Frye on Archetype


Responding to Clayton Chrusch:

Here’s Frye’s extended definition of “Archetype” from the Harper Handbook to Literature:

Archetype.  A term that has come down from Neo-Platonic times, and has usually meant a standard, pattern, or model.  It has been sporadically employed in this sense in literary criticism down to at least the eighteenth century.  An archetype differs from a prototype (even though the two words have often been used interchangeably) in that prototype refers primarily to a genetic and temporal pattern of relationship.  In modern literary criticism archetype means a recurring or repeating unit, normally an image, which indicates that a poet is following a certain convention or working in a certain GENRE.  For example, the PASTORAL ELEGY is a convention, descending from ritual laments over dying gods, and hence when Milton contributes Lycidas to a volume of memorial poems to an acquaintance who was drowned in the Irish Sea, the poem is written as a pastoral elegy, and consequently employs a number of conventional images that had been used earlier by Theocritus, Virgil, and many RENAISSANCE poets.  The conventions include imagery of the solar and seasonal cycles, in which autumn frost, the image of premature death, and sunset in the western ocean are prominent; the idea that the subject of the elegy was a shepherd with a recognized pastoral name and an intimate friend of the poet; a satirical passage on the state of the church, with implied puns on pastor and flock (naturally a post-Virgilian feature); and death and rebirth imagery attached to the cycle of water, symbolized by the legend of Alpheus, the river and river god that went underground in Greece and surfaced again in Sicily in order to join the fountain and fountain nymph Arethusa.

One of the conventional images employed in the pastoral elegy is that of the red or purple flower that is said to have obtained its colour from the shed blood of the dying god.  Lycidas contains a reference to “that sanguine flower inscrib’d with woe” [l.  106], the hyacinth, thought to have obtained red markings resembling the Greek word ai (“alas”), when Hyacinthus was accidentally killed by Apollo.  Milton could of course just as easily have left out this line: the fact that he included it emphasizes the conventionalizing element in the poem, but criticism that takes account of archetypes is not mere “spotting” of such an image.  The critical question concerns the context: what does such an image mean by being where it is? The convention of pastoral elegy continues past Milton to Shelley [Adonais], Arnold [The Scholar Gypsy], and Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d.  Here again are many of the conventional pastoral images, including the purple lilacs: this fact is all the more interesting in that Whitman regarded himself as an antiarchetypal poet, interested in new themes as more appropriate to a new world.  In any case the gathering or clustering of pastoral archetypes in his poem indicates to the critic the context within literature that the poem belongs to.

The archetype, as a critical term, has no Platonic associations with a form or idea that embodies itself imperfectly in actual poems: it owes its importance to the fact that in literature everything is new and unique from one point of view, and to the reappearance of what has always been there, from another.  The former aspect compels the reader to focus on the distinctive context of each particular poem; the latter indicates that it is recognizable as literature.  In other genres there are other types of archetypes: a certain type of character, for example, may run through all drama, like the braggart soldier, who with variations has been a comic figure since Aristophanes’ Acharnians, the first extant comedy.  The appearance of a braggart soldier in a comedy by Shakespeare or Molière or O’Casey is quite different each time, but the archetypal basis of the character is as essential as a skeleton is to the performing actor.  Thus the archetype is a manifestation of the extraordinary allusiveness of literature: the fact, for example, that all wars in literature gain poetic resonance by being associated with the Trojan War.

In JUNGIAN CRITICISM the term archetype is used mainly to describe certain characters and images that appear in the dreams of patients but have their counterparts in literature, in the symbolism of alchemy, in various religious myths.  The difference between psychological and literary treatments of archetypes is that in psychology their central context is a private dream.  Hence they tell us nothing except that they appear, once we leave the psychological field of dream interpretation.  The dream is not primarily a structure of communication: its meaning is normally unknown to the dreamer.  The literary archetype, on the other hand, is first of all a unit of communication: primitive literature, for example, is highly conventionalized, featuring formulaic units and other indications of an effort to communicate with the least possible obstruction.  In more complex literature the archetype tells the critic primarily that this kind of thing has often been done before, if never quite in this way.

