Archetypes, Rhetoric and Characters : Northrop Frye's Criticism

This essay will deal with three terms in literary criticism, and with one critic. These areas of discussion are archetypes, rhetoric, character; and the critic is Northrop Frye. The mode of presentation is this: the four topics will be discussed in relation to each other, in four sections. The sections will be labeled with one of the previous terms, and will consider that term to be the dominant one for that section. Each dominant term will then be modified by the application of a second angle, which is the three other terms, these being a focal point for the discussion in each paragraph. This exploratory essay will probe the links between each term, and attempt to delve deeper into Frye's critical method.




In connecting Frye's criticism with archetypes, one finds that the two are already happily married within Frye's book, the Anatomy of Criticism. He discusses the value of archetypal criticism in the understanding and appreciation of literature. In his words "... Archetypes [are] a typical or recurring image. I mean by archetype a symbol which connects one poem to another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience."1. In other words, an archetype to Frye is something that conveys connections to other bodies of work in literature, and can provide greater insight through the symbolization of metaphysical ideas. He further states "... Expanding images into conventional archetypes of literature is a process that takes place unconsciously in all our reading."2. This important tool is used by all readers, and it allows authors to relate their own images to a type of structure that exists solely within the confines of literary criticism.


Next we will discuss the relationship between archetypes and rhetoric. This is an interesting combination, because rhetoric also relies heavily on archetypes for basic material. Universality is the ultimate rhetorical tool; the broader the term, the more potential it has to reach a larger audience. These "universal" archetypes can be extremely convincing, and even better, they don't need to be based on fact. The myths and legends that pervade our history are almost certainly not portrayed accurately - they are "larger than life". These archetypal characters can be used to advance nearly any cause, the flexibility coming mainly from the fact that no one really knows how these people looked or even acted to any degree of certainty. One example is that of Jesus whose words have provided ample material for rhetors for nearly two millennia.


Archetypes have impacts on characters within a story or text. These effects can be brought about in various ways: the character could follow a great leader or religious figure, they may identify with an idealized version of someone the character admires, it could even be a fictional character introduced through an intertextual reference. However, this is not to say that archetypes must be in human form in order to affect the character. The coyote, the sun, a pebble, a stream, a skyscraper; all are archetypal insofar as they all hold additional symbolic meanings within their very structure or form.


Frye's Method


Northrop Frye devotes an entire chapter to archetypal criticism in his book Anatomy of Criticism. The "theory of myths" that he discusses is broken into three categories. "First, there is undisplaced myth, generally concerned with gods or demons... ...Second, we have... ...the tendency to suggest implicit mythical patterns in a world more closely associated with human experience. Third, we have the tendency of "realism"... throw the emphasis on content and representation rather than on the shape of the story."3. This theory of archetypes and myths does much to clarify a possible departure point for a critical essay. One may identify a book using one of these categories; thus enabling the critic to delve deeper into the meanings of the archetypal symbolization. A possible example for the first category is Norse myths and animistic writings or beliefs; for the second, the Bible and Sheila Watson; the third fits Tolstoy or Flaubert.


Frye also makes use of rhetorical criticism in his chapter on the theory of genres. He says that rhetoric has always consisted of two parts: ornamental speech and persuasive speech. He goes on to state that ornamental rhetoric is a close relative of literature in general. However, "persuasive rhetoric is applied literature, or the use of literary art to reinforce the power of argument. Ornamental rhetoric acts on its hearers statically, leading them to admire its own beauty or wit; persuasive rhetoric tries to lead them kinetically toward a course of action. One articulates emotion, the other manipulates it."4. This position allows one to witness the use of rhetoric in action while reading. e.e. cummings' jingoist poetry is an excellent example of applied or persuasive rhetoric, as is Hitler's Mein Kampf; ornamental rhetoric encompasses works by many modern authors.


Frye's ideas on characters tend to be overshadowed by the greater question that he is asking; the "theory of genres" allows for so much diversity within its huge boundaries that characters are less motivators than they are part of a larger motivating force. The force behind them would be the literary form, genre, symbols, myths, archetypes or other devices that may allow them to be classifiable. For instance: "The exploiting of fear in the low mimetic is also sensational, and is a kind of pathos in reverse. The terrible figure in this tradition, exemplified by... ... the villains of Dickens, is normally a ruthless figure strongly contrasted with some kind of delicate virtue, generally a helpless victim in his power."5. This type of analysis of a character leaves almost no room for interpretation; Frye seems to have labeled the character and all of their associations and symbols in some attempt at taxonomy.





