Monday, 29 December 2014

Northrop Frye: The Archetypes of Literature

The Archetypes of Literature (1951): Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye
1.      I n what way Archetypal  criticism discovers basic cultural pattern?
2.      “Frye proposed that the totality of literary woks constitute a “self-contained literary universe” “. Discuss.
3.      “In literary criticism the term archetype denotes recurrent narratives designs, patterns of action, character-types, themes, and images which are identifiable in a wide variety of works of literature.” Elucidate with N.Frye’s views in his essay Archetype of Literature
4.      .
What is Archetypal Criticism? What are the sources of its origin?
In literary criticism the term archetype denotes recurrent narratives designs, patterns of action, character-types, themes, and images which are identifiable in a wide variety of works of literature, as well as in myths, dreams, and even social rituals. Such recurrent items are held to be the result of elemental and universal forms or patterns in the human psyche, whose effective embodiment in a literary work evokes a profound response from the attentive reader, because he or she shares the psychic archetypes expressed by the author. An important antecedent of the literary theory of the archetype was the treatment of myth by a group of comparative anthropologists at Cambridge University, especially James G. Frazer, whose The Golden Bough (1890-1915) identified elemental patterns of myth and ritual that , claimed, recur in the legends and ceremonials of diverse and far-flung cultures and religions. An even more important antecedent was the depth psychology of Carl G. Jung(1875-1961), who applied the term “archetype” to what he called “primordial images”, the “psychic residue” of repeated patterns of experience in our very ancient ancestors which, he maintained, survive in the “collective unconscious” of the human race and are expressed in myths, religion, dreams, and private fantasies, as well as in works of literature.

Where is archetypal literary criticism manifested? Who are pioneers of archetypal literary criticism? What types of archetypal themes, images and characters are traced in literature by them?
Archetypal literary criticism was given impetus by Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934) and flourished especially during the 1950s and 1960s. Apart from him, the other prominent practitioners of various modes of archetypal criticism were G. Wilson Knight, Robert Graves, Philip Wheelwright, Richard Chase, Leslie Fiedler, and Joseph Campbell. These critics tended to emphasize the occurrence of mythical patterns in literature, on the assumption that myths are closest to the elemental archetype than the artful manipulation of sophisticated writers.

The death/re-birth theme was often said to be the archetype of archetypes, and was held to be grounded in the cycle of the seasons and the organic cycle of human life; this archetype, it was claimed, occur in primitive rituals of the king who is annually sacrificed, in widespread myths of gods who die to be reborn, and in a multitude of diverse texts, including the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy in the early 14th cen., and S.T.Coleridge’sRime of Ancient Mariner in 1798.
Among the other archetypal themes, images and characters frequently traced in literature were the journey underground, the heavenly ascent, the search, the Paradise/Hades dichotomy, the Promethean rebel-hero, the scapegoat, the earth goddess, and the fatal woman.

What is Northrop Frye’s contribution to the archetypal criticism?
Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry, the first work on the subject of archetypal literary criticism, applies Jung’s theories about the collective unconscious, archetypes, and primordial images to literature. It was not until the work of the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye that archetypal criticism was theorized in purely literary terms. The major work of Frye’s to deal with archetypes is Anatomy of Criticism but his essay The Archetypes of Literature is a precursor to the book. Frye’s thesis in “The Archetypes of Literature” remains largely unchanged in Anatomy of Criticism. Frye’s work helped displace New Criticism as the major mode of analyzing literary texts, before giving way to structuralism and semiotics[1].

Frye’s work breaks from both Frazer and Jung in such a way that it is distinct from its anthropological and psychoanalytical precursors.

In his remarkable and influential book Anatomy of Criticism (1957), N. Frye developed the archetypal approach into a radical and comprehensive revision of traditional grounds both in the theory of literature and the practice of literary criticism.

For Frye, the death-rebirth myth that Frazer sees manifest in agriculture and the harvest is not ritualistic since it is involuntary, and therefore, must be done. As for Jung, Frye was uninterested about the collective unconscious on the grounds of feeling it was unnecessary: since the unconscious is unknowable it cannot be studied. How archetypes came to be was also of no concern to Frye; rather, the function and effect of archetypes is his interest.

Frye proposed that the totality of literary works constitute a “self-contained literary universe” which has been created over the ages by the human imagination so as to assimilate the alien and indifferent world of nature into archetypal forms that serve to satisfy enduring human desires and needs. In this literary universe, four radical mythoi (i.e. plot forms, or organizing structural principles), correspondent to the four seasons in the cycle of the natural world, are incorporated in the four major genres of comedy (spring), romance (summer), tragedy (autumn), and satire (winter).

