Frye and Bakhtin: Satire, Saturnalia, and the Carnivalesque

[Mikhail Bakhtin, 1920]

The following is an excerpt, slightly revised, from an essay I wrote some years ago on some of the connections between Frye and contemporary literary theory.  A theme that runs through Frye’s pieces on Christmas is the idea of saturnalia or an upside-down world, a season of festivity and carnival common to many cultures. Such a holiday from the “real world’ is the closest we get to a world that makes human sense, when the social hierarchy is reversed and the spirit of  fellowship, neighbourliness, and joy, released from an oppresive social structure, becomes, for a brief period of license, the social norm. Elsewhere Frye makes the link between saturnalia and comedy and satire, a link that is central to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the novel and the novelistic.

Frye and Bakhtin: Satire, Saturnalia, and the Carnivalesque

Besides practising the art of anatomy himself, Frye did much to resurrect a sense of the importance of the genre in Western literature, and he regarded it as a crucial, if not, like Mikhail Bakhtin, the most important, element flowing into what we now recognize as the novel. The generic radicals of the novel that he isolates–anatomy, romance, confession, and the novel of personality–are, indeed, more or less analogous to the genetic lines that Bakhtin comes up with in “The Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel.”

Bakhtin and Frye are also in agreement in refusing to analyze satire outside of a larger mythological framework. Bakhtin is just as conscious as Frye is of the development of literary structures from myth. The comic novel in the hands of Rabelais, Cervantes, or Dostoevsky, manifests, in Bakhtin’s view, the myth of a collective social body conceived of in the metaphoric form of a giant human body which is born, grows, dies, and renews itself in the course of time. This powerful image of a self-renewing collective human form is strongest in Rabelais, but extends throughout Bakhtin’s work. It is, for example, clearly implied in the insistent anatomical imagery that pervades his writings on the novel, as in the opening paragraph of “Epic and Novel”: “The generic skeleton of the novel is still far from having hardened, and we cannot foresee all its plastic possibilities” (1981: 3); he speaks of the “hardened and no longer flexible skeleton” of genres and of “the establishment and growth of a generic skeleton of literature” (5). This recurrent image of a “generic skeleton” applied to the archaic form of the novel is linked metaphorically to the genre of anatomy as “a comical operation of dismemberment,” “the artistic logic of analysis, dismemberment, turning things into dead objects” (24). There is, then, a dramatic unifying tendency in Bakhtin’s conception of the novel which, in its assumption of an animating mythological framework, is analogous to Frye’s even more ambitious unification of the entire corpus of literature.

Frye sees the circle of mythoi, of which satire or sparagmos is one episode, as being contained in the arche-story of the dragon-killing theme, condensed so tidily in the following summary: “A land ruled by a helpless old king is laid waste by a sea-monster, to whom one young person after another is offered to be devoured, until the lot falls on the king’s daughter: at that point the hero arrives, kills the dragon, marries the daughter, and succeeds to the kingdom” (1957: 189). This central quest-myth, composed of four distinguishable episodes in the life of the hero or divine being, has a comic shape: agon, or adventures; pathos, or death; sparagmos, or disappearance; and anagnorosis, or recognition. These episodes correspond to the four narrative radicals or mythoi that Frye details in the third essay of Anatomy of Criticism: romance, tragedy, irony (and satire), and comedy. It is here that we can recognize the great debt Frye owes to the compendious pioneering work of Frazer on the “dying god,” or to the theme of the white goddess as outlined by Robert Graves. Also important to Frye is the work of the group of British classicists of the early decades of this century, Gilbert Murray, Francis Cornford, and Jane Harrison, who uncovered in Greek rituals based on the myth of the dying god the origins of Classical tragedy and comedy. The scheme of Frye’s sequence of mythoi is largely drawn from Murray; his theory of comedy owes much to Cornford’s study, The Origins of Attic Comedy.

