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Frye and Modes of Fiction

Fiction is indeed a vast universe, but it follows laws not dissimilar to those laws we take for granted in the physical universe around us.

Canadian academic Northrop Frye was one of the first to try to discover and record those laws in the modern era. Taking Aristotle’s aspects of poetry - mythos (plot), ethos (characterization/setting), and dianoia (theme/idea) - Frye devised a spectrum ranging from plot driven, as in most fiction, to idea driven, as in essays and lyrical poetry. One of his major essays begins by exploring the different aspects of fiction (subdivided into tragic and comic).

Tragic, comic, and thematic literature are divided into five ‘modes’: mythic, romantic, high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic, based on how the protagonist is portrayed in respect to the rest of humanity and his or her environment. Tragedy, Frye says, is concerned with the hero's separation from society: mythic tragedy deals with the death of gods, romantic tragedy mourns the death of heroes such as King Arthur, high mimetic tragedy presents the death of a noble human such as Othello, low mimetic tragedy shows the death or sacrifice of an ordinary human being such as Thomas Hardy's Tess and the ironic mode often shows the death or suffering of a protagonist who is weak relative to his or her environment as in Franz Kafka's work. Comedy, on the other hand, is concerned with the integration of society: mythic comedy tells of acceptance into the society of gods, as with Hercules, whereas in romantic comic modes, the hero joins with an idealized simplified form of nature. In high mimetic comedy a strong central protagonist creates his own reality, like Shakespeare's Prospero, whereas low mimetic comedy often ends in marriage. Ironic comedy, according to Frye, is more complex, embracing tales of murder and sacrifice but including satire.

Frye was right, but didn’t go far enough: in looking for patterns in literature, he can be completely forgiven for missing something that would have made even more sense of the categories and genres that he proposed. What was missing?

The missing thing.

That sounds like nonsense, but in fact fiction is driven by what is not there, as much as by what is there.

Aristotle’s aspects of poetry are founded upon a further level, out of sight: mythos (plot), ethos (characterization/setting), and dianoia (theme/idea) are all driven by things that are missing: both protagonists and plots, both settings and ideas, are pulled along by unknowns, mysteries, absences, wounds, gaps, losses and holes. Frye’s modes are observable and are part of the picture, but there are four basic genres, not two: instead of just Tragedy and Comedy, there are also Epic and Irony.

Tragedy, concerned with the hero's separation from society, builds upon the Epic genre in which society and the hero are not separated: mythic Epic deals with the rebirth of gods, romantic Epic with the immortal transcendence of heroes, high mimetic Epic presents the triumph of kings, low mimetic Epic shows the role of ordinary human beings in bringing about order, and ironic Epic often shows the overcoming of impossible odds by a protagonist who is weak relative to his or her environment.

These themes and patterns can be clearly seen whenever we look closely at a piece of fiction, and it is to Frye’s credit that he was one of the first who could see that fiction formed a universe of its own and had laws like physics.

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