Within the overarching archetypal mythos of each of these genres, individual works of literature also play variations upon a number of more limited archetypes – that is, conventional patterns and types that literature shares with social rituals as well a with theology, history, law, and , in fact, all “discursive verbal structures.” Viewed arhetypally, Frye asserted, literature turns out to play an essential role in refashioning the impersonal material universe into an alternative verbal universe that is intelligible and viable, because it is adapted to universal human needs and concerns.

Mythos Grid

There are two basic categories in Frye’s framework, i.e., comedic and tragic. Each category is further subdivided into two categories: comedy and romance for the comedic; tragedy and satire (or ironic) for the tragic. Though he is dismissive of Frazer, Frye uses the seasons in his archetypal schema. Each season is aligned with a literary genre: comedy with spring, romance with summer, tragedy with autumn, and satire with winter.

·        Comedy is aligned with spring because the genre of comedy is characterized by the birth of the hero, revival and resurrection. Also, spring symbolizes the defeat of winter and darkness.
·        Romance and summer are paired together because summer is the culmination of life in the seasonal calendar, and the romance genre culminates with some sort of triumph, usually a marriage.
·        Autumn is the dying stage of the seasonal calendar, which parallels the tragedy genre because it is, (above all), known for the “fall” or demise of the protagonist.
·        Satire is metonymized[2] with winter on the grounds that satire is a “dark” genre. Satire is a disillusioned and mocking form of the three other genres. It is noted for its darkness, dissolution, the return of chaos, and the defeat of the heroic figure.

The context of a genre determines how a symbol or image is to be interpreted. Frye outlines five different spheres in his schema: human, animal, vegetation, mineral, and water.
·        The comedic human world is representative of wish-fulfillment and being community centered. In contrast, the tragic human world is of isolation, tyranny, and the fallen hero.

·        Animals in the comedic genres are docile and pastoral (e.g. sheep), while animals are predatory and hunters in the tragic (e.g. wolves).

·        For the realm of vegetation, the comedic is, again, pastoral but also represented by gardens, parks, roses and lotuses. As for the tragic, vegetation is of a wild forest, or as being barren.

·        Cities, temples, or precious stones represent the comedic mineral realm. The tragic mineral realm is noted for being a desert, ruins, or “of sinister geometrical images” (Frye 1456).


·        Lastly, the water realm is represented by rivers in the comedic. With the tragic, the seas, and especially floods, signify the water sphere.
Frye admits that his schema in “The Archetypes of Literature” is simplistic, but makes room for exceptions by noting that there are neutral archetypes. The example he cites are islands such as Circe[3]’s or Prospero’s which cannot be categorized under the tragic or comedic.

How do contemporary critics view Frye’s archetypal criticism?

Arguments about the Contemporary Dilemma with Frye’s Archetypal Literary Criticism

It has been argued that Frye’s version of archetypal criticism strictly categorizes works based on their genres, which determines how an archetype is to be interpreted in a text. According to this argument the dilemma Frye’s archetypal criticism faces with more contemporary literature, and that of post-modernism in general, is that genres and categories are no longer distinctly separate and that the very concept of genres has become blurred, thus problematizing Frye’s schema. For instance Beckett’s Waiting For Godot is considered a tragicomedy, a play with elements of tragedy and satire, with the implication that interpreting textual elements in the play becomes difficult as the two opposing seasons and conventions that Frye associated with genres are pitted against each other.

But in fact, arguments about generic blends such as tragicomedy go back to the Renaissance, and Frye always conceived of genres as fluid. Frye thought literary forms were part of a great circle and were capable of shading into other generic forms. (Diagram of his wheel in Anatomy of Criticism[4])

Grave Digger's Scene: 'Hamlet'

What are the examples of archetypes in literature?
Archetypes fall into two major categories: characters, situations/symbols. It is easiest to understand them with the help of examples. Listed below are some of the most common archetypes in each category.
  1. The hero - The courageous figure, the one who's always running in and saving the day. Example: Dartagnon from Alexandre Dumas's "The Three Musketeers". (Hamlet, Macbeth, Tom Jones, Moll, … )
  2. The outcast - The outcast is just that. He or she has been cast out of society or has left it on a voluntary basis. The outcast figure can oftentimes also be considered as a Christ figure. Example: Simon from William Golding's "The Lord of the Flies". ( Pandavs, Ram-Sita-laxman, Sugreve, Duke, Orlando, Rosalind in As You Like It, tramps in Godot, …)
  3. The scapegoat - The scapegoat figure is the one who gets blamed for everything, regardless of whether he or she is actually at fault. Example: Snowball from George Orwell's "Animal Farm". [Tom Jones, Darcy in P&P (breaking of Lizzy’s sis’s relationship, elopement), Technology in BNW, Tess for death of Prince, giving birth to Sorrow, …]
  4. The star-crossed lovers - This is the young couple joined by love but unexpectedly parted by fate. Example: Romeo and Juliet from William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". [ Tess and Angel, Heer – Ranjha, Sheeri – Farhad, ….]
  5. The shrew - This is that nagging, bothersome wife always battering her husband with verbal abuse. Example: Zeena from Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome". [Katherina in Taming of Shrew, Paul’s mother in S&L, Lizzy’s mother in P&P.
6.      Femme Fatale[5]: A female character type who brings upon catastrophic and disastrous events. Eve from the story of Genesis or Pandora from Greek mythology are two such figures. Seta, Draupadi or Surparnakha
  1. The Journey: A narrative archetype where the protagonist must overcome a series of obstacles before reaching his or her goal. The quintessential journey archetype in Western culture is arguably Homer’s Odyssey


