Excerpts from: Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.
Introduction - Archetypal - Ethical - Historical - Rhetorical
1. Divine Being. Superior in kind both to other men and to the environment of other men. Thus, story about him will be a myth in the common sense of a story about a god. Such stories have an important place in literature, but are as a rule found outside the normal literary categories.
2. Superior in degree to other men and to his environment his is the typical hero of Romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and switches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale, mÉrchen, and their literary affiliates and derivatives.
3. If superior in degree to other men but not to his natural environment, the hero is a leader. He has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature. This is the hero of the high mimetic mode, of most epic and tragedy, and is primarily the kind of hero that Aristotle had in mind.
4. If superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us: we respond to a sense of his common humanity, and demand from the poet the same canons of probability that we find in our own experience. This gives us the hero of the low mimetic mode, of most comedy and of realistic fiction. "High" and "low" have no connotations of comparative value, but are purely diagrammatic, as they are when they refer to Biblical critics or Anglicans. On this level the difficulty in retaining the word "hero," which has a more limited meaning among the preceding modes, occasionally strikes an author. Thackeray thus feels obliged to call Vanity Fair a novel without a hero.
5. If inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This is still true when the reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation, as the situ ation is being judged by the norms of a greater freedom. [p. 33-34]
. . . . we can see that European fiction, during the last 15 centuries, has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list. In the pre-medieval period literature is closely attached to Christian, late Classical, Celtic, or Teutonic myths . . . . Five Epochs of Western Literature . . . . using Classical parallels only incidentally. In each mode a distinction will be useful between naive and sophisticated literature. The word naive I take from Schiller's essay on naive and sentimental poetry: I mean by it, however, primitive or popular, whereas in Schiller it means something more like Classical. The word sentimental also means something else in English, but we do not have enough genuine critical terms to dispense with it. In quotation marks, therefore, "sentimental" refers to a later recreation of an earlier mode. Thus Romanticism is a "sentimental" form of romance, and the fairy tale, for the most part, a "sentimental" form of folk tale. Also there is a general distinction between fictions in which the hero becomes isolated from his society, and fictions in which he is incorporated into it. This distinction is expressed by the words "tragic" and "comic" when they refer to aspects of plot in general and not simply to forms of drama. [p. 35]
Tragic Fictional Modes - Stories may be called dionysiac. These are stories of dying gods, like Hercules with his poisoned shirt and his pyre, Orpheus torn to pieces by the Bachantes, balder murdered by the treachery of Loki, Christ dying on the cross and marking with the words "Why hast thou forsaken me?" a sense of his exclusion, as a divine being, from the society of the Trinity . . . . [p. 35-36]
Comic Fictional Modes - The theme of the comic is the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it. The mythical comedy corresponding to the death of the Dionysiac god is Apollonian, the story of how a hero is accepted by a society of gods. In classical literature the theme of acceptance forms part of the stories of Hercules, Mercury, and other deities who had a probation to go through, and in Christian literature it is the theme of salvation, or, in a more concentrated form, of assumption: the comedy that stands just at the end of Dante's Commedia. The mode of romantic comedy corresponding to the elegiac is best described as idyllic, and its chief vehicle is the pastoral. Because of the social interest of comedy, the idyllic cannot equal the introversion of the elegiac, but it preserves the theme of escape from society to the extent of idealizing a simplified life in the country or on the frontier [the pastoral of popular modern literature is the Western story]. The close association with animal and vegetable nature that we noted in the elegiac recurs in the sheep and pleasant pastures [or the cattle and ranches] of the idyllic, and the same easy connection with myth recurs in the fact that such imagery is often used, as it is in the Bible, for the theme of salvation . . . . [p. 43]
Thematic Modes - Aristotle lists six aspects of poetry: three of them, melody, diction, and spectacle, form a group by themselves, and we shall consider them in due course. The other three are mythos or plot, ethos, which includes both characters and setting, and dianoia or "thought." The literary works we have so far been considering are works of fiction in which the plot is, as Aristotle called it, the "soul" or shaping principle, and the characters exist primarily as functions of the plot. But besides the internal fiction of the hero and his society, there is an external fiction which is a relation between the writer and the writer's society. Poetry may be as completely absorbed in its internal characters as it is in Shakespeare, or in Homer, where the poet himself simply points to his story and disappears, the second word of the Odyssey, moi, being all we get of him in that poem. But as soon as the poet's personality appears on the horizon, a relation with the reader is established which cuts across the story, and which may increase until there is no story at all apart from what the poet is conveying to his reader.
In such genres as novels and plays the internal fiction is usually of primary interest; in essays and in lyrics the primary interest is in dianoia, the idea or poetic thought [something quite different, of course, from the other kinds of thought] that the reader gets from the writer. The best translation of dianoia is, perhaps, "theme," and literature with this ideal or conceptual interest may be called thematic. When a reader of a novel asks, "How is this story going to turn out?" he is asking a question about the plot, specifically about that crucial aspect of the plot which Aristotle calls discovery or anagnorisis. But he is equally likely to ask, "What's the point of this story?" This question relates to dianoia, and indicates that themes have their elements of discovery just as plots do.
