In this article, I write about Northrop Frye’s theory of myths and archetypes, specifically comedy, using my manuscript of Alice and Finch as a comparison and example. It may contain spoilers, but nothing I thing would ruin the experience of reading the novel.
Nine months ago, I powered through the first chapter of a three-part short story series. (I’m not sure what it is I have with short story series’.) That series is what later became the “Dawn” section of Alice and Finch. It was a very strong trilogy compared to my other work, and it eventually spawned my current best piece of writing, Inck. But then, three months later in late July, I finally finished the first draft of the novel. After that, I started tying up loose ends with a few epilogues, and I also realized major a flaw. As I looked back, I realized that I hadn’t really finished the story properly.
According to Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye, “The theme of the comic is the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it” (Frye). The integration can be broken down into individual, family, and society. I’m not so sure that I succeeded in this regard, but I think I made a good effort. In fact, in my own epilogue for Ilias, I somehow managed to subconsciously notice my own mistakes! Here’s a clipping with a limit on spoilers: Ilias came up with something of “… a solution neither Finch nor Alexandre had thought of …” (Triumph). This is an example of one of the many loose ends that I want to tie up; not in the band-aid epilogues, but in the actual story.
Connections to Northrop Frye’s, “The Anatomy of Criticism, Third Essay: Archetypal Criticism”
Northrop Frye is pretty cool. As far as I know, he took Aristotle’s theory of Comedy and Tragedy and expanded on it. I’m currently taking a Greek Literature course and, apparently almost all ancient Novels were… romance novels. Specifically, in the category of Greek Comedy. Here’s a few things that I accidentally stumbled on that qualify my Alice and Finch as an almost-archetypal comedy.
I’ll take this opportunity to clarify what the Greeks, and Frye, and a lot of current literary scholars mean when they say comedy. The “comedy” has an arc in which things start off pretty good, then they get worse and worse, and then tehy improve by the end. They usually conclude with a party or a marriage, or both. Like a U shape. That’s a comic arc, and we’ve know about it for more than two millennia. (That’s a cool word to actually be able to use.) The comic struction is incredibly common in books and movies to this date. It’s no surprise that Alice and Finch uses it, even if it is by accident. If it has a happy ending, it’s a comedy. If it has a sad one, it’s a tragedy. Pretty simple, right?
Next is the character types he talks about. There are four types of characters in the comic plot, but two of them are mostly used in drama to play to the audience, so I’m leaving those ones out. The two main types are the eiron and the alazon. Eiron characters are helpful characters, protagonists, sidekicks, and other “self-deprecating” allies, as Frye puts it. Self-deprecating in this context essentially means is that they recognise, somehow, that the main character is “more important” than they are, and are very much okay with helping them sometimes even to their own detriment. Alazons are unhelpful characters. Not necessarily antagonists, but I’ll get to that after. Alazon characters are, essentially, anyone who gets in the way of the main characters getting together and having their happy ending.
I’ve also noticed that in these ancient Greek novels, the title is often the names of the two main characters. Chaereas and Callirhoe, Daphnis and Chloe, Leucippe and Clitophon, Metiochus and Parthenope, Alice and Finch… interesting.
My Characters, and some Deviations from Archetypes
Let’s make a chart.
*Anything with a star indicates a deviation to the archetype.
Alice and Finch. According to Frye, the protagonist eiron characters tend to be bland, and not that unique. I would argue that Finch and Alice are fairly unique and interesting; they have specific interests and goals, and unique personalities. Finch might be too prodigal for his own good, but at least he’s not a creative genius on top of it all. Alice came from the sky, is an outside, almost unheard of race, and she’s upbeat and excitable. You might argue that she’s too feminine, but she’s got an almost militant optimism, and immense physical strength due to her ancestry. Actually, she also struggles learning in class, which is a more masculine issue. What I’m arguing, is that I’ve failed to have bland eiron protagonists to fit the Greek standard. I’m okay with that.
Jutt. Jutt falls into the sidekick category quite nicely, in fact, almost perfectly. She helps Finch out, and is the one he talks to about his problems. And, she’s also self-deprecating. Although, her “self-deprecation” is due less to comic structure, and more to the fact that she’s resigned to her own life and future. I’m hoping to write her story, but… it’s really difficult. I’ve already failed twice.
Artus. Artus doesn’t start off as a sidekick, but you could make a case that he becomes one as the two join the guard and train together. Also, I’ll note here that it’s more common for male protagonists to have sidekicks than females. (Although An Ephesian Tale reverses this.) Before that Artus is Finch’s best friend, so that’s something.
Chloe. Okay, so Chloe is a clear eiron / helping character. She’s not really self-deprecating, but she does take time out of her… not that busy day to teach Finch. And I maybe some other people too, but I can’t remember if I actually wrote that in.
Jithin and Oritha. These two are the clear helping characters for Alice. Not much to say about it. You could argue that they’re self-deprecating; Jithin actually goes through the resources and cost of housing and feeding Alice, and the Plainkind are nearly obligate carnivores, so that’s no joke. Oritha takes the effort to teach Alice too.
Ilias. Finch’s father Ilias is almost entirely archetypal in his comic role. He’s the “angry father figure that gets in the way of the lovers” type character. I think the big difference is that he’s not really getting in the way because he doesn’t want them to be married. It’s more… paranoia, or closed mindedness. Also, he seems to have his own character arc for some reason. I’m not sure how I managed that.
