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This article appeared in Volume 1 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Frye Redivivus: The Semiotic Implications of his Criticism

by Joseph Adamson

Ayre, John. Northrop Frye: A Biography. Toronto: Random House, 1989.Pp. 472. (ISBN 0-394-22113-3)

Balfour, Ian. Northrop Frye. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Pp. 132. (ISBN0-8057-8235-4)

Hamilton, A.C. Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1990. Pp. xv, 294. (ISBN 0-8020-2697-4)

Over the thirty five years since the appearance of the Anatomy of Criticism (1957), the work of Northrop Frye has occupied a prominent but uneasy position in Anglo-American literary studies. In spite of often irrational hostility from very different quarters, his work has maintained its importance. (Indeed, on the book jacket of John Ayre's Northrop Frye: A Biography, we are informed that Frye "is the fourth most cited twentieth-century thinker, behind only Freud, Lenin, and Roland Barthes,"). When the Anatomy first appeared, the challenge it presented to literary scholarship was such that it managed to outrage both traditional historical scholars as well as New Critics. In one fell swoop, Frye had presented a systematic theory of literary meaning which essentially invalidated the pursuits of both those committed to empirical historical research and those devoted to close reading. Not surprisingly, the implications of the Anatomy never came fully into the light of day. If Frye has been rejected out-of-date by more recent proponents of critical theory, it is hardly as though we can say, as one might say for New Criticism, that an entire generation of scholars has been raised on Frye. As Balfour notes in his conclusion: "Frye's theory of critisism as proposed in the Anatomy has by no means been adopted by the discipline as a whole, as has sometimes been the case for theoreticians in the natural sciences" (p. 109). In the sixties and seventies, along came structuralism and right behind it the seemingly endless procession of contestatory discourses that now form the all but indigestible lump we call "theory" -- poststrusturalism, deconstruction, feminism, New Historisism. In the AngloAmerican context, strusturalism was merely a repetition, in exotic guise, of the basic principles that Frye had already established in the Anatomy (significantly, the book was originally to be entitled "Structural Poetess"). Moreover, as a science of literature, structuralism remained anemic in its attachment to deductive logic and lacked the empirical richness of Frye's work. It possessed, however, something his own work so manifestly lacked: a foreign appeal. In the wake of the discourses of radical doubt and suspicion which followed, Frye's work is now generally thought of as having something quaint and old fashioned about it. And yet, the work remains, is still read, and continues to grow: Words with Power, the long awaited sequel to The Great Code, is due to appear within the year.

A sign of the enduring significance of Frye's work are the three books under review. Each in its own way is an indication that we are only beginning to read Frye and weigh the significance of his contribution to literary theory. It is no accident that each work spends a good deal of time correcting the misconceptions and misunderstandings that, over the last thirty-five years of stubborn misreading, have come to surround Frye's work. For all his personal preeminence, the revolutionary message of his work has been lost in the din and clatter of a continuing critical pluralism that is in a state of even greater disorganization and confusion that the one inveighed against in the "Polemical Introduction" to the Anatomy. These three books, each quite distinct in approach, all share the value of reducing some of the static and interference surrounding Frye's work, and allowing what is probably the most important single critical voice of this century to be heard for itself, loud and clear.

The biography by John Ayre is aimed at a more general audience than a strictly academic one. A journalist, the author defends against any perception of presumption in his taking up the task of writing the biography: "If It were left to a scholar, a biography of Frye would probably have taken another twenty or thirty years when most everyone connected with Frye was dead." Ayre is not burdened by the unnecessary anxieties connected with the niceties of academic and scholarly decorum, or by our particular esoteric biases and entrenched interests. Being a biography, much of the book is devoted to personal details concerning Frye which are not directly related to his contribution to literary and cultural studies. However, this is balanced by the fact that Ayre, aided by an excellent understanding and familiarity with the quite daunting volume of Frye's publications, is able to offer specific information that bears on the genesis of the works. In this sense, we are given at least the rudiments of an intellectual history of the man, if not a critical biography. The most interesting parts of the book are those which deal with the early stages of Fry's intellectual development, as they clarify some of the specific sources of his vision of literature. Ayre is able to convey a real sense of how Frye, over a period of roughly twenty years, drew together and synthesized the work of many critics, scholars and thinkers in order to construct his own systematic theory of literary meaning.