A reflection of the profound continuity of Frye’s work is the way he reasserts the development of literature from myth in Words with Power, which appeared only months before his death; he refers at one point to Thorkild Jacobsen’s Treasures of Darkness, which is a more up-to-date examination of the dying gods of fertility in pre-Biblical Mesopotamian culture. This study, and others like it, such as Theodor Gaster’s Thespis, which examines the derivation of early forms of drama from ritual and myth in the cultures of the ancient Near East, provides a fascinating glimpse into the genesis and the logic of the conventions found in literature. In Words, Frye shows how the poetic imagery and narrative structures that derive from myth are an expression of the primary human concerns of “making a living, making love, and struggling to stay free and alive” (43); that is, of food and drink, sex, freedom of movement, and property. Ultimately, the latter concern with property or with human extensions of power concerns the instruments of mental production and the expansive energy and consciousness belonging to an imaginative vision of reality. In Frye’s view, it is this power alone, the power of the arts and sciences to “show us the human world that man is trying to build out of nature” (1988: 44), that has any hope of delivering humanity from the ghastly cycle of history and the ordinary limitations of physical and social reality.

In an analogous way, behind Bakhtin’s “comic” vision of the novel lies a faith in “unlimited human potential” (1981: 241), in the creative power of human beings to transform the natural and social order, a faith that is embodied in his revolutionary theory of the novel as the artistic form of modern history corresponding to an unprecedented expansion of human knowledge and creativity. He finds the novel’s revolutionary potential best exemplified in Rabelais’s work where “All historical limits are, as it were, destroyed and swept away by laughter. The field remains open to human nature, to a free unfolding of all the possibilities inherent in man” (1981: 240). Paradoxically, the authentic image of this modern liberation of human potential is derived from what Bakhtin calls the folkloric chronotope. Very close to Frye’s insight that poetic imagery is an outgrowth of primary concerns is Bakhtin’s insistence on the poetic significance of the matrix of objects and phenomena–food, drink, copulation, birth and death–that forms the rhythm of folkloric time-space.

Bakhtin outlines this system of imagery most extensively in his discussion of the carnivalesque in Dostoevsky and Rabelais, and in those passages in “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” dealing with the folkloric imagery of the “agricultural stage in the development of human society” (1981: 206), the series of imagery systems in Rabelais (body, clothing, food, drink, sex, death, defecation), and finally the modified imagery of the idyllic novel. With the stress it lays on physical and material growth, this “primitive enchaining of images and motifs” (217) recurs throughout the novel’s history in a displaced form, just as mythological forms are recreated in increasingly realistic forms in Frye’s modal scheme in the first essay of Anatomy. In Rabelais, for example, the content of the matrix has been detached from its folkloric roots and now serves to promote the modern faith in human development and the enlargment of knowledge. Thus, the series of images in Rabelais, or the series of images organized around the cycles of rural life in the sentimental idyll of the eighteenth century, represents a displacement, in Frye’s sense of that word, of a more ancient matrix rooted in ritual. “The extraordinary force of laughter in Rabelais, its radicalism, is explained predominantly by its deep-rooted folkloric base, by its link with the elements of the ancient complex–with death, the birth of new life, fertility and growth” (237). In Bakhtin, the paradigm for the role of the matrix in the development of the system of imagery in comic and satiric literature is “The Widow of Ephesus” episode in Petronius’s Satyricon: “Here we have without any omissions all the basic links in the classical series: the tomb-youth-food and drink-death-copulation-the conceiving of new life-laughter. At its simplest, the narrative is an uninterrupted series of victories of life over death. . . .” (222) The ancient complex behind Bakhtin’s system of imagery, the original chronotopic matrix which descends from the ritual of agricultural communities, is thus analogous to Frye’s understanding of the quest-myth in romance which in ritual terms signifies “the victory of fertility over the waste land. Fertility means food and drink, bread and wine, body and blood, the union of male and female” (1957: 193).

The myth of the dying god, as Frye and his sources understand it, is the myth of an agricultural community in which a divine being is identified with the vegetation that disappears in winter and returns in the spring. Similarly, Graves’ white goddess theme is the story of a goddess identified with nature or the earth, the mother and bride of a new lover, or god of fertility, who at the end of each year is sacrificed and lamented. If myths are based on rituals which address the anxieties surrounding the ongoing abundance and life of a society, then in an agricultural community these myths naturally focus on the area of greatest social anxiety: the return of vegetation and the renewal of the food supply. This concern, as Frye has extensively illustrated throughout his work, gives a paramount importance to seasonal myths and imagery in Western literature, in which a divine being is metaphorically identified with the renewal of life and the earth’s fertility.

