Interdisciplinary Connections


In relation to the Adamson/Chrusch dialogue about ways that cognitive science, logic, and other disciplines might contribute to our understanding of Frye, it might be useful to reverse the context of the issue of dependency and consider the ways that Frye has contributed to thinking in other disciplines.  The most extended commentaries on Frye’s work are naturally within the field of literary criticism, but Frye was an interdisciplinarian, writing on numerous issues outside of literature –– social, political, psychological, historical, philosophical, religious, linguistic, legal, and educational.  He wrote about music, the fine arts, sacred texts, ballet, film, advertising and propaganda, the church, folklore, Canadian culture, comparative anthropology, humor, Utopias, student protest movements, the humanities, and numerous other nonliterary topics.  Frye was, of course, a polymath, and like other instances of the homo universalis, his ideas, especially those that form his literary theory, continue to spill over into other disciplines, affecting them in substantive ways.  His ideas have been applied by philosophers, historians, geographers, anthropologists, political scientists, and by writers in the fields of advertising, marketing, communication studies, nursing, political economy, legal theory, organization science, social psychology, and consumer research.  The contribution to other disciplines is one measure of the substance of a writer’s thought.  One thinks of the way Chomsky’s work has influenced, even developed, other fields of inquiry.  The following survey, which does not include the books and essays by scores of biblical critics and educational theorists who have drawn on Frye’s work, is a preliminary record of the dialogue between Frye’s criticism and other disciplines.  Interestingly, the debts to Frye come not so much from his writings about nonliterary topics: they derive, with a handful of exceptions, from the principles set down in Anatomy of Criticism

Advertising and Marketing

In their empirical study, ““The Role of Myth in Creative Advertising Design: Theory, Process and Outcome,” G.V. Johar, Morris B. Holbrook, and Barbara B. Stern discuss the work of five creative teams from an advertising agency, each of which was given a strategic brief for a new beverage product and asked to design the layout for a print advertisement.  The authors’ analysis of the protocols revealed that the teams used the kinds of plot patterns in Frye’s Anatomy.  Four of the teams oriented themselves toward one of Frye’s four mythic types. (Journal of Advertising 30, no. 2 [Summer 2001]: 1–25.)  Barbara B. Stern had earlier borrowed from the theory of genres in Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism to develop an analogous classification scheme for advertisements.  She divided advertisements into three broad categories parallel to the major literary genres, distinguished by what Frye calls the “radical of presentation.”  (“Who Talks Advertising? Literary Theory and Narrative ‘Point of View,’” Journal of Advertising 20 [September 1991]: 9–22).  See also Stern’s essay under “Sociology,” below. 


In his “Comment on M. Pluciennik’s ‘Archaeological Narratives and Other Ways of Telling,’” (Current Anthropology 40, no. 5 [December 1999]: 670 ff., James L. Peacock notes that Pluciennik’s essay, in the same issue of Current Anthropology, offers a useful contribution to understanding the types of narrative conventions that constitute archaeology.  He argues that this could be pushed even further, in the manner of Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, to postulate which patterns of thought are generated by which narrative forms.

Marc Manganaro has examined the relations between Frye’s criticism and the comparative method of anthropology.  See his “Northrop Frye: Ritual, Science, and ‘Literary Anthropology,’” Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye, & Campbell (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 111–50. 

Business and Economics

Metin M. Coşgel uses Frye’s five fictional and thematic modes from the first essay of Anatomy of Criticism to classify the different visions of the entrepreneur in economic “stories.” (“Metaphors, Stories, and the Entrepreneur in Economics,” History of Political Economy, 28, no. 1 [1996]: 57–76). 

Joanne Larty illustrates the importance of the literary frameworks in Anatomy of Criticism for understanding the entrepreneur and small‑business owner.  She explores the narratives of fifteen franchisees as they tell the stories of their journeys into franchising, and she analyzes these stories in turn through the lens of Frye’s account of Shakespearean romantic comedy, or what he sometimes refers to as the “Green World” comedy.  She concludes that the portraying of franchising as the “Green World” of small business ownership offers a safe and secure environment in which to live out the dreams of being in control and owning your own business. (“Narrating the Entrepreneur: Franchising as a Shakespearean Romantic Comedy.”  Paper presented at the Second Conference on Rhetoric and Narratives in Management Research, Barcelona, 31 May–2 June, 2007) 

Laura L. Nash turns to the principles of Frye’s romantic and ironic mythoi as fruitful avenues for exploring questions of business ethics.  She argues that all four mythoi “should be more fully considered for their potential to locate business ethics in an applicable context.” (“Intensive Care for Everyone’s Least Favorite Oxymoron: Narrative in Business Ethics,” Business Ethics Quarterly 10, no. 1 [January 2000]: 277–90). 