Part of Twayne's World Authors Series, lan Balfour's Northrop Frye, is an excellent introduction to Frye's work. Forced to restrict himself to a modest tour of the Frye canon, the author concentrates on six important works: Fearful Symmetry (1947), the Anatomy (1957), The Secular Scripture (1976), The Critical Path (1971), The Bush Garden (1971) (this choice may have been dictated by the fact that the book is part of the Canadian literature series) and The Great Code (1980). The choice is strategic in emphasizing different aspects of Frye's critical theory: the central importance of Blake to Frye's thinking; the systematic thinking about literary as a global system; the central place of romance in that system; the socio-cultural implications of his conception of literature; the mythology of Canadian society and culture; and the understanding of the Bible as the central storehouse, in our culture, of literary paradigms.

In spite of unavoidable restrictions in scope, the book successfully combines selectiveness and synopsis. Balfour is sensitive to the implications of the literary structure of Frye's own work, such as the epic structure of the book on Blake, complete with its own genesis and apocalypse, or the anatomical, "dissective" structure of the Anatomy. Balfour's reading of the Anatomy is particularly laudable in the way in which he deals with continuing misunderstandings of Frye's work. The short work he makes of Frank Lentricchia's flagrant misreading of a passage from the Anatomy should be applauded. With its "numerous and egregious" errors, Lentricchia's blundering is unfortunately "symptomatic," as the author suggests, of the general treatment of Frye. An example of the same thing -- though Balfour does not specifically cite the case -- is Terry Eagleton's superficial and fallacious treatment of Frye in Literary Theory (1983), with it scornful and dismissive aside, in parentheses, that after all "Frye is a clergyman" (1983: 93), a particularly blatant instance of the spurious general charge "that Frye's theory of literature is a thinly veiled displacement of a theological or religious program" (Balfour, p. 109). The received wisdom on Frye is that his work is divorced from social and political reality, or in the loaded language of Eagleton, "marked by a deep fear of the actual social world, a distaste for history Itself" (1983: 93) -- a myth which Balfour, his chapter on The Critical Path, does his best to dispel, by demonstrating to what extent Frye's systematic vision of literature depends on its correlation with a larger, enveloping sociocultural vision. Going against the grain of belittling and dismissive commonplaces about Frye and the importance of his work, Balfour draws attention to the debt current theoretical debate owes to his original work, to "the many ways in which Frye's work has anticipated some of the most promising criticism being undertaken today. That is to say, many contemporary critics are the 'antitypes' of Frye, whether they acknowledge it or not" (p. 109). Balfour brings to the study a sophisticated grasp of the current critical theory in all its variety and complexity. His familiarity with Frye, and with the mass of commentary on Frye's work, is both extensive and detailed.

Thirty-five years after its appearance, we now have at last, with A.C. Hamilton's Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism, a methodical examination of Frye's intricate system, and one which will serve as an excellent companion to anyone's reading of Frye's work. At a superficial glance, Hamilton's rereading of Anatomy of criticism might lead some to wonder at what appears to be an anachronistic gesture at best: why would anyone want to read the Anatomy after all these years, and in such detail? Hamilton is thus careful to frame his study by a very unapologetic discussion of the continuing relevance of Frye's work today and into the future. Like Bafour, Hamilton has a comprehensive sense of the state of current critical theory and is thus able to place Frye's work in that context. Like Balfour as well, he seems to have read not only everything Frye has written, but everything written on him as well.

As both Balfour and Hamilton remind us, though no book in English literary studies has made such an impact on the critical scene, the nature and extent of the book's influence remains uncertain. Ironically, Frye's trenchant pronouncements against the sloppiness and babble of his contemporaries in his "Polemical Introduction" to the Anatomy is all the more applicable to the state of critical chaos today: "The first step in developing a genuine poetios is to recognize and get rid of meaningless criticism, or talking about literature in a way that cannot help to build up a systematic structure of knowledge. This includes all the sonorous nonsense that we so often find in critical generalities, reflective comments, idelogical perorations, and other consequences of taking a large view of an unorganized subject" (p. 18). There seems to be even more "sonorous nonsense" today when, as Hamilton points out, we can find nearly twenty different kinds of criticism currently listed in the MLA annual bibliography. The problem is not so much that we are hedged in by a plethora of competing systems, but that this fact is itself a sign that the thinking about literature continues to be shamelessly confused and unsystematic. There is, now more than ever, a drastic need for the sort of systematic study that Frye's Anatomy provides -- indeed, after thirty-five years, it still remains the only example of such a study. In response to Frank Lentrischia's patronizing judgment of Frye as having been once and for all "unceremoniously tossed 'on the dump'...with other useless relics," Hamilton has this to say about the significance of Frye's work:

While it has not had a place in the post-structuralist 1970s and 1980s, the radical change in critical fashions can only promote further radical change; and in the postdeconstruotionist 1990s, it may well be said of Frye what he has said of Wilde, that he is consistently writing from a point of view at least half a century later than his actual time. Since his criticism, in its encyolopaedic inclusiveness and always flourishing immediacy, is never post-anything, not even post Aristotle, the future may well search through Lentrischia s dump in order to revive him as Its contemporary.
(p. 217)

Betting on a future in which Frye will have a central place, Hamilton, like Balfour, is acutely aware of the importance of Frye's being "properly understood in the future" (p. 223). The reason for Hamilton's book is, then, quite simply that Frye's work, and the Anatomy in particular, has not yet been read and understood in the way it demands.

