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Encyclopedia > Archetypal literary criticism

Archetypal literary criticism is a type of critical theory that interprets a text by focusing on recurring myths and archetypes (from the Greek archē, or beginning, and typos, or imprint) in the narrative, symbols, images, and character types in a literary work. As a form of literary criticism, it dates back to 1934 when Maud Bodkin published Archetypal Patterns in Poetry. Archetypal literary criticism’s origins are rooted in two other academic disciplines, social anthropology and psychoanalysis; each contributed to the literary criticism in separate ways, with the latter being a sub-branch of the critical theory. Archetypal criticism was its most popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s, largely due to the work of Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye. Though archetypal literary criticism is no longer widely practised, nor have there been any major developments in the field, it still has a place in the tradition of literary studies. Archetype is defined as the first original model of which all other similar persons, objects, or concepts are merely derivative, copied, patterned, or emulated. ... Amy Maud Bodkin (1875-1967) was a British classical scholar, writer on mythology, and literary critic. ... Cultural anthropology, also called social anthropology or socio-cultural anthropology, is one of four commonly recognized fields of anthropology, the holistic study of humanity. ... Psychoanalysis is a family of psychological theories and methods based on the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud. ... Herman Northrop Frye, CC, MA, D.Litt. ...


Origins Pt. 1: Anthropology

The anthropological origins of archetypal criticism pre-date its psychoanalytic origins by over thirty years. The Golden Bough (1890-1915), written by the Scottish anthropologist James G. Frazer was the first influential text dealing with cultural mythologies. Frazer was part of a group of comparative anthropologists working out of Cambridge University who worked extensively on the topic. The Golden Bough is widely accepted as the seminal text on myth that spawned numerous studies on the same subject. Eventually, the momentum of Frazer’s work carried over into literary studies. Sir James George Frazer (January 1, 1854 - May 7, 1941), a social anthropologist influential in the early stages of the modern studies of mythology and comparative religion, was born in Glasgow, Scotland. ... The University of Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world, with one of the most selective sets of entry requirements in the United Kingdom. ...

In The Golden Bough Frazer identifies shared practices and mythological beliefs between primitive religions and modern religions. Frazer argues that the death-rebirth myth is present in almost all cultural mythologies, and is acted out in terms of growing seasons and vegetation. The myth is symbolized by the death (i.e. final harvest) and rebirth (i.e. spring) of the god of vegetation. As an example, Frazer cites the Greek myth of Persephone, who was taken to the Underworld by Hades. Her mother Demeter, the goddesss of the harvest, was so sad that she struck the world with fall and winter. While in the underworld Persephone ate 6 of the 12 pomagranet seeds given to her by Hades. Because of what she ate, she was forced to spend half the year, from then on, in the underworld, representative of autumn and winter, or the death in the death-rebirth myth. The other half of the year Persephone was permitted to be in the mortal realm with Demeter, which represents spring and summer, or the rebirth in the death-rebirth myth. Persephone and Hades In Greek mythology, Persephone (Greek Περσεφόνη, Persephónē) was the queen of the Underworld, the Kore or young maiden, and the daughter of Demeter— and Zeus, in the Olympian version. ... Ceres (Demeter), allegory of August: detail of a fresco by Cosimo Tura, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, 1469-70 Dêmêtêr (or Demetra) (Greek: , mother-earth or perhaps distribution-mother, perhaps from the noun of the Indo-European mother-earth *dheghom *mater) is the Greek goddess of grain and agriculture... Persephone and Hades In Greek mythology, Persephone (Greek Περσεφόνη, Persephónē) was the queen of the Underworld, the Kore or young maiden, and the daughter of Demeter— and Zeus, in the Olympian version. ... Hades, Greek god of the underworld, enthroned, with his bird-headed staff, on a red-figure Apulian vase made in the 4th century BC. Hades (from Greek , Haidēs, originally , Haidēs or , Aïdēs; of uncertain origin[1], although it has been ascribed to Greek unseen[2]) refers... // In the study of mythology and religion, the underworld is a generic term approximately equivalent to the lay term afterlife, referring to any place to which newly dead souls go. ...

Origins Pt. 2: Jungian Psychoanalysis

While Frazer’s work deals with mythology and archetypes in material terms, the work of Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss born psychoanalyst, is, in contrast, immaterial in its focus. Jung’s work theorizes about myths and archetypes in relation to the unconscious, an inaccessible part of the mind. From a Jungian perspective, myths are the “culturally elaborated representations of the contents of the deepest recess of the human psyche: the world of the archetypes” (Walker 4). Carl Gustav Jung Carl Gustav Jung (July 26, 1875 – June 6, 1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and founder of the neopsychoanalytic school of psychology. ... The unconscious mind (or subconscious) is the aspect (or puported aspect) of the mind of which we are not directly conscious or aware. ...

