Teaching with Frye (1)


With this post, I am inaugurating a series documenting a year of teaching English, in which I plan to highlight the part played by Northrop Frye’s ideas.  For me, Frye has always been more important for my teaching than for my scholarly research and critical writing.  I am beginning now, rather than in September, because I have already had to do some thinking about my courses for the next academic year, which were assigned late in 2009.  Entries for the department Handbook were due last week, and that means I had to decide on at least the main focus and the assigned textbooks for the courses that I will be teaching.  If I find I have enough to say, and the energy and commitment to keep it up, I will post in this series until the end of classes in April, 2011.  (Academic life certainly keeps you planning ahead!)

First, a few words of introduction.  Teachers often keep journals for personal use, and there have been numerous publications such as James Phelan’s Beyond the Tenure Track: Fifteen Months in the Life of an English Professor (1991), a detailed account of events both professional and personal in the life of a professor moving into the mid-career phase. More recently, many students, professors, deans and other administrators write blogs in which academic life is a major focus.  I was partly inspired to start this series by the example of Rohan Maitzen’s regular feature “This Week in My Classes” at her blog Novel Readings. I do not plan to write a detailed diary about my teaching, and I will not provide regular commentary on what goes on in the classroom.  The plan is to write about some of the decisions I make, especially about what texts I choose and how I teach them.  In so doing, I will consider in what ways and to what extent Frye is a vade mecum for my work as a university teacher of English.  I hope that these occasional journal entries will be of some interest and use to other teachers and to students in the discipline.

To set the scene, I teach at Saint Mary’s University, a former Jesuit college that is now a medium-sized public university.  (I once taught Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist in a panelled classroom that had formerly been the Jesuits’ dining room).  We have an English department of 19 full-time members and offer a wide range of courses for a department of our size.  In 2010-2011, I am scheduled to teach a section of the first-year Introduction to Literature, the second-year survey course English Literary Traditions (6 hours), a third-year course on British literature from 1900-45, and an advanced course on the novels of the Brontë sisters.

In the survey course, along with the usual Norton anthology, I have decided to teach Measure for Measure, Sense and Sensibility, Frankenstein, and Hard Times.  These are all comfortable choices for me, and usually popular with the students.  The British course is a new one.  Thinking about my plans, I realize that they involve historical context and cultural studies to a fairly large extent, and also the dialectic between modernism and realism.  In spite of my love of at least some of the masterpieces of modernism, I have a fondness for the alternative poetic tradition that was championed by Philip Larkin, and for the English tradition of fictional realism that continued through the modernist period.  I will be teaching novels by E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Greene.  Frye’s discussion in the Anatomy of realism and symbolism as two opposing literary poles will be useful in mapping the literature of the first half of the twentieth century, along with David Lodge’s The Modes of Modern Writing.  The influence of Yeats and Eliot, and then of Auden, can also usefully be described in the terms set out by Harold Bloom in his books on poetic influence.  As for the Brontës, another new course – thank goodness I am on leave at the moment! – my entry for the Handbook does little more than list the books, noting that there were three sisters, not two, and that Charlotte wrote more than just Jane Eyre.  The psychological and the sociological will figure prominently in this course, I expect, as will a kind of comparative phenomenology of the sisters’ novels.  Of course, I will go back to Frye on romance, and I recall a number of entries on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley in the notebooks.

That’s it for my first entry, and I imagine that I will add to this journal infrequently until late in the summer, when preparations for the academic year begin in earnest.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching with Frye (1)

  1. Joseph Adamson

    This is great, Russell. I may add some thoughts of my own in a post about teaching with Frye. My immediate concern is Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights. The latter novel is on my syllabus for the spring, and I have not taught or read it in years. I can easily see how Frye’s ideas about romance, as you suggest, and his discussion of genres of prose fiction would be useful here, and his introductory essay to Studies in Romanticism (attitudes to Nature and civilization, and the Esau archetype or doubled hero [dark and light]).

    What critics, by the way, are good to read on Wuthering Heights, given my obvious affinities for Frye’s approach to literature? Are there any in particular who are good on structure and imagery?

  2. Clayton Chrusch

    How do you approach a writer like Virginia Woolf using Frye? I suppose she can be classed as a realist writer, though a distinctive one because of her style, wit, fanciful imagery, and emphasis on internal life. Frye sees realism as displaced, but I suspect a careful look at Woolf would find quite a bit of undisplaced or barely displaced imagery (e.g. naked boys with hose pipes).

  3. Russell Perkin

    Thanks for the encouragement, Bob!

    Joe, re _Wuthering Heights_, if I can begin with a plug for something of my own, I discuss the connections between the imagery of _WH_ and Jane Urquhart’s _Changing Heaven_, which if you don’t already know it is a novel about a Bronte scholar. See “Inhabiting Wuthering Heights: Jane Urquhart’s Rewriting of Emily Brontë.” _Victorian Review_ 21.2 (Winter, 1995): 115-28.
    Although very old, and rather unfashionable, I still think that Dorothy Van Ghent’s _English Novel: Form and Function_ is a good resource when teaching classic English novels.
    There is an excellent discussion of the presentation of love in _WH_ as compared to Shelley’s poetry in the introduction to Patsy Stoneman’s generally excellent Oxford edition (she may have published this material elsewhere as well). As a comparatist, you might be interested in pursuing the Romantic incest theme in relation to continental analogues.
    The _King Lear_ connection is interesting, as are the analogies with Truffaut’s film _Jules et Jim_.

    Clayton, The issue of modernism and realism is fascinating. Woolf did think she was a realist in that she wrote about underlying psychological realities rather than simply external facts (see her famous essay “Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown”). Frye notes, I think in the _Anatomy_, that in writers like Woolf the low mimetic mode undergoes a kind of ricorso to the mythic mode, via the use of central organizing symbols like the lighthouse in _To the Lighthouse_. There is certainly a lot of not very much displaced mythology going on in _Mrs Dalloway_ too. On the other hand, the realistic element in Woolf is fascinating in its own right, such as the analysis in _Mrs Dalloway_ of the various traumas experienced by the characters, some connected to the recent war, and the fact that Mrs Dalloway herself seems to have had her health impaired by the influenza epidemic of 1918.


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