In “The Communication Thought of Northrop Frye,” Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 230–65, Robert Babe examines the implications of Frye’s thinking for communication studies.  He focuses on two major areas: Frye’s theories of perception and cognition and his views on the interaction of the scientific and mythopoeic.  See also Babe’s “Foundations of Canadian Communication Thought,” Canadian Journal of Communication 25, no. 1 (2000), where he reviews the communication writings of five English-language theorists––H. A. Innis, George Grant, Frye, C. B. Macpherson, and Marshall McLuhan.  Babe proposes that Canadian communication thought is dialectical, critical, holistic, ontological, oriented to political economy and that it concerns mediation and dynamic change.

James W. Chesebro uses a dramatistic system based on the critical frameworks of Frye and Kenneth Burke to analyze more than 900 prime‑time television series (“Communication, Values, and Popular Television––A Seventeen‑Year Assessment,” Communication Quarterly 39, no. 3 [1991]: 197–25. 

Arthur Siegel, in “Northrop Frye and the Toronto School of Communication Theory,” The Toronto School of Communication Theory: Interpretations, Extensions, Applications, eds. Rita Watson and Menahem Blondheim (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 114–44, examines Frye’s perspective on Harold Innis and the role Frye played in Canadian media institutions.

In a related study Jan Gorak opposes Frye’s view of communication, derived from literature as a means of human liberation, to the coercive communication of contemporary media––rhetorical or dialectical communication, arguing that in his late writings Frye is eager to explore the interactions between the two. (“Frye and the Legacy of Communication,” in The Legacy of Northrop Frye, ed. Alvin Lee and Robert D. Denham [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994], 304–15).

One study I have not seen that draws on Frye is Catherine Ann Collins, “Cultural Stories in the Rhetoric of U.S. Involvement in Vietnam,” in Studies in Communication: Communication and Culture: Language Performance, Technology, and Media, ed. Sari Thomas. Communication and Information Science. 4.  (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1990), 25–33.


In re-mapping geographical discourse, Jonathan M. Smith draws on Frye’s theory of fictional modes, showing that geographers construct their narratives in terms of romance, tragedy, comedy, or irony.  (“Geographical Rhetoric: Modes and Tropes of Appeal,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86, no. 1 [1996]: 1–20). 


Lynn Hunt.  Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.  Hunt’s focus on the political terms and symbols for the events of 1789 includes a discussion of the relevance of Frye’s work for historians concerned with revolutionary change.

Langkjær, Michael A.  “A Teiresias og kontrafakta––om mytebaserede alternative fortider” [“Tiresias and Counterfactuals––On the Use of Myth in Constructing Alternative Pasts”].  Den jyske Historiker (Historien der ikke blev til noget) July 2001: 30–47.  Langkjjær treats the topic of myth as an aid in composing a counterfactual essay, “Min Vilje er min Skæbne” (“My Will is My Fate”), about the Danish minister Count Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737–72).  He suggests that mythical archetypes and motives can be used in emplotting the hypothetical lines of activity taken by historical figures in ­counter­factual circumstances.  In light of this view, he discusses the ideas of Frye and others on the role of myth in structuring the lives of individuals and societies: the introduction of myth as a structuring element in counterfactual historical narrative increases the authenticity of the scenarios beyond that achieved solely by extrapolation and causal logic.

In a paper presented at the 1989 annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, San Francisco, 18–21 November, John Murphy argues that the narrative structure of Theodore White’s book, The Making of a President, derives its power from the form described by Frye as a quest story in the high mimetic mode (“Narrative and Social Action: The Making of a President 1960,” 32 pp.).

On the basis of Frye’s theory of narrative and Hayden White’s application of it to the poetics of historiography, Kevin Platt and David Brandenberger identify two basic plots which they apply to the story of Ivan IV and his era: romance and tragedy. (“Terribly Romantic, Terribly Progressive, or Terribly Tragic: Rehabilitating Ivan IV under I.V. Stalin,” Russian Review 58, no. 4 [October 1999]: 635–54). 

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrong draws heavily on the various themes in Frye’s mythos of romance to outline the various interpretations given to the Tiananmen Square episode.  (“History, Myth, and Tales of Tiananmen,” in Pouplar Protest and Political Culture in Modern China, ed. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom and Elizabeth J. Perry [Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994], 273–308). 