Jungian psychoanalysis distinguishes between the personal and collective unconscious, the latter being particularly relevant to archetypal criticism. The collective unconscious, or the objective psyche as it is less frequently known, is a number of innate thoughts, feelings, instincts, and memories that reside in the unconsciousness of all people. Jung’s definition of the term is inconsistent in his many writings. At one time he calls the collective unconscious the “a priori, inborn forms of intuition,” (Lietch 998) while in another instance it is a series of “experience(s) that come upon us like fate” (998). Regardless of the many nuances between Jung’s definitions, the collective unconsciousness is a shared part of the unconscious. Collective unconscious is a term of analytical psychology originally coined by Carl Jung. ...

To Jung, archetypes in the collective unconscious, as quoted from Leitch et al, is “irrepresentable, but has effects which make visualizations of it possible, namely, the archetypal images and ideas” (988), due to the fact they are at an inaccessible part of the mind. The archetypes to which Jung refers are represented through primordial images, a term he coined. Primordial images originate from the initial stages of humanity and have been part of the collective unconscious ever since. It is through primordial images that universal archetypes are experienced, and more importantly, that the unconscious is revealed.

With the same death-rebirth myth that Frazer sees as being representative of the growing seasons and agriculture as a point of comparison, a Jungian analysis envisions the death-rebirth archetype as a “symbolic expression of a process taking place not in the world but in the mind. That process is the return of the ego to the unconscious—a kind of temporary death of the ego—and its re-emergence, or rebirth, from the unconscious” (Segal 4). eGO is a company that builds electric motor scooters which are becoming popular for urban transportation and vacation use. ...

By itself, Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious accounts for a considerable share of writings in archetypal literary criticism; it also pre-dates the height of archetypal literary criticism by over a decade. The Jungian archetypal approach treats literary texts as an avenue in which primordial images are represented. It would be not be until the 1950’s when the other branch of archetypal literary criticism developed.

The Literary Slant: Frye

Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry, the first work on the subject of archetypal literary criticism, applies Jung’s theories about the collective unconscious, archetypes, and primordial images to literature. It was not until the work of the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye that archetypal criticism was theorized in purely literary terms. The major work of Frye’s to deal with archetypes is Anatomy of Criticism but his essay “The Archetypes of Literature” is a precursor to the book. Frye’s thesis in “The Archetypes of Literature” remains largely unchanged in Anatomy of Criticism. Frye’s work helped displace New Criticism as the major mode of analyzing literary texts, before giving way to structuralism and semiotics. Northrop Fryes Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton University Press, 1957) attempts to formulate an overall view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism derived exclusively from literature. ... New Criticism was the dominant trend in English and American literary criticism of the early twentieth century, from the 1920s to the early 1960s. ... Structuralism is best known as a theory in the humanities. ... Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of signs and symbols, both individually and grouped in sign systems. ...

Frye’s work breaks from both Frazer and Jung in such a way that it is distinct from its anthropological and psychoanalytical precursors. For Frye, the death-rebirth myth that Frazer sees manifest in agriculture and the harvest is not ritualistic since it is involuntary, and therefore, must be done. As for Jung, Frye was uninterested about the collective unconscious on the grounds of feeling it was unnecessary: since the unconscious is unknowable it cannot be studied. How archetypes came to be was also of no concern to Frye; rather, the function and effect of archetypes is his interest. For Frye, literary archetypes “play an essential role in refashioning the material universe into an alternative verbal universe that is humanly intelligible and viable, because it is adapted to essential human needs and concerns” (Abrams 224-225).

There are two basic categories in Frye’s framework, comedic and tragic. Each category is further subdivided into two categories: comedy and romance for the comedic; tragedy and satire (or ironic) for the tragic. Though he is dismissive of Frazer, Frye uses the seasons in his archetypal schema. Each season is aligned with a literary genre: comedy with spring, romance with summer, tragedy with autumn, and satire with winter.

Comedy is aligned with spring because the genre of comedy is characterized by the birth of the hero, revival and resurrection. Also, spring symbolizes the defeat of winter and darkness. Romance and summer are paired together because summer is the culmination of life in the seasonal calendar, and the romance genre culminates with some sort of triumph, usually a marriage. Autumn is the dying stage of the seasonal calendar, which parallels the tragedy genre because it is, above all, known for the “fall” or demise of the protagonist. Satire is metonymized with winter on the grounds that satire is a “dark” genre; satire is a disillusioned and mocking form of the three other genres. It is noted for its darkness, dissolution, the return of chaos, and the defeat of the heroic figure.

