Northrop Frye: An Order of Words


Canadian Herman Northrop Frye (July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991) was one of the most influential literary critics and theorists of the 20th century. Having famously reinterpreted William Blake’s poetry in his first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947), he developed a theory of literary criticism in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), now considered one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century. The book basically says that literary criticism is its own field, not drawn from or based upon any other subject. It locates the framework for criticism within literature. As Frye wrote, ‘the axioms and postulates of criticism… have to grow out of the art it deals with’. Drawing on Aristotle, Frye went on to say, ‘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’.

Primitive formulas that Frye noticed in his survey of classic works provide literature with a structure which allows the reader to look at any literary work with a wider perspective provided by its literary and social context. Frye calls these ‘conventional myths and metaphors’ archetypes. Criticism, rather than a task of rejecting or accepting a literary work, is to do with recognition for what it is and understanding it in relation to other works, thus progressing ‘toward making the whole of literature intelligible’. For Frye, criticism begins when reading ends -the critic tries to make sense out of it, not by referring to history or even discussing the experience of reading a work, but by seeing its structure within literature and literature within culture.

Frye asserts that literature is the ‘central and most important extension’ of mythology -they both inhabit and function within the same imaginative world, one that has its own modes, symbols, myths and genres. He maintains that ‘literature derives from myth’. Myths and stories are the foundation of a society, not ideas or philosophies. When we examine a work of fiction, our criticism of it, 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. Poetry, for instance, like Blake's ‘London’, is dominantly centripetal, stressing sounds, movements and images of the ordered words. Novels, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, are mainly centrifugal -the stories and characters are making a social point. ‘London’ has some centrifugal elements and is critical of society; Cabin has centripetal factors and uses language to draw the reader in; but one looks mainly inward, the other outward. As readers, we follow these motions, looking at both the beauty and the social function of any work of literature. The centrifugal movement of withdrawing from a text towards its archetype creates a social function for literary criticism. Studying literature frees us from the dominant ideology of our society and enables us to see what is really going on in terms of the myths and patterns which underlie it.