Dubois on Frye

  • Diane Dubois
    Northrop Frye in Context. Cambridge Scholars (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Diane Dubois begins Northrop Frye in Context with The Ideas of Northrop Frye, consisting of three sub-sections—Frye’s Critical Utopia, Frye’s Critical Path, and Frye’s Educational Contract—and taken as a whole, the section represents a fine articulation of Frye’s literary theory, how it relates to society, and the nature of the role of education in society. It is followed by Frye’s ideas about the university, the church, the poetry of William Blake, politics, and Canada, and the study is concluded with a consideration of Frye’s Academic Influences.

The book is not located within the field of Frye scholarship, and so exactly what kind of contribution the author wishes it to represent is left inadequately defined. I would argue that this study of Frye must be evaluated as two books in one dust jacket, owing to the fact that the account of context thins out to a considerable degree in various sections. The first book is a Frye primer, focused on his ideas and comprising a fair amount of summary of his work. The second is something more like a study dedicated to Frye’s Contexts, religious, political, and so on.

The study is particularly vulnerable to criticism when the account of context thins out, and the study begins to seem more like a Frye handbook; conversely, it is at its best when a great deal of information about one of Frye’s foci is provided. When context thins out, we are left with yet another summary of Frye’s ideas. Moreover, crucial ideas are left out, the synopses revealing too many gaps. There is no consideration, for example, of Frye’s seminal Trends in Modern Culture in the section on Frye’s politics. It is, however, impossible to provide an account of Frye’s political attitude—the focus should be his Cold War-period outlook—without reference to the one essay in which he provided a comprehensive account of how the American continent might evolve politically and economically at this time and thereby avoid the horrible prospect of hot war. Similarly, not enough of Frye’s writings on Blake are included in the chapter on Frye and Blake. The University of Toronto Press published Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake in 2005, a volume collecting everything that Frye wrote about Blake in addition to Fearful Symmetry, but the volume is not included in the bibliography, and key articles are left out of the discussion.

In this respect, the book should be compared to Jonathan Hart’s The Theoretical Imagination. What distinguishes Dubois’ account of Frye from Hart’s is mainly her chapters on Frye on the church, on politics, and on Canada. However, the reader who opts for Dubois misses out on Hart’s chapters on The Great Code, History, Mythology and Criticism, and his material about Frye’s creative writing.

In as much as the work is dedicated to context, it provides us with useful information about particular areas of Frye’s thought. The most interesting material is included in Frye and the Church, Frye and Politics, Frye and Canada, and Frye’s Academic Influences. For example, in Frye and Canada, Dubois concludes her survey with an illuminating comparison of Frye’s theories of culture, community and communication with the works of Canadian communication theorists Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and George Grant. In Frye and the Church, she usefully harnesses Tibor Fabiny’s notion that Frye is a typological theorist, which allows her to respond to Terry Eagleton’s misrepresentation of Frye. And so on. In this respect, the study is of more interest to the Frye scholar, although, as already indicated, the study does not include enough material of this type.

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