by Tim Gillespie
Lake Oswego High School
Lake Oswego, Oregon
Following the Ideas of Northrop Frye
In response to the common -- and often justifiable -- lament of students that the literature they read in high school seems generally so depressing, I center my AP English Literature curriculum in part around the ideas of Northrop Frye, whose seasonal scheme of literary archetypes communicates the wisdom that we need many kinds of stories to understand the human condition.
At the start of school, when we're still basking in the waning days of summer, my students study the romance, using that word in its medieval sense as the traditional story of hope, heroism, and happy endings. We start by reading some old Arthurian chestnuts like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then some updates like the Wife of Bath's Tale or sections from Idylls of the King or The Once and Future King. Together we conjure up contemporary examples of this heroic archetype that end in sunshine and celebration, from Star Wars to most every Disney film. Since many coming-of-age novels loosely fit the romantic quest archetype, I usually finish our first quarter with a novel (Pride and Prejudice, Animal Dreams, Siddhartha) that students can read in the light of this near-universal story pattern of a protagonist facing great obstacles and overcoming them, leaving readers inspired and hopeful.
In the late fall, we study what Frye calls the story of the fall: tragedy. We start by reading Aristotle's Poetics, then we follow with two or three works, old mixed with new, chosen from a list including Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Hamlet, Macbeth, Things Fall Apart, and Death of a Salesman. As autumn foretells the death of winter yet nonetheless offers us great beauty as well as opportunity for thanksgiving, I try to convince my students that tragedy is not merely morbid or depressing but a cornerstone of our wisdom. Tragic heroes usually gain a kind of grace or self-knowledge in their loss, and tragedy reminds us of our hard-won human understandings about the vagaries of fate, the inextricability of our gifts and our flaws, and the ways our capacity for sorrow may ennoble us.
Deepest winter is reserved for the wintriest literary form: irony. This is, I think, the literature students can most fairly complain is downbeat, because it is the literature of grim realism and human disappointment. Plenty of book choices present themselves: 1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, All Quiet on the Western Front, Heart of Darkness, Nadine Gordimer's July's People, and so on. We work in class to distinguish the beauty and nobility of suffering that can be found in a classic tragedy from the more dismal dose of bleak realism that characterizes literary irony. And we consider what human needs irony meets, how this archetypal story toughens us up much as a hard winter does.
In the transition of mud season, we study satire, irony's first cousin. These two related genres -- irony and satire -- share a pessimistic attitude about human folly, but satirists, using humor as their critical weapon, offer at least the faint hope or cry for some change of conditions. At this time of the year, my students can read The Emperor's New Clothes, A Modest Proposal, Gulliver's Travels, and lots of contemporary political and social satire.
Finally, when the trees start to bud and spring is in the air, we cycle into comedy, the genre of perspective, in which we recognize the follies of humankind but also the healing medicine of laughter. Unlike satire, comedy asks us not to laugh at another but at ourselves. The comic hero may be foolish and ridiculous, much like us, but will nonetheless prevail, improbably and wittily. My class can choose from among plenty of works, Shakespearean comedies to Cyrano, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest to Charlie Chaplin's film The Gold Rush. For seniors in the late spring, performing a comic play in class and having some laughs seems just right!
There are many useful and effective ways to organize curriculum, of course, and I may do something entirely different next year, but at the moment I like using Frye's seasonal framework of literary archetypes because it counters the student complaint that "great literature is all so depressing." This cycle of stories shows that great literature captures the whole range of human experience, which includes the blue, the bleak, and the tragic but also the hopeful, the heroic, the hilarious, and all the other many dimensions of our condition.
Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye (1957, Princeton University Press)
Literature: Uses of the Imagination, W. T. Jewkes, ed. (1972, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)
Tim Gillespie teaches English, AP English, and interdisciplinary studies at Lake Oswego High School, just south of Portland, Oregon. A past president of the Oregon Council of Teachers of English and co-director of the National Writing Project site at Lewis & Clark College, Tim has written more than 50 articles over the years for publications such as English Journal, Language Arts, and Teacher Research magazine. In 1995 he won the NCTE's Paul and Kate Farmer Award for outstanding article by a teacher in English Journal for his piece "Why Literature Matters."