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 archtypal 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.