Jonathan Allan: Northrop Frye’s Virginity


Millais’s Ophelia, 1852

Jonathan Allan, a doctoral candidate in English at University of Toronto, will be joining us as a byline correspondent

As I complete the closing chapters of my dissertation and begin an extensive revision, I realize that I have an ongoing debate with Frye in my own notebooks: a debate that unfortunately does not unfold in the dissertation.  There is one point of contention that I run up against over and over again.

Frye writes of the “magical emphasis on virginity [in romance], the fact that virgins can do things others can’t” (CW XV:219, 236); he adds that “virginity is somehow in tune with an unfallen version of the world itself” (CW XV:219).  More specific to my own concerns is Frye’s observation that “this prudery [about virginity in romance] is structural, not moral” (CW XV:187).  Most of these notions find their way into The Secular Scripture in which Frye writes that “apart from the idealizing of the pre-sexual state, there is a sense in which virginity is an appropriate image for attaining original identity: what is objectively untouched symbolizes what is subjectively contained so to speak” (153; CW XVIII:101).  Earlier in The Secular Scripture, Frye writes: “one can, of course, understand an emphasis on virginity in romance on social grounds.  In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave.  Behind all the ‘fate worse than death’ situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virginity, by any means except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position.  But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance” (73; CW XVIII:49-50).  It is clear that virginity becomes a central aspect of the romance structure and that the role of virginity is not moral.  However, if this is really indeed the case, why has Frye gendered virginity?  Why is virginity uniquely concerned with the female subject?

The romance as a generic model does not preclude the hero from being a virgin or virginal; thus, it seems imperative to ask why this model of purity is not ascribed to both the male and female if it only serves a structural goal?  Indeed, if one looks to contemporary fiction, it might be demonstrated that the “virginal” male is certainly present: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight goes to great pains to ensure the virginity of its hero; likewise, in a recent review of Dan Brown’s latest opus, The Lost Symbol, Maureen Dowd notes: “[e]ven though Katherine seems like [Robert] Langdon’s soul mate – she even knows how to weigh souls – their most torrid sex scenes consist of Robert winking at her or flashing her a lopsided grin.”  There are surely dozens of examples of this virginal behaviour that extends beyond the female to the male.  It is likely there is debate about whether the male virgin even exists – two recent books on the subject would certainly cast doubt upon such a notion; Hanne Blank’s Virgin: The Untouched History (2007) and Anke Bernau’s Virgins: A Cultural History (2007) seem to evade the question entirely and only refer to it when absolutely necessary.

If virginity affords the heroine “magical powers,” what is the source of the “magical powers” of the hero?  In upcoming work, I aim to reconsider the question of virginity in Northrop Frye’s theorisations of romance; however, such a study, as I am quickly learning, requires a re-reading of the very notion of virginity precisely because cultural historians seem not to recognize the very possibility of such a notion.  In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Frye should not have considered the question of the hero being virginal.  This question of virginity, of course, is not unique to the amorous romance novel alone; one need only think as far as Treasure Island wherein one could define the island itself as virginal – though most of the male characters seem rather virginal as well.  One might also consider a tale like Peter Pan as yet another example of the virginal hero; however, in the case of Peter Pan there is a movement towards asexuality or a sexless identity.   

Thus, the question that I keep returning to is: how can virginity be structural alone and not also part of a greater moral concern?  The romance need not offer a defence of abstinence – as is the case of Meyer’s Twilight – but virginity must, and I would argue does, serve some purpose beyond the structure of the narrative.  The only way, I would imagine, that virginity could serve some structural purpose alone – one that allows for magical things to happen – is if this virginity existed in both hero and heroine.  For this virginity to exist, it must also be recognized, and therein lies the problem – how does one account for this seeming paradox in Frye’s theory of romance?  Thus, the question that now haunts my current research (and as I begin to finish my dissertation with better questions than when I started) is about the nature and theory of virginity in the romance.