In Metahistory and a number of articles Hayden White has used Frye’s categories to elaborate historical understanding. 

“The Fictions of Factual Representation,” in The Literature of Fact: Selected Papers from the English Institute, ed. Angus Fletcher (New York: Columbia University Press 1976), 21–44.  Here White comments on the usefulness of Frye’s concepts of archetype and displacement for understanding history and the philosophy of history.

“Getting out of History,” Diacritics 12 (Fall 1982): 2–13.  Rpt. in Contempo­rary Literary Criticism: Modernism through Post-structuralism, ed. Robert Con Davis (New York: Longman 1986), 146–60.  White interprets Frederic Jameson’s work as an effort to compose a Marxist version of Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.  He glances at Jameson’s appropriation of Frye.

“The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” Clio 3 (June 1974): 277–303.  Rpt in The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Under­standing, ed. Robert H. Canary and Henry Kozicki (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1978), 41–62.  White analyzes Frye’s distinction among myth, history, and fiction, and then argues, in opposition to Frye, that history is no less history because of its fictional elements, particularly the kinds of plot structures its writers use.

“Interpretation in History,” New Literary History 4 (Winter 1973): 281–314.  White examines Frye’s conception of historiography.  He observes that although Frye is aware of the important differences between poetry and history, he is also sensitive to the ways they resemble each other.  He then extends Frye’s ideas to argue that interpretation in history depends on these resemblances: the patterns of meaning, the story forms, the pre-generic plot structures, and the conceptualized myths that historians built into their narratives.  White believes that Frye’s distinctions provide a useful “way of identifying the specifically ‘fictive’ element” in historical accounts of the world.

Metahistory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1973), 7–11, 231–3.  In this book White draws on Frye’s theory of myths in order to identify four different modes of emplotment.  He then uses the fictional modes as part of his framework for analyzing the works of nineteenth-century historians

“The Structure of Historical Narrative,”Clio 1 (June 1972): 5–20.  Here White uses Frye’s concept of plot, or pre-generic narrative patterns to examine the relationship between story and different kinds of narrative history.


Charles Marsh uses Frye’s theory of displacement to demonstrate that the narrative structure of literary journalism originated not simply in fiction but, rather, in Greek drama. (“Deeper Than the Fictional Model: Structural Origins of Literary Journalism in Greek Tragedy and Aristotle’s Poetics.” 


In “Jurisprudence as Narrative: An Aesthetic Analysis of Modern Legal Theory,” New York University Law Review 60 (May 1985): 145–211, Robin West draws upon Frye’s Anatomy to argue that legal theory can be read as a form of narrative.  In part 1 West summarizes Frye’s analysis of the role of myth in narrative and reviews his four core myths and their corresponding literary plots: romance, irony, comedy, and tragedy.  Part 2 describes four corresponding jurisprudential traditions: natural law, legal positivism, liberalism, and statism.  Parts 3 and 4 argue that each of these jurisprudential traditions is unified by either a vision of the world or a narrative method that corresponds to one of Frye’s four literary myths.  The final section assesses the significance of this correspondence, demonstrating that it is fruitful to address conflicts in legal theory as reflecting aesthetic as well as political and moral differences in the way we view the world.

In Literature Criticism of Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 211–13, 280, 283–4, Guyora Binder briefly considers Frye’s views of narrative as applicable to the understanding of law and Robin West’s (see above) appropriation of these views.

Archie Zariski, “Virtual Words and the Fate of Law,” Journal of Information, Law and Technology 1 (1998).  In considering the consequences for law of the digitalization of its texts and experiences in cyberspace, Zariski sees Frye’s writings, particularly his taxonomy of the phases of language and the forms of writing in The Great Code and Words with Power, as providing insights into the possible future of law in cyberspace.  He concludes that digitalization in itself will not satisfy the human need for meaningful personal narrative in law as in other interpersonal affairs.  “Frye teaches us to be aware of the content-related biases of a communicative medium in order to understand its impact on the mind.”  Zariski concludes further “that the descriptive mode of writing poses a threat to human dignity and agency not only in literature but in legal culture as well.”

Medicine and Health

Rebecca Hagey advances the argument that the theory of interpretation in Frye’s The Great Code can be useful in the art of nursing, because the dramatic narratives that are shaped from the nurse‑patient relationship attend to images, struc­tures of meaning, symbolic codes, and transformations.  These features are more im­portant in nursing care than rigid models and mechanical procedures for diagnosis. (“Codes and Coping: A Nursing Tribute to Northrop Frye,. Nursing Papers/Perspectives en nursing 16 [Summer 1984]: 13–39). 