The context of a genre determines how a symbol or image is to be interpreted. Frye outlines five different spheres in his schema: human, animal, vegetation, mineral, and water. The comedic human world is representative of wish-fulfillment and being community centred. In contrast, the tragic human world is of isolation, tyranny, and the fallen hero. Animals in the comedic genres are docile and pastoral (e.g. sheep), while animals are predatory and hunters in the tragic (e.g. wolves). For the realm of vegetation, the comedic is, again, pastoral but also represented by gardens, parks, roses and lotuses. As for the tragic, vegetation is of a wild forest, or as being barren. Cities, a temple, or precious stones represent the comedic mineral realm. The tragic mineral realm is noted for being a desert, ruins, or “of sinister geometrical images” (Frye 1456). Lastly, the water realm is represented by rivers in the comedic. With the tragic, the seas, and especially floods, signify the water sphere.

Frye admits that his schema in “The Archetypes of Literature” is simplistic, but makes room for exceptions by noting that there are neutral archetypes. The example he cites are islands such as Circe’s or Prospero’s which cannot be categorized under the tragic or comedic. Circe, a painting by Edward Burne-Jones. ... Prospero is the protagonist in The Tempest, a play by William Shakespeare. ...

Arguments about the Contemporary Dilemma with Frye’s Archetypal Literary Criticism

It has been argued that Frye’s version of archetypal criticism strictly categorizes works based on their genres, which determines how an archetype is to be interpreted in a text. According to this argument the dilemma Frye’s archetypal criticism faces with more contemporary literature, and that of post-modernism in general, is that genres and categories are no longer distinctly separate and that the very concept of genres has become blurred, thus problematizing Frye’s schema. For instance Beckett’s Waiting For Godot is considered a tragicomedy, a play with elements of tragedy and satire, with the implication that interpreting textual elements in the play becomes difficult as two the opposing seasons and conventions that Frye associated with genres are pitted against each other. But in fact arguments about generic blends such as tragicomedy go back to the Renaissance, and Frye always conceived of genres as fluid. Frye thought literary forms were part of a great circle and were capable of shading into other generic forms. (He contemplated including a diagram of his wheel in Anatomy of Criticism but thought better of it.) This article needs to be cleaned up to conform to a higher standard of quality. ... Postmodernism (sometimes abbreviated pomo) is a term applied to a wide-ranging set of developments in critical theory, philosophy, architecture, art, literature, and culture, which are generally characterized as either emerging from, in reaction to, or superseding, modernism. ... Samuel Barclay Beckett (13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989) was an Irish dramatist, novelist and poet. ... Vladimir (left) and Estragon (right) hold Pozzo aloft (from a production by Naqshineh Theatre). ... Tragicomedy (or dark comedy or black comedy) refers to fictional works that blend aspects of the genres of tragedy and comedy. ... Northrop Fryes Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton University Press, 1957) attempts to formulate an overall view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism derived exclusively from literature. ...

A Few Common Archetypes in Literature

Femme Fatale: A female character type who brings upon catastrophic and disastrous events. Eve from the story of Genesis or Pandora from Greek mythology are two such figures. This article or section may contain original research or unverified claims. ... Michelangelos Creation of Adam, from the Sistine Chapel. ... Genesis (Hebrew: , Greek: Γένεσις, having the meanings of birth, creation, cause, beginning, source and origin) is the first book of the Torah, the first book of the Tanakh and also the first book of the Christian Old Testament. ... Making of Pandora In Greek mythology, Pandora (all gifted) was the first woman, fashioned by Zeus as part of the punishment of mankind for Prometheus theft of the secret of fire. ...

The Journey: A narrative archetype where the protagonist must overcome a series of obstacles before reaching his or her goal. The quintessential journey archetype in Western culture is arguably Homer’s Odyssey. Homer (Greek HómÄ“ros) was a legendary early Greek poet and aoidos (singer) traditionally credited with the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey. ... Odysseus and Nausicaä - by Charles Gleyre The Odyssey (Greek: , Odusseia) is one of the two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to the poet Homer. ...

Archetypal symbols vary more than archetype narratives or character types, but any symbol with deep roots in a culture's mythology, such as the forbidden fruit in Genesis or even the poison apple in Snow White, is an example of a symbol that resonates to archetypal critics. Snow White in her coffin, Theodor Hosemann, 1867. ...


  • Abrams, M. H. "Archetypal Criticism." A Glossary of Literary Terms. Fort Worth: HBJ, 1993. 223 - 225
  • Bates, Roland. Northrop Frye. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971.
  • Frye, Northrop. "The Archetypes of Literature." The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B.

Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1445 - 1457

  • Knapp, Bettina L. "Introduction." A Jungian Approach to Literature. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. ix - xvi
  • Leitch, Vincent B. "Northrop Frye." The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New

York: Norton, 2001. 1442 - 1445

  • -- "Carl Gustav Jung." The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York:

Norton, 2001. 987 - 990

  • Segal, Robert A. "Introduction." Jung on Mythology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. 3 - 48
  • Walker, Steven F. Jung and the Jungians on Myth. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995. 3 - 15



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