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2 thoughts on “Jonathan Allan: Northrop Frye’s Virginity

  1. Robert D. Denham

    Male Virgins

    “Virginity means a transcending of sex”––“Third Book” Notebooks

    I suspect that Frye associates females with virginity because that is the typical association he found in the tradition of literature, sacred and secular. But he clearly recognized the category of the male virgin. In Words with Power he writes,

    The original adam, alone in his garden, was involuntarily virginal, and illustrates the theme of the virgin who has a peculiarly intimate relationship to an idealized natural environment. The term virgin is usually associated with females, but long before Genesis we have the pathetic story of Enkidu in the Gilgamesh epic, the wild man of the woods made by the gods to subdue Gilgamesh, but so feared by human society that they send a whore to seduce him. After she completes her assignment the link between Enkidu and the animals who once responded to his call was snapped forever.
    The figure of Orpheus in Greece, if not strictly virginal, also has a magically close affinity with nature: he is a musician, and music symbolizes the harmony that holds heaven and earth in union on the paradisal level of existence. Female virgins, again, have been credited for centuries with magical powers over nature, including the taming of wild beasts, the attracting of unicorns, and an uncanny knowledge of herbs.

    In his notes on Achilles Tatius, The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon, Frye observes that when the:

    hero is making row about sacrilege in temple he says he’s a free man and a citizen of no mean city (ouk aemou poleos polites), which is quoted from Acts 21:39. Maybe Achilles Tacitus was a bishop after all: his bishop, anyway, if the translation is right, is a most urbane character, said to be familiar with Aristophanes, whose speech in court is full of double entendres about his opponent’s character (Thersander). Note the continuity of Paul’s wanderings around the Mediterranean and later romance. It must mean something that the heroine’s virginity is preserved only by accident and the hero’s isn’t at all.

    In Notebook 50, par. 9, Frye writes about the passage in Revelation 14:4––“the business about those not defiled with women.” Later in the say notebook (par. 242) he says, “The male virgins in Revelation [14:4] (I probably have this) are the antitype of the fucking sons of God in Genesis 6.” Then again (–ar. 453), “It’s bloody confusing to read in Revelation that the redeemed are all male virgins, never ‘defiled’ with women [14:4]. [See Words with Power, 127, 275.] Not that anyone ever took it––well––literally: cf. the 14th c. Pearl. [The Pearl-poet did take the Revelation account literally. See Pearl, ll. 865 ff., where the poet takes pains to insist that the account of the male virgins in Revelation is true.] Its demonic parody, as I’ve said [par. 242], is Genesis 6:1-4: the Rev. [Revelation] bunch are sons of God who stay where they are, & don’t go “whoring” after lower states of being.”

    In Words with Power Frye refers approvingly to Meister Eckhart telling “his congregation that each of them was a virgin mother charged with the responsibility of bringing the Word to birth; but then Eckhart did understand the language of proclamation that grows out of myth, and its invariable connection with the present tense.”

    The notion of male virginity is implicit in this passage from Notebook 3 (par. 67):

    Virginity is of course a Selfhood symbol, and the surrender of virginity in marriage is part of the losing one’s life to gain it pattern. By entrusting their virginities to one another, husband & wife recover their individualities, & advance from the purely generic physical relation to the purely human one of companionship. Possessiveness & jealousy are thus the perversions or analogies of what really happens in marriage. Blake would say that the hymen was the home of the Amalekites.

    And then this, from “The Third Book” Notebooks (Notebook 12, par. 394):

    Pound’s remark, a far more incisive one than Nietzsche’s, about the difference between those who thought fucking was good for the crops & those who thought it was bad for them, defines the contrast between the shy virginal Adonis, the women lamenting his virginity like Jephtha’s virginal daughter, Attis with his castrating priests, Jesus with his “touch me not” & his homosexual refinement—chaste, anyway—& his elusive ascension, are all in the upper sphere of the purified soul. [Pound’s remark: ““The opposing systems of European morality go back to the opposed temperaments of those who thought copulation was good for the crops, and the opposed faction who thought it was bad for the crops (the scarcity economists of pre-history)” (Ezra Pound, Make It New [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935)], 17).]

    In short, I think the notion that “virginity [is] uniquely concerned with the female subject” in Frye needs to be qualified by considering his occasional remarks about male virginity.

  2. Jonathan Allan

    Prof. Denham, thank you for this commentary and wealth of knowledge. Excellent. I think there is much to be said about virginity — male and female — in Frye and also later theorisations of romance which draw heavily upon Frye. Of course, this only occurred to me when I was challenged about virginity/gender and romance.


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