Robert Wade Kenny, “Thinking about Rethinking Life and Death: The Character and Rhetorical Function of Dramatic Irony in a Life Ethics Discourse,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6, no. 4 (2003): 657–86.  Kenny uses Frye’s account of the several modes of writing (conceptual, descriptive, poetic) in order to scrutinize the medical ethics arguments of Peter Singer’s Rethinking Life and Death.

Ariel Zoltán Mitev, “A Narrative Analysis of University Students’ Alcohol Stories in Terms of a Fryeian Framework,” European Journal of Mental Health 2 (2007) 2, 205–233.  Mitev presents a structural analysis of students’ alcohol consumption stories, using Frye’s taxonomy of mythoi to assign consumer narratives to four categories: comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony.  See also chapter 8 of Mitev’s Ph.D. dissertation, A társadalmi marketing elméleti és empirius kérdései: Egyete misták alkoholfogyasztási történeteinek narrative elemsése (Budapest: Corvinus University, 2005), 107–32.


P.G. Baker, “‘Night into Day’: Patterns of Symbolism in Mozart’s The Magic Flute,” University of Toronto Quarterly 49, no. 2 (Winter 1979): 95–116.  Baker examines the Schikaneder libretto in terms of Frye’s critical principles.  The hero’s quest for regeneration, initiation, and eventual transcendence of the four elements of the sublunary world take place within a unified framework of mythically functioning landscapes and characters, with an emphasis on music-making in its literary and figurative senses.

Robert C. Ketterer, “Neoplatonic Light and Dramatic Genre in Busenello’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Noris’s Il Ripudio D’Ottavia,” Music & Letters 80 (1999): 1–22.  Ketterer applies Frye’s critical method to L’incoronazione di Poppea.

K.M. Knittel, “‘Late.’ Last, and Least: On Being Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, OP. 135,” Music and Letters 87, no. 1 (2006): 16–51.  On the ways in which various interpreters of Beethoven’s last completed work (the string quartet in F major, Op. 135) is said to be a romance, comedy, tragedy, or satire as these forms of emplotment have been defined by Hayden White and Frye.

Frank W. Oglesbee, “Paradigm, Persona and Epideictic: The Lovesongs of Eurythmics,” Popular Music Society 13, no. 2 (1989): 47–66.  Oglesbee examines the lyrics of the lovesongs of Eurythmics, a popular music group.  Uses a method based on the James Chesbro study (see above, under “Communications”), which classifies lyrics according to Frye’s mythoi and Kenneth Burke’s four-step dramatistic process (Pollution, Guilt, Purification, Redemption).  He then synthesizes Frye’s hierarchy, based on the relative intelligence and abilities of the central character compared to the audience, with Kenneth Burke’s behavioral processes.

R. Burkhardt Reiter, Symmetry and Narrative in Christopher Rouse’s Trombone Concerto with white space waiting (an original composition for chamber orchestra).  Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2005.  Reiter argues that Rouse’s concerto creates a musical metaphor of tragedy.  To help frame his discussion of the Trombone Concerto’s narrative elements (which include Rouse’s self-referential quotation to his own Symphony No.1 and a quotation of Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony No.3), he draws on Frye’s classification of tragedy as a narrative archetype. 


Cairns Craig, Associationism and the Literary Imagination: From the Phantasmal Chaos (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).  Craig traces the influence of empirical philosophy and associationist psychology on theories of literary creativity and on the experience of reading literature.  Frye is included among the twentieth‑century theorists.

Kurt Spellmeyer, “Writing and Truth: The Decline of Expertise and the Rebirth of Philosophy,” JAC [Journal of Advanced Composition] 13, no. 1 (1993).   Spellmeyer sees the writing of J.L. Austin and Frye as symptomatic of a professional and specialized knowledge, one that has abandoned the experience of ordinary people.

Jane Sutton, “The Death of Rhetoric and Its Rebirth in Philosophy,” Rhetorica 4, no. 3 (1986): 203–26.  Sutton examines the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the methods of Frye, Kenneth Burke, and Hayden White.

Johannes Van Nie, “A Note on Frye and Philo: Philosophy and the Revealed Word,” in Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Criticism of Northrop Frye, ed. Jeffery Donaldson and Alan Mendelson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 164–72.  Van Nie compares Frye’s typological practice to Philo’s.

