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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays

Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays - Northrop Frye description
Luckless undergraduate standing in front of Northrop Frye’s An Anatomy of Criticism

I vividly remember my reaction, when as an undergraduate, I read Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism as a required text in a course I was taking. The book begins innocently enough; in his “Polemical Introduction,” Frye discusses the critic’s role and the current gaps in literary theory (which, of course, he intends to fill). With the first essay, though, however, Frye begins to launch his system.

I recall feeling engulfed as Frye trotted out one network of schematization after another: modes, symbols, myths, genres, accompanied by an endless march of terminology: high mimetic, low mimetic, phases, mythoi, alazons, sparagmos, anagogical, pharmakos, agon, eiron, etc., etc. The more he explained—backed by an encyclopedic array of allusions from the Bible as well as every period of literature imaginable—the smaller I felt.

…In a (very) old movie called The Incredible Shrinking Man, the main character—as could be anticipated—becomes progressively smaller. During an early scene—he’s on his second date with a beautiful woman—she wounds him by remarking, brilliantly, “Didn’t you used to be taller?” [The film, now that I think about it, may be the ultimate male nightmare.:] This poor guy has one disaster after another until he is being chased around a basement by a cat whose size is now monstrous compared to him. In the final scene, he has somehow crawled onto a window sill and stands in front of the screen looming before him. He inevitably shrinks again, passes right through one of the grids and disappears. I think the first time I read Frye I felt like the shrinking man standing before the giant grid.

I have some qualms about Frye’s literary schemata. To buy his theory, we have to agree that literature is based on myth. Also, problems arise in any fixed system of literary classification. Looking at Frye’s terminology for character, for instance, I find it reductive to categorize Tess D’Urberville as a pharmakos or Moll Flanders as a picaro.

Frye, of course, does not maintain that a character is limited to one category. However, even using a fusion of his categories for classifying a protagonist may leave large gaps. I tend to agree with Frank Kermode’s critique of Frye’s literary grid: “[it is the:] breath of Hermione, the presence of Perdite, that are lost to view as you stand back; you sacrifice them to a system and a myth.”

And yet, despite that bit of bitching, Frye’s book is one of those that peeps out now and then as I'm reading. Its influence remains.

Frye argues, for example, that there are five heroic modes: mythic, romantic, high mimetic, low mimetic, and irony; these five modes being applicable to either tragedy or comedy.

In Frye's schematization, the hero's scope is fairly circumscribed, falling into one of the latter two modes: low mimetic fiction or ironic fiction. The novel, a relatively recent form, a point Frye makes crystal clear in his later essay, "Specific Continuous Forms," presents a hero far removed from myth and romance. For Frye, the hero of a novel is "superior neither to other men nor to his environment...[s/he's:] one of us" (low mimetic) or, in the ironic mode, "inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity" (34).

To counter the increasing return to myth in modern fiction, Frye points out that his five modes are circular: "Irony descends from the low mimetic; it begins in realism and dispassionate observation. But as it does so, it moves steadily toward myth, and dim outlines of sacrificial rituals and dying gods begin to reappear in it" (42). After adding Frye's notions of symbol, myth and its corresponding imagery for each of the five modes, the complexity of the book begins to emerge.

...If you can get past the sense of being dwarfed, it's a worthwhile read.