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Northrop Frye Theories on Literature Essay

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Updated: May 25th, 2020

Northrop Frye is man who proposed several theories in the study of literature. In analysing the Bible as a book of literature, he showed different themes of typology, identity, metaphors, parallelism, symbolism and allegory. All these are concepts in most forms of literature. He believed that the Bible was like any other book of literature which had become part of history yet its origin was a myth.


Typology is described by Frye as being a figure of speech moving in time. It occurs where there is an antitype in the present which is a type of event that existed in the past. It is a theory that states that events in history have a meaning and an event in the future will cause people to understand the event in the past.

It is also the belief that the things that occur now will achieve an objective and have a meaning. Frye points out that this is as a belief system that has its origins in the Bible. Typology in the Bible moves both in the past and in the future.

Frye says “Everything that happens in the Old Testament is a type or adumbration of something that happens in the New Testament” (167). In expressing this concept, Frye shows that the Bible is essentially sealed (Woodman, 1997).

Paul in the book of Romans says that Adam was a typology of Christ and that Christian baptism in the New Testament is represented by the salvation of mankind in the flood of Noah (Frye, 1981, pg 167). In history, Frye observes that the prophesies of Marx and Engels are fulfilled In the Bolshevist revolution organized by Lenin.

The whole Bible has a chronology of types and antitypes. Frye sees the Bible as a series of several ups and downs. There is the sin of man followed by the redemption of man. Furthermore Frye says that the Exodus is indeed the last thing that happens in the Old Testament (Withrow, 2009).

The Bible has a U-Shaped plot. It starts with the harmonious state of man in Genesis then the disintegration of this harmonious state, In the middle of the plot, there are chaos, disasters and victories (Jackson, 2003). The world goes back to the harmonious state at the end of the book in Revelation. This U-Shaped plot also exists in the specific books of the Bible such as Judges, Kings and Job.

Each story within the Bible acts as a type of the other stories and the overall Bible story. Jackson says of Frye that “One of his theories holds that literature exists as a whole and not just a collection of individual stories.”(2003).The theme repetition in the book works to create a sense of De javu and premonition.

There are common typologies in the Bible expressed by aspects such as the sheep, the shepherd, the tree, the garden and the ocean. (Marx, 1994) It shows the events in the stories have great significance and they represent other events in the past and future.

Furthermore Marx says “repetitions of plot and image tie the many books of the Bible together, and also create a sense of deja vu and premonition, hinting that discreet events have some greater symbolic significance, that they are both themselves and not themselves, that time may be an illusion”(1994).

There is great symbolism between Moses and Christ which Frye examines in his book. Moses is the parallel of Christ and Frye examines the many similarities in the two men’s life. Moses delivered the people of Israel from Pharaoh and Jesus has come to bring about the deliverance of mankind. The Bible presents itself to the reader with the suggestion that it should be read as having typologies and metaphors of other events in the Bible.

Frye insists that the typology does not exist in the Bible alone. It also exists in other works. Despite Judaism not having the New Testament there is typology in the Old Testament. There are events that occur in the Old Testament that are a type of the events that occur later in the Old Testament.

During the Exodus, Aaron makes a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. There is a typology for this event later in the history of Israel when the Kings set up golden calves all over the country for the people to worship.

The worship of gods and idols by the Canaanites is a type of which the Bible is an antitype. The Bible is different as it advocates for the worship of the true God. Another example of typology is shown by the phases of society growth.

The social society begins with the local gods then progresses to regional gods. As the tribes grow to become nations, leaders emerge who begin to see themselves as the rulers of this world. This is a type with the Biblical concepts as an antitype since the Bible advocates for monotheism with God as the only ruler.

In looking at leaders, the Bible says that a certain leader is not bad but the one who arises after may be evil. The current leader is the antitype of which another will be the type. In the Old Testament, the Pharaoh at that time welcomed Israel into Egypt, however later there arose a king whose mission in life was to destroy the Jews. In the Old Testament, King Cyrus and Darius are deeply respected however their

descendent Xerxes in the book of Esther is almost convinced by the cruel Haman to endorse a project that will extinguish the Jews. In history there is Alexander the great, who Josephus welcomes into Jerusalem. However his lineage produced Antiochus Epiphanies who really persecuted the Jews mercilessly.

The Old Testament predicts the future speaking of the emergence of an antichrist. Paul in Thessalonians, speaks of the antichrist saying “The son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God” The antichrist is totally against God and all that He represents.

He is the type of the antichrists that have already existed. In history the Jews were outraged against Antiochus Epiphanies who desecrated the temple of God and dedicated it to his god, Zeus. This act of desecrating the temple was worse than his act of persecuting the Jews.

The description of the antichrist that Paul uses has been derived from the book of Daniel. Daniel speaks of the abomination at the temple when he prophesies of the end times. The typology in the bible extends to the future. The book of Revelation prophesies what will happen to the world and the church in the future.


This is where a story finds a deeper meaning through the interpretation or translation of a concept or argument. The Bible has several examples of allegory. In totality, the prophets of the Old Testament spoke of the coming of the Messiah. They also spoke of the Laws of the Old Testament being no longer binding or legalistic.