Jan Zwicky, “Oracularity,” Metaphilosophy 34, no. 4 (July 2003): 488–509.  In contemporary North American contexts, according to Zwicky. to say that a claim is oracular is seriously to undermine its philosophical credibility.  Zwicky expands on Frye’s views about the language of the lyric to include “lyric philosophy”, arguing that this negative judgment of oracularity is unwarranted and that it is rooted in an excessively narrow notion of what constitutes “good” philosophy.  More specifically, oracular utterance is appropriate to the expression of views that regard the phenomena towards which they are directed as radically, non-systematically integrated wholes


In “‘Double Vision’: The Political Philosophy of Northrop Frye,” Ultimate Reality and Meaning 15 (September 1992): 185–94, David Cook argues that Frye’s social and religious concerns, as well as his belief in the “transcendental tradition of inspiration or spirit,” set him against the central trends of post-Nietzschean philosophy.

Robert Alexander Kraig, “The Tragic Science: The Uses of Jimmy Carter in Foreign Policy Realism,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5, no. 1 (2002): 1–30.  Kraig argues that the narrative of Carter’s failed foreign policy, as constructed by a wide range of international relations theorists and historians, has the generic constituents of a tragedy as these are defined by Frye and Kenneth Burke.

Douglas Long notes that despite Frye’s wish to contribute to the discussion of fundamental socio-political issues, his reflections have received scant attention from social scientists, but he thinks that they should have.  After noting Frye’s political concerns and insights, Long discovers, especially in Words with Power, the basis for a critique of the modes of political discourse.  He points especially to the difference in Frye between the divisive rhetoric of ideology, expressive of the human urge of domination and advantage, and the inclusive and unifying language of myth, expressive of what Frye calls “primary concerns.” (“Northrop Frye: Liberal Humanism and the Critique of Ideology,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’Études canadiennes 34, no. 4 [Winter 2000]: 27–51). 

Susan M. Matarese, American Foreign Policy and the Utopian Imagination (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).  Matarese begins with Frye’s thesis that Utopias present “an imaginative vision of the telos or end at which social life aims” and then shows how Utopian fictions in Frye’s sense “challenge us to examine the foundations of our own social order and to reflect consciously on the goals and purposes of collective life” (7–8).

Robert C. Rowland and John M. Jones.  “Recasting the American Dream and American Politics: Barack Obama’s Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 93, no. 4 (November 2007): 425–48.  Rowland and Jones draw upon Frye’s theory of literary romance to show that stories enacting the American Dream contain elements associated with this literary mythos.   They trace how Ronald Reagan and conservatives utilized the romance of the American Dream to the point that many Americans associated it exclusively with conservatism.  They then detail how Barack Obama, in his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address, recast the American dream from a conservative to a liberal story.

Kai Sköldberg, “Tales of Change: Public Administration Reform and Narrative Mode,” Organization Science 5 (May 1994): 219–38.  In a rather novel application, Sköldberg uses Frye’s narrative modes to discover the deep structure of the changes in eight Swedish local governments.

Psychoanalysis and Social Psychology

Harriet Blodgett, “Through the Labyrinth with Daniel: The Mythic Structure of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda,” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 9 (March 1988): 164–79.  A study of Eliot’s novel from the point of view of “the theories of symbolic imagery proposed by Jung and . . . the narrative patterns for literature identified by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism.”

Kenneth J. Gergen and  Mary M. Gergen, “Narrative and the Self as Relationship,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology: Social Psychological Studies of the Self: Perspectives and Programs, ed. Leonard Berkowitz (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1988), 17–56.  Rpt. in Hungarian as “A narratívumok és az Én, mint viszonyrendszer” in J. László, J., ed., Válogatás a szociális megismerés szakirodalmából (Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó, 1992), 127–73.  Rpt. in J. László and B. Thomla, eds., Narratívák 5: Narratív pszichológia (Budapest: Kijárat, 2001), 77–119.  In this study of narrative psychology, Gergen and Gergen begin by describing the micro-structure of the “intelligible narrative” in Western culture, followed by a catalogue of the four basic types of narrative forms derived from Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.  Frye’s mythoi are then combined with the authors’ definitions of narratives based on how they organize change in terms of a time continuum (stability narratives, progressive narratives and regressive narratives).  This produces the complex of narrative types: the tragic narrative (in which a progressive narrative is followed by a regressive one), the comedy-romance narrative (in which a regressive narrative is followed by a progressive one), the “happily ever after” narrative (in which a progressive narrative is followed by a stability narrative), and the romantic legend narrative (in which progressive and regressive phases alternate).

