A few weeks ago, in a moment of some haste, I sold all my bookshelves. Sleek, shiny, and black, they were from Ikea and had, given their age, survived fairly well.  In the course of several moves from Montréal to Toronto and back, they had been taken apart and put back together one too many times. I had had them since graduate school, but for some time now I have been hoping to upgrade to something sturdier, something made from real wood, something with a bit more shelf space. Yet so far I’ve only replaced one shelf, made here in Montréal from recycled pine. That means that I have about one thousand books lying on the floor in various places in our apartment. Most are stacked waist-high in the study. Aside from reminding me that I probably have too many books, this has encouraged me to read a few of them in the hopes of trimming my collection. It has also encouraged me to write about my reading, particularly in relation to some other writing I’m working on. And so here’s a short essay.


Why study literature? Northrop Frye tried to answer this ambitious question in his Massey Lectures, delivered almost 60 years ago, by sketching a picture of the world.[1] It derives from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In order to say something about language and the human imagination, Frye asks us to picture our condition as if we were alone on an island. By framing his answer in this way he was exemplifying a point he hoped to register repeatedly in his talks: in order to study literature, you must start with literature. In other words, thinking with Crusoe helps you and I as readers grasp something essential about the imagination. More needs to be said to fill this claim out, I would add, and Frye does elaborate. But by starting with a story of modern man isolated on an island, Frye cites a story that constructs social reality in a particular way. It takes as its axiom an individual man in something akin to the state of nature. The question I would ask Frye in response to this foundational premise is this: does it make sense to extend this modern way of looking at things to all times and places? Shouldn’t we probe Defoe’s social imaginary and see what connections it has to the story told?[2]

Frye’s conception of literary criticism, his attempt to say something about the scope of the human imagination and its relation to life, at least as expressed in these talks, begins by taking as given a way of looking at and living in the world that is contingent.[3] Quite obviously he aims to say something of universal significance about literature, but he starts from a dubious premise. It’s worth noting, too, that in asking this question about the point of studying literature, Frye offers by implication an account of literary criticism, an account of the role and purpose of the critic. But we can and should be more specific than he is. For Frye isn’t really answering the broad question of why we should study literature. There is no generic person for whom such a question demands an answer. The question is really much more specific, something along the lines of: what is the purpose of studying literature in Canada in 1963? Frye is speaking to an audience who, amongst other things, might be wondering about the relationship between literature and liberal democratic societies. And just to take this point a step further, I would add that even if Frye did have liberal democracies in mind as the backdrop for his talks, this still assumes that the primary community for which the question of literature provides an answer should be the nation-state. For those of us whose identity is rooted in another community, perhaps one that centres around a temple, a church, a mosque, or a gurdwara, the question of literature, if asked at all, will be framed quite differently.

As I noted, Frye starts his talks with a picture of the world as an individual like Crusoe might find it. This is an abstraction beloved in the modern world, one that Defoe might have found in philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, and is in many ways constitutive of liberal politics: a man isolated on an island with only the natural world around him. It also serves as a literary example of what Frye takes to be a basic fact about human beings. Namely, that we find ourselves set against an alien world, one in which we must find food, water, shelter, and companionship. This, he suggests, is the practical domain of human life to which a certain category of language corresponds. The others Frye discusses are the domains of application, which include the material arts and sciences, and that of imagination itself. Each level is an instantiation of language, as he sees it, and each level interpenetrates the other. We are meant to see clearly the human tendency to use language to connect the world we find with the world we make and imagine.

However, according to Frye there is an important difference between the applied arts and sciences and literature. If there is cumulative progress in former, there is no parallel development in the latter. Drama does not improve. Sophocles and Shakespeare will not be surpassed. If you stop and think about it for a second, to make this claim is to make a statement about what language is and does, in order to say what literature is and does. It turns out that this is Frye’s adumbrated statement about the nature of humanity—that the poles of human imagination are basically fixed and do not move—albeit one uttered in a tone invoking considered reasonableness and liberal-minded head-nodding. Frye has told us this story of our Crusoe-like condition because he ultimately believes that all understanding comes through stories. One story illuminates another. Stated in this fashion I don’t disagree, but in order to offer much insight it must be elaborated upon. To say that a work of literature is best understood in the context of all literature is to leave things altogether too vague and ambiguous. As Frye had himself made clear, one of the fundamental features of humanity is its social embodiment. Alongside food, water, and shelter, we exist with and for others. It is therefore puzzling why he does not think there is some interpretive connection between a society and its literature, not least in terms of a given society’s material, historical, and political conditions.

Although Frye thinks there is no progress in literature, he is of course aware of change. But such change as occurs, he says, does so because of the highly conventional nature of most human societies and their imaginative repertoire. Often the most popular stories are conventional ones. Successful writers like P. G. Woodhouse borrow liberally from previous stories by Plautus and Terrence. But according to Frye, convention is central to literature because the imaginative world consists of a grand interlocking network. The puzzle for the critic is to figure out what this meta-story is saying. Frye asserts that clues to the meaning of literature exist in the perennial features to which the imagination seems to return again and again.  He asks us to consider the fact that the rhythm and cycle of the natural world finds its way into many of the world’s stories, such as in the classical hero’s narrative arc. And he points to the theme of identity lost and regained that seems to be common to both ancient India (The Recognition of Shakuntala) and modern Ireland (the poetry of Yeats).

