Introduction to Literature
Archetypal criticism argues that archetypes determine the form and function of literary works, that a text’s meaning is shaped by cultural and psychological myths. Archetypes are the unknowable basic forms personified or concretized in recurring images, symbols, or patterns which may include motifs such as the quest or the heavenly ascent, recognizable character types such as the trickster or the hero, symbols such as the apple or snake, or images such as crucifixion (as in King Kong, or Bride of Frankenstein)–all laden with meaning already when employed in a particular work.
Archetypal criticism gets its impetus from psychologist Carl Jung, who postulated that humankind has a “collective unconscious,” a kind of universal psyche, which is manifested in dreams and myths and which harbors themes and images that we all inherit. Literature, therefore, imitates not the world but rather the “total dream of humankind.” Jung called mythology “the textbook of the archetypes” (qtd. in Walker 17).
Archetypal critics find New Criticism too atomistic in ignoring intertextual elements and in approaching the text as if it existed in a vacuum. After all, we recognize story patterns and symbolic associations at least from other texts we have read, if not innately; we know how to form assumptions and expectations from encounters with black hats, springtime settings, evil stepmothers, and so forth. So surely meaning cannot exist solely on the page of a work, nor can that work be treated as an independent entity.
Archetypal images and story patterns encourage readers (and viewers of films and advertisements) to participate ritualistically in basic beliefs, fears, and anxieties of their age. These archetypal features not only constitute the intelligibility of the text but also tap into a level of desires and anxieties of humankind.
[Whereas Freudian, Lacanian, and other schools of psychological criticism operate within a linguistic paradigm regarding the unconscious, the Jungian approach to myth emphasizes the notion of image (Walker 3).]
Abrams, M.H. “Archetypal Criticism.” A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999. 12-14.
—. “Psychological and Psychoanalytic Criticism.” A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999. 247-253.
Biddle, Arthur W., and Toby Fulwiler. Reading, Writing, and the Study of Literature. NY: Random House, 1989.
Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory. 2nd ed. NY: Longman, 1998.
Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
Walker, Steven F. Jung and the Jungians on Myth. NY: Routledge, 2002.