In First Essay, Fry attempts through historical criticism to develop the theory of literary mode and elaborate on Aristotle’s theory. He establishes his argument based on two central categories including the fictional and thematic mode that on the one hand are opposed to each other and on the other hand are relevant. In the fictional mode, the internal characters are separated from the author and his audience while the thematic mode relates to literary works that are more author-audience-centric rather than engaging with characters; most lyrics and essays are produced based on this attitude. Based on Fry’s argument that “every work of literature has both a fictional and thematic aspect” (p.53), one can conclude that fictional and thematic modes are related to each other.
Fry classifies the fictional works based on the position of the hero on a spoudaios-phaulos range which, according to Aristotle, “may be greater than us, less, or roughly the same” (p. 33). Fry uses the relationship between the hero and other men and the natural environment in order to demonstrate the differences between modes. In this way, he creates five categories including myth, romance, high mimesis, low mimesis, and irony. In myth, the hero is superior in kind from other men and the natural environment; in romance, the hero is superior in degree to other men and to his environment; in high mimesis, the hero is superior in degree to other men but not superior to nature; in low mimesis, the hero is equivalent to other men and is not superior to his natural environment; and in Irony, the hero is inferior to other men (p.33-34). Furthermore, the association of the hero to his society produces additional differences between fictional tragic and comic modes. In First Essay, tragic refers to stories involving the death, isolation or fall of the hero and comic refers to those where the hero is sort of joined to the society. Fry uses a similar pattern for both comic and tragic fictional modes; for example, the death of god that in mythical tragedy is called Dionysiac changes to Apollonian, or the elegiac in romantic tragedy turns into idyllic in romantic comedy.
In his essay, Fry dedicates more space to elaborating how ironic comedy invokes the nature of the society’s enemy to differentiate three forms of ironic comedy including melodrama, the parody of melodrama, and the comedy of manners. According to Fry, these three kinds of irony are discriminated based on the audience’s response and how the audience responds to the various associations between the ironic hero and his society. The final mode that Fry discusses in his first essay is thematic modes which are related to the “fallacy of existential projection”. He refers to thematic works as dianoia, Aristotle’s term which he translates as “theme”. As I mentioned, Fry defines the thematic modes in relation to the fictional mode even though they oppose each other. Fry considers thematic modes as an external fiction which refers to the central ethical relationship between the author and his audience or his society. He points out the relationship between fictional modes and literary forms such as the novel, epic, and play, and also between thematic modes, lyrics and essays. While all literary works have both fictional and thematic aspects, Fry attempts to answer how we can determine which aspect is more important and says that this “is often simply a matter of opinion or emphasis in interpretation” (p.53). Furthermore, Fry invokes a similar pattern of fictional mode to analyze the thematic mode. For example, he sees a connection between the tragic and comic features of fictional modes and the episodic and encyclopedic features of thematic modes.
To sum up, in First Essay, Fry attempts to introduce the basic modes, and further direct his audience to the other classifications such as tragedy and comedy which are all exemplified with references to various literary texts. I think is necessary for a reader to be familiar with these references in order to take advantage of Fry’s theory in literary criticism. By relying on his theory, we can see a kind of historical criticism where he suggests that the five literacy modes are paralleled with the five epochs of Greco-Roman and Western writing. For example, he argues that there is a connection between myth and pre-medieval works and between romance and literature from the middle ages; the continuity of this relationship leads to the development in the literature that starts with the hero as a god and ends with him as lower to us. Similarly, the high-mimetic is the result of the development of the Renaissance, the low-memetic of the nineteenth century, and the irony of the twentieth century.