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The Archetypes of Literature

A presentation on the literary scholar Northrop Frye.
by

Stacey V

on 7 April 2011

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Transcript of The Archetypes of Literature

By Northrop Frye The Archetypes of Literature Anatomy of Criticism
(1957) Northrop Frye is one of Canada’s greatest scholars

He was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec in 1912 and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick

He was educated at the University of Toronto and Oxford University where he graduated with Honours in the English school.

He joined the University of Toronto as a Lecturer in English in 1939 and would be based there until his death in 1991

Over the course of his life he wrote more than 20 books, lectured at more than 100 universities around the world, received 30 honorary degrees, and had a postage stamp created in his image
Other Works Background The Educated Imagination (1963) Northrop Frye on Shakespeare (1986) Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947) The Quest Myth Frye has published a number of well-known works of literary criticism, including: Awards Won The Four Seasons The Tragic vs. Comic World Northrop Frye On Shakespeare:
Hamlet Vocabulary Questions Northrop Frye received many honours for his work over his lifetime, including The Royal Society’s Molson Prize, The Canada Council Medal and The Royal Society’s Lorne Pierce Medal - all for contributions to Canadian Literature

He also won the Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction in 1986 for “Northrop Frye on Shakespeare”

He had a considerable influence on the planning of curricula in English for elementary and secondary schools throughout North America

The Northrop Frye Centre was established in 1988 in Victoria University in the University of Toronto to honour him The Archetypes of Literature was first published in 1951, later leading to Anatomy of Criticism (1957), which it is included in.

Frye defined an archetype as a symbol, usually an image, which recurs often enough in literature to be recognized as an element of one’s literary experience as a whole. He believed archetypes were powerful tools for understanding and comparing literature.
In his essay, Frye talks about the “quest myth.”

He argues, “All literary genres are derived from the quest myth.”

The idea of the quest myth is that all literary genres are derived from the idea that the protagonist needs to go on a quest in order to accomplish a goal.

The outcome determines the genre: the hero can triumph (comedy), fail or be killed (tragedy), be reborn (romance), or be the object of criticism (satire).
Frye starts the essay by identifying the four seasons and aligning it with the four main plots of romance, comedy, tragedy, and irony/satire.

He then relates them to different archetypal symbols commonly found in those genres.

Frye believes that when looking at literary works, patterns can be found by first tracing the myths, which can be “humanized” using the rituals of the day, seasons, and human cycle.
Spring Summer Fall Winter Romance is aligned with Spring because the genre of romance is characterized by the birth of the hero, revival, and resurrection.

Spring also symbolizes the defeat of winter and darkness.

It usually involves the hero fighting to get something they want or need, meeting allies and enemies/boundaries along the way, and is “reborn” in the end. Comedy and summer are paired together, focusing on the triumph, marriage, or achievement of the hero.

They both represent light and happiness, and in a comedy the goal of the quest is completed.
Autumn represents the dying stage, which parallels the tragedy genre because it is known for the “fall” or demise of the protagonist.

The protagonist is usually given choices on which to act upon, eventually choosing the path that leads to his demise.

Commonly, the plot begins with an initial act that provokes some kind of revenge, the hero attempts to “make things right”, and the resolution ends in destruction.
Satire fits together with winter because satire is considered a “dark” genre.

It parodies romance by applying “romantic mythical forms to a more realistic content”, focusing on the return of chaos and the cowardly nature of the heroic figure.
While many argue this theory was Frye’s greatest contribution to the literary world, some argue that it is too simple, and few literary works can neatly fall into these categories.

Even Frye admitted to its simplicity, but also argued that these were just neutral archetypes and there are always exceptions.
In the second excerpt, Frye identifies archetypal communities, referring to the comic and tragic visions of the world.

Frye focuses on five different spheres of the world: human, animal, vegetation, mineral, and water.
While Hamlet is usually considered as Shakespeare’s greatest play, Frye points out its flaws in his text “Northrop Frye on Shakespeare”.

When Frye was an undergraduate at school, he had to write an essay discussing the problems in Hamlet, aside from the main two (how mad was Hamlet and why did he delay?).

He found that most of these problems were pseudo problems, meaning they appeared to be legitimate questions but after analyzing them they are actually irrelevant or not a problem when considering Shakespeare’s overall purpose. Frye argues that there are no boundaries in the play between the real problems and the pseudo problems, and there’s no other play “in the world, that raises so many questions of the ‘problem’ type.”

