern critics, as the importance Aristotle assigns to goodness and badness seems to indicate a somewhat narrowly moralistic view of literature. Aristotle's words for good and bad, however, are spouddos and phaulos, which have a figurative sense of weighty and light.
What Aristotle is saying here, therefore, is not as simplistic as it might seem. If the thing called a ‘character’ in fiction was just meant to be a figure which exists to teach us a lesson in how to be good or bad, it might be an easy thing to dismiss. But what if Aristotle (who generally had many wise things to say about a range of subjects) meant something else entirely?
Frye goes on to explain:
In literary fictions the plot consists of somebody doing something. The somebody, if an individual, is the hero, and the something he does or fails to do is what he can do, or could have done, on the level of the postulates made about him by the author and the consequent expectations of the audience. Fictions, therefore, may be classified, not morally, but by the hero's power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same.
Importantly, though, there is a little bit more to this, which Frye didn’t examine. What he is calling ‘the something he does or fails to do’ isn’t the base unit of what makes fiction work, though it certainly appears that way on the surface. We examine what these things called characters do or appear to do, and this forms a way of categorising the work we are reading. It’s a perfectly legitimate and fascinating way of looking at fiction, and Frye does a brilliant job of outlining such a categorisation, but it’s not the most fundamental way of assessing what is going on in a story. Here are the compartments Frye came up with, as a starting point
1. If superior in kind both to other men and to the environment of other men, the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth in the common sense of a story about a god. Such stories have an important place in literature, but are as a rule found outside the normal literary categories.
These types of stories include creation myths, the tale of how humanity acquired fire, the adventure behind the creation of the sun and moon and so forth. Myths are universal in human cultures and speak of a time when the world was viewed differently.
2. If superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvellous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale, marchen, and their literary affiliates and derivatives.
Recognisable to us both in terms of legends like that of Hercules or the story of Ulysses' journey, or, more recently, in the sub-genre of fiction known as High Fantasy, or the medium of the superhero comic book, these stories are not exactly to do with how the world is made, but nor are they directly to do with the reality in which we commonly live.
3. If superior in degree to other men but not to his natural environment, the hero is a leader. He has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature. This is the hero of the high mimetic mode, of most epic and tragedy, and is primarily the kind of hero that Aristotle had in mind.
We find these figures most commonly in Shakespearean or other Elizabethan Tragedies: Macbeth, Lear, Othello are all leaders. The fact that they all fail to live up to an ideal of leadership is what makes them fascinating - and that begins to open the door to something underneath Frye’s categorisation, to which we will return in a moment.
4. If superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us: we respond to a sense of his common humanity, and demand from the poet the same canons of probability that we find in our own experience. This gives us the hero of the low mimetic mode, of most comedy and of realistic fiction. ‘High’ and ‘low’ have no connotations of comparative value, but are purely diagrammatic, as they are when they refer to Biblical critics or Anglicans. On this level the difficulty in retaining the word ‘hero,’ which has a more limited meaning among the preceding modes, occasionally strikes an author. Thackeray thus feels obliged to call Vanity Fair a novel without a hero.
Here we see the appearance of the ‘realistic novel’, featuring recognisably human, down-to-earth characters. But the categories don’t end there:
5. If inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This is still true when the reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation, as the situation is being judged by the norms of a greater freedom.
In Ironies, and often in Comedies, we are looking down upon a character of whose adventures we are reading. We are removed from him or her, which changes our attitude as readers or viewers.
Then Frye makes some broad conclusions:
Looking over this table, we can see that European fiction, during the last fifteen centuries, has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list. In the pre-medieval period literature is closely attached to Christian, late Classical, Celtic, or Teutonic myths. If Christianity had not been both an imported myth and a devourer of rival ones, this phase of Western literature would be easier to isolate. In the form in which we possess it, most of it has already moved into the category of romance. Romance divides into two main forms: a secular form dealing with chivalry and knight-errantry, and a religious form devoted to legends of saints. Both lean heavily on miraculous violations of natural law for their interest as stories. Fictions of romance dominate literature until the cult of the prince and the courtier in the Renaissance brings the high mimetic mode into the foreground. The characteristics of this mode are most clearly seen in the genres of drama, particularly tragedy, and national epic. Then a new kind of middle-class culture introduces the low mimetic, which predominates in English literature from Defoe's time to the end of the nineteenth century. In French literature it begins and ends about fifty years earlier. During the last hundred years, most serious fiction has tended increasingly to be ironic in mode.
And so we arrive in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, where the culture has become Ironic in nature.
This is revelatory enough. It opens the way to descriptions of and understandings to do with almost any work of Western literature. But looking at character in this way isn’t the ultimate building block.
Aristotle's terms of spouddos and phaulos, weighty and light, can be interpreted differently. A ‘weighty’ character could be one dealing with a ‘weightier’ issue; a lighter character could be seen as one dealing with lighter issues. What matters isn’t the character performing an action, ‘somebody doing something’ (or failing to do it): what matters beneath that is the magnitude of the action which he or she is attempting. Frye says that this is all to do with the ‘level of the postulates made about him by the author and the consequent expectations of the audience’ without necessarily looking more deeply into what those postulates and expectations are founded upon. A character's power of action may indeed be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same - but this is determined not by the constructed figure we call a ‘character’ but by the nature of the task he or she is trying to accomplish.
Thus mythic figures attempt to bring into being the world itself, or some fundamental facet of it - light, darkness, heavenly bodies, observable phenomena, features of the universe itself.
Heroic or legendary figures attempt larger-than-life tasks: the slaying of fantastic monsters, the defeat of disembodied evils, the rescue of otherworldly items.
A character who fits into Frye’s ‘high mimetic mode’ as a leader is attempting usually the conquest of, or dominion over, a nation or part thereof, or a huge army or some equivalent, outside the ‘normal’ experience of the reader. In Frye’s ‘low mimetic mode’, the thing called a character is trying only to do a recognisably day-to-day task: holding together a career, endeavouring to have a love life, undertaking to begin a family and so forth.
Finally, in Frye’s ‘ironic mode’, the constructed creatures called characters are defined by what they usually fail at doing, which can be any or all of the above, but which usually includes tasks which it should have been well within their power to manage. Or they are given tasks far too huge for them and inevitably fail.
Once we look beyond the thing we are accustomed to call a character to the hole which he or she is set to fill, fiction itself melts before us and we start to glimpse its Matrix-like codes. In effect, we lay our hands on the stuff of which all stories, of whatever mode, are made.
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