Rather there were the allegories of the spiritual truths of the Bible. In the book, The Pilgrim’s progress this concept is illustrated where Faithful deeply explores the Law on the animal the Israelites was not supposed to eat. He notes that the beast that Moses described as clean had hoofs that were parted and it chewed cud.

To chew the cud was a metaphor for seeking knowledge while parting the hoof meant that a person had left the path of sinners. The animal was to possess both physical qualities, not one alone. Christian, a character in the book acknowledges that he should indeed know the gospel meanings of the text.

In Genesis 4:24 Paul uses allegory in talking of Abraham’s two wives and how they represent truths in the gospel of God.

Woodman highlights another example by saying “Frye illustrates the metaphorical reality of the Bible by arguing that when Jesus says “I am the door” (John 10:9)—another translation is “the gate”—there are “no doors outside the verse to be pointed to” (Great Code 61)”(1997). Jesus uses the object door and gate to show the spiritual truth he is the way to the father.


There is another aspect that Frye explores in the Bible. He notes that there is the concept of identity in literature. Frye believed that literature was a metaphor, a mirror image of something else. It was an identity of what humans did.

He compares the Bible to different aspects of the western culture and the way of life. The Old Testament focus was on the Nation of Israel while the focus of the New Testament was on the person Jesus Christ.

Frye notes that even before we are born or start to exist we are identified with something. An example of identity is the way a king represents his people yet he is an individual. Queen Elizabeth draws crowds because she represents the people and country of England. That is what is remarkable about her. It is not anything in particular

about her individuality or persona. In today’s world, most countries believe they have done away with the monarchy system however they forget while speaking of countries and charismatic leaders. The people of a country will still be identified with the names of their countries or their leaders. The news broadcasters always speak of what Japan, Mexico or Japan has done.

The news is given as if the three countries are individual persons. As much as people do not want have the royalty system in their country, it still keeps coming out. For example In the World War 1 and 2, a news broadcaster or political leader would say “Mussolini has attacked a country” or “Hitler is advancing towards Poland”.

These two individuals were not doing the actions rather it was the soldiers of these countries yet the leaders represented the people. Frye shows the way this identity concept is expressed in the Bible. When the king of Israel or Judah was captured he represented the destruction of the whole country.

There are two incidences to illustrate this. When Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem and captured Zedekiah, Jeremiah in lamentations 4:20 notes that “The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord, was taken in their pits, of whom we said, under his shadow we shall live among the heathen”.

The first phrase is interesting in that it speaks of the breath of our nostrils. It is Zedekiah who is captured yet his breath represents the breath of the people. The king therefore represents his people. His body is actually the people. The second example that Frye gives is of the suffering servant described in the book of Isaiah” He is despised and

rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not”. The people who rejected him and despised him are the nation of Israel regardless of the fact it was just a few of them.

The ones who actually did the act represented the rest of the people. An interesting identity concept that Frye observes in the Old Testament is that while tracing the lineage of Jesus Christ, the apostles say that Joseph was the father of Christ yet Jacob was the father. Jacob is identified with his ancestor, Joseph.


Another concept is parallelism. Jesus was the king of the world but “not of this world”. In the physical world, there was the king of the Jews, Herod with whom Jesus had great conflict. Yet Jesus was a servant who chose to identify himself with the least. Frye notes the irony of the situation, something hard to grasp, a king and a servant at the same time. Frye notices that myths and cults all have concepts that are biblical.

Even cults that existed before the biblical times are noted to have biblical themes. There has arisen an ideology in people that there is nothing in the world that does not have parallel themes with the bible.

Furthermore there is no concept in the Bible that cannot be found in everyday life. In the world there exists imagery and symbolism which are the foundations of Frye arguments on literature. Another parallel in the bible is the way that Paul says that the powers of the world are given authority by God.

This is shown by trial scene in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. There is a show of good, peace and justice showing the gods, man and nature. The gods endorse the vision of justice. If they had not endorsed the vision, the world would be plain, man interacting with nature alone. However the gods choose to be involved in the men’s world. In the Bible there is a social contract between the people and their God. The Bible is a story of this relationship.


Northrop’s approach in studying the Bible highlights quite a few concepts in a new light. His concepts on literature have taught many to approach the Bible as book of literature. Withrow says that “Frye’s examination of the Bible’s inner, literary logic and its connection to Western literature and culture makes this volume a fascinating read”(1997)The reader is able to fully comprehend what he is saying.

He has illustrated great examples from the Bible to further drive his point across. He keeps showing the symbolism and imagery in the book, navigating to the Old Testament and back to the New Testament in order to get his point across.

He moves to Genesis, the history books then to what Paul says in the Epistles and Revelation. It is quite an interesting analysis. He also ties the themes in the Bible with the greatest literary works in history showing that the Bible can be approached as a work of literature.

When one approaches the book from the literature angle they see so many other similarities with other literary works proving that all literature is about identity, typology, imagery and metaphors. Indeed this is the great code of literature. The Bible is a story like any other story that has been whispered, told or published.

Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. “The Great Code: The Bible and Literature”. Grand Street, Vol. 1, 1(1981) : pg. 158-183. Web.

Jackson, Paul. “” 2003. Web.

Marx, Stevens. “”. 1994. Web.

Withrow, Brandon. “.” The Discarded Image, 2009. Web.

Woodman, Ross. “Metaphor and the Language of Revelation”1997. Web.

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