Friday, 8 June 2012

Northrop Frye in Context by Diane Dubois

In August 2011 I travelled to Oxford and Gloucestershire with Diane Dubois to photograph a series of pictures for the cover of a book she was writing on the Shakespeare critic Northrop Frye (1912-91).  Frye’s writing concerns itself with the theory and practice of literary criticism. He was among the first to interpret the poetry of William Blake and is often considered to be one of the most influential literary critics and theorists of the 20th Century. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan once said of Frye: “Norrie is not struggling for his place in the sun. He is the sun.”

The photographs are of the stained glass West Window of St. Mary’s Church in Fairford, Gloucestershire, built in 1490. The place we visited and photographed had a significant influence on Frye according to Diane Dubois. In her essay “The Absurd Imagination: Northrop Frye and Waiting for Godot,” Dubois suggests that “the architonic that informs the 'Theory of Myths' may have been influenced by Frye’s chance encounter with a stained glass window in a church near Oxford, where Frye was a postgraduate student from 1936 to 1938” (Dubois, 2011, p.122). Frye and a group of friends visited the church in 1937, when he saw St. Mary’s West Window, a depiction of the Last Judgement. This provided Frye “with a practical example of Emile Mรขle’s book on the iconography of French Cathedrals, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France in the 13th Century (1913)” (ibid).  He read the book prior to attending Oxford, while he was a divinity student. The book “provided an initiation for Frye into the levels of meaning to be found in medieval architecture” (ibid). These levels of meaning, Dubois argues, “adumbrate Frye’s 'Theory of Modes', the first essay in the Anatomy [of Criticism]” (ibid).  The five modes are identified by Frye as “the mythic, the romantic, the high mimetic, the low mimetic, and the ironic” (ibid).  

Diane Dubois goes on to describe the West Window of St. Mary’s:

The top of St. Mary’s West Window is flooded with the golden light of heaven. The colour red predominates in the bottom right hand corner, as this is where the 'harrowing of hell' is depicted. In the bottom left, souls, rescued from hell, ascend a shining staircase. The window is thus an architectural rendering of salvation. To Frye, it may have suggested the shape of the architectonic that would inform the Anatomy. His biographer seems to think so: Ayre describes this visit to St. Mary’s as “a revelation” for the young Frye (Ayre 141). Tragedy coincides with hell at the bottom of the window, and heaven at the top equates with romance. Irony/satire find their counterpart with the right-hand side of the window, where the damned slide into hell, and comedy with the lifting out of hell and into paradise.
(ibid, pp. 122-123)

The book has recently been published by Cambridge Scholars. The Canadian poet, literary scholar and  historian Jonathan Hart has written the back cover blurb. I have included his words here:

Diane Dubois takes a contextual approach to Northrop Frye's work and claims that it is best assessed in relation to his biographical circumstances. In context and in specific details, Dubois' book seeks to illuminate Frye's oeuvre as a personal, lifelong project. This volume successfully situates Frye's work within the social, political, religious and philosophical conditions of the time and place of conception and writing. Dubois ranges from Frye's critical utopia and views on criticism and education through the university, church and William Blake to politics and the Canadian and academic milieu. This book, which is particularly good at tracing Frye's academic influences and his roots in Methodism and Canada, will have a strong appeal to an international audience of general readers, students, teachers and specialists. Frye is a key figure in the cultural and literary theory of the twentieth century, and Dubois' accomplished discussion helps us to see his work anew.

Jonathan Hart teaches at University of Alberta and is author of Northrop Frye: The Theoretical Imagination (1994), Interpreting Cultures (2006), Empires and Colonies (2008) and Literature, Theory, History (2011).

The author, Dr Diane Dubois is a veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe, as an actor, playwright and critic. She has written for the stage outside of the festival and for radio. She is currently Programme Leader of the MA in Playwriting and Script Development at the University of Lincoln, UK. She wrote the university's first Drama degree, thus founding the Lincoln School of Performing Arts in 2003. From 1999 to 2008 she was editor of the Journal of Gender Studies. Her recent publications include “Out of the Parlour and into the Centre: Studying Women's Contribution to English Modernist Theatre and Drama,” in Origins of English Dramatic Modernism (2010). Diane did her PhD at the University of Hull, taking as her subject the work of her fellow Canadian, Northrop Frye.


Ayre, John (1989) Northrop Frye: A Biography Toronto: Random.

Cambridge Scholars:

Dubois, Diane (2011) “The Absurd Imagination: Northrop Frye and Waiting for Godot”, English Studies in Canada Volume 37 Issue 2, June 2011 pp. 111-130. 

Dubois, Diane (2012) Northrop Frye in Context,  Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars: