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Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays

4.07  ·  Rating Details ·  1,291 Ratings  ·  61 Reviews
This volume, the twenty-second in the acclaimed Collected Works of Northrop Frye series, presents Frye's most influential work, Anatomy of Criticism (1957). In four stylish and sweeping essays, Frye attempts to formulate an overall view of the scope, principles, and techniques of literary criticism and the conventions of literature - its modes, symbols, archetypes, and gen ...more
Hardcover, 450 pages
Published February 17th 2007 by University of Toronto Press (first published May 21st 1957)
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Riku Sayuj

Except for the comically inadequate introduction by Harold Bloom, this book is a window to a whole new way of seeing the literary universe. In scope and depth, it is an epic and no matter how cynically you approach it, Frye is going to awe you with sheer erudition and immaculate schematics. For anyone with a Platonic bent, Frye's work has the potential to become an immediate Bible.

It might take a while to get through and it might require you to convert a lot of Frye's work into shorter notes an
Mar 18, 2010 Ellen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: theory
Luckless undergraduate standing in front of Northrop Frye’s An Anatomy of Criticism

I vividly remember my reaction, when as an undergraduate, I read Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism as a required text in a course I was taking. The book begins innocently enough; in his “Polemical Introduction,” Frye discusses the critic’s role and the current gaps in literary theory (which, of course, he intends to fill). With the first essay, though, however, Frye begins to launch his system.

I recall feelin
Jun 23, 2016 Feliks rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: criticism
This is pretty dense material. You have to read each paragraph fairly slowly to make sure you grasp his point, or the next one to follow makes no sense. Reversing one's tracks and going-back-over a page is sometimes necessary. This treatise will leave you feeling pummeled and exhausted.

It doesn't start off well. The most difficult and also the most appetizing of targets (in his first two essays, 'Theory of Modes' and 'Theory of Symbols') are the shortest and the murkiest. In essay 1 & 2, 'fa
A superior display of erudition.

Sets out its task in terms reminiscent of Kant's assertion that "philosophy stands in need of a science" in the Critique of Pure Reason: "If criticism exists, it must be an examination of literature in terms of a conceptual framework derivable from an inductive survey of the literary field. The word 'inductive' suggests some sort of scientific procedure. What if criticism is a science as well as an art?" (7). Both Kant and Frye strike me as latter day Miltons, who
Justin Evans
Well, this is pretty dense in a way that books usually aren't these days. Not dense in a Frenchified theory way, and not dense in a flowery language kind of way. Just conceptually dense. Which is fine, but not all of the concepts are useful. Density aside, the first two essays - on historical criticism and 'symbols,' (which for Frye doesn't really mean, well, symbol) - are pretty good, if overly schematic. The third essay is horrific. Really, you just need a diagram for it, but we get over 100 p ...more
Jul 28, 2007 Simon rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
OK, it's certainly silly to give this book such a low rating, but honestly, I found it bad. The Polemical Introduction was intriguing but left one wanting to know exactly what he thought the science of criticism would be like. The first essay, on modes, was a taxonomy by principles (the status of the hero relative to 'us') that didn't seem all that intuitive to me. And at the end, there seemed little beyond taxonomy. What this had to do with the goal of explaining the literary phenomena, which I ...more
Sep 12, 2011 Alex rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book (1957) is an insane Blakean view onto Western literary totality, a set of theories as stacking dolls, a proto-structuralist polemic against dispersed schools of criticism and against 'literary taste' for 'archetypal criticism,' for the ideology of the 'eternal return.' There's some sniping against critics who thought "criticism couldn't become a science," but Frye wasn't going to take "criticism couldn't become a science"... for an answer. There's also some rushing to create a space fo ...more
Oct 26, 2007 Eric marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: criticism
Frye writes like a genial, slightly waggish but awesomely learned professor talks. This book should be subtitled, "The Mutations of Storytelling." Easygoing and smoothly narrated next to the nigh-nightmarish Wimsatt & Welleck.


