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Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Archetypes of Literature-Summary-Northrop Frye | Litgalaxy2019

In his essay named “The Archetypes of Literature”, Northrop Frye has dealt with some of the important questions such as what is criticism and what are the unifying categories of criticism? It is important to note that Northrop Frye’s criticism is not textual; he has connected one text with some other text in order to identify the archetypes of the text. 

The archetypes in the text represent a unifying category of criticism; and it is a key to understanding the text. Northrop Frye has introduced and perfected a new theory in the literary arena of literary criticism by studying James George Frazer’s famous work “The Golden Bough” published in 1890, and Carl J. Jung’s depth psychology for his literary theory. 

Archetypes of Literature-Summary
Archetypes of Literature-Summary

Northrop Frye has paid utmost attention to the archetypes. It is important to note that Thomas Stearns Eliot and James Joyce had already employed myths in their literary works before Northrop Frye. They gave vent to their pent of feelings in their works, for example, the mythical background of T.S. "The Waste Land"" vividly reflects his concern about the chaos and disorder of the modern civilization. The writers did this in order to bring order and coherence in the modern civilization.


Northop Frye's Archetypal Criticism  

Northrop Frye has studied and analyzed myths {archetypes} in literary works in order to bring order and unity to the modern literary criticism and theory which is in chaotic state. his theory is also known as mythical criticism.

Frye's Views on Criticism and Literature:

Northrop Frye states that it is very difficult to learn and teach literature because what we learn and teach as literature is merely criticism of literature. According to Frye criticism is a systematic and organized study as a science. It should be treated like that; but literature is not studied as science; or deemed as science. It is so because criticism has qualities and characteristics of a science. 

Northrop Frye thinks that we are carried away by other disciplines while studying this kind of science {criticism}. It happens because our attention is diverted and disturbed by other objects like religion, philosophy and history {centrifugal movement} and in this course; we put aside the critical science in the background. In this way philosophical views, and historical facts and ideas overwhelm our mind and we forget our aim of enquiry. 

Frye's Attack on Contemporary Critics

Northrop Frye states that criticism has become nothing but ‘sonorous nonsense’ because criticism has become merely a commentary on others works. Critics comment on literary works of others; pass judgement on writers and their literary works. Frye has called it as ‘sonorous nonsense’, the critics judgement contributes nothing to a systematic framework of knowledge.  

Casual judgements are not the part of criticism but they belong to history of taste. The activity of admiring, appreciating, upgrading and downgrading of poets renders their so called evaluation 'absurd’, for example, T.S. Eliot’s views on John Milton. Criticism becomes an activity of stock exchange of literary reputations and not a scientific study.

Northrop Frye on Structuralism:

In Structuralism, critics claim that their approach is antithesis of centrifugal or background criticism. They think that their study of literature is centripetal and their method is based on a structural analysis of literary works. Northrop Frye opines that their analytical procedure has some defects because the structuralist critics don’t have a coordinating principle; or a central hypothesis.

Frye thinks that a literary work under examination should not be treated as individual work but it should be deemed as a part of the vast whole. A critic should not study or examine a work of art as a single phenomenon. A work of art should not be studied in parts but a critic should analyze it taking into account its structural regularities. 

Frye calls his own theory as archetypal criticism. He further defines archetypes as ‘recurring images or symbols that connect one text with another and constitutes a source of the intelligibility of the text'. According to Northrop Frye, archetype provides a central hypothesis and a coordinating principle. 

What is an Archetypal Criticism?  

It is possible that a reader sometimes gets much more information that the poet has actually conveyed in the work of art. This clearly indicates that the work of art has not been composed solely by the will of the artist. The poet produces his work art describing his memories and desires in his work and cut loose from his work of art. The critic takes over it where the poet leaves off. 

Frye states that though the poet is only an official cause and source of a poem, the poem having a form has a formal cause that is to be found out. Frye finds this formal cause to be the archetype. 

The formal cause of a poem is tightly associated with the genres. There are two conceptions of genres but they are fallacious. The one is the pseudo-platonic conception genres and the other is pseudo-biological conception which is evolving species. the pseudo-platonic conceptions of genres thrive independently, and exist prior to creation such as Sonnet and Ode

Northrop Frye thinks that truth lies somewhere between these two conceptions: pseudo-platonic and pseudo-biological conceptions. The social conditions and cultural demands and conventions produce genres and we inquire into their origin. It makes the readers peep deep into literary history. 

The question comes into our mind if genre has a historical origin why does the genre of drama springs from medieval origin? And why does the medieval religion based on Greek religion centuries before? It deals with the problem of structure rather than origin. It hints at there may be archetypes of genres and images. An archetype should be not only a unifying category of criticism, but itself an integral part of a total form. 

Frye tries to find out how ‘random and peripheral is the critical experience which is produced by average work of art while the skilled master seems to draw as to a point at which we can observe an huge number of converging patterns of significance’. 

Examples of Archetypes in Literature: 

Frye analyses the grave-diggers’ scene in William Shakespeare’s problem playHamlet” in order to find specific and larger pattern in it. The scene can be studied from different angles. For example, the reader can study the intricate verbal texture of the grave-diggers’ scene, he can dwell upon psychological complexities examined by Bradley, it can be studied in terms of the theatrical conventions of the Elizabethan drama. The critics like Spurgeon and Wilson Knight have thrown light on the stream of imagery in the play. 

All the above mentioned scholarly and critical analyses vividly give idea of the archetype of the scene. The grave-diggers’ scene also unveils the themes of birth, death, and rebirth, for example, Hamlet’s leap into the grave; and his fatal fight with Laertes and Hamlet’s views on the nature of life and death throughout the play. From the scene the readers can get a larger view of the patterns {archetypes} in the play. The reader goes on studying the scene from the particular to the general. 

The anthropological critic gets closer to Shakespeare by analyzing Saxo’s pre-Shakespearean play and then to nature myth; he gets clear idea about the archetypal pattern in the play. The Grave-diggers’ scene is a fine example of inductive method. In addition to this, Frye has examined the archetypes from the deductive end {from the general to particular}. 

Harry Blamires comments, “When he traces limited patterns of significance by correlating the phase of dawn, spring, and birth with myths of revival, resurrection and creation and finding therein the archetype of romance; or by correlating the phase of zenith, summer an marriage with myths of entry into paradise and finding therein the archetype of comedy, pastoral, and idyll the reader cannot but feel that an elaborate schedule of the obvious is being manufactured.” 

Northrop Frye has paid attention to structural patterns which collect and unite a great, diverse and large works together into a kind of genre. Cleanth Brooke remarks, “In Frye’s world, the critic actually becomes the midwife or nurse, who ties off the cord, tells the mother the infant is a boy or a girl, washes it up for presentation to the outside world and presumably gives it an anthropological classification.” 


Though Northrop Frye’s work is extraordinary and interesting, it has aroused great controversy. David Lodge comments, “His scorn for value judgements, which he consigns to the history of taste has aroused deep hostility among those critics for whom evaluation has always been the raisen d’etre {purpose} of literary studies.” 

In fact Frye’s difference with such critics is not as irreconcilable as it might seem for he has simply transferred the concept of value from the individual work to the collective work the total order of words that is literature. It is the greatness of Northrop Frye.

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