There’s of course Frye’s oft-reprinted essay “The Archetypes of Literature” (1951).  Less well known is his “The Literary Meaning of “Archetype,’” presented at the MLA convention in 1952.  Frye intended to send this talk to the Hudson Review or Essays in Criticism, but he apparently never got around to it, and the essay was not published until fifty years later (in Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 1936–1989 [2002], 182–9).  This paper is actually an early version Frye’s theory of symbols, developed in the Second Essay of the Anatomy, and in the Anatomy the archetype is the key category at the “mythical” level in Frye’s theory of symbols––his version of Dante’s levels of polysemous meaning.

As to the question of whether or not archetypes are Eurocentric, Frye would clearly answer no.  There’s nothing Eurocentric about the archetypes Frye’s treats so impressively in the final four chapters of Words with Power––the mountain, the garden, the cave, and the furnace.  All cultures may not have all of these archetypes (Frye calls them “themes”), but they are obviously present in countless non‑European contexts.

As Joe says, archetype is primarily a term that relates to image and symbol, which means that it’s a spatial category, belonging to what Frye calls the dianoia of literary experience, with its analogies to dream.  But Frye occasionally refers to “narrative archetypes,” which means that the term can be extended to include the temporal features of texts––their mythoi, with analogies to ritual.  “We may,” Frye says, “distinguish two kinds of archetypes: structural or narrative archetypes with a ritual content, and modal or emblematic archetypes with a dream content. The former are most easily studied in drama: not, as a rule, in the drama of the educated audience and the settled theatre, but in naive or spectacular drama: the folk play, the puppet show, the pantomime, the farce, the pageant, and their descendants in masque, comic opera, and commercial movie. Modal archetypes are best studied first in naive romance, which includes the folk tales and fairy tales that are so closely related to dreams of wonderful wishes coming true, and to nightmares of ogres and witches” (“Forming Fours,” a review of two books by Jung in “The Educated Imagination” and Other Writings in Critical Theory, 210).

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7 thoughts on “Frye on Archetype

  1. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    Thanks for such a helpful post! I am wondering if Frye addresses anywhere the difference between archetypes that refer to an exterior model (which seems to be his primary concern in this vein) and archetypes that become so by repetition within the bounds of the individual text. By the latter I mean either motifs that become loaded images through repetition, such as crystalline optical illusions in Nabokov, or exterior archetypes that assume different connotations through repetition. I may be confusing his literal and mythical symbolic categories, but the lamentable paper I am writing on Spenser has forced the question.

    I am looking at Frye’s essay on imagery in the Faerie Queene, and it seems like a model of archetypal criticism. It is mostly dedicated to imagery as it fits with exterior models, analyzing, for one of many examples, the Venus/Adonis/Diana motifs in the context of the Virgin Mary and the Pieta. This has brilliant implications for Glorianna and the structure of the knights’ quests, but I can’t help but wish he had better outlined how such imagery of chastity and rebirth inveigles itself into other episodes of the poem.

    In his notebooks, Frye does address the latter sorts of motifs, in one case noting how in Book I the lion imagery follows Una around, first as an actual lion and then as a series of simile describing both her assault by Sansloy and her rescue by the satyrs. In that case, the different connotations of regality, ferocity and savagery seem to to work their way through different inflections at each appearance. This is appears to be a great example of archetypal transvaluation, but his emphasis in his essay proved to be towards archetypes that refer to the larger economies of literature. It would also be helpful to know if, such as when he claims that there is Adonis imagery in the first couple books that do not directly refer to the character in the later books, we can connect episodes that are not explicitly connected.