Michael Hollister, “Spatial Cognition in Literature: Text-centered Contextualization,” Mosaic 28 (June 1995): 1–21.  In arguing that many literary works are models of holistic thinking, Hollister draws on neurophysiological research, Frye’s “anatomy” of literary structures, and psychological theories about the nature of the unconscious.

Stanley B. Messer, “Applying the Visions of Reality to a Case of Brief Therapy,” Journal of Psychotherapy Integration 10, no. 1 (March 2000): 55–70.  Messer applies a narrative typology called “visions of reality” to three major schools of therapy (psychoanalytic, behavioral, and humanistic), the typology drawing in part on Frye’s tragic, comic, romantic, and ironic narrative forms.  See also Messer’s “A Critical Examination of Belief Structures in Integrative and Eclectic Psychotherapy” in John C. Norcross and M.R. Goldfried, ed., Handbook of Psychotherapy Integration (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 130–65.

Roy Schafer, “Language, Narrative, and Psychoanalysis: An Interview with Roy Schafer,” Criticism and Lacan: Essays and Dialogue on Language, Structure, and the Unconscious, ed. Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 123–44.  In response to questions by Patrick Colm Hogan on Schafer’s use of Frye’s mythoi, Shafer replied: “For myself I found them applicable in that they pulled a lot of things together that were closer to experience than the very formal categories of metapsychology, and they corresponded to my experience as a therapist.  I thought it would be worth trying to develop it at length.”  Schafer is referring to the project he developed in A New Language for Psychoanalysis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), where he draws on Frye’s mythoi to examine the comic, romantic, tragic, and ironic vision of reality embodied in psychoanalytic thought.


Sandra Beardsall, “Northrop Frye as a Guide for Interpreting the Protestant Spiritual Heritage,” Touchstone 21, no. 3 (2003): 21–33.  Beardsall examines the method developed by James F. Hopewell (see below), based on Frye’s theory of myths, for characterizing four different kinds of  Protestant congregations: charismatic negotiation (Frye’s romance), canonic negotiation (Frye’s tragedy), agnostic negotiation (Frye’s comedy), and empiric negotiation (Frye’s irony).  The four categories become a template for describing the different approaches Protestants take to the spiritual life.

David Cockerell, “‘The Solemnization of Matrimony,’” Theology 102, no. 806 (March–April 1999): 104–12.   Cockerell shows that “The Solemnization of Matrimony” from The Book of Common Prayer embodies and expresses all of Frye’s four mythoi: romance through the marriage itself, comedy in the Cana story, antiromance in the congregation’s ironic commentary, and tragedy in the references to the Fall and the darker sides of human nature.  He suggests that the comedic aspect introduces an important element of realized eschatology as the marriage service looks beyond itself for its transformation–completion.

James F. Hopewell, Congregation: Stories and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).  Hopewell’s book is influenced by the structuralist theories of Frye, especially his narrative mythoi.  In proposing that religious congregations be considered from the point of view of ethnography, he spreads his ethnographic discoveries across Frye’s typology and finds that congregations fit one of Frye’s four patterns: comic, romantic, tragic, and ironic.

Max Oelschlaeger, Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).  Oelschlaeger draws on the work of Frye to suggest that biblical tradition remains the vital “Great Code” of American culture.

Robert Wuthnow, Rediscovering the Sacred: Perspective on Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1992).  Chapter 3, “Religious discourse as Public Rhetoric,” uses Northrop Frye and Susan Rubin Suleiman as complementary visions on how persons from different perspectives can begin to understand one another.


William Clark, “Narratology and the History of Science,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26 (1995): 1–72.  Clark categorizes some recent works in the philosophy of science according to Frye’s narrative typology of the four mythoi.


Jeffrey C. Alexander, The Meanings of Social Life:  A Cultural Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).  Chapter 1, written with Phillip Smith, argues that the appeal of literary theory, as found in Frye and others, “lies partially in its affinity for a textual understanding of social life.”  “As Northrop Frye recognized, when approached in a structural way narrative allows for the construction of models that can be applied across cases and contexts but at the same time provides a tool for interrogating particularities.”

Alvan Bregman and Caroline Haythornthwaite, “Radicals of Presentation in Persistent Conversation,” Proceedings of the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 3–6 January 2001, Maui, Hawaii. Washington, D.C.: IEEE Computer Society, 2001.  On‑line at Beginning with the idea from Frye’s genre theory about radicals of presentation or root characteristics, the authors propose three of such radicals that are persistent in conversation: visibility, relation, and co‑presence.

