a type ofcritical theorythat interprets a text by focusing on
recurringmythsandarchetypes(from the Greekarchē, or beginning, andtypos, 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 whenMaud Bodkinpublished
Archetypal Patterns in Poetry.
literary criticism’s origins are rooted in two other academic disciplines,social anthropologyandpsychoanalysis;
each contributed to the literary criticism in separate ways, with the latter
being a sub-branch of the critical theory. Archetypal criticism was at its most
popular in the 1940s and 1950s, largely due to the work of Canadian literary
criticNorthrop Frye. Though
archetypal literary criticism is no longer widely practiced, nor have there
been any major developments in the field, it still has a place in the tradition
of literary studies
anthropological origins of archetypal criticism can pre-date its analytical
psychology origins by over thirty years.The
written by the Scottish anthropologistSir
James George Frazer, was the first influential text dealing with cultural
mythologies. Frazer was part of a group of comparative anthropologists working
out ofCambridge Universitywho worked extensively on the topic.The Golden Boughwas 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.
InThe Golden BoughFrazer identifies with 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 ofPersephone, who was
taken to the Underworld by Hades. Her motherDemeter,
the goddess of the harvest, was so sad that she struck the world with fall and
winter. While in the underworldPersephoneate 6 of the 12 pomegranate seeds
given to her byHades. Because of
what she ate, she was forced to spend half the year, from then on, in theunderworld, 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.
Frazer’s work deals with mythology and archetypes in material terms, the work
ofCarl Gustav Jung, the Swiss
born founder of analytical psychology, is, in contrast, immaterial in its
focus. Jung’s work theorizes about myths and archetypes in relation to theunconscious, 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).
analytical psychology distinguishes between the personal andcollective unconscious, the latter
being particularly relevant to archetypal criticism. The collective
unconscious, or the objective psycheas
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
Jung, an archetype 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.
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
theegoto the unconscious—a kind of temporary
death of the ego—and its re-emergence, or rebirth, from the unconscious” (Segal
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 not be until the 1950s when the other branch
of archetypal literary criticism developed.
Bodkin’sArchetypal 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 criticNorthrop Fryethat archetypal criticism was
theorized in purely literary terms. The major work of Frye’s to deal with
archetypes is Anatomy of Criticismbut
his essay “The Archetypes of Literature” is a precursor to the book. Frye’s
thesis in “The Archetypes of Literature” remains largely unchanged inAnatomy of Criticism. Frye’s
work helped displaceNew
Criticismas the major mode of
analyzing literary texts, before giving way tostructuralismandsemiotics.
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).
are two basic categories in Frye’s framework, comedic and tragic. Each category
is further subdivided into two categories:comedyandromancefor the comedic;tragedyandsatire(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.
is aligned with spring because the genre of comedy is characterized by the
birth of the hero, revival andresurrection.
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 ismetonymizedwith 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.
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 adesert,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 especiallyfloods, signify the water sphere.
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 orProspero’s which cannot be categorized
under the tragic or comedic.
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 morecontemporary
literature, and that ofpost-modernismin general, is that genres and
categories are no longer distinctly separate and that the very concept of
genres has become blurred, thus problematical Frye’s schema. For instanceBeckett’sWaiting For Godotis considered atragicomedy, a play with elements of
tragedy and satire, with the implication that interpreting textual elements in
the play becomes difficult as the two 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 theRenaissance, 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 inAnatomy
of Criticismbut thought
better of it.)
Examples of archetypes in literature
Fatale: A female character type who brings upon catastrophic and disastrous
events.Evefrom the story ofGenesisorPandorafrom Greek mythology are two such
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’sOdyssey.
symbols vary more than archetype narratives or character types. The best
archetypal pattern is any symbol with deep roots in a culture's mythology, such
as the forbidden fruit in Genesis or even the poison apple inSnow White. These are examples of symbols
that resonate with archetypal critics.
A Classic - Defining the Term or
the Concept of Classics in Literature
The definition of a "classic" can be a
hotly debated topic. Depending on what you read, or the experience of the
person you question on the topic, you may receive a wide range of answers. So,
what is a "classic"--in the context of books and literature?
·A classic usually expresses some artistic quality--an expression of life,
truth, and beauty.
·A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a
representation of the period in which it was written; and the work merits
lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent
past, the work is not a classic.
·A classic has a certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch
us to our very core beings--partly because they integrate themes that are
understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of
experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith touch upon some of our
most basic emotional responses.
·A classic makes connections. You can study a classic and discover
influences from other writers and other great works of literature. Of course,
this is partly related to the universal appeal of a classic. But, the classic
also is informed by the history of ideas and literature--whether unconsciously
or specifically worked into the plot of the text.
So, now we have
some background as to how a classic is defined. But, what about the book you
are reading? Is it a classic?