Anatomies tend not only to be compendious themselves but to encourage a countering mass of further commentary, annotation, and gloss, if keys to Finnegan's Wake are any example. Hamilton's detailed and methodical response to Frye's work is a further example. It is an ambitious attempt to facilitate the difficult task of reading a work in which the reader must always hold in his/her mind the work's overreaching consistency of design in face of what is an intimidating range of detail and reference. As Frye points out in his discussion of the Menippean satire, the anatomy is a genre which "At its most concentrated...presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern" and is "characterized by a great variety of subject-matter and a strong interest in ideas" (1957: 310, 365). Frye's own book is a case in point.

It is the symmetry of the work which is most fearful. However apparently casual or unrelated to the whole, any particular statement in the book only fully signifies in the context of the book's global vision, in contradiction of Terry Eagleton's flimsy claim that it is only in "a loose sense in which Northrop Frye's work can be described as 'structuralist' (1983: 94). If ever there was a systematic conception of literature in which the meaning of any part "Is wholly a matter of its relation to the other" (1983: 94), It is Frye's. It is Hamilton's corresponding ability to see the world in each speck of the Anatomy that allows him to reconstruct for us the book's argument, with a clarity often lost in the bewildering pase of Frye's own unerring course through the different pathways of his labyrinthine system.

Hamilton by no means ignores Frye's other work. Indeed, he provides a very helpful annotated bibliography in his Conclusion. It is his working principle that all roads In Frye's thinking either lead to or from the Anatomy. He thus deftly draws on the entire range of Frye's writings in order to supplement his unfolding of that central work. Hamilton is careful to place the book in the context of the criticism of Its time, rooted as It is in the particular concerns of that distinctive period, while showing at the same how Its relevance transcends the specific historical context in which it appeared. Hamilton does not hesitate to criticize Frye's system when the system discloses faults, but like Balfour, he is forced to spend a good deal of his fame dispelling the many misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding Frye's work. One particularly nagging question is that of Frye's indifference to social and political reality. Hamilton reminds us that it was Frye who first advocated the study of literature as a social science: "There is increasing awareness, however, that criticism could become a discipline of its own, though one thoroughly informed by other disciplines. It is now being recognized as a social science, with literary theory becoming cultural theory, as it is in Frye's post-Anatomy writings. Hence Frye may observe that his suggestion in the Anatomy that literary criticism was approaching the area of the social sciences...was strongly resisted, but not anymore..." (p. 220)

As noted, the recurrent theme of all these books is the issue of Frye's relevance to current literary debate. Not surprisingly, all three authors are unanimous in their judgment that Frye's work will continue to impose itself in the future. Ayre is confident that his "ever-present, ever continuing vision" will "survive the abrasions of time and scabrous ideology" (p.394). In a less transcendental vein, it is Balfour's view that "The theoretical and practical writings of Frye continue to pose a challenge for the future of criticism..."(p. 110). Hamilton is equally convinced: "The following study is not offered, then, as an archaeological reconstruction of the literary theory of a critic prominent before the age of structuralism and its aftermath today. At every point in the following analysis of Frye's criticism, l hope to make the reader as aware as I am of his present and continuing relevance to our understanding of literature" (p. xv). Hamilton even goes so far as to suggest that there are definite current signs that Frye's work is on some sort of return cycle in terms of interest. One sign, obviously, is the existence of these books themselves, none of which is interested in treating its subject as a monument to a past but bygone age of criticism which has been surpassed by more enlightened views of things.

Both Balfour and Hamilton, especially in their conclusions, remark on a number of the areas in which Frye has anticipated current critical theory: among others, the interest in structure, in language, and in what is now fashionably known as intertextuality; the commitment to the social function of literature and to a conception of literary criticism as a social science or part of cultural studies; and the concern -- to be found today on several fronts (semiotic, phenomenological, and feminist) -- with what Eco calls "the role of the reader," with the reader as the bearer of the codes that alone actualize the text and bring it into being. One area that neither author specifically remarks upon, but which should be of most interest to readers of this journal, is the dramatic way in which Frye has anticipated so many of the practitioners of literary semiotics, such as Barthes, Eco, and Riffaterre. Frye's first principle, shared by any literary semiotician worth his or her salt, is that literary criticism must be a science, and as a science must employ a combination of induction and deduction.