"The disadvantage of making the queen-figure the hero's mistress, in anything more than a political sense, is that she spoils his fun with the distressed damsels he meets on his journey, who are often enticingly tied naked to rocks or trees, like Andromeda or Ange
John Pistelli
If I had to choose one book as the foundation for an education in literary criticism and theory, I might choose Anatomy of Criticism; I wish I had read it much earlier. Even if one’s goal were the deconstruction, to various ends or just for the hell of it, of the concept of literature, this might be the most productive text to deconstruct, because Frye construes his theory as the climax and (to use his typological Biblical language) fulfillment of all prior western literary theory from Aristotle ...more
Jacob Wickham
May 01, 2013 Jacob Wickham rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Northrup Frye argues that literary criticism is a way of thinking, defining it thus: "… by criticism I mean the whole work of scholarship and taste concerned with literature which is a part of what is called variously liberal education, culture, or the study of the humanities. I start from the principle that criticism is not simply a part of this larger activity, but an essential part of it" (3). Literature is not taught, criticism is taught. He places criticism, and the humanities on the same l
Apr 22, 2014 Sunny rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
I have to admit thAt I found this book really tough to read and understand. Northrop references so many books in this to make his point based around art and literature mainly that it's hard to keep up at times. I have probably ready only 25 % of the books he is referring to. So found it hard to relate to some of the things he is talking about. The book does make some excellent points around poetry and civilisation and language and culture which I found immensely interesting but on the whole I ha ...more
Nancy Burns
My last 'reference' book before summer break.
My review:

Summer will be spent only reading....reviewing will start again in September.
Here is my summer reading list!
Northrup Frye argues that literary criticism is a way of thinking, defining it thus: "… by criticism I mean the whole work of scholarship and taste concerned with literature which is a part of what is called variously liberal education, culture, or the study of the humanities. I start from the principle that criticism is not simply a part of this larger activity, but an essential part of it" (3). Literature is not taught, criticism is taught. He places criticism, and the humanities on the same l ...more
Bob R Bogle
It took a long time, but I finally finished reading Northrop Frye's 1957 classic, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, from cover to cover. It is, as Frye expressed in the opening paragraph, a work of "pure critical theory," practically and appropriately biblical and epic in style and structure. Because anyone reading this review is likely to already have a good notion of the content of the Anatomy or, in the case of students for whom it is assigned reading, who soon enough shall, I will not belab ...more
"Evil may yet be good to have been and yet remain evil." That's how I feel about having read this book.

If you hover over the stars of Goodread's rating system, each rating is described in terms of how much one "likes" a given book. These descriptions are inadequate. I chose 3 stars for this book not because I liked it –in truth, much of it I despised while reading it, insofar as it evoked any emotion from me –but because I did find some useful portions within the somewhat absurdly complex system
Lukas Evan
Sep 22, 2016 Lukas Evan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not sure how I missed this classic as an English major (twice). Thanks for nothing liberal arts educations.
Apr 23, 2011 wally rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: frye
seem to recall something about frye...something about his view, based on 'matthew arnold's precept of letting the mind play freely with a subject in which there has been much endeavor and little attempt at perspective."

t'would appear that frye believed that there is (1950s...late 50s?) an absence of a systematic approach to need of a coordinating principle, central hypothesis....

