Northrop Frye

(Header Image via the Toronto Star)

Written By: Ethelle White

Northrop Frye was a graduate of Victoria College, a literary critic, a university professor, an author, and an editor who was associated with Victoria College almost continually until his death in 1991. His works, including Fearful Symmetry (1947), Anatomy of Criticism (1957) and The Great Code (1982) earned him a place in the annals of Canadian history as one of the most respected intellectuals of his time.


Frye during his time at U of T (1929-1933)

Born on the 14th of July, 1912 in Sherbrooke Quebec, to Herman Edward Frye and Catherine Maud Howard, Herman Northrop Frye was raised in Moncton, New Brunswick, as an evangelical Methodist. As a teenager, Frye served as his church youth group’s “Devotional President,” and religion would continue to play a significant role throughout his life.

Northrop Frye entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto in 1929, and graduated in 1933 in the Honours course in Philosophy and English. In a letter to one of Frye’s cousins, in September of 1929, Frye’s mother describes his first experiences at U of T: “Northrop went to Toronto…he had arrived Thursday night and met a few of the men [other students] and liked them…Friday was to be a great day…the Freshman were to spend the day together [meet] the faculty…and get acquainted with each other…” If perhaps a bit quaint compared to “Frosh Week” today, Frye’s first experiences of the University of Toronto were, as for a student today, about acclimating himself to his new surroundings. He lived at Charles House (with “about 100 other men”), ate at Burwash Hall, and by all accounts, his mother felt that he was having a “really great time.”

Northrop (or “Norrie,” as he was known to his classmates) quickly became an active member of the Victoria College community. In U of T’s yearbook, “Torontonensis,” for the year of his graduation in 1933 he is listed as being involved in Vic Dramatics, Vic Debate Club, Acta Victoriana Staff, Burwash Committee, Year Executive, and as having an interest in music. So involved was Frye that in January of his third year (1932), his mother relates to his cousin that he “had a bit of a breakdown or slump…he was interested in too many clubs and such and got behind in his legitimate work. He had to resign from several interests and then found he could not settle his mind-that is concentrate on his philosophy as he should.” Like students today, Frye struggled with striking a balance between social life and school work, and at times felt overwhelmed.

However, this so called “slump” was out of character for Frye, and did not register on his academic record. For every year of his degree Frye came first in his class, and he won a variety of awards, including The E.J. Sanford Gold Medal in Philosophy and the Reginald Heber Manning Jolliffe Gold Medal in English in his final year. In his third year Frye won an essay contest for an essay written on the nature of “Eccentricity,” in which he divided “eccentrics” (painters, poets, musicians and other artists) and their work in categories and sub-categories. The then chancellor of Victoria College wanted to publish the essay in Acta Victoriana, but, according to Frye’s mother, “Northrop thinks he cannot do that as he had coined too many words and he could not use the context without explaining too much.”


Northrop Frye’s Victoria College graduation photo (1933)

After graduating from Victoria College, Northrop Frye went on to complete a theological course at Emmanuel College, and was ordained in the United Church of Canada in 1936. He then received an M.A. at Merton College, Oxford, and started as a professor back at Victoria College in 1939.

An examination of Northrop Frye’s time at U of T reveals a picture of student experience both different and similar to that of students today. His time at U of T significantly shaped his path in life. Frye felt such a sense of connection to the school, that he was both student and professor there, and even served as chancellor of Victoria College from 1978, until his death in 1991.


Correspondence Files, Northrop Frye Fonds (11) 1906-2001, E.J. Pratt Library Archives Special Collections.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Northrop Frye.” Accessed October 10, 2016.

E.J. Pratt Library. “Northrop Frye @ 100, A Centenary Exhibition: Biography.” Accessed October 12, 2016.


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