Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Absurd Imagination: Northrop Frye and Waiting for Godot

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Absurd Imagination: Northrop Frye and Waiting for Godot

Article excerpt

THE CANADIAN ENCYCLOPAEDIA entry for Northrop Frye, written by his biographer John Ayre, refers to Frye's belief "that there is in human culture an inherent impulse towards affirming the sunnier vision." This essentially optimistic outlook is manifest throughout Frye's work and informs his preference for the genres of romance and comedy over tragedy and irony. Hence it is something of a surprise to see that in the body of works annotated by Frye and held in the Victoria University Library Special Collection at the University of Toronto there are a significant number of works by Samuel Beckett, whose absurdist prose and drama sit uncomfortably alongside the sort of literature that Frye normally preferred. The collection is large, as one might expect of such an extensive reader and erudite scholar as Frye. It contains an eclectic range of theoretical and philosophical texts and essays from a variety of historical contexts and cultures. However, in terms of literary texts, relatively few of these come from the twentieth century. These few attest to Frye's often commented on preference for literature of the classical, medieval, Renaissance, and Romantic periods. Nevertheless, Frye wrote extensively on contemporary literature, these writings most frequently taking the form of book reviews. Frye, whose sense of duty made it almost impossible for him to turn down any request for his expertise, acted "as a reviewer of more than three hundred books over the course of twenty-five years" (Denham viii).

Northrop Frye on Twentieth-Century Literature, edited by Glen Robert Gill, consists of essays and reviews which show that, although he had a great deal to say about the literature of the twentieth century, Frye's preferred authors of that era were those modernists who could be read as continuing in the Romantic tradition. Gill's introduction describes Frye's reading of T. S. Eliot's anti-Semitic After Strange Gods as "the moment when Frye committed himself to moderating the priorities of modernism through Romantic humanism" (xxix). To attain spiritual, personal, and ethical transformation, Frye put his faith in the powers of the imagination, and it is this force that Frye felt was missing from most modernist writing. Gill says "the preponderance of ironic (or what Frye often calls 'demonic') symbolism in modern literature was obviously a consequence of its suspicion if not dismissal of the imagination" (xxxvii). Frye himself has said, in his essay "The Road of Excess," that "since the Romantic movement, there has been a more conservative tendency to deprecate the central place it gave to the creative imagination" (172).

The only substantial piece on Beckett published by Frye is "The Nightmare Life in Death," his review of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable: Three Novels, published by the Hudson Review in i960. Frye regularly contributed to the Hudson Review in a relationship with the journal dating from 1951 to i960. Taking on the job of reviewing Beckett may well have moved Frye outside of his comfort zone, although the review article shows his clear admiration for Beckett. Gill points out how in his reviews for the Canadian Forum and the Hudson Review, "Frye welcomes modernism's ironizing and conventionalizing efforts even as he recognises the Romantic concerns many of its practitioners neglect" (xxxviii). Although Beckett is not an author one associates readily with Frye, he does mention Beckett from time to time outside his paper for the Hudson Review. For example, in The Educated Imagination, Frye, discussing the evolution of literary styles, says "the gods and heroes of the old myths fade away and give place to people like ourselves. In Shakespeare we can still have heroes who can see ghosts and talk in magnificent poetry, but by the time we get to Beckett's Waiting for Godot they're speaking prose and have turned into ghosts themselves" (56). Similarly, in The Modern Century, Frye discusses the way that in some historical periods the novel predominates while in others it is drama that is the ascendant fictional form. …

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