Myth Criticism of Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957) introduced the archetypal approach called Myth Criticism, combining the typological interpretation of the Bible and the conception of imagination prevalent in the writings of William Blake. Frye continued the formalist emphasis of New Criticism and its insistence on criticism as a scientific, objective and systematic discipline. The book testifies that literary history is a repetitive and self contained cycle where basic symbolic myths (for instance the deluge, trickster) recur.

Myth criticism drew upon the anthropological and psychological bases of myths; rituals and folktales to restore the spiritual content to the alienated, fragmented world ruled by scientism, empiricism and technology. Myth criticism regarded the creation of myth (with its association with magic, imagination, dreams etc.) as integral to human thought; and myth as the collective attempt of cultures to establish a meaningful context to human existence. Literature is viewed as emerging out of a core of myth, and as a “system” based on “recurrent patterns”. These parameters were also reflected in other contemporary movements such as Structuralism and Jungian concept of the “collective unconscious” Frye argued that literature drew upon transcendental genres such as romance (summer), tragedy (autumn), irony/satire (winter) and comedy (spring). These four genres constitute a ‘central unifying myth’. He further codified these genres and uncovered their basic archetypal structures. The romance is characterised by a quest theme where the hero descends into subterranean depths and danger and then rises. This descent and ascent, Frye argued, constituted the `mythopoeic’ equivalent of Jung’s archetype

Summer stands for the culmination of the year’s seasons, just as romance and marriage culminates a life. Comedy is about fantasy and wish-fulfillment and, therefore, suited to spring, while satire’s disillusioned mockery suits the coldness of winter. Thus archetypal criticism lined supposed ‘universal’ psychological states with literary symbols identified as ‘universal’.

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3 replies


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