Sunday, October 31, 2010

Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes

This is a synopsis of 1 of 4 essays in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. I hope you find it informative.

In Frye's 'Anatomy of Criticism', he composes four essays, each on a form of literary criticism. For Frye, literature is "an order of words", and as such he seeks nothing short than to turn literary criticism into a science unto itself. Implicit in this goal is the abandonment of criticism from anything outside of criticism itself. Thus Marxist criticism, for example, is out. That is not to say there aren't valuable insights to be gained from philosophies extraneous to literature itself, but Frye maintains correctly that in order to make literary criticism a proper science, it has to establish it's central principles from no source extraneous to literature. With that said, Frye maintains that literature can be approached from many different perspectives, again so long as they stem from literature at the core.

In Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes, we have a classification system that categorizes literature according to the protagonist's power of action. Five levels of modes based on this are listed:

1. Mythic Mode: Where the hero is a divine being, superior to both men and his/her environment.
2. Romance, Legend, and Folk Tale Modes: Where the hero is superior in degree to both men and his/her environment.
3. Epic and Tragic Modes (high mimetic modes): Where the hero is superior in degree to men but not to his/her environment. In this mode the hero is usually a mortal leader.
4. Comic and Realistic fiction Modes (low mimetic modes): Where the hero is equal in power to us, the readers.
5. Ironic Mode: Where the hero is inferior in power or intelligence to us, the readers.

Note that as you work your way down this list, you may find an interesting correlation between the history of literature (thus Historical Criticism) and these modes. Literature began with myths of gods and godlike kings, down to the present Ironic mode we see so much of today. Romance dominates western literature up to the Renaissance, where the "cult of the prince" produces mainly high mimetic literature.

Frye terms literature "sentimental" that is recreative of earlier modes, i.e. Romanticism is a sentimental mode of romance as the fairy tale is a sentimental form of the folk tale.

Tragic fictional modes:

Tragedy is a fairly generic term referring to any fiction in which the hero becomes isolated from society, and the reverse of course is comedy. Dionysiac refers to Mythic Mode tragedies, Elegiac refers to the tragedy of the semi-divine. In high mimetic tragedy we find a mixture of the heroic and the ironic, where the hero is often exposed by his/her leadership position. The characters fatal flaw is what Aristotle called 'hamartia' in Poetics. This need not be a moral weakness necessarily, often the position of leadership itself is the hero's undoing in the high mimetic mode.

In low mimetic tragedy, at the level of comedy and realism,  we experience pathos. This is for the fairly obvious reason that in "domestic tragedies" we find protagonists that are on our level of experience, thus we tend to relate to them much more than we can to Zeus (unless we happen to suffer from delusions).

Finally, we reach tragic irony, where exceptional events occur to our unexceptional protagonist. The hero may be unlucky, hit by random catastrophes, or at the whim of impersonal fate. The hero here is often a 'pharmakos' or scapegoat, neither innocent nor guilty. Melville's Billy Budd being a prime example. It starts to get very complex and interesting in this mode of tragedy, as we find our Ironic Mode forming a loop back to the Mythic Mode. In Billy Budd we start to see tones of the trial of Christ for example. We go from intense realism to the mythological, from the all too ordinary to the fantastic. Which brings us to...

Comic fictional modes:

In the comedy of Myth we see our hero accepted into a society of (what else?) gods. In the Romance Mode of comedy we find the partner to tragedies elegiac in the 'idyllic' pastoral vehicle. High mimetic comedy is largely in the past, the 'Old Comedy' of Greek playwrights like Aristophanes. The low mimetic comedy (social comedy) that packs people into theaters deals largely with characters we can relate to or feel superior to (Homer Simpson, Adam Sandler). In Poetics Aristotle introduces us to the 'Catharsis' of tragedy, the purging of emotions such as pity and fear. These emotions relate little to comedy, and therefore the equivalent emotions in comedy are sympathy and ridicule. Our low mimetic comedy usually involves social promotion.

Melodrama has two main themes:

1. The triumph of moral virtue over villainy.
2. Idealizing of moral views assumed held by audience.

Ironic comedy treats these two themes as an absurdity, the paradox of trying to define a villain as separate from his/her society. Satire and comic irony usually define the villain as an aspect of society rather than individuals within said society. Ironic comedy ridicules the audience that seeks the sentimental, the audience that seeks the triumph of moral standards.

In the Comedy of Manners our hero has our sympathy, and repudiates society becoming a pharmakos in reverse. The society may deem him/her a fool, but we the audience know better. Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot' is the example Frye gives.

Here is something to keep in mind. Although a work may have one mode underlying its tonality, other modes may be present. This is known as 'modal counterpoint'. I give the 'magic realism' of Salman Rushdie as an example. The very term betrays the fact that it will not be constrained by our five modes of Historical Criticism. This is the power of literature. Mythic tales can have tones of realism (and vice versarelatable by modern readers as well as audiences of the past. There's a reason the Christian Bible isn't going anywhere, and I'm afraid it has little to do with either societies literacy nor the Bible's plausibility. It resonates. Ditto Homer, Gilgamesh, Beowulf.