The structuralist complaint that Frye's categories, however beautifully symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing, are not logical simply ignores the necessity of induction and empirical research, without which a theory about literature is deprived of knowledge of the very object it presumably sets out to account for. I suspect, however, that what Eco calls creative abduction is the only thing that can really explain the highly imaginative and inventive aspect of such a systematic vision of literature as the one we find in the Anatomy, where Frye is constantly positing rules to explain the empirical details of literature, rules which ultimately depend on the invention of the Rule or (Great) Code behind all literary phenomenon. Frye's term for this Code or Rule is "the order of words." The Anatomy is founded on the assumption that the most apparently unique moments in literature depend on a global system for their meaning, on the Code or Encyclopedia, to use Eco's term, of literature. For Frye's conclusions are in no way different from those laid out by Eco when he speaks of the Barthes' sense of the code in S/Z as "the whole of the encyclopedic competence as the storage of that which is already known and already organized by a culture. It is the encyclopedia, and at the same time allows, gives the possibility of inventing beyond itself, by finding new paths, new combinations within the network" (1984: 18). It is precisely as such a "system of inference" that Frye understands the highly conventionalized system of meaning presupposed by literature.

Long before most people had ever heard of literary semiotics, Fry had thus adopted as a fundamental principle the core assumption of a semiotic understanding of literary meaning: that there exists a socio-cultural corpus of conventions, a set of rules and instructions, that make any individual instance of literary discourse possible in the first place. "The most striking fact derived from a survey of world literature is the tenacity of what Frye calls, in a provocative metaphor, the "communism of convention", the great body of structures, piots, and motifs that cannot be the property of any single author" (Balfour, p. 30).Hamilton defines Frye's understanding of archetypal criticism as "criticism that treats a poem as an imitation of other poems, and therefore studies the conventions, genres, and archetypes which connect them" (p. 104).

Both Balfour and Hamilton point out the pertinence of this assumption in terms of current theories of intertextuality. Balfour quotes Frye's "stark formulation" of such a principle: "Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels" (p. 30; 1957: 97).

Behind Frye's emphasis on education in general is his recognition of the necessity of educating the imagination. As the inventor of archetypal criticism, it is precisely here that he divorces himself from any Jungian understanding of the archetype: archetypes are not innate, they are taught; thus, we have to be educated to perceive them. For Frye, the archetype is not, as it is for Jung, a content of the collective unconscious but a verbal interpretant, an associative cluster," whose meaning is purely conventional. "By an archetype, l mean a literary symbol, or cluster of symbols, which are used recurrently throughout literature, and thereby become conventional" (qtd. by Hamilton, p. 108; 1963: 120), Frye rejects the need to posit something like a collective unconscious, precisely because for him the basis of meaning is conventional and intertextual, not psychological or psychic. An archetype, for Frye, is simply a communicable unit. Indeed, his conception of the importance of convention goes so far that he speaks of the works of individual authors not in terms of self-expression but as the expression of a set of rules or conventions. Frye would also be in complete agreement with Eco's statement that "A code is not only a rule which closes but also a rule which opens. It not only says 'you must' but says also 'you may' or 'it would also be possible to do that' (1984: 187). Indeed, invention in literature would not be possible without the existence of conventions and rules, which should be seen as enabling, not constricting. When Frye speaks, in A Natural Perspective (1965), about the mysterious power of the late romances of Shakespeare, he poses the paradox that, highly conventionalized as only the most popular forms of literature can be, these plays explore the full range of possibilities inherent in a conventional form, to the point where the individual author disappears and we feel that it is literature itself -- Eco might say the Encyclopedia -- that is speaking through them.

