Like structuralist criticism, archetypal criticism proceeds from the
initial assumption that every work of literature can be categorized and
fitted into a large framework that encompasses all literature.
BASIC PREMISES OF ARCHETYPAL THEORY:
1. The critic is at the center of interpretive activity, and the critic
functions as teacher, interpreter, priest, seer. Criticism is a structure
of thought and knowledge in its own right.
2. The critic works inductively by reading individual works and letting
critical principles shape themselves out of the literature; that is, the
critic examines the individual work to ascertain the archetypes underlying
3. Literary taste is not relevant to literary criticism.
4. Ethical criticism is important; that is, the critic must be aware of
art as a form of communication from the past to the present.
5. All literary works are considered part of tradition.
6. Like mathematics, literature is a language that can provide the means
for expressing truths. Verbal constructs (i.e., the works of literature)
represent mythical outlines of universal truths.
The notes below are excerpted from Murfin and Ray's <The Bedford Glossary
of Critical and Literary Terms>:
Archetypal Criticism, which owes its origins to the work of Carl Jung,
emerged in the 1930s and focuses on those patterns in a literary work that
commonly occur in other literary works. Jung posited that humanity has a
"collective unconscious that manifests itself in dreams, myths, and
literature through archetypes: persistent images, figures, and story
patterns shared by people across diverse cultures" (22).
Archetypal critics search for archetypal patterns in literary works (e.g.,
character types, story lines, settings, symbols). According to Jung, these
patterns are embedded deep in the "collective unconscious" and involve
"racial memories" of situations, events, relationships from time immemorial
Maud Bodkin's book <Archetypal Patterns in Poetry> (1934) made a major
contribution to the study of archetypal images in literature.
Northrop Frye's book "The Anatomy of Criticism" (1957) views literature as
an "autonomous language" and words as signs that contribute to the
"organizing structural pattern" or "conceptualized myth" of which the work
is one example. Frye proposes four "mythoi" (types of plots) that formed
the basis for four major genres associated with the seasons of the year:
1) comedy (spring)
2) romance (summer)
3) tragedy (fall)
4) satire (winter)
Literary critics who subscribe to Jung's archetypal theory seek to identify
archetypes and trace patterns in diverse literary works across eras and
One of the most often traced archetypal patterns is that of the quest (or
search) by the protagonist (or hero), who must leave her/his home, travel
into unfamiliar territory, meet a guide, endure dangerous situations and
adventures, reach the object of her/his quest, gain important new
knowledge, and return home with that knowledge to share with others.
( --from http;//www.intech.mnsu.edu/bunkers/archetypal_ theory.htm)
(from Myths & Motifs in Literature edited by David J. Barrows, Frederick R. Lapides, and John. T.
Contemporary writers have broadened the meaning of Jung’s earlier formulations. To non-
Jungians, “an archetype may be merely a paradigm, a pattern or outline that accounts for a
number of stories.” Fiedler and Richard Chase paid little attention to the “collective
unconscious” and focused “attention on the pattern representing a whole set of basic emotional
We observed that all cultures share a basic system of symbols. Anthropologists have developed
A). the Seasonal Myth – represents a cycle of human life patterned after the succession of the
seasons. Life has a pattern of birth and youth (Spring), growth (Summer), fruition or maturity
(Fall), and death (Winter). This is an endless cycle—
EX:The leaves wither and die but the tree is ‘reborn’ the following spring The lake
freezes but ‘thaws’ in the spring. A man dies but is ‘reborn’ in the afterlife or in the likeness of
Sun, sky, and rain = male images
Earth and sea= female images.
East –symbolizes birth
West –symbolizes death
The sun disappearing into the sea – symbolizes the return to the mother or to the
Woman is the bearer of life but is considered a passive partner in creation (attributed
with coldness and wetness—water in birth)
Man is the projector in life, the godhead, the aggressive partner in creation (attributed
with fire and dryness).
1)The divine family motif:
a). Sky Father –Earth Mother
-the creation of the world
-Man-the divine father-symbolized the concept of good, power and activity and a
hero in the mythic world.
