Wedding Crashers with Northrop Frye

If I could take just one lesson from my English classes over the years, I’d choose Northrop Frye’s theory of modes.

Northrop Frye was a literary critic who lived from 1912 to 1991 and is probably best known for his Anatomy of Criticism (published in 1957). In the introduction to that book, Frye argues that

The first thing the literary critic has to do is to read literature, to make an inductive survey of his own field and let his critical principles shape themselves solely out of his knowledge of that field. Critical principles cannot be taken over ready-made from theology, philosophy, politics, science, or any combination of these.

In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye follows his own advice and presents his findings. He goes out and studies literature of all kinds from a variety of times and places. And he finds that literature does not appear “as a huge aggregate or miscellaneous pile of discrete ‘works.’” Rather, “total literary history gives us a glimpse of the possibility of seeing literature as a complication of a relatively restricted and simple group of formulas that can be studied in primitive culture” and that “there seems to be a general tendency on the part of great classics to revert” to these primitive formulas.

In other words, there are several basic story forms that persist from the earliest myths to, say, The Hunger Games. Frye considers these recurring forms and finds that four basic types or modes of storytelling emerge which can be identified by their basic plot structure, the relationship of the central character to human society and the natural environment, and associated imagery and settings.

If you aren’t about to take a quiz on the basic ideas of Northrop Frye, why should any of this matter? Well, consider the importance of stories. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “human intellect is incurably abstract [. . .] yet the only realities we experience are concrete,” and stories often form a bridge between. When we struggle to explain ourselves, we turn to stories. When we try to teach kids abstract mathematical concepts, we turn to stories. When we wish to honor a loved one at a funeral, we don’t just recite a list of adjectives—we turn to stories. Stories have the potential to carry emotion, wisdom, mystery, abstract ideas, concrete realities—all the paradoxes and contradictions of our human experience.  That stories from all times and places generally fall into one of four modes suggests a sort of fundamental, shared, imaginative experience and sheds light (theory comes from Greek roots meaning “to see” and “to consider”) on how we process and comprehend the world and ourselves.

So what are the four basic modes? According to Frye, they are:

1. Comedy (or “low mimetic”)

2. Tragedy (or “high mimetic”)

3. Irony

4. Romance

These terms require some clarification, though, since Frye doesn’t use them in the way most of us do in everyday conversation. I think the best way to explain these terms is with—surprise!—a story. And I realized while watching it with my roommates the other night that the movie Wedding Crashers provides some great examples of all four modes. So ask your ma to make you some meatloaf and check back for part two of this post!

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