Nicholas D. Pagnucco, “Competing Narrations of Service Learning within the Chronicle of Higher Education,” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Philadelphia, 12 August 2005.  Pagnucco Frye’s mythoi to characterize the narrative patterns discovered in an analysis of seventy‑five articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Barbara B. Stern, “Consumer Myths: Frye’s Taxonomy and the Structural Analysis of Consumption Text,” Journal of Consumer Research 22 (September 1995): 165–85.  Stern examines the influence of myths in consumption texts using Frye’s taxonomy to assign consumer narratives and selected advertisements to four categories of mythic plots: comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony.  She discovers links between Frye’s plot types and consumption myths.  Each mythos also incorporates values that are encoded in the plot that reappear in consumption narratives and in advertising appeals using mythic patterns and characterization.  Stern uses the taxonomy to reanalyze Thanksgiving narratives in Wallendorf and Arnould’s “‘We Gather Together’: Consumption Rituals of Thanksgiving Day” and to analyze pre-Thanksgiving food advertising coupons.  She finds that the Thanksgiving narratives and related advertising exemplars fit into conventional plot structures that serve as organizing devices for the articulation of consumption experience and the design of consumer appeals.

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3 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary Connections

  1. Michael Sinding

    I’ve got two comments, which are I think related as concerning the extraliterary. One is about logic and language again, and one is about interdisciplinarity.

    Paradox and metaphor and irony and dialectic are indeed very important in Frye. But while giving them their due, I think there’s a danger that overemphasizing those rhetorical or hypothetical aspects can insulate Frye from questions and criticism. It can seem to drain his writing of any actual claims that can be discussed: we make it look as if he’s not really saying anything about anything. And I’m pretty sure he’s not doing that (not not doing that?). Such insulation occurs with some poststructuralist criticism, though for a different reason: the language can get rather opaque, to put it mildly. The effects are unfortunate.

    Giving the rhetorical and hypothetical its due is not easy. One challenge is the everything-fitting-togetherness of his thinking. Within the system, things can make an amazing amount of illuminating sense. And to do justice to any part, you have to consider it in the context of the whole. (When you try to pull one brick out, a few more may come with it.)

    It’s not as if he doesn’t make claims about literature, and about many other things. Even though Frye stresses ‘creating perspectives’ over taking ‘positions’, a perspective is still a perspective ON something, and it can be evaluated for how well it reveals something of its topic, proposes certain patterns, and heck, even for its rightness and wrongness. If all we can say about it is ‘hmm, interesting, another perspective … OK, what’s next?’, it hardly seems worth the candle.

    It’s important not to oversimplify what Frye is saying. And it’s important to be, well, judicious in our judging: not to reach too quickly or in the wrong way after fact and reason. But I think we can and should question those claims, because it’s essential to taking Frye seriously, and to keeping the conversation alive.

    As an example, if we take Frye to be saying that all language is literary language, that’s a claim about language—one which, as it stands, I don’t think has a chance of surviving serious scrutiny. All kinds of language is non-literary, is literal, referential etc. But if we consider in context the general idea of this dialectic between centripetal and centrifugal language, or attention, and the idea that all language has a centripetal, rhetorical, literary aspect (which I think is what he was actually saying), then that looks like an idea with some future in its bones.

    On to the second comment … Frye also makes an excellent point about the dangers of connecting literature and criticism with other topics and fields—the vertical metaphors of ‘basing’ and ‘depending’ and ‘hanging’, and the horizontal metaphors of ‘relating’ and ‘connecting’. This is the determinism problem: criticism gets subordinated to some other discipline. But the opposite danger is that literature and criticism, including Frye criticism, can become insular, unrelated to other areas of thought.

    I think some of the most interesting work on Frye has been those interdisciplinary connections with other areas—history, psychology, philosophy, etc. I know ‘interdisciplinarity’ is something of a buzzword now, but I think this too is an essential part of keeping Frye’s ideas alive. They should be developed, adapted. Of course, again, everything depends on how it’s done, and it can be very tricky. In doing this you are thrown into dealing with the principles, methods, standards, etc. of other fields, but that doesn’t mean you have to be subordinated to them—it is possible to arrange meetings of multiple frameworks, where the other field(s) must also engage with the principles, standards etc. of criticism. It takes interpretive charity on all sides.

    I include the sciences here. Some sciences, such as the cognitive ones, seem to me obviously more relevant than others, like say geology. Whether or not, and how, the products of such meetings can be scientific, or scientific-ish, is another question. One view I like is that literary study can contribute to developing and refining hypotheses in the ‘human’ sciences. Hypothesis-building is essential to creating good explanations. Logic and proof certainly aren’t everything. You can get empirical confirmations of perfectly logical theories that just happen to be utterly wrong. Look at behaviorism.

