In Frye’s criticism, the literary critic should ideally be able to look at a literary work apart from its content, that is, “without making a judgment along the lines of one’s prejudices or one’s commitments in the world” (“Literature as Possession”; CW 21:305). He recognizes that our way into literature may initially be through writers with identities similar to our own, but for Frye the reader should quickly learn to leave those identities behind, and G. K. Chesterton is one of his standard examples of a critic whose judgment was deformed by his ideological allegiances. Frye considers the inability to transcend one’s own structure of beliefs and values as a form of anxiety: “There have been many great critics, such as Coleridge or Ruskin, or their followers like G. K. Chesterton and others, who seem to be incapable of making an aesthetic judgment. They make no statement about literature not coloured by anxieties of some kind” (CW 21:305). Frye has a lot to say about Ruskin, some of it high praise, whereas Chesterton does not figure prominently in his writing, except as an example of someone who “can’t think of the arts except as a source of homiletic points” (Diaries, 26 Feb. 1949; CW 8:141).
In a future post, I will compare some comments by Chesterton and Frye about the Middle Ages. I will conclude this instalment with a comment from Chesterton’s Charles Dickens (1906) that has a bearing on the discussion earlier about Frye and Calvinism. Chesterton sounds rather like Frye interpreting Blake; he is discussing Dickens’s ability to evoke an atmosphere of mystery, with specific reference here to Little Dorrit: “The dark house of Arthur Clennam’s childhood really depresses us; it is a true glimpse into that quiet street in hell, where live the children of that unique dispensation which theologians call Calvinism and Christians devil-worship.” (I should add, as befits someone who received part of his education in a college founded by Baptists, that I realize there is a lot more that can be said about Calvinism than is contained in Chesterton’s remark!)