What, then, do these imaginative works of literature, with their supposedly perennial features, tell us? Frye uses Shakespeare as an example. Macbeth doesn’t teach us about medieval Scotland’s history, so much as what it is like to be a man who has gained a kingdom but lost his soul. On Frye’s reading, a specific work of literature would then be a particular embodiment of the existential dilemmas that all human beings face in different times and places. Missing from Frye’s account, though, is any consideration of the fact that Macbeth might be best read in light of its historical context (i.e. early modern England) rather than its fictional one (i.e. medieval Scotland). Yes, as Frye observes, a figure such as Homer’s Achilles isn’t so much a specific historical person as a combination of the forces and desires that make up our humanity. And the different techniques used in literature, employing symbol, illustration, allegory, allusions, do indeed invite us in to the imaginative world in order to reflect and reflect upon what we are. But even if we accept Frye’s way of reading stories, he has completely omitted the fact that the material and historical conditions in which stories are formed provides an essential dimension of their fullest interpretation. And this might then call for a historical and philosophical interpretation of the history of literature that calls into question his static picture of humanity’s imaginative capacities. Only by ignoring this fact does it seem possible for Frye to state, with a mixture of confidence and awe, that literature is a vast, puzzling, and interlocking monolith.

It is therefore unsurprising that Frye sticks with the literary from start to finish. At one point he even cautions against “reducing” literature to sociology. In these talks he goes out of his way, both in what he says and what he doesn’t say, to avoid an account of particular works of literature in terms of their contexts, be they material, historical, social, or political. Instead, by reflecting on the allegedly perennial features of literature he offers a different tonic for liberal democratic politics. As he sees it, critical reflection on literature will inevitably lead to tolerance. This supposedly follows from the fact that since every work of literature is a reflection of the human world, about the way it is imagined and manifested, the differences between those reflections will become more apparent as critical distance from any given instance of imagination is gained. And, without really saying how or why, Frye thinks it will be possible to see various human imaginings as equally plausible.

By bracketing the material, social, and political conditions of literature, then, Frye underlines what he sees as the strictly literary use of imaginative literature. For him literature abides by its own standards. And the experience to which the literary domain tends, he claims, moves towards two immovable poles: to the heights and to the depths—heaven and hell, you might say—of what human beings are able to conceive. The role of the critic is to interpret a particular work in light of all the literature she knows, for the purpose of trying to puzzle out what literature is about. And, rather conventionally, Frye thinks this requires a deep familiarity with the canonical literary repertoire, from the Bible and classical antiquity to modern poetry, as well as with all the technical features of literature (genre, figures, etc.). A good critic surveys the so-called western canon, and, as a critic, refrains from “reducing” its wisdom to its context. But this seems to negate one of Frye’s starting points in these talks, that the human imagination is interconnected to and constituted by the world we inhabit. Perhaps it will not do to think with Crusoe or Hobbes in seeing society as an agglomeration of individuals. To picture society in this new way demanded, in fact, new sources of legitimation. One such source was the emergence of modern criticism, the type propounded in eighteenth-century magazines such as The Spectator and The Tatler. With pardonable overgeneralization, I think we can say that such criticism took as its task the refinement of taste and the education of aesthetic judgment, which, in England at least, challenged political absolutism and justified a new social order.[4] Reading Frye in 2018, one gets the sense that his characterization of the human imagination as fundamentally static is in some way connected to a prescription about the best way to think about the human social order. Did he not think, consciously or otherwise, that the kind of criticism he engaged in supported modern liberal democracy, from his vantage point a salutary service given the dangers of authoritarianism at that time?

If it is the case that the whole of our social life is based on our imagination, then an “educated imagination,” according to Frye, is one which is alert to the vagaries of its offerings. Frye calls these “social mythologies.” The freedom to think in this way, to step back in critical distance, is not a freedom in the absence of constraint. And in this Frye is surely right, though I think this undermines one of his central points. As he notes in his talks, you are not free to walk unless you possess the motor skills and the basic agency required. To be free, he continues, is to be aware of the social mythologies that exist and to exert, in some fashion, a drive to change society towards a better ideal. Yes indeed. But how is his conception of both literature and human society as a static interlocking network not itself a social mythology? Does it not also demand to be investigated, analyzed, and criticized? And, what’s more, if realizing good human ideals is part of the function of the education provided by literature, then presumably coming to terms with the conditions in which literary works of imagination were created, amended, produced, etc., is an essential aspect of this aim. Frye gets things both wrong and right. Against his claim about the nature of man, literature, and imagination, but in keeping with his asserted connection between literature and social life, we could say that one important reason for studying literature is to elucidate the connection between the conditions of possibility that govern the human imagination with those that govern social life in this world. A challenging task, certainly. To many it might smack of a discredited Marxism. But that is a topic for another time. At the very least this way of picturing criticism is no more difficult than the task for which Frye set himself, the attempt to say what the human imagination, expressed in literature, is all about. The question, as usual, is which perspective provides a better explanation and greater understanding.


[1] The Educated Imagination, House of Anansi Press, 1963/1993.

[2] This isn’t the only question worth asking, by any means. For a literary exploration of this novel one might turn to another: J. M. Coetzee’s Foe, Viking Press, 1986.

[3] The other major work to be considered would be Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 1957.

[4] See, for instance, Lawrence Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England, Cambridge University Press, 1994.