Anatomy of Criticism, Part 3

by | August 20, 2015 |

Note: In my previous blog posts Anatomy of Criticism Part I and Anatomy of Criticism Part II, I discuss Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Frye identifies five genres: drama, epic, lyric, history, and novel. He distinguishes among five modes: mythic, romance, high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic. Two uptakes: i) Frye’s notion of genre is not what we have today in the phrase genre fiction; ii) the modern romance novel no longer fully operates in terms of Frye’s romance mode.

One of the many things to appreciate about Frye’s anatomy – his dissection and analysis of Western literature – is his historical approach, which has at least three facets:

1) He sees the development of Western literature in protean terms, how characters and themes that were alive and well in Greek and Roman tragedy and comedy mutate and come forward through time. One example will suffice: how the tricky slave in Roman comedy becomes the scheming valet in Renaissance comedy who then evolves into the amateur detective of modern fiction, such as the Jeeves of P.G. Wodehouse (173).

2) He understands that works of art are necessarily enmeshed in the historical dynamics of their day.

For example, here is how Frye positions high mimetic tragedy:

Tragedy belongs chiefly to the two indigenous developments of tragic drama in fifth-century Athens and seventeenth-century Europe from Shakespeare to Racine. Both belong to a period of social history in which an aristocracy is fast losing its effective power but still retains a good deal of ideological prestige” (37).

As for the 19th-century work of Walter Scott and the Brontës, it is:

part of a mysterious Northumbrian renaissance, a Romantic reaction against the new industrialism in the Midlands, which also produced the poetry of Wordsworth and Burns and the philosophy of Carlyle” (305).

3) He says that in the past fifteen centuries European literature has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list of his five modes. Nevertheless, his list is not linear but circular. The forms come round and round in historical cycles. And, indeed, they are all present in every age.

Although he writes that we are living in the ironic age and although he concentrates his anatomy on conventional literature, I assume he would have no difficulty recognizing the return of the quasi-myth/quasi-romance mode in the Superman narratives, which first appeared in D.C. Comics in 1938.

Furthermore, while one mode may constitute the underlying tonality of a work of fiction, any or all of the other four may be simultaneously present. For instance, he identifies Chaucer as a medieval poet specializing mainly in romance. However to overlook Chaucer’s mastery of low mimetic and ironic techniques would be, as he puts it, “as wrong as to think of him as a modern novelist who got into the Middle Ages by mistake” (50-51).

Frye identifies these modes so that the critic can better appreciate the varieties of prose forms that exist. He thinks critics have been too novel-centric and argues that a great romancer (in his terms) “should not be left on the side lines of prose fiction merely because the critic has not learned to take the romance form seriously” (305).

Bottom line: fiction writers should be evaluated in terms of the conventions they choose.

Frye is clear: Jane Austen’s work falls under his category of novel because the plot and dialogue are closely linked to the conventions of the comedy of manners. The conventions of Wuthering Heights, by way of contrast, align it with the tale and the ballad, with tragedy, and tragic emotions. It also carries a hint of the supernatural, so he assigns it to the category of romance (303-304).

His categorizations make perfect sense in his framework. He also makes them without judgment. And none of his terms have anything to do with popularity.

About Frye’s refusal to pass judgment, I was struck by the following two comments:

  1. i) The romancer’s choice of mode should not “be regarded as an ‘escape’ from his social attitude” (305).
  1. ii) “Romance is older than the novel, a fact which has developed the historical illusion that it is something to be outgrown, a juvenile and undeveloped form” (305).

Although contemporary romance novels no longer operate fully within the romance mode as Frye mapped it out 60 years ago, they still bear the full force of the criticism of it. First, they are often dismissed as escapist. Second, they are often looked down on as juvenile, something to be outgrown.

I’ve actually had people comment to me that they wonder what I could do if I decided to write “a real novel.”

In my next blog post for this series, I apply Frye’s historical perspectives to the contemporary romance form.

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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