In the area of literary criticism, few books have inspired me as much as Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.[i]
Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays was published by Northrop Frye in 1957. In his Polemical Introduction, Frye notes the importance of approaching literature with “a conceptual framework,”[ii] so one can uncover a literary work’s organizing principles. In this regard, he refers to Aristotle’s Poetics.
“A Conceptual framework”
Of course! So I started examining how archetypes were used in the various works of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, or Molière, France’s foremost comic dramatist.
Comedy: the characters as archetypes
Frye describes comedy as a genre where a young couple, or young couples, have to overcome obstacles, in order to marry. They are usually opposed by a pater familias, a descendent of the heavy father of Roman New Comedy (Plautus [c. 254–184 BCE] and Terence [195/185–159 BCE]) to the more buffoon-like stock characters of the commedia dell’arte. Usually the young lovers are helped by servants, suivant-e-s, valets, confident-e-s, friends, and, at times, a mother or an avuncular (good uncle) figure.
The Plot: all’s well that ends well
Comedy has its archetypal figures and it is an “all’s-well-that-ends-well” narrative, but theories can be reductive. We require “a conceptual framework,” but must also acquire a degree of eclecticism and develop personal theories. In the case of Molière, one has to analyze if and how he uses the “all’s-well-that-ends-well,” rather than simply state that he does or does not use customary narrative and archetypal characters.
Molière’s Tartuffe: the hypocrite
For instance, in Molière’s Tartuffe, Tartuffe who feigns piety, has so bewitched a vulnerable Orgon, the heavy father, that members of his family have to put on a little play-within-the-play to show Orgon that Tartuffe is a hypocrite and that, far from turning his back on the pleasures of the flesh, he in fact covets Orgon’s wife Elmire.
Hidden under a table, Orgon, the pater familias is made to see his “friend” trying to seduce his wife and realizes, too late, that he has been fooled. Orgon’s daughter will not have to marry Tartuffe, but Orgon cannot get rid of the impostor, because Tartuffe is privy to knowledge that could cause Orgon to be thrown in jail.
The Deus ex machina or divine intervention
Fortunately, an exempt or deus ex machina arrives just in time, an instance of kairos as in fairy tales, to tell the family that Tartuffe is a villain and save Orgon. So, here is a play, where characters opposing the traditional marriage of comedy have very little power. It is therefore a problematical play because it stretches the “all’s-well-that-ends-well” to its limits. Molière’s problematical plays are the ones I analyzed.
I am thankful to Northrop Frye because he gave me my starting-point: “The pharmakos is neither innocent nor guilty.”[iii] Pharmakos is the Greek word for scapegoat, the characters who are vilified but somewhat unjustly, which is, to a certain extent, Tartuffe’s case.
Herman (“Norrie”) Northrop Frye, CC, FRSC (14 July 1912 – 23January 1991) was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, my hometown. He was raised in New Brunswick, studied in Toronto (Victoria College, University of Toronto) and at Oxford (Merton College), became a minister in the United Church, and then spent most of his life teaching at the University of Toronto (Victoria College), where he was an inspiration to his students as he had been to me.
Frye is the author of The Anatomy of Criticism.[i]
He wrote his thesis on William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827), one of English literature’s most fascinating figures. Entitled Fearful Symmetry, Frye’s thesis was published in 1947, but he has published numerous other studies, all of which are listed in Wikipedia’s entry on Northrop Frye.
Needless to say, literary critics often find their own personal path to analysing a work of literature. In my own humble writings, I have strayed from early mentors, but I would still recommend Anatomy of Criticism as compulsory reading to students of literature. Where Canadian literature is concerned, Frye’s Bush Garden, a short book, is an excellent way to enter the domain, particularly if one also reads Margaret Atwood‘s Survival, another short book.
Sources and Resources
[i] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1973 ).
[ii] Frye, op. cit., p. 15.
[iii] Frye, op. cit., p. 41.
Joseph Haydn (31 March 1732 – 31 May 1809)The Creation (Die Schöpfung) Les Arts Florissants William Christie, director © Micheline Walker 7 January 2012 WordPress revised 19 July 2014