Study Guide

Northrop Frye Buzzwords

Centripetal/Centrifugal

These terms aren't just for science any more. Centripetal means moving inward, toward the center; centrifugal means—you guessed it—moving outward, away from the center.

You're probably thinking, "That's great, but what on earth do these terms have to do with literary criticism?"

It's simple. Criticism that is centripetal moves toward the meanings embedded in the text itself (usually poems)—like, what's going on with the actual words right there on the page? The poem's rhyme scheme, alliteration, use of metaphor, and all of those fun things your English teacher expects you to write a ten-page paper about are part of centripetal criticism. You're trying to get at the meaning of the text.

Centrifugal criticism asks about the outside context of a work—usually a novel. What was the social, political, and cultural context of, say, Moby-Dick? What do Ahab, Queequeg, and Starbuck tell us about the cultural framework of 19th-century maritime life?

Centrifugal criticism also looks at the syntax and use of language—but more for what it tells you about relations among the characters, tone, and events of the narrative and less about the aesthetic qualities of the words themselves.

As I say, "[C]riticism will always have two aspects, one turned toward the structure of literature and one turned toward the other cultural phenomena that form the social environment of literature" (source).

Garrison Mentality

This just happens to be one of the most important themes in all of Canadian literature. The idea is basically that settlers would come to Canada and then instead of mixing with the locals, they'd build up all of these walls to keep the natives out. It's sort of like going camping and then locking yourself in the RV the whole time, quaking in your boots.

According to me, this mentality became part of a specifically Canadian way of thinking and living. Canadian settlers were holed up in garrisons, living in fear of the wilderness, the natives, and the unknown world outside their high walls. It's a form of narrow-mind self-isolation, and I observed that this self-isolation could also been seen in Canadian culture and literature. Old habits die hard.

Archetypal Literary Criticism

Sure, ideas about archetypes had been floating around since Carl Jung, but I took the idea and reinvented it for the purposes of literary critics. My masterpiece Anatomy of Criticism gave the boot to New Critics and their whole closed-minded way of interpreting literature as if it were written in a vacuum.

As far as believers in archetypal criticism are concerned, all roads lead back to myth. I saw archetypes as a way of making sense of the world around us. I break literature down into categories and subcategories and subsubcategories, but it all starts with these two categories: tragedy and comedy.

Classless Culture/Civilization

I'm no Marxist, but I'm really into the idea of a classless society. Now, I know that a classless society will never really happen, but I am a strong believer in the power of our imaginations.

I believe that everyone should have access to culture—it's not something only the rich should enjoy. But have you seen the price of opera tickets? It's not that I believe we need to redistribute wealth or have no private property like those old Marxist chaps believe; my classless society is based on equal access to education, so that everyone can be emancipated through learning and cultivating their imaginations.

I know it sounds sort of hippie-ish, but I like the idea of a society with equal access to beauty and ideas.

Order of Words

Have you ever noticed how many cop buddy movies there are out there, and how each one pretends to be the first film to depict a wacky duo out there fighting crime and comically arguing about silly things like dropping donut crumbs in coffee?

Well, I say that there are very few truly original ideas. I'm not saying people are plagiarizing; I'm saying that classic works—i.e., the Bible—set up a lot of the ideas we recycle today. (Maybe not the cop buddy thing, though that's worth looking into.) All works dip into a common pool of archetypes (idea and symbols).

I also pretty much insist that as we read different works, we shouldn't approach them from an ideological perspective (like: is this feminist? is this Marxist?); instead, we should try to understand how they connect to other works of art and see what kind of knowledge we can gain from that more associational way of reading.