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What Is Archetypal Criticism?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Archetypal criticism is a type of literary criticism examining the presence of archetypal characters within a piece of literature. Such characters can be found in works of fiction, long or short, and in more poetic works. The archetypal character is a simple character template recognizable to all readers. Archetypal criticism is a part of social anthropology and psychoanalysis.

The idea of character archetypes is based on the works of psychologist Carl Jung. An archetype is essentially a character prototype. Such prototypes find their ways into all modes of literature and story across generations, cultures and languages. While the idea of such basic characters was developed by Jung in the 20th century, the word itself has been in use in England since the 1540s.

Jung was from Switzerland and was the first to reject the then pervasive idea of tabula rasa. Tabula rasa is an idea whereby all babies are born as blank slates. This goes back to the theological discussions of the 4th and 5th centuries about how God gives babies souls and they are born sinful. Jung argued that each baby is instead born with a built-in archetypal template. This template remains only potential until the child grows up.

Northrop Frye was a Canadian thinker who built upon Jung’s ideas. He cared less about the how and why of natural-born archetypes and more about their functions and effects. He believed that archetypes and archetypal criticism form an important part of literature. The archetypes allow stories and literature to refresh and reform itself again and again. This means old stories can be told in a new way, but with the archetypes present to give it meaning to people.

Frye, much like Aristotle, divided archetypal stories into two main branches in his “Anatomy of Criticism” in 1951: comic and tragic. Comic fiction was further sub-divided into comedy and romance. Tragic was split into tragedy and satire.

Frye’s works limit archetypes to their contexts or the genre of their story. This means there are specific comedic archetypes and specific tragic ones. Modern literature, especially with postmodernism, often mashes together different genres of stories and mixes genre characters as well. Furthermore, Frye’s divisions are simplistic and fail to recognize story forms such as science-fiction, Gothic and detective fiction.

Archetypal criticism with regards to characters in literature has also led to the criticism of story types. This asks the question of whether there are specific plot archetypes. Christopher Booker's ideas on archetypal criticism boiled stories down to seven basic plots. These are the quest, the voyage, the rebirth and the comedy. The tragedy, rags to riches and overcoming the monster are the final three.

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