  • Archetypal symbols vary more than archetype narratives or character types, but any symbol with deep roots in a culture's mythology, such as the forbidden fruit in Genesis or even the poison apple in Snow White, is an example of a symbol that resonates to archetypal critics.
  • The task - A situation in which a character, or group of characters, is driven to complete some duty of monstrous proportion. Example: Frodo's task to keep the ring safe in J. R. R. Tolkein's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. AthurianLegends, , bring Helen back to Troy, Kurukshetra’s battle for Arjun, Savitri…)
  • The quest - Here, the character(s) are searching for something, whether consciously or unconsciously. Their actions, thoughts, and feelings center around the goal of completing this quest. Example: Christian's quest for salvation in John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress". (Search for Holy Grail, Search for Sita, Nal-Damaanti, Savitri for Satyakam’s life, Shakuntala in Kalidas, Don Quixote, Jude,  …)
  • The loss of innocence - This is, as the name implies, a loss of innocence through sexual experience, violence, or any other means. Example: Val's loss of innocence after settling down at the mercantile store in Tennessee William's "Orpheus Descending". [Moll, Tess, Tom, Jude, …]
  • Water - Water is a symbol of life, cleansing, and rebirth. It is a strong life force, and is often depicted as a living, reasoning force.
Wate[ii]r: birth-death-resurrection; creation; purification and redemption; fertility and growth.
Sea/ocean: the mother of all life; spiritual mystery; death and/or rebirth; timelessness and eternity.
  • Rivers: death and rebirth (baptism); the flowing of time into eternity; transitional phases of the life cycle. . . . Example: Edna learns to swim in Kate Chopin's "The Awakening". {Water movie and novel by BapsiSidhwa, Death by Water, polluted River in Waste Land…]
Sun (fire and sky are closely related): creative energy; thinking, enlightenment, wisdom, spiritual vision.
Rising sun: birth, creation, enlightenment.
Setting sun: death.
Red: blood, sacrifice, passion; disorder.
Green: growth, hope, fertility.
Blue: highly positive; secure; tranquil; spiritual purity.
Black: darkness, chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, wisdom, evil, melancholy.
White: light, purity, innocence, timelessness; [negative: death, terror, supernatural]
Yellow: enlightenment, wisdom.
Serpent (snake, worm): symbol of energy and pure force (libido); evil, corruption, sensuality, destruction.
3 - light, spiritual awareness, unity (the Holy Trinity); male principle.
4 - associated with the circle, life cycle, four seasons; earth, nature, elements.
7 - the most potent of all symbolic numbers signifying the union of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order, perfect number; religious symbol.
Wise old Man: savior, redeemer, guru, representing knowledge, reflection, insight, wisdom, intuition, and morality.
Garden: paradise, innocence, unspoiled beauty.
Tree: denotes life of the cosmos; growth; proliferation; symbol of immortality; phallic symbol.
Desert: spiritual aridity; death; hopelessness.
Creation: All cultures believe the Cosmos was brought into existence by some Supernatural Being (or Beings).
Spring - rebirth; genre/comedy.
Summer - life; genre/romance.
Fall - death/dying; genre/tragedy.
Winter - without life/death; genre/irony.
(If winter has come, can spring be far behind?)
(April is the cruelest month…)
The great fish: divine creation/life. (Matsyavatar)
Freud's symbolism/archetypes:
Concave images (ponds, flowers, cups, vases, hollows): female or womb symbols.
Phallic symbols (towers, mountain peaks, snakes, knives, swords, etc.) male symbols.
Dancing, riding, or flying: symbols of sexual pleasure.
Archetypes can be found in nearly all forms of literature, with their motifs being predominantly rooted in folklore.
William Shakespeare is known for creating many archetypal characters that hold great social importance in his native land, such as
Hamlet, the self-doubting hero and the initiation archetype with the three stages of separation, transformation, and return;
Falstaff, the bawdy, rotund comic knight;
Romeo and Juliet, the ill-fated ("star-crossed") lovers;
Richard II, the hero who dies with honor; and many others.
Although Shakespeare based many of his characters on existing archetypes from fables and myths (e.g., Romeo and Juliet on Pyramus and Thisbe), Shakespeare's characters stand out as original by their contrast against a complex, social literary landscape.
For instance, in The Tempest, Shakespeare borrowed from a manuscript by William Strachey that detailed an actual shipwreck of the Virginia-bound 17th-century English sailing vessel Sea Venture in 1609 on the islands of Bermuda. Shakespeare also borrowed heavily from a speech by Medea in Ovid's Metamorphoses in writing Prospero's renunciative speech; nevertheless, the unique combination of these elements in the character of Prospero created a new interpretation of the sage magician as that of a carefully plotting hero, quite distinct from the wizard-as-advisor archetype of Merlin or Gandalf. Both of these are likely derived from priesthood authority archetypes, such as Celtic Druids, or perhaps Biblical figures like Abraham, Moses, etc.; or in the case of Gandalf, the Norse figure Odin.