In the mythos of satire, the myth of winter in Frye’s seasonal scheme, the theme of “the disappearance of the hero . . .  often takes the form of sparagmos or tearing to pieces” (192). As we have seen, Bakhtin focuses on the same imagery of a dismembering of a collective human body as an archetype of satire. In his view, the destructive force of parodic laughter in satire, as we find it in Rabelais, Cervantes, and Dostoevsky, is an outgrowth of carnival, the ritual period of licence which ushers out the dying, and brings in the reborn, King of the year. In “the popular-festive system of images” which Rabelais draws on, “the king is the clown. He is elected by all the people and is mocked by all the people. He is abused and beaten when the time of his reign is over, just as the carnival dummy of winter of the dying year is mocked, beaten, torn to pieces, burned, or drowned even in our time” (1984: 197). In Rabelais, “The image of thrashing along with anatomizing [conjures] up characteristic carnival elements, for instance, the comparison to the old king who is dead and to the new one who is resurrected” (199). These carnivalesque elements, so important to Bakhtin’s understanding of the framework of imagery in Rabelais and Dostoevsky, are identical to those catalogued so minutely and voluminously by Frazer in The Golden Bough, a book especially valued by Frye as a contribution to the understanding of the structural logic of literary conventions as they have descended from ritual.

In his discussion of the theme of creative descent in Words, Frye comments on the carnivalesque imagery of reversal that is found in the New Testament where

the apocalypse is projected into a future, however close at hand (Revelation 1:3), a second coming taking the form of a revolution when the present social order is overturned and a now-oppressed minority will be exalted. This kind of reversal-language is used a good deal in the Gospels (e.g. the parable of Dives and Lazarus), as well as in the Book of Revelation and the later legend of the Harrowing of Hell. (261)

In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin speaks in similar terms of the importance of carnival imagery in the Gospels and the Christian genres: “Christian narrative literature . . . was also subjected to direct carnivalization. It is enough to recall the scene of crowning and decrowning of the `King of the Jews’ in the canonical Gospels” (135). It is precisely of scenes of crowning and decrowning that Frye goes on to speak of in the same passage of Words when he refers to the Frazerian rituals which “included a custom of appointing a temporary ruler or mock king” who is

sometimes associated with a licensed carnival period, and the main mythological point about a carnival is that it recalls an original Golden Age of freedom and equality, like the reign of Saturn in the roman myth. . . . If we ask why the mock king or so-called interrex should be associated with a Golden Age, the answer may be that he represents the break in the anxiety of continuity, the hope for the end of dependence on the natural cycle and of an eventual transformation of human life in time. Once again, the cyclical ritual cannot wholly exclude the apocalyptic hope, the hope of the revolution that will reverse but not again revolve. (262)

This is identical to Bakhtin’s understanding of the carnivalesque as the perpetual promise of a revolution that will overturn the oppressive social order without simply giving another turn to the wheel of history. Indeed, the novel, or the novelistic, fully manifested for the first time–as Bakhtin sees it–in Rabelais’s work, is in fact the literary form taken by the becoming-historical of this “apocalyptic hope” of “an eventual transformation of human life in time.”
In “The Argument of Comedy,” Frye reminds us of Saturnalia’s original meaning “as a rite intended to recall the golden age of Saturn,” and, applying his usual infallible sense of structure, contrasts Shakespeare’s history plays where “the comic Saturnalia is a temporary reversal of normal standards, comic `relief’ as it is called, which subsides and allows the history to continue” with the comedies where “the green world suggests an original golden age which the normal world has usurped and which makes us wonder if it is not the normal world that is the real Saturnalia” (72). The question of the function of the carnivalesque is here posed as a contextual, not an ideological or political, one. There is little doubt, however, about where Frye’s sympathies lie: like Bakhtin, for whom it is unquestionably the revolutionary comic spirit of the carnivalesque which informs the most vital tradition of the novel, he consistently evinces a bias towards comic form and its revolutionary potential in literature in general. The convergence of views here is, it seems to me, one more indication of the extent to which these two thinkers, arguably the two most important literary theoreticians of the last century, share a common vision of literature and of its ultimate social significance. The implications of this intersection have yet to be explored in full.