Frye continues by saying, “I’m not saying that we get to the ‘real meaning’ of the play by figuring out answers to its problems: I’m saying rather the opposite. Insoluble problems and unanswerable questions meet us everywhere we turn, and make Hamlet the most stifling and claustrophobic of plays.”
Frye points out that at the beginning of the play, Hamlet’s melancholy is not really the loss of his father, but more the remarriage of his mother (shown in his first soliloquy).

Frye makes reference to the story of Oedipus, who unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother. Many critics believe Hamlet is paralysed in trying to move against Claudius because “Claudius has fulfilled Hamlet’s own Oedipal desires.”

Frye points out that every one except Hamlet seems to see Claudius as an appealing monarch. If we can forget what he did to get the crown, we would see a decent, attractive king that is charismatic and strong.

The way Hamlet is acting, it is understandable that he would have taken over the thrown as Hamlet is still too young and unstable. He publicly supports Hamlet as the heir to the thrown, and there’s nothing that suggests any doubts of his feelings towards Gertrude. As Frye says, “Claudius is someone of great potential fatally blocked by something he has done and can never undo.”
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and Frye argues that it is long “Partly because everyone, with the exception of the two women, talks too much”. While he later admits that it works well in creating a dramatic effect, Frye is concerned that the audience starts accepting Hamlet’s views as Shakespeare’s, and as our own.

He stresses that “We must never forget that while [Hamlet’s] alienated from the other characters (except Horatio), he’s still involved in the action, and not where we are in the audience.” Hamlet’s long soliloquies allow the audience to get inside his head, but if we start accepting his views as the truth of what’s actually going on, the play loses some of its believability.
Another problem Frye has with Hamlet is its use of the supernatural, particularly the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The ghost claims to have come from purgatory, a place of purification, but he comes from it “shrieking for vengeance.” Whether or not the ghost is actually Hamlet’s father becomes irrelevant, as Hamlet had always distrusted Claudius and would believe the ghost’s story, whether the ghost were real or not.

Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius when he is at prayer because he wants Claudius to go to Hell, not purgatory. Frye argues that the supernatural dimension of the play ends up limiting it, sealing our vision “by surrounding us with an ‘afterlife’ that has no infinite presence in it.”
Frye’s main argument against Hamlet is that his call to revenge does not give his life purpose, but instead impoverishes it further. Hamlet has no desire to become like Claudius, but that is what he is doing by following Claudius’s lead. Frye argues that, “In all revenge tragedies we need three characters: a character to be killed, a character to kill him, and an avenger to kill the killer.”

Hamlet is different then Shakespeare’s other revenge tragedies because it is a “tragedy without a catharsis”. A catharsis is an emotional cleansing. At the end of Macbeth, the reader is left with a sense of victory as the villain, Macbeth, is finally killed and order can be restored to the kingdom.

In Hamlet, there is no catharsis because in the end everyone ends up dead: Claudius kills Old Hamlet and Polonius is stabbed by Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed when Hamlet finds a letter from Claudius ordering Hamlet’s death, and he changes the names to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Ophelia commits suicide by drowning herself. The Queen dies because she drinks the poison that was meant for Hamlet. Laertes is stabbed with a poisonous sword (also meant for Hamlet). Hamlet finally murders Claudius, and Hamlet also dies from the same poisonous sword he used to kill Laertes and the King.

The only character left alive is Horatio (us). It ends with the Prince of Norway arriving and taking the crown. There is no victory for the reader and no order is restored in Denmark. It is a tragedy of “ferocious revenge codes, treachery, spying and the consequences of weak actions by broken wills.” Frye concludes, “the ironic part of the play relates to what has been done, which is nothing, unless we call violent death something.”
SPOLIER
ALERT Apotheosis: Glory, exaltation, ultimate achievement

Etiological: Having to do with the study of the cause, origin, or reason for something

Leviathan: A mythical, monstrous sea creature

Resurrection: The act of rising from the dead

Subordinate: Belonging to lower order or rank, of less importance, secondary
1. Where was Northrop Frye born?

2. What award did he win in 1986 for Northrop Frye on Shakespeare?

3. What was this essay, the Archetypes of Literature, later included in?

4. What is the quest myth?

5. What does Frye believe is missing from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”?
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