    I know my above examples are a bit dreadful, and it may have more to do with my own misunderstandings. But I would like to know if Frye considered internal, literal repetition to be a subspecies of archetype, especially when it behaves like the microcosm of the more macrocosmic archetype.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      I’ll take a crack at this one, though I am pretty much at a loss when it comes to Spenser. Maybe someone else can offer more help in that area. As to the more general question, here are some rough thoughts.

      What you seem to be talking about is the centripetal connection between images and words that the reader makes as he reads and constructs the text: its internal structure. This is the literal level of meaning, as Frye defines it in Anatomy. The archetype, in contrast, involves the linking of a recurring image or, as Bob points out, story-pattern among works in literature as a whole, as a total centripetal organization of words.

      in my Hawthorne example, the archetype of the “bride-garden” brings within its orbit and organizes an entire series of details and images in The Scarlet Letter, at the centre of which stands this Edenic image of the rose-bush. Another good example is the organizing of almost every detail of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (no, it is not a Chuck Berry tune) around the womb-tomb white goddess archetype, which is powerfully encapsulated in the haunting closing image of the sea, or death:

      “like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet
      garments, bending aside,)
      The sea whisper’d me.”

      The recurring image should also be distinguished from allusion, the reference within a text to another text or texts, though allusion often links what may seem casual details to an organizing archetype. I emphasize to my students the importance of allusion and how in a writer of genius there are no gratuitous details. I mentioned the Esau archetype. In Balzac’s Pere Goriot, the red hair that covers Vautrin’s body, which may seem at first blush simply a realistic detail, is in fact an allusion to a detail in the Genesis story, the fact that Esau’s body is covered with red hair; in fact Vautrin’s hair is described as a pelt (pelure in French), which allludes to another detail in the Genesis story: Esau is a hunter and Jacob covers his body with pelts to make his blind father Isaac mistake him for Esau. Elsewhere, Vautrin makes a number of allusions to Rousseau’s Social Contract. He calls himself a disciple of Rousseau and an admirer of his great political treatise. This detail falls into the orbit of the same archetype: Vautrin is someone who breaks with the social contract and sides with Nature and the strength and cunning of the natural man, and declares war on society, all of which reinforces and blends into the Esau archetype.

      Another challenge is to show how archetypal meaning works in much more contemporary mimetic fiction like Updike’s Rabbit saga, or Richard Ford’s similar type of epic about an individual who is simply “one of us,” or Richard Price’s great novels about street life, police enforcement, and drug crime in urban America, or some of the great HBO series, such as Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men. That these stories are so compelling suggests to me that there must be significant metaphorical and mythological structuring involved, however displaced. It would be of great interest, precisely because of their displacement and relative invisibility, to uncover the underlying elements of archetypal design that give such highly mimetic stories their power. It would also be worth exploring since it is these popular TV dramas that inevitably attract ideological criticism and are interpreted as critiques of ideology. If archetypal criticism is the foundation of literary criticism, it must be able to deal with imaginative works like these as effectively as it deals with more romantic and mythopoeic forms of literature.

  2. Clayton Chrusch

    First of all, thanks so much to Joe and Bob for extremely helpful responses.

    Trevor, my master’s thesis was about the theory of symbols.

    I have to admit the phases are difficult to distinguish. The descriptive phase is the odd one out, but the other phases can be thought of as expanding concentric spheres. In each one, the context of the poem is wider than in the previous. So in the literal phase, the context is simply the verbal structure of the poem itself, and the assumption of its criticism is the unity of the poem. In the formal phase, the context is the imaginative world constructed by the poem, and the assumption of the criticism is the unity of imagery. In the mythical phase, the context is the imaginative structure constructed by all of literature, and its assumption is the reality of such a structure (“the order of words”) and its relevance to the poem in question. In the anagogic phase, which I don’t really understand, I think the context is the infinite potential of the imaginative universe, and the assumption of anagogic phase criticism is that the poem is the expression of infinite creative human power. I’m probably wrong about anagogy, but I’m more certain about the others.