Bakhtin,  Mikhail (1981) The Dialogical Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.
—– (1984) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
—– (1984) Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Frye, Northrop (1949). “The Argument of Comedy.” English Institute Essays: 1948. Ed. D.A. Robertson, Jr. New York: Columbia University Press: 58-73.
—– (1957) Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
—– (1990) Words with Power, Being a Second Study of `The Bible and Literature.’ Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.

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3 thoughts on “Frye and Bakhtin: Satire, Saturnalia, and the Carnivalesque

  1. M Sinding

    Very interesting. I wonder how Frye’s (and Bakhtin’s) analyses of saturnalian satiric-ironic overturning patterns in relation to seasonal-cycle symbolism might apply to Christmas stories? Say, the various versions of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol? Scrooge is the figure who gets reborn at the end, so he should be in the mock-king role, getting decrowned and recrowned. He goes through humiliation and terror. But is there satire or comic mockery involved in this? The ghost of Christmas present is the most carnivalesque figure—jolly and Bacchic and so on—but he doesn’t really mock Scrooge. If I recall correctly (and I’m not consulting the text), Scrooge overhears someone mocking him when he visits Cratchit’s home invisibly during Christmas present. Then in the Christmas future episode he is mocked rather grimly. Scrooge invisibly eavesdrops on businessmen joking about Scrooge’s death, and (in some versions) on some servants joking as they hock some of his stolen belongings to a pawnbroker. I suppose we could say it’s displaced from the mythic form—it’s sentimentalized and offers “reduced laughter” in Bakhtin’s phrase. But then the concept of displacement can become a kind of blank check—it needs to be constrained somehow, or we can turn any story into some mythic form.

  2. Joseph Adamson

    Your last point is well taken, Michael. In his book on Rabelais, Bakhtin presents the great French writer’s work as an ideal and a norm and treats all other forms or treatment of the grotesque as fallings away from their genuine basis. For example, all romantic forms of the grotesque, such as in Poe, are ultimately dismissed as inauthentic reductions. I don’t know if Frye makes the same mistake when he identifies displacements of mythological paradigms. Bakhtin’s thinking is highly polemical and evaluative, favoring satirical and certain realistic chronotopes over all others. It is interesting to compare his treatment of romance in his chronotope essay as a naive historical stage with Frye’s treatment of romance in Anatomy and The Secular Scripture where the form is identified as the bedrock of all narrative structures (the form closest to myth). However, Frye resists the teleology and evaluative bias which pervade Bakhtin’s thinking about the lines of development of the novel. They both touch on the same forms, but Frye treats them “spatially,” as it were. The four strands of prose fiction–confession, anatomy, romance, and the novel proper (close to the comedy of manners)–are seen as possible generic tendencies in any work of fiction and not simply as historical advances on the way to Dostoevsky. Bakhtin, however, argues for the superiority of Menippean satire and the dialogical and the polyphonic, of Dostoevsky over Tolstoy, and uses the latter, rather outrageously, as a kind of whipping boy.

  3. M Sinding

    True, Frye is more fair to his ‘displacements’ than Bakhtin is to his. And since the downplaying of evaluation in favour of knowledge is so central to Frye’s views of what literary criticism should be, he always seems careful not to slight one genre or subgenre or historical mode as such in favour of another. He has his favourites, of course, and this probably comes out more in his unpublished stuff. You get the sense he prefers more purely imaginative literature (romance or satire with a lot of fantasy) over the more realistic stuff because the former better embodies the imagination’s key power of construction, rather than its secondary powers of imitation. Also, he does sometimes talk about what it means for something to be a ‘masterpiece’, or for a work or writer to be culturally central. But those discussions tend to be in more objective language, and probably are more objective, having to do with criteria of resonance with the rest of a culture’s mythology–rather than with the idealizing of a certain vision, whether romance-myth or carnivalesque. I wonder if anyone has tried to develop the idea of displacement in more detail. It might be possible to figure out some more detailed principles of ways that literary imagery differs from whatever mythological imagery its based on. The term itself does somewhat imply a 1-to-1 relation of original myth to displaced myth, with the former supplying the key to the latter. But of course a later text can be ‘based on’ several myths, and knowing the sources and influences is only a starting point for understanding the later text.


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