The Stages of Descent-and-Ascent Contest

Alice down the hole c Disney

I thought I might create a little game out of my last post on The Secular Scripture. I am going to call it “The Stages of Descent-and-Ascent Contest.” The point is to encourage anyone out there–regular and occasional contributors, or silent visitors and lurkers of any kind (we’d like to her from you!), whether scholars, teachers (of elementary school and beyond), just plain avid readers and thinkers, amateurs of literature, ideas, and the imagination–to take a look at the stages of descent and ascent (which I will post again here), and comment with any examples you can think of from literature (which includes plays and most definitely film and television as well) of the different stages I have sketched out in my summary. Feel free to elaborate on any examples you come up with, to develop or explain their particular significance. Also, any discussion, corrections or refinements of the scheme I have come up with are equally welcome.

And don’t worry if some of the examples you come up with happen to be ones Frye uses himself in The Secular Scripture or elsewhere (such as Words with Power where an analogous scheme is at play in the second part of the book). In fact, it would be helpful,  since his range is so great, to know of  good examples from his other writings, published and unpublished.

But the real fun is often in discovering examples in literature and film where you might not have expected.

I call it a contest, but it is really a co-operative game, and an ongoing research project, one that I have often played with my students when we read The Secular Scripture. The results are always stimulating, and invariably validate Frye’s remarkable insight into literature.  Eventually,  I’ll compile them and post the results.

Here, again, is the descent/ascent scheme:


Stage One (Departures from identity, turning on a loss of status, cognition, amnesia, or break in consciousness of some other kind):

Displaced or mysterious birth, hence removal from rightful parents

Mother and child threatened in various ways: shrouding and hiding of mother, flight and exile, birth in secrecy, oracular announcement to frighten the father or father-figure

Wrath of a god (or surrogate figure in fiction), usually incurred by boastfulness

Usurping of reason by passion, as in jealous, irrational anger, or in rash vow

Amnesia through drugs, love potions, catalepsy, etc.

Break in consciousness of some other kind: traumatic event that leads to a dramatic change in status, mental state, or identity

Falling asleep, entry into a dream world, forest (pursuit of false identity), close to metamorphosis or enchantment theme

Stage Two (Loss or confusion of identity):

Disguise: woman as a man most commonly; man as a woman

Disintegrating of the family or blood connections

Separation of the two brothers, or friends


Change of name

Mirror selves or worlds, doubles, etc.; doubling of characters such as doubled heroine device

The undisplaced form of disguise is metamorphosis, human transformed into a “lower” or animal form of life (as in Ovid, or the fall into the ass of Apuleius)

Confusion of ranks, social strata: the king is disguised as a beggar, the hero as his own servant

Doubling patterns in general: two friends, two brothers, two sisters, two sexes: with contrast as well as similarity in doubling

Stage Three (Descent into lower reaches of the “Night World”):

Ritual Ordeal of suffering as rite of passage, part of cycle of death and rebirth

Increasing loneliness, alienation, calumny or false accusation

Sinking into silent, dumb world of unconsciousness: oracular animal helpers, mute figures

Doppelgänger motif, along with objectifying imagery (mirrors and clocks): world in which everything. is an object, including the human subject

Cannibal feast: human and animal worlds assimilated in world of human carnivores

Human sacrifice (to monster, dragon, or equivalent)

Lower world as cave resembling belly of monster or womb of earth mother

Excremental vision of Rabelais and Swift (material lower bodily substratum)

Bottom: scene of apocalyptic judgment: demonic parody of upper world judgment: false hostile accusers, accusing memory

Point of nothingness


1. Escape

Reversal of the terror or awe-struck state in lower world through a revolt of the intelligence, often accompanied by laughter

Houdini motif: convention of Escape or impossible rescue scenes that predictably always turn out happily, or the impossible riddle that is always solved

Recognition scene: in comedy hidden brought to light, true identity discovered followed by marriage

Conscious separation from the demonic as demonic, detachment from illusion/breaking of enchantment

Reversal of downward, Ovidian metamorphosis

Reversal of twins or doppelgangers

separation and polarization of double heroines

separation and polarization of progressive or regressive characters forwarding or retarding “festive conclusion”

2. Remembrance

Reversal of break in consciousness and restoration of “broken current of memory” and continuity of action following 1) recognition of demonic 2) separation from regressive elements

Higher themes of ascent: talisman of recognition theme, restoration of memory “total cycle of recognition” from descent to reunion

Theme of recovery from sea: birth of hero

3. Recovered Identity

Divergence of comedy and romance at this point of ascent–theme of comedy predominantly social, while world of romance (pastoral, Arcadia) suggests higher state of identity

World of recovered identity in romance not that of isolated individual but of society in higher world above ordinary experience

Polarization that transcends cycle of nature vs. “ironic” cyclical images of nature and human life

Eros theme that transcends cycle

Ascent imagery: climbing, flying, mountains, towers, ladders, spiral staircases, shooting of arrows, coming out of sea onto an island

Movement upward to self-recognition–reversal of Narcissus, twin, and doppelganger themes

Two forms of upward quest: 1) sublimated quest ending in virginity (sister or daughter figure) 2) sexual quest ending in marriage (identification of bride’s body with paradisal garden)