All good literature resonates, lives, changes as we change. As Frye aptly puts it: "a work can be contemporaneous with it's time as well as ours".

Thematic modes:

And now a few Greek terms from Aristotle's Poetics, and yes these are simplistic definitions:

Mythos: Plot
Ethos: Character and Setting
Dianoia: Thought

At this point an interesting idea. When you read a work of fiction there is a division into an internal and an external fiction. The internal fiction is the fiction contained in the story itself, the external fiction is the dialogue between author and reader. The external fiction is what Thomas C. Foster refers to (in his excellent 'How to read Novel's like a Professor') when he talks about the first page of any novel being a negotiation between the author and you the reader. The author has certain expectations of you, as you do of him, and the first page is where the negotiation occurs as to whether you take the book to the cashier or toss it back on the shelf.

In novels and plays, the mythos is usually of primary interest, in essays and lyrics the dianoia is of primary interest. As Frye puts it, when you ask 'How is this story going to turn out?', you are referring to plot discovery, what Aristotle called 'Anagnorisis'. When you ask 'What is the point of this story?', you are referring to dianoia or thematic discovery. The main emphasis of a work may be fictional or thematic, but all four ethical elements are at least potentially present: Hero, Hero's society, poet, poet's audience. Therefore every work of literature has both elements at play.

An interesting point Frye gives is that although Homer was the very type of impersonal fictional writer, the main emphasis of 'Homeric Criticism' to 1750 was overwhelmingly thematic, concerned with the dianoia of the two epics. Which leads to this point: Which element is more important is a matter of emphasis of interpretation. Two of Jane Austen's most famous works are named for  thematic elements: 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Sense and Sensibility'. As we move towards more thematic fiction, we find the word plot may be replaced by narrative. A note of warning though in regards to emphasis of interpretation. Genuine allegory is a structural element that no critical interpretation can legitimately add.

Corresponding to the comic and tragic modes of fiction, Frye divides thematic literature into 'Individualistic poetry' and 'Spokesman poetry'. The former somewhat relates to tragic fiction, focusing on the poet in isolation, producing essays, lyrics, satire, epigrams. Protest, complaint, ridicule, loneliness (both bitter and serene) are roughly analagous to tragic fiction. In Spokesman poetry has the poet expressing knowledge latent or needed in society, producing "educational poetry": epics of theme, didactic  prose and poetry, encyclopaedic myth compilation, folklore and legend. Of course the stories are fictional, but the themes are very real.

Modes of poetry:

1. Mythic poets often sings as a god, or a gods instrument (Hebrew Prophets, Muses).
2. The romantic poet is human, and his function is memory, often of a marvelous journey be it physical or spiritual.
3.High mimetic poetry often deals with epics of nation, unified by patriotic or religious ideology. Poet a courtier, preacher, public orator.
4. Low mimetic poetry is individualistic, concerned with the self, often expressing a pantheistic rapport with nature. (Faust, Keats, Shelley)
5. Ironic poetry focuses on art rather than the self. Often avoiding direct statement, juxtaposing images without explanation, this poet avoids rhetoric.

Again, in poetry as with fiction we find irony returning to the roots of myth. The craftsman or irony turns to the oracle of myth. An interesting point Frye makes is that there exists a tendency toward a strong reaction against the preceding historical mode. The example given is the shift to the ironic in the anti-romantic revolt following the Victorian era. You can think of anything your parent's wore or listened to to get the idea here.

The juxtaposition between an emphasis on thematic vs. fictional elements in literature corresponds to the historic view of literature. Aesthetic or creative, Aristotelian or Longinian, literature as product or literature as process, these are largely distinctions of fashion and the times. For Aristotle the poem is an aesthetic artifact, catharsis the central concept and thus the detachment of the spectator, what is referred to as "Aesthetic distance". In the thematic aspect, the external relationship between author and reader is prominent. The Longinian approach, ecstasis is the central concept, an individualized response involving the reader. The Longinian approach is used in lyrics often, the Aristotelian approach is often used in plays.

To sum this up, remember that to approach literature as a science involves recognizing that in a diverse field a diverse toolset is helpful. To become focused on one approach to literature at the expense of others is to make your literary experience much poorer. The goal for Frye is the inclusion of various methods into one coherent and flexible whole. In his methods, there are rules of literature and principles for its criticism, and these rules and principles make literature the richest field for exploration we could possibly imagine.

This concludes the summary of essay one of four. Essay two on Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols will be next. I hope you enjoyed this and found it informative.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


This is a place where I will be posting some essays on works of literature, as well as other things related to literary criticism. It's focus will be on all works considered to be classics. I will also be exploring so called "non-imaginative" writings, such as philosophical works here. I hope you enjoy this blog, and find some interesting information.

To those familiar with the art of literary criticism, you may recognize the title of this blog from the famous work of Northrop Frye. I have taken much of my theory from that work, and consider it a masterpiece. It is in honor of the great Canadian critic that this site is dedicated. I will begin with a brief synopsis of his 'Anatomy of Criticism', and carry on to some of my essays on great works.

I can be emailed directly at

Here's to a hopefully fun and enlightening exploration of art.