...realize the existence of other philosophies, too....the critic must remain classless to remain obj
Aug 10, 2016 Christy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2013
On trying to read Northrop Frye 30 years after European critical theory stormed the gates of the academy, leaving the humanities, which were retrospectively ripe for collapse, in a kind of fall-of-Rome state of confusion and disillusionment, I was actually reminded (again - it comes up often for me these days) of Shelley’s poem:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains – round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone an
Jan 22, 2014 Spencer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Frye was one of the literary critics that attempted something with his discipline far more ambitious than merely attempting good academic work. This book shows that he was trying to conceive of literary criticism as not only a discipline on its own but as a discipline that is fundamental to humanity's quest for the divine. You see this primarily in his anagogic notion of literature: the point where the world no longer contains our literary words but reverses so that our words recreate the world. ...more
Mary Catelli
Impossible for me to rate this book because, as a work of literary criticism, it's immensely flawed. Laying down an abstract theory of how to classify things doesn't work; it would need to be far more inductive to actually classify the works, or at least have more justification. In the comedy-romance-tragedy-irony cycle, every one, according to him, has six phases. Why six? Why not five or seven? Is it not possible that some have more phases than others? (Not to mention that he seems to think th ...more
May 11, 2009 Elena rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After some odd months of reading this book, I finally finished it. I was bombarded by the task of memorizing some of the terminology. Next year, I will have to revisit this book again. I found my mind wandering into so many different avenues during my read that I was too distracted. In a word this book is quite "DENSE." It is filled with so much information that my brain couldn't really process all of the information as well as I would have liked too. Nonetheless, Frye's criticism and tone is do ...more
Aug 14, 2013 Fabian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although clearly written with highly cultivated people in mind, I did find this book useful in gleaning some critical concepts essential to academic work. The terminology is really complex (and baffling, at times), but the way the author managed to intersect myth and form and genre and find points common to each was a profound and startling revelation about the nature of both [systematic approaches to] literary criticism and Frye's own intellectual prowess. I will certainly be revisiting this bo ...more
Justin Dielmann
Jul 08, 2013 Justin Dielmann rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A pretty necessary read whether you agree with all Frye's concepts or not. The last monument of structural criticism which should be taken seriously (pardoning perhaps Bloom). Frye's erudition serves to point the direction in which a critic or artist should begin to explore; however, do not be mistaken, he is simply an updated Aristotle and thus a beginning and not an end to a true understanding of literature. Frye's grand system can serve as a foundation for exploring and discussing texts, but ...more
May 20, 2015 John rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays, literature, 2015
This is a dense walk through Western Literature from the late 50s. It still carried with it a whiff of the moral and cultural superiority of European culture. I think it is the pinnacle or near pinnacle of breaking down the history of literature through a mix of concepts from Freud, Jung, Pre-Christian religions and Christian worldview. I didn't expect it to hold up as well as it does for understanding a subset of literature. It's also a great time capsule on how Joyce, Eliot, Pound and Melville ...more
Jun 10, 2008 Tracy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I've praised so many books so much (this page is called Good Reads, after all!), I thought I would complain.

I should love this book! I don't. I think it's overly general and kind of obvious. . . The most interesting thing about it is that life itself, the great story, is a journey through all the seasons. The second most interesting thing is that the season of winter is the season of irony.

I do use that notion for 12th Night...but...I should love this book, and I do not! And I like theory!!
May 28, 2015 Vadim rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Нортроп Фрай в своих четырех эссе представляет литературу подобной математике, как искусство возможного; того, что может и не случалось, но могло бы случиться, если принять некоторые постулаты. И если литературе как таковой научиться нельзя, литературная критика это то, что можно изучать непосредственно и научиться ей. Фрай показывает, что исследования литераторами возможных миров не случайны, что даже нереалистичные постулаты не произвольны, подчиняются определенной логике, относительно которой ...more
Nov 16, 2007 Sammy added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those that like a taxonomic treatment of things
it has been so long since I read this book, it would be unfair for me to rate it.

I remember it being very influential on me. A lot of my poems comes directly from it. Especially "Garden Poems" and "City Poems." And somewhere in Frye, I found the idea of treating Hip Hop and Pop music no differently than other literary works.

I think I will have to read it again at some point. Maybe I'll get more insights. Or, at least, not misrepresent what Frye had said.
Jul 29, 2011 Andrew rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: linguistics
The greater portion of the book is spent cutting literary criticism into certain categories (very Aristolean.) But the spoiler/ender is that Fry does a bang-up job of showing how such ideas are endemic to criticism itself, have their own internal structure, and thus we CAN speak of literary criticism by itself. Just as scientists have "scientific thinking" Frye shows us how we can think "critically (of literature.)"
Frye covers a lot of ground with such intelligent commentary. He discusses metaphor and simile, myth as opposed to romance, the low mimetic and the high mimetic, comedy and tragedy, satire and irony and has an interesting section on rhetoric too. This is a must read for those interested in literary theory. Frye argues that theories should blend into each other and that a theory of criticism should ideally stem from the study of literature itself.
Sep 11, 2008 Dan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although Frye's traditional approach to the criticism of literary texts seems dated now, particularly from the perspective of recent literary theory (feminist criticism, Marxist criticism, post-structuralism, etc.), this text is an impressive attempt at systematizing Western literature according to genres, myths, symbols and modes.
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Born in Quebec but raised in New Brunswick, Frye studied at the University of Toronto and Victoria University. He was ordained to the ministry of the United Church of Canada and studied at Oxford before returning to UofT.

His first book, Fearful Symmetry, was published in 1947 to international acclaim. Until then, the prophetic poetry of William Blake had long been poorly understood, considered by
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“A snowflake is probably quite unconscious of forming a crystal, but what it does may be worth study even if we are willing to leave its inner mental processes alone.” 18 likes
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