Virginity here is an image of attaining original identity

4. Growing Freedom:

Imagery of time and space:

1. transcending of fatality and destruction–energy, exuberance, genuine freedom identified with discipline–symbol of dance, identity of order of nature as dance;

2. similarly, space not “out there” but “here,” home–upper world garden of Eden– nature rejoined with human society as home

5. Breaking of Enchantment

Overcoming of ironic and tragic nature of natural cycle and frustrated Eros

Reversal of pictures, tapestries, statues, mirrors that are the threshold of descent narrative suggesting exchange of original identity for shadow or reflection

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11 thoughts on “The Stages of Descent-and-Ascent Contest

  1. Peter StirFrye yan

    Great Stuff Joe…you have just lessonplanned for all secondary and elementary teachers….especially the latter who are having their entire curriculum overhauled. Now if I could only get my mutual funds to stop their descent.

    1. Joseph Adamson Post author

      Thanks, Peter. I expect to hear from you in the contest; I am sure you have a host of examples at your finger tips.

  2. Russell Perkin

    Joe, I vaguely mentioned the Spielberg _War of the Worlds_ in relation to romance in an earlier post. Looking more specifically at your list, like most Spielberg films it features a disintegrating family and a threatened child. Dakota Fanning’s panic attacks and terror are one of the reasons it is such a gripping film.
    Most of the film is a stage 3 descent, covering most of the bases in the list, with destruction of the domestic world, reduction of human beings to animal-like fighting for resources, scenes of apocalyptic destruction, and most vividly a descent into the belly of the monster (Tom Cruise taken inside the tripod, escaping and leaving a hand grenade behind).
    As for the recognition scene at the end of the film, there is an element of parody in the way the Boston ex-in-laws have been unscathed through all the horror, looking in the final scene like something out of an LL Bean catalogue while Tom Cruise and his daughter have been to the depths of hell and back!
    I have some material on Frye and Graham Greene that I will be posting soon that relates directly to this contest/game.

    1. Joseph Adamson Post author

      Thanks, Russell. You are my first customer; well, Peter replied first, but he is yet to enter the contest and cough up the goods. I look forward to the Graham Greene posting.

  3. Clayton Chrusch

    There are a lot of images of ascent and descent in Green Eggs and Ham by Dr.

    The unamed protagonist thinks he is someone who does not like green eggs and
    ham, which is a loss of identity, irrational anger, and a rash vow all at once
    that drives him from home in pursuit of his lost identity, or rather in flight
    from his proper identity into a world of trees and foxes (forests and animals)
    and increasing distance from home and family. Throughout there is a doubling of
    his identity with Sam-I-am, his other and better self whom he has alienated by
    choosing not to like. He descends into a cave and encounters a goat (an
    oracular animal helper). He then is involved in a shipwreck and descends into
    the ocean where the whole circus that has been following him falls away and with
    his last breath he denies liking green eggs and ham, a judgement and death.

    At this point the ascent, primarily an escape, begins. Floating on the ocean, the
    protagonist rejects his persistent ignorance (revolt of the intelligence),
    recognizes that he does like green eggs and ham, takes the plate from Sam-I-am
    (reversal of twins), discovers his true identity as a lover of green eggs and
    ham, comes out of the water (recovery from the sea). The name “Sam-I-am”
    is used towards the end to suggest that the protagonist has discovered his true
    name, which I think is the significance of the final words: “Thank you!/Thank
    you,/Sam-I-am!” (a higher state of identity, breaking of enchantment).

  4. Russell Perkin

    “Floating on the ocean”: the protagonist is “a fragile container of sensitive and imaginative values threatened by a chaotic and unconscious power below it,” aka a drunken boat.

  5. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    From a lurker:

    I would suggest that Milton’s Satan is an example of both structures aligning. His basic course is his awaking in Hell, constructing Pandemonium, encountering Sin and Death (a parody both of God’s creation of the Son and of Eve from Adam), escaping Hell’s gates and disguising himself to intrude into Paradise, all followed by his return to Hell and subsequent punishment- this course oscillates between both structures and hits all the major buttons. The wrath of God engenders a parodic structure of demonic doubles. Satan’s escape involves a sequence of disguises akin to Ovidian metamorphosis. His remembrance of his former glory as Lucifer reinforces his resolve towards evil. The temptation of Eve is extremely sexual and ends in Eve’s and Adam’s recognition of their nakedness, displacing their original, innocent identities. Satan’s final return to Hell culminates is a scene of punishment, where the parody is punished by a parody of his deeds in the garden. Beyond this, the enchantment of Man’s fall may only be broken by the submission of the Son to be sacrificed to Death.

    This is offhand, and this computer is not mine, and I must now flee, so that is all I can think of at the moment. It is certainly no contender compared to Clayton’s post, but I think any day Dr. Seuss beats Milton is worthwhile enough.

  6. Clayton Chrusch

    Thank you so much for that quote Russell. Now that I’ve heard the main character of Green Eggs and Ham described as “a fragile container of sensitive and imaginative values threatened by a chaotic and unconscious power below it,” my life is complete.


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