    You read laments these days that literary study has become too self-involved, cut off from the concerns of the rest of the world, and even the rest of the academy. (Here’s one, linked from Arts & Letters Daily: Maybe such laments are nothing new.). Frye’s thinking has potential to overcome that, which is a great strength, one that should be taken advantage of. Again, it’s not a matter of trying to make him ‘relevant’ simplistically, but of showing the continuing richness and potential of the ideas. To do that, you have to question them, push them, apply them in new ways to new topics.

  2. Robert Wade Kenny

    One of my essays is mentioned above, so I would like to offer a little clarification. It is probably inappropriate to categorize that essay with medicine, for in it I look at the first pages of a Life/Death Ethics text by the renowned Peter Singer and I argue that he employs ironic aesthetics to influence his audience — a questionable tactic for one (as a philosopher) who claims the ethos of the epistemic. Frye’s forms of writing (from Words With Power) are mentioned in that essay (because one would expect Singer to keep to the conceptual mode) but the primary argument exploits Frye’s treatment of irony (from of course The Anatomy of Criticism), reading that argument across Kenneth Burke in a manner that shows how the ironic can be interwoven with the persuasive. As I say, the Frye/Burke argument used in that essay focused on irony, but irony, tragedy, comedy, and romance were treated as rhetorical devices through the Frye/Burke mix in an earlier article by me, A Cycle of Terms Implicit in the Idea of Medicine; Karen Ann Quinlan and the Transvaluation of Euthanasia (published 2005). That article did appear in a Health Communication journal (the irony Essay appeared in a rhetoric journal); all the same, it was not an argument restricted to medicine – in it, aesthetic forces that influence public judgment were explained using (as illustration) public arguments about what should be done with respect to Karen Quinlan. More than any influence on a specific paper, Frye has influenced me the way Blake influenced him. The Canadian polymath once wrote that the best way to develop a mind was to steep it in some other’s lifetime of great thought and Frye was one of those vats that I floated in for several years. Thus, I have read the thirty or so books that Frye published in his lifetime and am collecting the University of Toronto collected writings still. A few years ago, students in one of my graduate seminars read twelve of his books and I gave probing three-hour lectures on Frye’s universe. I talked as fast as I could and barely scratched the surface. One of my favorite books by Frye is his first, Fearful Symmetry, and I have published on that book in a collection called The Ethos of Rhetoric. My essay in that collection is called Fearful Symmetry: Imaginative Vision and the Ethos of Rhetoric. In it, I attempt to illustrate the role of imaginative vision in the construction of what Heidegger refers to as dwelling. Of course, I use Frye’s other shorter works on imagination there as well. Robert Bellah (who has read Frye with interest) mentioned to me that the argument in that essay seemed similar to the argument of the late Greek/French sociologist Cornelius Castoriadis who wrote for example The imaginary Institution of Society. Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries comes to mind at this moment as well, and of course C. Wright Mills’s famous The Sociological Imagination. Given the variety of attempts being made to think the relationship between imagination and action, Frye’s treatment of imagination is deserving of a Renaissance, one which I at least attempted. It is also worth noting that Frye is experiencing something of an awakening in social performance theory and cultural pragmatics, given the interest those people have in ritual and myth. To be sure, he is not the central nor sole thinker influencing that writing; however he has influenced the thinking of those authors, who do acknowledge him, for example Jeffrey C. Alexander. I first read Frye as a young man who wanted to be a novelist, and I did indeed write half a dozen or more before going to graduate school. His influence on my understanding of narrative form at that time was unparalleled. Reputation and influence are hard to come by and hold in the academy. Often, social power plays a key role in scholarly reputation (see Homo Academicus by Pierre Bourdieu or my essay on Kenneth Burke in this light, The Glamor of Motives. It is remarkable that Frye has had the influence he has had beyond the boundaries of his social reputation. He is found in the most unexpected places. For example, authors who published next to me in my first significant publication in sociology were publishing an essay grounded in Frye. That essay is called Romance, Irony, and Solidarity and is in Sociological Theory, a 1997 volume. I have always appreciated Professor Denham’s writings on Frye, also his editing and his ability to find a pithy Frye phrase. I would have preferred to send this note directly to him rather than self-advertise, but an email address is not easily found. At any event, if the goal is to gather information about the range of Frye’s influence, these few details should help. rwk


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