  • Abrams, M. H. "Archetypal Criticism." A Glossary of Literary Terms. Fort Worth: HBJ, 1993. 223 - 225
  • Bates, Roland. Northrop Frye. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971.
  • Frye, Northrop. "The Archetypes of Literature." The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1445 - 1457
  • Knapp, Bettina L. "Introduction." A Jungian Approach to Literature. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. ix - xvi
  • Leitch, Vincent B. "Northrop Frye." The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1442 - 1445
  • -- "Carl Gustav Jung." The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 987 - 990
  • Segal, Robert A. "Introduction." Jung on Mythology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. 3 - 48
  • Walker, Steven F. Jung and the Jungians on Myth. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995. 3 - 15
Frye, Northrop.  Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957. (Available in the UHS Library)
The Northrop Frye International Literary Festival:  
Northrop Frye, Bedford/St. Martin's: 
Northrop Frye, The Literary Encyclopedia:
Northrop Frye Collection, Victoria University Library: 
Anatomy of Criticism, Book Review:
Wikipedia Links
General Interest
Northrop Frye, Simulation, and the Creation of a "Human World":

[1]Semiotics, semiotic studies, or semiology is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.Syntactics is the branch of semiotics that deals with the formal properties of signs and symbols

[2] In rhetoric, metonymy (IPA: /mɨˈtɒnɨmi/) is the use of a word for a concept with which the original concept behind this word is associated. Metonymy may be instructively contrasted with metaphor. Both figures involve the substitution of one term for another. While in metaphor, this substitution is based on similarity, in metonymy the substitution is based on contiguity. Metaphor - The ship plowed through the sea. Metonymy - The sails crossed the ocean. In cognitive linguistics, metonymy refers to the use of a single characteristic to identify a more complex entity and is one of the basic characteristics of cognition. It is common for people to take one well-understood or easy-to-perceive aspect of something and use that aspect to stand either for the thing as a whole or for some other aspect or part of it. A few commonly used examples of metonymy are: Sweat = perspiration = hard work(metonymical); lend me thy ear.
[3] In Greek mythology, Circe or Kírkē (Greek Κίρκη, falcon), was a Queen goddess (or sometimesnymph or sorceress) living on the island of Aeaea. Circe transformed her enemies, or those who offended her, into animals through the use of magical potions. She was renowned for her knowledge of drugs and herbs.

[4]Frye's four essays between a "Polemical Introduction" and a "Tentative Conclusion." The four essays are titled "Historical Criticism: A Theory of Modes," "Ethical Criticism: a Theory of Symbols," "Archetypal Criticism: A Theory of myths," and "Rhetorical Criticism: A Theory of Genres."

[5] A femme fatale (plural: femmes fatales) is an alluring and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She is an archetypal character of literature and art.

Northrop Frye's Archetype of Literature from Dilip Barad


  • Give your responses to these questions in the minimum possible words in the COMMENT below this blog-post:

  1. What is Archetypal Criticism? What does the archetypal critic do?
  2. What is Frye trying prove by giving an analogy of ' Physics to Nature' and 'Criticism to Literature'?
  3. Share your views of Criticism as an organised body of knowledge. Mention relation of literature with history and philosophy.
  4. Briefly explain inductive method with illustration of Shakespeare's Hamlet's Grave Digger's scene.
  5. Briefly explain deductive method with reference to an analogy to Music, Painting, rhythm and pattern. Give examples of the outcome of deductive method.
  6. Refer to the Indian seasonal grid (below). If you can, please read small Gujarati or Hindi or English poem from the archetypal approach and apply Indian seasonal grid in the interpretation.

Indian Seasons


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  32. Nice post, my thoughts here are that communication has been over thought which results in nit picking when it comes to compartmentalizing. Literature, afterall, is about communication just as the ability to use other forms of medium and the simpler the better. Not everything should be analysed to this extent. Just an opinion.
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