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The archetypes of literature – Northrop Frye

The archetypes literature  Northrop Frye

The archetypes literature Northrop FryeThe archetypes literature Northrop Frye

The archetypes literature Northrop Frye. ‘Archetypal Literary criticism’ is concerned to analyzing a text in concern to the myths and archetypes that could be in the text in the form of description, symbols, images, allusions, references, characteristic traits, etc. This type of criticism appeared in the literary field in 1934 with the publication of Maud Bodkin’s ‘Archetypal Patterns in Poetry’.

Archetypal Criticism enjoyed the greatest popularity during the 1940s and 1950s. The main contributor to its popularity back then was Northrop Frye, a Canadian literary critic. The field has not seen much evolution since then and is not much in practice at present. However, it forms an important inclusion in the tradition of literary criticism.

Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye was responsible for providing a proper theoretical form to the concept of archetypal criticism. Although his most important work in the field is his ‘Anatomy of Criticism’. However, the initiation of his effective work in the field began with his essay ‘The Archetypes of literature’. The thesis he presented in this essay was used almost in the original form in ‘Anatomy of criticism’. Due to his efforts, Archetypal Criticism replaced New Criticism as the most important mode of analysis of literary texts. This situation continued till Structuralism and Semiotics came into force as the major modes of criticism.

Frye, however, did not follow the other two major names in the field of criticism based on archetypes. His views were not connected to anthropology and psychoanalysis as were those of Frazer and Jung. Frye shows no concern to the origin of the archetypes. All he states is that the archetypes make the concepts of the universe better understandable for the human beings. The archetypes develop in accordance to ‘human needs and concerns’ which makes them proper for human life.

Genres and Seasons

The archetypes literature Northrop Frye

The archetypes literature Northrop Frye

Frye has identified two major categories – comedic, further subdivided into comedy and romance; and, tragic, further subdivided into tragedy and satire. He has also identified a connection between various seasons and the different literary genres. For instance, he associates comedy to the season of spring, tragedy to autumn, satire with winter and romance to summer. He has also identified logic for this association. Comedy is basically about the birth and revival of the hero as spring is symbolic of victory over winter. Tragedy is associated to the downfall of the protagonist as autumn suggests the demise of the seasonal calendar. Satire depends on mockery and is concerned to insignificance of the hero. That is why it has been associated to winter, which symbolizes the absence of productivity. Similarly, summer refers to conclusion of the seasonal calendar as romance usually ends with an achievement, most commonly in the form of marriage.

Archetypes per Genres

Frye also advocates a difference in the way a symbol is interpreted in connection with different genres. In the schema that he suggests for this purpose, he identifies five different spheres, namely, human, animal, vegetation, mineral and water. While humans in comedic work for fulfillment of wishes, in tragic it acts in a tyrannical way leading to isolation and downfall. Animals are gentle and pastoral in comedic while predatory in tragic. Vegetation is represented by the formations like gardens, parks and flowers in case of comic; in case of tragic, it is present in form of wild forest or barren land. Cities, temples, precious stones, etc. represent the mineral sphere in comedic which is represented by deserts, ruins and the likes in case of tragic. While the sphere of water is present in the form of rivers in comedic, it appears as floods, seas, etc.  So, the same spheres are to be interpreted in different ways and to the different effects in case of the comedic and the tragic works, respectively.

Frye accepts his schema to be simplistic. He also understands that there are some neutral archetypes as well which could not be identified as clearly to either of the tragic and the comedic. However, he has made the concept quite clear to make the analysis of the archetypes clearer in accordance to the genre under consideration.

More to read on Northrop Frye

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Northrop Frye on Wiki

Britannica

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