-Woman – the passive like the earth itself- depicted as a source of evil (Pandora, Eve)
– associated with the fertility of the earth – is seen as a castrated male, a destroyer .
She may be the life symbol- (a symbol of fertility, growth, and womblike security) –
idealizing her a nonsexual being an ideal who should be approached but not touched
: EX ; court love tradition and in the emphasis upon the importance of the Virgin Mary
in religious art of the medieval period.
b). Mating with a mortal:
-Zeus and his children with mortals (Hercules, Achilles)
-the Annunciation (Mary told by the angel Gabriel)
2). The becoming motifs:
a) Initiation – the fall from innocence to experience (the fall of Adam and Eve)
the Jewish bar mitzvah
the tribal initiation in which a warrior is subjected to a series of tests (usually physical)
to prove his manhood.
Initiation involves pain, sexual experience, and an awareness of evil or death in the
b) The task motif:
Important tests to prove heroic potential (Arthur, Ulysses0
Discovery of something treasured or the conquest of an evil or opposing force or of the
guardian of the treasure. ( Hercules, Jason)
c) The journey and the quest motifs relate to the fall into experience. The journey is usually a
search for insight to effect a change from that which caused the fall of man.
A descent into the Underworld (the Harrowing of Hell by Christ)
A going-down to the place where the dead reside(Orpheus) to bring back a new
Symbolically it may be descent into the Lower Depths of humanity , to despair, to –near-
death, to social iniquities.
Because life is a journey(from birth to death) , images of roads or sea journeys often
serve as metaphor.
The quest motif stresses less the journeying than the sought-after results of that journey. The
goal of quest is the lost treasure of innocence. Lastly the quest hopes to find the Self through
uniting the conscious with the unconscious.
d) The search for the father motif;
The father figure may be a surrogate or substitute (Telemachus in search of Ulyssis,
Lam-ang in search of his father)
e) Death and rebirth-death is symbolic in later works. The death may be symbolic or real—
signifies an end to the former way of life and the emergence of a new outlookor insight or way
of coping with life.
Orpheus and Eurydice
The raising of Lazarus
The resurrection of Christ
The coming back to life of Lam-ang
B) The Myth of the Hero – The emphasis is upon the special qualities of the hero in his society.
The hero is usually born under mysterious or unusual circumstances (virgin birth)
He is the son of a great man or deity (Prometheus, Jesus)
He is marked for greatness ( a special sign)
While still a young person, he is often exiled or placed in harm’s way so that he may be
killed (Orestes, Moses, Hamlet, Snow White)
He must prove his claim to a heroic role by a test or trial ( Arthur pulling the sword from
the stone, Hercules and his tasks)
He accomplishes great deeds for his people (Moses, Beowulf killing the monster)
His death is often mysterious or ambiguous) Arthur goes off to Avalon, the crucifixion of
The hero may be a god-man or a leader of men (the prophetic role)
He must free his people from destruction, subjugation to an evil force or figure (kingly
role) or messiah or savior (the priestly role).
Kinds of heroes:
Religious or god-directed (Moses)
Secular or military (Beowulf)
The wise fool (Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel The I diot, and the clown in
Shakespeare’s King Lear
The devil figure – Evil is personified in the likeness of Satan and the domain which he
The outcast is the alienated character, the outsider, the criminal (cain and the mark of
Cain, the wandering Jew, the ancient mariner0
The double – the contending forces of good and evil within the individual 9the good and
the bad angels0
The scapegoat – a victim, a sacrificial ofdfering that will placate the gods or purge
society of its aggressiveness. (the Lottery –by Shirley Jackson) – the communist, Jew or
Indian. He is a threat that must be destroyed.
The temptress – woman was seen as a destroyer. There were taboos as to where and
when females might appear within the tribal territory, what foods the might touch,
what relations they might have with men. Male fantasies about women were equally
matched by her erotic attractiveness. She is portrayed as temptress. EX: Helen of Troy,
Cleopatra, Circe the siren, Delilah who made Samson forget his religious vows as a
Nazarite ( signified by his refusal to cut his hair and to drink intoxicating liquors) but
symbolically castrated him. The temptress is often seen as a representation of an alien
culture, the outsider or unknown.