It is easy to say that some literary works are fictional and others thematic in their main emphasis. But clearly there is no such thing as a fictional or a thematic work of literature, for all four ethical elements [ethical in the sense of relating to character], the hero, the hero's society, the poet and the poet's readers, are always at least potentially present. There can hardly be a work of literature without some kind of relation, implied or expressed, between its creator and its auditors. When the audience the poet had in mind is superseded by posterity, the relation changes, but it still holds. On the other hand, even in lyrics and essays the writer is to some extent a fictional hero with a fictional audience, for if the element of fictional projection disappeared completely, the writing would become direct address, or straight discursive writing, and cease to be literature. A poet sending a love poem to his lady complaining of her cruelty has stereoscoped his four ethical elements into two, but the four are still there.
Hence every work of literature has both a fictional and a thematic aspect, and the question of which is more important is often simply a matter of opinion or emphasis in interpretation. We have cited Homer as the very type of impersonal fiction writer, but the main emphasis of Homeric criticism, down to about 1750 at least, has been overwhelmingly thematic, concerned with the dianoia or ideal of leadership implicit in the two epics. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, is a novel named after its plot; Sense and Sensibility is named after its theme. But Fielding has as strong a thematic interest [revealed chiefly in the introductory chapters to the different books] as Jane Austen has in telling a good story. Both novels are strongly fictional in emphasis compared to Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Grapes of Wrath, where the plot exists primarily to illustrate the themes of slavery and migratory labor respectively. They in their turn are fictional in emphasis compared to The Pilgrim's Progress, and The Pilgrim's Progress is fictional in emphasis compared to an essay of Montaigne. We note that as we move from fictional to thematic emphasis, the element represented by the term mythos tends to mean increasingly "narrative" rather than "plot." . . . . [p. 52-53]
Two principles of some importance are already implicit in our argument. One is a conception of a total body of vision that poets as a whole class are entrusted with, a total body tending to incorporate itself in a single encyclopedic form, which can be attempted by one poet if he is sufficiently learned or inspired, or by a poetic school or tradition if the culture is sufficiently homogeneous. We note that traditional tales and myths and histories have a strong tendency to stick together and form encyclopedic aggregates, especially when they are in a conventional metre, as they usually are. Some such process as this has been postulated for the Homeric epics, and in the Prose Edda the themes of the fragmentary lays of the Elder Edda are organized into a connected prose sequence. The Biblical histories obviously developed in a similar way, and in India, where the process of transmission was more relaxed, the two traditional epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, apparently went on distending themselves for centuries, like pythons swallowing sheep. The expansion of The Romaunt of the Rose into an encyclopedic satire by a second author is a medieval example. In the Finnish Kalevala everything that is unified or continuous about the poem is a nineteenth-century reconstruction. It does not follow that the kalevala, considered as a single epic, is a fake: on the contrary, what follows is that the material of the Kalevala is the sort of materials that lends itself readily to such reconstruction. In the mythical mode the encyclopedic form is the sacred scripture, and in the other modes we should expect to find encyclopedic forms which constitute a series of increasingly human analogies of mythical or scriptural revelation.
The other principle is that while there may be a great variety of episodic forms in any mode, in each mode we may attach a special significance to the particular episodic form that seems to be the germ out of which the encyclopedic forms develop. In the mythical mode this central or typical episodic product is the oracle. The oracle develops a number of subsidiary forms, notably the commandment, the parable, the aphorism, and the prophecy. Out of these, whether strung loosely together as they are in the Koran or carefully edited and arranged as they are in the Bible, the scripture or sacred book takes shape. The Book of Isaiah, for example, can be analyzed into a mass of separate oracles, with three major foci, so to speak, one mainly pre-exilic, one exilic and one post-exilic. The "higher critics" of the Bible are not literary critics, and we have to make the suggestion ourselves that the Book of Isaiah is in fact the unity it has always been traditionall taken to be, a unity not of authorship but of theme, and that theme in epitome the theme of the Bible as a whole, as the parable of Israel lost, captive, and redeemed.
In the period of romance, the poet, like the corresponding hero, has become a human being, and the god has retreated to the sky. His function now is primarily to remember. Memory, said Greek myth at the beginning of its historical period, is the mother of the Muses, who inspire the poets, but no longer in the same degree that the god inspires the oracle-though the poets clung to the connection as long as they could. In Homer, in the perhaps more primitive Hesiod, in the poets of the heroic age of the North, we can see the kind of thing the poet had to remember. Lists of kings and foreign tribes, myths and genealogies of gods, historical traditions, the proverbs of popular wisdom, taboos, lucky and unlucky days, charms, the deeds of the tribal heros, were some of the things that came out when the poet unlocked his word-hoard. The medieval minstrel with his repertory of memorized stories and the clerical poet who, like Gower or the author of the Cursor Mundi, tries to get everything he knows into one vast poem or poetic testament, belong in the same category. The encyclopedic knowledge in such poems is regarded sacramentally, as a human analogy of divine knowledge. [pp. 55-57]
[Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.]
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