Jutt. Might as well talk about Jutt here. So, in the current draft of the story Jutt is hinted as being a romantic rival for Finch. It is a little weird, seeing as they’re cousins, and neither are all that interested. (You could argue that as recently as the nineteenth century cousins were still marrying. Although, that’s an anecdote based on a reading of The Moonstone, where cousins are essentially competing with each other for the hand of… a third cousin.) Anyway, I’m not really sure if I’m going to leave this loose interaction in later drafts. It was put in as a tension device, but I might be able to do better. We’ll see once I hit the planning phase.
Guard and the Captain. “The Guard” is one of many people who want Alice out of the city because she’s different. He, with the help of his grouchy Captain, are the ones who conspire to get her arrested and locked away, and are the catalyst for Alice’s self-imposed exile. Very standard Alazon “blocking character” activity here. Although, again, like with Ilias, it isn’t about stopping a marriage. In fact, these two may be more unorthodox in regards to archetypes than I realize.
I’ll explain. See, generally the people who cause the pair of comic lovers to split up or leave their home are pirates! They’ll generally capture the woman, or both the man and the woman, and sell them as slaves. Pirates are a double representation of chaos, as far as I can tell. They are outside of the standard system, and they live on the ocean. That’s two chaotic things. So I’m not sure what it means that the blocking characters in Alice and Finch are part of the society already. Maybe it’s another element of the “flawed society that needs to be mended at the end” as Frye might put it. The guards are a reprisentation of the corrupt parts of the society that need to be fixed or removed for the final reintegration. (Although, I guess Diesel and her gang are decent stand-ins for pirates.)
The separation of the two main characters in a Comic plot is pretty much mandatory, so I guess I checked that box.
What else. Okay, there should be a flaw at the personal, familial, and societal levels. Anything wrong with Finch? Not really, outside of the fact that he’s incapable of helping Alice. And, he’s insufficient as a child when it comes to that task, so he could use some improvement. What about Alice? Well, I’m coming to the conclusion that I need to explore Alice a little more. Right now, there isn’t much wrong with her, outside the fact that she is a slow learner. (Ha! Mary Sue has been closley avoided! Really, this is the one weakness of the Plainkind. They’re just so much better at so many things haha.)
How about his family? Well Ilias is a blocking character, so yes. How about society? Well, this is a society that is discriminatory, and the court and guards are conspiring together, so it’s definitely flawed, as I discussed above.
The Reintegration and the Antagonists
I’ll go through the three levels again.
Individual level? Well, both Alice and Finch improve immensely by the end of the novel. Finch becomes a high-ranking guard, and Alice gets educated and becomes something of a local hero. So, everyone’s pulling their weight. Familial level? Well, in the epilogue anyway, (and this needs to be moved into the actual text) Ilias drops the charges, so there’s the integration of the family. Jutt… well, she actually gets a tragic ending as far as this draft is concerned. It’s meant to set her up for a sequel, and really, this isn’t the place for her story anyway. Poor Jutt :/ .
Society? Definitely. The corrupt Captain character gets replaced, or retires or something. And, there is a sort of party! They destroy the church of Conflict… as weird as that sounds. It actually might be accidentally symbolic, the conflict is over and the main characters are now able to live “happily ever after.” (I’ll tell you a secret; marriage has its own difficulties.)
Conclusion of Frye’s Theory
So, Alice and Finch checks enough boxes to be engaging and recognisable as an archetypal Comedy, but it’s unique enough to be its own thing. And, some of the uniqueness actually helps the overall message. At least, that’s what I, the author, would like to think.
I’ll add that the major deviation I’ve made is that the main characters start off as children, and grow into young adults by the end. This must be what changes the motivations of the alazon characters from breaking up a romance, to getting rid of Alice.
Themes and Sub-Themes
This is getting rather long, so I’ll keep my discussion of themes limited for now. So far, here are the themes that I could recognise from editing the first three chapters.
- Sacrificing the Present for the Future
- Growing up
This may have been my primal or logical brain subconsciously directing my work, but Alice and Finch are young, and they’re constantly being educated. Finch is taught by his father, and then Prince Chloe (somehow), whereas Alice is taught by Finch, and then Oritha. I’m not sure to what effect this education leads, but I think it’s necessary, normal, and relatable for children to be educated, so don’t expect it to be edited out.
Sacrificing the present for the future. This is one of the most powerful messages in human history, as far as I can tell. People who retire rich generally do so by saving. That is, sacrificing current wealth for future gain. It’s investing; investing in your future. So, the point of sacrifice actually connects to the other theme of education. The big, obvious sacrifice, of course, is Finch’s. He derails his future of higher education in order to become a guard and help Alice. That’s real commitment. Does Alice do anything back? Has she suffered enough already? I’m not sure, I’ll have to look into that in the next draft.
Finally, and this might be the biggest sub-theme, there’s outsiders. I was reading this and I couldn’t believe all the wierdos I’d put in my story! Alice is obviously an unusual creature, as a Plainkind. Finch is also a minority, being a Riley instead of a Solune. The only majority child is Artus, and he’s regrettably average.
As for a major theme, I think it’s obviously the Comic plot; getting the two main characters back together by the end, and reintegrating them with society.
Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton University Press, 2000.
*Specifically, essay three, heading, “The Mythos of Spring: Comedy“)
(Accessed at: https://northropfrye-theanatomyofcriticism.blogspot.ca. Thank you, blogger, whoever you are, for sticking your neck out to give us access to Northrop Frye. If this link is down, it’s because copyrights have caught up with it. This text can be found in certain libraries.)