Study Guide

Northrop Frye Biography

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Basic Information


Herman Northrop Frye


Norrie, The Systematizer, The Anatomist, The Archetyper, The Carl Jung of Literature, The Frygian


Male. I was thankfully not swamped in post-structuralist questions of gender identity. I just put on a tie and went to work without spending a day of my life feeling like an oppressive patriarch.

Home town

Let's just get this out from the get-go: I'm not one of your fancy French theorists. I was from terribly un-hip Canada—and I loved it. I was born in Quebec, but we moved to Moncton, New Brunswick (go Wildcats). I had a sister and a brother—he died in World War I (that makes me seem old, which I guess I am). Dad was a hardware merchant, and Mom was, well, Mom.

Work & Education


I almost became a devoted member of the clergy, but when I turned to teaching, I turned for good. I taught at Victoria College (part of the University of Toronto) for the rest of my professional life, dedicating myself to the education of undergraduates. I wasn't one of those snooty types who are too above it to teach the little people.

Of course, I also had impressive visiting professor gigs at places like Harvard. Ever the dedicated academic, I cranked out works of criticism that attracted praise from the likes of Harold Freakin' Bloom. That's when you know you've made it big.


At the beginning, school was kind of a bummer. I went to the way depressing Victoria School, and then Aberdeen High, where education was like "penal servitude" (source). No teasing, but I started out going to typing school and even competed in a big Canadian typing contest (second place). I went to college at Victoria College, picked up a degree in philosophy and English (with honors, naturally), then proceeded to earn my M.A. at Merton College, Oxford. That's right—I made it out of Canada. But I returned.

Along the way, I became ordained as a minister and even served as a pastor. Though teaching literature was my main thing, my work was forever influenced by the study of theology. I never earned a Ph.D—but that didn't stop me from getting a whole mess of honors, like membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and my face on a postage stamp! Take that, Roland Barthes.


Political views

I'm not one of these critics who's political political, though I do have the distinction of having been spied on by the RCMP, Canada's equivalent of the CIA. No—it wasn't for my radical interpretations of Aristotle's natural order; it was for my opposition to the Vietnam War (as if I was the only one) and for my work to end South African apartheid. Apparently my teach-ins were a threat to the Canadian secret service.

Religious views

I was never one to offer off-the-cuff commentary on religion, and I didn't pay too much attention to Hinduism, Islam, or pretty much any spiritual belief system aside from Christianity... which explains why I would say something like "our civilization is so far committed to Christianity [...] that we [may regard] 'Christianity' and 'religion' as interchangeable terms" (source).

As you may know, I was an ordained minister, and Christianity had a huge place in my literary criticism, which often focused on themes like sin and redemption. It all goes back to the Good Book, which I thought of as something that pretty much "shaped the western mind" (source).

Activities & Interests


The imagination
The Bible
Greek myth
Verbal structure
The Western Canon
Music—especially tickling the ivories
William Blake—can't get enough!


Crummy teaching
The idea that literature exists in a vacuum
Superficial reading
Messy thinking
Parochial thinking
Bothering to earn a Ph.D when I have already read the whole Western canon
The idea that critics are parasites to artists
Limiting one's thinking to one's discipline
Closed mindedness


Reading the classics
Thinking about writing novels but not following through
Watching Charlie Chaplin movies
Dwelling on the condition of the world
Pondering the difference between religious doctrine and Biblical stories
Considering the birth-death-resurrection cycle over and over and over…
Getting honorary degrees (I'm up to 38!)
Lecturing globally—Japan, Italy, Britain—you name it


The Blake-ists
Myth Critics
System Lovers
Scholars of All of Western Literature
Theorists of the Anti-Hip, a.k.a. The Non-Postmodernists
Scholars who <3 the Bible
Defenders of Canadian Literature
Literary Scientists
The Frameworkers
Frye's Guys

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