Anatomy of Criticism

Four essays from Canadian literary critic and literary theorist Northrop Frye.

Northrop Frye

Striking out at the conception of criticism as restricted to mere opinion or ritual gesture, Northrop Frye wrote this magisterial work proceeding on the assumption that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge in its own right. In four brilliant essays on historical, ethical, archetypal and rhetorical criticism, employing examples of world literature from ancient times to the present, Frye reconceived literary criticism as a total history rather than a linear progression through time.

Literature, Frye wrote, is "the place where our imaginations find the ideal that they try to pass on to belief and action, where they find the vision which is the source of both the dignity and the joy of life." And the critical study of literature provides a basic way "to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in." (From Princeton University Press)

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From the book

The subject-matter of literary criticism is an art, and criticism is evidently something of an art too. This sounds as though criticism were a parasitic form of literary expression, an art based on pre-existing art, a second-hand imitation of creative power. On this theory critics are intellectuals who have a taste for art but lack both the power to produce it and the money to patronize it, and thus form a class of cultural middlemen, distributing culture to society at a profit to themselves while exploiting the artist and increasing the strain on his public. The conception of the critic as a parasite or artist manque is still very popular, especially among artists. It is sometimes reinforced by a dubious analogy between the creative and the procreative functions, so that we hear about the "impotence" and "dryness" of the critic, of his hatred for genuinely creative people, and so on. The golden age of anti-critical criticism was the latter part of the nineteenth century, but some of its prejudices are still around.

From Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye ©1957. Published by Princeton University Press.

Author interviews

Northrop Frye, literary critic

50 years ago
Duration 26:36
Featured VideoIn this rare conversation from 1973, Northrop Frye talks about his unique approach to literary criticism.

More about this book

Featured VideoOn the 100th anniversary of his birth, we present an IDEAS classic about Northrop Frye. Frye was one of the greatest thinkers of our time. IDEAS producer David Cayley examines the evolution of Frye's ideas from Fearful Symmetry, his ground-breaking study of William Blake, to The Great Code, his investigation of the relationship between the Bible and literature. Frye himself is heard, along with the comments of friends, colleagues and critics.
Featured VideoNext up, the Massey Lectures. Since 1961, the CBC has commissioned an annual series of lectures by distinguished scholars, writers, and political experts. In 1962, Northrop Frye, based his talks on the story of the Tower of Babel. He called it, “The Educated Imagination”. This excerpt is from his final lecture.