Frye's conception of an order of words, his "vision of literature as forming a total schematic order, interconnected by recurring or conventional myths and metaphors, which I call archetypes" (qtd. by Hamilton, p. 108; 1976: 118),is indeed conceived of in the same way as Eco's global network of interpretants, in which the attempt, for example, to trace an interpretant opens up an infinite regression of unlimited semiosis. For Frye, the meaning of a sign can only be another sign. In a discussion of the importance of convention in the Anatomy, Frye observes that in the way pastoral images "are deliberately employed in Lycidas, for instance, merely because they are conventional, we can see that the convention of the pastoral makes us assimilate these images to other parts of literary experience" (1957: 99). He then demonstrates the point:

We think first of the pastoral's descent from Theocritus, where the pastoral elegy first appears as a literary adaptation of the ritual of the Adonis lament, and through Theocritus to Virgil and the whole pastoral tradition to The Shepherds Calender and beyond to Lucidas itself. Then we think of the intricate pastoral symbolism of the Bible and the Christian Church, of Abel and the twenty-third Psalm and Christ the Good Shepherd, of the ecclesiastical overtones of "pastor" and "flock," and of the link between the Classical and Christian traditions in/ Virgil's Messianic Eclogue. Then we think of the extensions of the pastoral symbolism into Sidney's Arcadia, The Faerie Queen, Shakespeare's forest comedies, and the like; then of the post-Miltonic development of pastoral elegy in Shelley, Arnold, Whitman, and Dylan Thomas; perhaps too of pastoral conventions in painting and music. In short, we can get a whole liberal education simply by picking up one conventional poem and following its archetypes as they stretch out into the rest of literature. . . . (1957: 99-100).

This remarkable passage accords in every way with the criterion of interpretability "elaborated by Peirce, according to which every interpretant (either a sign or an expression or a sequence of expressions which translate a previous expression), besides translating the Immediate Object or the content of the sign, also increases our understanding of it. The criterion of interpretability allows us to start from a sign in order to cover, step by step, the entire circle of semiosis" (Eco, 1984: 43).Frye speaks in a similar way about the "inductive movement towards the archetype" as "a process of backing up" (1963: 13), a process which is reminiscent of Peirwe's "infinite regression" of the interpretant: "Finally, the interpretant is nothing but another representation to which the torch of truth is handed along; and, as a representation, it has its interpretant again. Lo, another infinite series"(qtd. in Eco, 1976: 69). In other words, for Frye as for Eco, "an encyclopedia-like representation assumes the representation of the content takes place only by means of interpretants, in a process of unlimited semiosis" (Eco, 1984: 68). Frye seems unwilling to admit with Eco that his"order of words" lacks a centre -- Frye speaks of the "still centre of the order of words" -- and is therefore "potentially unordered and unrestristed galaxy of pieces of world knowledge" (Eco, 1984: 68). But this is a relatively unimportant difference. Frye raises the problem himself, and the language in which he poses it is suggestive for anyone familiar with Eco's understanding of the encyclopedia-aslabyrinth. Unless, Frye claims,

there is a center of the order of words . . . there is nothing to prevent the analogies supplied by convention and genre from being an endless series of free associations, perhaps suggestive, perhaps even tantalizing, but never creating a real structure. The study of archetypes is the study of literary symbols as parts of a whole. If there are such thing as archetypes at all, then, we have to take yet another step, and conceive the possibility of a self-contained literary universe. Either archetypal criticism is a will-o'-the wisp, an endless labyrinth without an outlet, or we have to assume that literature is a total form, and not simply the name given to the aggregate of existing literary works.(1957:118).

As Balfour points out, "Frye's claim here for a 'still center' detracts, unnecessarily, from his outline of the structure of symbolism" (p. 32). Nevertheless, Frye's conception of the "Word" is still of a logos which is only ever incarnated in the "aggregate" of words themselves, in the accumulated works of literature which only in their inconceivable totality form one Word; the Word is not something static but is to be identified with the past and ongoing production of creative human words.

Thus the leap of faith that Frye makes in assuming the unity of the system does not change the fundamental nature of his description of the system as something resembling Eco's encyclopedia-as-labyrinth, nor does it ultimately affect its accordance with a semiotic understanding of how literary meaning is produced.

The foregoing has been merely a schematic indication of certain areas in literary semiotics where we might begin to explore important analogies with Frye's work. I hope that I have shown that the question "what can the work of Northrop Frye contribute to literary semiotics?" is by no means an idle one. It is one thing to recognize the conventional basis of literary meaning. It is another thing actually to go about describing that system, however schematically, in global terms and in significant detail. Among modern theorists and critics, Frye still remains the only one to have given us a vision of what that complex literary system really looks like. Perhaps the question should be turned around, and we should be asking instead: "what can literary semiotics contribute to the work of Northrop Frye?"


Eagleton, T. (1983) Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Eco, U. (1976) A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

---. (1984) Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Frye, N. (1957) Anatomy of his Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

---. (1976) Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Frye, N. (1980) Creation and Recreation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Joseph Adamson is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at McMaster University. He is author of Wounded Fictions: Modern Poetry and Deconstruction (Garland, 1988) and of articles on XlXth and XXth century American Literature.

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