Archetypal Criticism


Archetypal literary criticism is a theory that interprets a text by focusing on recurring myths and archetypes in the narrative and symbols, images character types in a literary work. Archetype denotes recurrent narrative designs, patterns of action, character types, themes and images which are identifiable in a wide variety of works of literature, as well as in myths, dreams and even social rituals. Such recurrent items result from elemental and universal patterns in the human psyche.

Swiss born psychoanalyst, C.G.Jung’s (1875-1961) work speculates about myths and archetypes in relation to the unconscious. According to him, myths are the “culturally elaborated representations of the contents of the deepest recess of the human psyche: the world of the archetypes”.  He used the term archetype to refer to the experiences of our ancestors which get lodged in the ‘collective unconscious’ of the whole race. Jungian psychoanalysis distinguishes between the personal and collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is a number of innate thoughts, feelings, instincts and memories that reside in the unconsciousness of all the people; ‘collective unconscious’ is the ‘psychic disposition shaped by the forces of heredity’. The content of the collective unconscious are the archetypes which are expressed in myths, religions, dreams and private fantasies as well as in works of literature.

Archetypal criticism, based on Jung’s psychology, searches texts for collective motifs of the human psyche, which are held to be common to different historical  periods and languages. These archetypes represent primordial images of the human unconscious which have retained their structures in various cultures and epochs. It is through primordial images that universal archetypes are experienced and more importantly, that the unconscious is revealed. Archetypes such as shadow, fire, snake, paradise-garden, hell, mother-figure etc. constantly surface in myth and literature as a limited number of basic patterns of psychic images which lend themselves to a structural model of explanation. Various cultures, religions, myths and literatures have recourse to primordial images or archetypes which like a subconscious language express human fears and hopes. A Jungian analysis perceives the death-rebirth archetype (Frazer’s) as a symbolic expression of a process taking place not in the world but in the mind. That process is the return of the go to the unconscious – a kind of temporary death of the ego – and its re-emergence, or rebirth, from the unconscious.

Archetypal Criticism was given impetus by Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934) and flourished during the 1950s and 1960s. The Golden Bough written by James G. Frazer was the first influential text dealing with cultural mythologies, which tries to reveal the common structures of myths in different historical periods and geographical areas. It is a comprehensive survey of the myths, rituals and religious practices of different societies, especially primitive ones. Frazer identifies shared practices and mythological beliefs between primitive religions and modern religions. Frazer argues that the death-rebirth myth, the archetype of archetypes, is present in almost all cultures and is acted out in terms of cycle of  seasons and the organic cycle of human life and vegetation. The myth is symbolized by death (final harvest) and rebirth (spring) of the god of vegetation. Other archetypes frequently traced in literature are the journey underground, the heavenly ascent, the search for the father, the Paradise/Hades dichotomy, the scapegoat, the earth goddess and the fatal woman.

The aim of archetypal criticism is in line with the methodology of formalist schools, which delves beneath the surface of literary texts in their search for recurrent deep structures. Some other important practitioners of various modes of archetypal criticism are G.Wilson Knight , Robert Graves, Philip Wheelwright, Richard Chase, Leslie Fielder and Joseph Campbell, who emphasized the persistence of mythical patterns in literature.

Northrop Frye:

The most influential contribution to archetypal criticism has been made by the Candaian mythologist Northrop Frye (1912-91), who places structures of myth at the heart of the main literary genres. His Anatomy of Criticism , the critical tour de force, is a touchstone of archetypal criticism. His essay “The Archetypes of Literature” expresses his dissatisfaction with  New Criticism.

According to Frye, the whole body of literary works of any society constitutes what might be called a self-contained, autonomous universe. He classifies this literary universe into four categories or mythoi, which are the plot forms or organizing structural principles. These mythoi correspond to the four seasons of the natural world” comedy corresponds to spring, romance to summer, tragedy to autumn and satire to winter.  His view of life and of literature are one and the same: life, structured as concrete universals, is made available in a heightened form in literature.

Frye’s view of literature is that it is a ‘reservoir of potential values.’ He holds myths as the conventional structures in literature. Myths  are the units which form the organizing principle of literary work. In other words, literature is reconstructed mythology. In using the term ‘structure’ in several related senses, Frye anticipated structuralism in literary criticism. The concept of of ‘vraisemblablisation’ of the structuralists has close affinities with Frye’s theory. Frye’s view of literature ‘as a total order of words’ and that works of literature are created out of literature anticipates the structuralist view of intertextuality. Only in the case of Frye, coherence is to be achieved by conformity, whereas for the structuralists it is through a play of difference. Frye restricts the association with other texts to mythological images by which analogies and identities are established.

The heyday of archetypal criticism began to decline after the 1970s. however, its impact can still be seen in the interpretation of children’s literature, science fiction, and feminist criticism.

Claude Levi Strauss

In his essay “The structural Study of Myth”, Levi- Strauss looks at the similarity of myths from cultures all over the world. He notices that cultures widely separated by geography or time still have distinctly similar myths. He finds an answer to this by looking not at the content of each myth, but at their structure. While the specific characters and actions differ greatly, Levi-Strauss argues that their structures are almost identical. Levi-Strauss insists that myth is a language, because it has to be told in order to exist. Myth, as language, consists of both langue and parole, both the synchronic, ahistorical structure and the specific diachronic details within that structure. Parole is a specific unit or instance or event, can only exist in linear time. Langue, on the other hand, is the structure itself, which doesn’t ever change, can exist in the past, present or future. A myth can be altered, expanded, reduced, and paraphrased without losing its basic shape or structure: (princess, prince, stepmother etc. ). No matter what details are added to the story, the structure of relations among the units remain the same.

Levi-Strauss argues that, while myth as structure looks like language as structure, it is actually different- it operates on a higher and more complex level. Myth differs from language as Saussure describes it, because the basic  units of myth are not phonemes but what Levi-Strauss calls ‘mythemes’. A mytheme is the ‘atom’ of a myth – the smallest irreducible unit that conveys meaning. A structuralist would lay the mythemes out so that they can be read both horizontally and vertically, diachronically and synchronically, for plot and for theme. The story of the myth exists on a vertical left-to-right axis; the themes of the myth exist on the horizontal up-and-down axis. The relations formed by any two of the mythemes in this array constitute the basic structure of the myth. According to Levi-Strauss, the significance of the myth is that it presents certain structural relations, in the form of binary oppositions that are universal concerns in all cultures.



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