Frye--Anatomy of Criticism
into: A) signs; and B) motifs.
Northrop Frye is attempting a classification of all
1) Literature in itself is unknowable without importation
2) What we deal with is comments about literature--classification
is not of literature but of criticism of literature.
What is a symbol? Any unit of literary structure which can be
isolated for attention.
Taxonomy of literary language--Scientific model (Postmodernists
object to this because they claim that this is an attempt at
Grand Narrative--which PMs no longer believe in).
We can study symbol at the level of letters/words--CAT as
markings on a background. Saussure: Cat, the animal that says
"Meow," and Cat, the word have no necessary connection
to each other--the relationship is arbitrary. Cat, the word, is
distinguished by its difference from all other linguistic
We can study symbols in terms of entire works--all of Paradise
Lost, for instance.
How are symbols normally read?
A) Signs--scientific, descriptive language which attempts to
give as clear and accurate an account of external reality as
possible: outward-directed. The realm of the
B) Motifs--symbols read in context of other symbols:
inward-directed. Always referential to other symbols
(artistic symbols). Motifs can be found on a continuum from
Realism--public associations--to Symbolism--private
Description in motif-driven writing
is always in the service of the motif; in sign-driven writing
(travel guides, for instance) description is always in the
service of the sign. The difference between Jane Austen and
Nathaniel Hawthorne is the degree in which the motifs are
Realistic or Symbolic.
As soon as we comment on literature, we are no longer dealing
with literature qua literature--we are dealing with
allegorizations of literature. All criticism of literature is
allegorical. This is a literary version of pulling out an
experience of reality from the infinite sensuous manifold. Since
we can attend to an infinite number of things, what we attend to
determines the abstraction and the allegorization we bring to
the literary work. Image/Allegory is on a contiuum from Naive
Allegory (a political cartoon at the extreme end; Faery
Queen, Pilgrim's Progress closer to the center) to Paradox
(modernist--and post-modernist--poems which seem to refuse
allegory; T.S. Eliot/Wallace Stevens are poets whose works are
at this end of the spectrum--talking about these works is
allegorical however). Language is used more, or less,
referentially: Naive Allegory is more referential to publicly
shared ideas; Paradox is less referential publicly--it is
3) Archetype--Relationship of the
symbol to literature. We place the work in its literary
context: genres, heroines, heroes, etc. We look, not at the
conditions of history at the time of the writing of a work, but
at the interrelationships between characters in various works
across cultures and times. We look at literary symbols in
terms of their reference to, and relationship with, other
literary symbols. This is similar to Eliot's notion of the
working of the literary tradition and its relationship to new
works. Archetypes are found on a continuum from Pop culture
to High culture. Pop culture (Star Wars) is characterized
by its naked use of archetypes. High culture (Madame Bovary) is
characterized by its concealed use of archetypes. Realistic
fiction--figures of life--makes use of archetypes in a less
obvious, but no less significant manner. Even fantastic
literature of the High variety--Divine Comedy--makes use of
archetypes in a concealed manner, because its characters more
closely resemble life.
4) Monad--from Leibniz. Monist
vision: all things coalesce into the one; all things are
divinity. The part is the whole--the whole is the part.
Hindu vision--Brahman resides in everything. The most familiar
forms of literature in this category are sacred texts--thus
springs the medieval notion of the world as God's book. From
this springs a notion of the book as a world. In the Bible or
the Koran what we have is a work in which the meaning is out of
proportion to the actual words; it is out of proportion because
it is being treated as an entire human experience--our human
experience is inscribed in the text. The cosmos is in the book.
What Frye is doing here is describing--not
prescribing--the way we seem (or have seemed up to his time) the
ways we have tended to look at, talk about, and write about
literature--that unknowable ding an sich. This is
actually a criticism of criticism.
Frye distinguishes between the High Mimetic and the Low
Mimetic. These are on a vertical axis--as compared to the
horizontal axes of the above-mentioned continuums. At the
highest level we have the divine--Gods, heroes, etc.--at the
lowest level we have all that is ignoble--stones, garbage, etc.
Milton is an example of the high mimetic; Beckett is an example
of the low mimetic.
Frye gives us four kinds of prose fiction:
1) Romance--personal and experiential; personal
figure--hero--and the experiences thereof
2) Novel--social and experiential; society, and the
experiences of that society
3) Confession--personal and intellectual--Augustine:
intellectual development of the personal agent
4) Anatomy--social and intellectual
Fifth form--sacred text: closest literary (secular)
version--Finnegan's Wake--pitched in a dream world--covers