A Road to Help You Through Frye's "The Critical Path"

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Instead of choosing one agenda item and commenting on that quote, I thought that I would give a summary of what I found to be the major points of Northrop Frye’s essay, “The Critical Path,” as well as links to definitions and other sources that can help you understand this article.  It took me a while to get through it, and probably even longer to understand it, and I can see that others had as much difficulty as I did.  As I was reading, I saw that Frye was attempting to do a few different things in this article.  They are, in no special order:


  1. Discuss and promote his approach to criticism
  2. Define criticism generally and historically
  3. Warn writers and aspiring critics about a few necessary evils of criticism
  4. Relate all of this to his idea of “The Critical Path”


This is a lot to accomplish in such a short article, and think that it is this that makes the article confusing.  To help all of us out, I have compiled a list of Frye’s major points that go along with each of the above sections. 


  1. Discusses His Approach

·            Most of the well trodden paths, i.e. the other schools of criticism, were not working for him, so he decided to try something different

·            He wanted a type of criticism that would:

                                                                          i.      take the “major phenomena of literature” (later explained as convention, genre, and archetypes) into consideration (p. 280)

                                                                        ii.      take into account literature’s place in all of civilization/history

·            Therefore, he came to the conclusion that criticism was best achieved “through literature itself” or intertextual criticism (p. 280).

·            Important quotation: “It seemed to me obvious that, after accepting the poetic form of a poem as its primary basis of meaning, the next step was to look for its context within literature itself” (283).  In other words, look at the text itself to find meaning, and then look to how this meaning stands within other works-use literature, not other subjects, to find/prove points.

                                                                          i.      Along with this conclusion, Frye suggests that after going to the text, the next best place to go is to the author’s other works, and then to other works within that genre, or other works that have similar conventions and/or archetypes. 

                                                                        ii.      According to Frye, all literature should be looked at in terms of conventions, genres, and recurring image groups, or archetypes.


  1. Defines Criticism  Generally and Historically

·            Generally:

                                                                          i.      Frye distinguishes criticism from literature itself, from criticism of the arts or from “the subject called aesthetics” (p. 280), from those so-called critics who are really only interested in “social, philosophical, and religious” pursuits rather than literary ones (p. 280), from second-rate writing, and from other subjects/schools that do not deal primarily with literature.

                                                                        ii.      He also writes that criticism should not develop, as it has, “suburbs like Los Angeles” (p. 281).

o        These “suburbs” include biography, psychology, and history (in terms of the “social situation” of the author) (p. 281). 

o        One should note that these “suburbs” that Frye opposes are the bases on which our other schools of criticism are founded.

                                                                      iii.      Any and all criticism should be based on two aspects: the structure of literature and the social environment of literature.

·            Historically:

                                                                          i.      English literature was not an academic subject.

                                                                        ii.      Literary Criticism was based on philology.

                                                                      iii.      In North American universities, criticism was based on history and philosophy

                                                                      iv.      Other movements, based mainly on a historical perspective, include (in the historical order that he presented): Determinism, Catholic Determinism (Eliot), nominalism, Protestantism, liberalism, subjective idealism, solipsism, and Marxism

o        Frye highlights three problems with these movements:

a.      Literary form is not considered

b.      Poetic/metaphorical language is not part of the major meanings of these movements

c.       The quality of the poet relates negatively to or opposes the content area from which the poet is being observed (all from p. 282).

                                                                        v.      Frye believed that New Criticism was good because of its return to formalism, but noticed that it eventually returned to or relied on other subjects, just as the above movements do.

                                                                      vi.      He believes his new type of criticism (intertextualism) will become or should become a critical movement as well, one than can replace the others that usually fail. 

o        Frye thought that there were two contexts from which critics could find poetic meaning: the context of literature and the context of everyday ideas/language.  He believed that the latter is too often used as context and that the context of literature should be employed more often.


  1. Warns of the Necessary Evils of Criticism

·            “Pre-critical experience,” or a naïve view of literature, sometimes inhibits the critic (p. 285).  This experience deals with one’s initial, non-verbal reactions to a text on first reading.

·            Devotion to “determinism” limits our understanding of literature.  In other words, believing that everything has a specific outcome or meaning, and separating “social reference and structure” (p. 287)  is inhibiting to critics.

·            Our views of literature are always changing.   Each time we reread, we have a different interpretation of the work, and no matter how slight the differences are, they are still present.

·            “Criticism…is one of the sub-academic areas in which a large number of people are still free to indulge their anxieties instead of studying their subject” (p. 287).  Basically, do not do this.


  1. “The Critical Path”

·            Frye uses influences from William Blake’s prophecies (the idea of the path) and from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (“‘the critical path is alone open’” p. 280) to relate his development as a critic to the history of criticism and to the development of intertextuality.

·            There are many paths that diverge too much from “The Critical Path” and these should be considered when incorporating other subjects into criticism.  Basically, biography, history, philosophy, psychology, and other subjects should be considered, but should not overwhelm the piece and the literature that it is a part of.

·            Along this path, we as writers are moving from the naïve to the “sentimental,” or unified, way of looking at literature, and criticism only begins where the sentimental view begins (p. 286).

·            We must also learn to separate initial responses and determinism from criticism.

·            Through criticism, we can reach a higher level in ourselves and in reality.  (As an aside, this was too abstract for me, but I understood it as an imaginative and somewhat Buddhist-like way to say that criticism helps us to better understand this world and the literature that comes from it).


I know this is a lot of information, but I hope that it is helpful.  Below, I have also included a link to a page of links to the definitions of terms that I did not know, as well as some other important quotes for us to think about. 


Terms Page


Important Quotations


Take a look at some of the ideas others have about Frye's essay.




Greta Carroll said:

Wow, Erica, I just want to congratulate you on a job well done! There really was a mass of information which Frye dealt with. I think you organized and summarized it very well. I particularly like you section on “The Necessary Evils of Criticism.” I thought Frye’s comments on “the pre-critical experience” to be quite interesting. In some ways, I saw it kind of a reminder that there is more to literature than just our immediate reactions. It is easy for us to just read a work and not take time and truly reflect on anything except the immediate emotional responses the work creates. Too often we ignore both the structural aspects that create this and the literary works that also help us to understand the text. In the same paragraph that he was discussing this, I was amused by Frye’s observation that, “It may be absurd that ‘unique’ should become a value-term, the world’s worst poem being obviously as unique as any other…” (285). He makes a really good point and I will certainly not throw around the word unique so lightly now! But I am curious Erica, what did you think of the article? Do you like intertextual criticism?

Erica Gearhart said:

Thanks so much, Greta! I really like how you pointed out the fact that Frye does not advocate the use of the word "unique" as a form of positive crticism as many people often do. I think his opinion is really valid; however, at the same time we don't want our pieces to be exactly the same as someone else's works. As for your question about intertextuality, I really enjoy it. I think I like it because it is a bit like formalism-it goes back to the texts themselves, which I think is important in criticism. I think I also understand it a bit better than some of the other forms, which usually helps me to enjoy what I'm doing. Frye mentioned that critics should use the subject they are studying to evaluate it, so it only makes sense that we use literature to evaluate literature-at least I agree that it does. What do you think?

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