    It seems to me that not much of interest happens at the literal phase that is not also part of higher phases. I’ve written an essay about grammar in Virginia Woolf’s writing that probably counts as literal phase criticism. I think of Gertrude Stein’s work but even that can be responded to at the level of imagery. So I would say interesting work on the poem as an imaginative unit all happens in the formal phase. Frye seems to want to associate the new critics with the literal phase but based on my reading of Cleanth Brooks, at least,, they belong at the formal phase (or maybe both, but not the literal phase exclusively).

    So I would say that if you are interested in the unity of imagery in the Faerie Queene without explicit reference to the use of that imagery in other poems, what you may need is a new critical reading.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      I agree with you about the anagogic phase, Clayton. It is the most difficult to wrap one’s head around, which is hardly surprising I guess because it involves a meta-literary level that is more or less identifiable with the kerygmatic level in Frye’s biblical criticism. Strikingly, he doesn’t want to leave us completely at the level of the literary or mythological imagination after it has swallowed human experience, even as a secular vision of human existential concern. It is the “meta,” the “beyond” thrust that, as Bob discusses in a previous post, dialectically drives Frye’s later work, but the dialectic is already apparent in the levels he address in the Anatomy. I would love to hear more from anyone about the anagogic, which metaphorically is the level of radical identification: A is B. It is the level of literature plus that he speaks about. As you say: “the assumption of anagogic phase criticism is that the poem is the expression of infinite creative human power” but I assume that this also means it is a level unavailable to the human romance, the vision of the “creature,” on its own. There must be an initiative that comes from God to the human being. It is of course what you are summarizing so well in your Blake synopses.

  3. Russell Perkin

    Joe, just to begin the exploration, Mad Men makes frequent use of doubling, most obviously in Don Draper’s dual identity. And in the early episodes we see him in the contrasting worlds of Madison Avenue and the Bohemian Village, and with an artist lover in the city and a family in the country. Then the show really gets into the Rebecca-Rowena pairing with the blonde Grace Kelly-like stay at home wife and the dark-haired Jewish businesswoman lover.

  4. Robert D. Denham

    Frye, of course, pilfered the word “anagogy” from Dante, where it’s the highest or spiritual level of meaning. The anagogical meaning of the verse in Psalm 144, which Date’s uses to illustrate his four levels, is, he says, “the leave taking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.” In his notebooks for the Anatomy Frye writes that in the anagogic habit of mind “we recognize oneness rather than a unity of varieties,” which is another version of Joe’s point about radical metaphor: identification. It’s true that in writing about anagogy Frye often sounds like a shaman or a symbolist poet. At the anagogic level, he says, for example, “Nature is now inside the mind of an infinite man who builds his cities out of the Milky Way.” Such prose might tempt us to exclaim with Pound, “Anagogical? Hell’s bells, ‘nobody’ knows what THAT is.” Some of the reviewers of the Anatomy poked fun at such explanations. Robert Martin Adams wrote, “I do not, by any means, think it wrong to believe in ‘the whole of nature as the content of an infinite and eternal body which, if not human, is closer to being human than to being inanimate’; but I think it wrong to make such a belief prerequisite to the understanding of literature. My own conviction is that the world rests on the back of a very large tortoise.”

    “Anagogy” comes from the Greek, meaning “mystical” or elevation (literally “a leading up”). As a medieval level of interpretation, it signified ultimate truth, belonging outside both space and time. In the Convivio Dante refers to it as “beyond the senses” and as concerned with “higher matters belonging to eternal glory.” Aquinas had defined the “anagogical sense” in similar terms (Summa Theologica, (pt. 1, Q1, art. 10).

    As the final phase of symbolism, Frye introduces us to anagogy in the Second Essay of the Anatomy, but then he more or less drops it, Essays Three and Four descending from the fourth level (mythical and archetypal). The last half of Frye’s career, however, is devoted to the dialectic of Word and Spirit, which is to say, to anagogy.


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