An archetypal character is a concept that is encountered quite often in literature. The character may be an archetype because they are symbolic of a loftier ideal; or they may be an actual character from another work, such as Don Quixote. These archetypal characters are useful to the author because they may convey a greater or more sublime meaning than simple words could express. If one writes of a wise old man, wizened and bearded; one could instead make reference to the Ancient Mariner, or Moses or Yoda, and all would convey this meaning satisfactorily.


In order to consider the character in relation to Northrop Frye, it would be interesting to consider him as a character himself. What would we know about his character? He is Christian, and rather devout, a former minister. He has a penchant for organization, believing as Aristotle did that everything has its place. Were he to be in a fictional novel, the romantic genre would seem appropriate. Aristotle states "if superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the (romantic) hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself a human being."6. Frye would be a "typical" hero, an all around problem solver who won't back down from a challenge.


A study of the way that characters use rhetoric is a study in the art of conversation, and especially persuasion. As noted earlier, rhetoric may be either ornamental or persuasive, although it could easily be both. The rhetoric of a "good" character may strive to effect its persuasive effect in order to change a bad habit, or set someone on the right track. A "bad" character, on the other hand, has a host of evil tools at hand with rhetoric as a skill. An example of a "good" character's rhetoric is that of Hermina in Steppenwolf, who coaxes the main character back to life and out of his mental shell. An example of "bad" or immoral use of rhetoric, though thoroughly and humorously innocuous is the case of old Huckleberry Fin and the fence that needs to be whitewashed.




Rhetoric may modify an archetype in a literary text by changing the environment in which the archetype exists or is seen. For instance, a great leader in one age may be regarded as a monster or as a saint in a later age, depending on how rhetoric (and history) has changed their image. Image can be said to be both the essence and the outcome of rhetoric; it determines where the rhetoric will go, and where it will not. Image is sculpted by the ever changing social mores that make rhetoric possible by highlighting the weak areas in our personal defense mechanisms.


Frye's rhetoric is one of illumination rather than persuasion. He guides one in a not-so-gentle stream of words towards an end one perhaps does not see coming. His ideas do have a Christian leaning, but he never forces this upon the reader, rather letting his audience learn by inference what he, as the author, believes. This method of criticism is rather ingenious, because he is seen as one of the most objective critics around. However, one may argue also that this method of his not very objective to everyone else, for it is still the work of one person, and he is ultimately subjectifying his work simply by working on it.


Rhetoric is not only used by a character, it may be used against him also. As much as one character may use rhetoric in order to convince another, right or wrong, of something; the skills are there for all to learn, so retaliation or counter-rhetoric is always a possibility. The very versatility and mutability of rhetoric that makes it such a useful and powerful tool is the problem with rhetoric. As a witness to this is Socrates' death by the hand of the courts, felled by rhetoric. Of course the best counter-rhetoricians are employed by the American government, the Central Intelligence Agency.


In conclusion, the four terms share a common heritage. They are all of course from the study of literature. In this respect, they are not dissimilar, and must compliment each other in order for them to have effect. This being said, they can also stand on their own in the English language, and have all gone beyond the bounds of their original meanings. An exploration such as this essay is an interesting exercise that serves to open doors and make connections that one might overlook otherwise. Critical thinking is formed of such studies and exercises, disparate terms being mated and hybridized for further study and understanding.

Works Consulted

Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism - four essays

Princeton University Press, 1957

1 Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism - four essays

Princeton University Press, 1957

2 Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism - four essays

Princeton University Press, 1957

3 Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism - four essays

Princeton University Press, 1957

4 Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism - four essays

Princeton University Press, 1957

5 Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism - four essays

Princeton University Press, 1957

6 Quoted from: Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism - four essays

Princeton University Press, 1957


"Northrop," not "Northrup"

This piece would seem more authoritative if you spelled Frye's first name correctly in the body of your essay.


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