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What is Jungian Literary Criticism?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Carl Jung, perceived the human mind as made up of an unconscious divided into two discreet parts. The personal unconscious was those feelings that could not be accessed without therapy and dreamwork. The universal unconscious was a shared set of images, called archetypes, common to all people. The universal unconscious was expressed in art, literature and myth, and Jungian literary criticism focused specifically on the analysis of archetypes in literature and written mythology.

The goal of all humans according to Jung, is to achieve individuation, a state where the unconscious is known and integrated into the conscious mind. Literature involving any type of hero, but those primarily male, can be analyzed through this tradition literary criticism by the steps in the “hero’s journey” which guide the hero toward individuation.

Not all of Jungian literary criticism examines all individuation processes. Two major points of focus are the integration of the anima, and the larger integration of the shadow. Conversely, a criticism may simply evaluate the effectiveness as a particular archetype in a novel. While reading literature in Jungian style, the central character is viewed as real, while most other characters are seen as symbolic representations of aspects of the hero’s unconscious self. A woman, for example, represents the anima, the feminine side of the hero’s personality. An antagonist represents shadow.

It is sometimes easier to understand Jungian literary criticism in practice. For example, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the character of Frodo is clearly pitted against his shadow figure, Gollum. Gollum represents all the things in Frodo’s unconscious self that Frodo has not psychologically recognized. As the novel progresses, Frodo becomes more like Gollum, and ultimately acts as Gollum would, claiming the ring for himself. Integration of the shadow involves a descent into the underworld, and such is Frodo’s journey into Mordor, a place where all things have become corrupt representing shadow domination. The shadow must be accepted or it continues to rule the personality.

In order for Frodo to be considered individuated by a Jungian literary critic, he must harness the power of his shadow to achieve wholeness. This is beautifully effected by Gollum’s death, where he bites off Frodo’s finger, and then through his own malicious joy teeters on the edge of the precipice in Mount Doom’s cavern before falling into the molten lava below, thus completing Frodo’s quest.

The theme of relatedness between Frodo and Gollum is remarkably consistent in the novel as Frodo is first revolted by, and then comes to pity Gollum. Frodo needs him psychologically to fulfill his task. Further, Frodo represents individuation by leaving Middle Earth to dwell forever for the elves in a paradise like place. A fully individuated character no longer belongs in the real world, as individuation is a lifelong process.

This is a very shorthand explanation of Jungian literary criticism at work. Some of the most important scholars in this field include Joseph Campbell, Emma Jung, and Maria Louise von Franz, whose work on shadow and anima in fairytales is particularly interesting. Further, Emma Jung’s exploration of the Grail legend is equally fascinating.

Other literary critics dismiss Jungian literary criticism because it places an outside construction on a text, and basically results in the same conclusions again and again. There is certainly some truth to the criticism. Virtually anything can be read in this way, much as one might use Freudian literary criticism to evaluate texts as the human’s repression of sexual desires and opposing drives toward sex and death.

What seems most useful in Jungian literary criticism is its value as inspiration for daily living. It reinforces Jung’s theory that we all long for a perfect knowing of those unconscious forces that drive us. It also supports the idea that texts from very different backgrounds can be said to exhibit the same factors repeatedly. Whether or not this truly represents a universal unconscious is debatable. Most disregard the universal unconscious, and instead lean toward Jungian literary criticism as a way to understand the psychological struggle of the human to overcome hidden thoughts and feelings, a struggle common to us all.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon154249 — On Feb 20, 2011

definitely interesting and a broader perspective than freud.

By anon20341 — On Oct 29, 2008

no it's very different.

freud's work would more or less be like flattening the complexities of our minds to a 2D image

jung acknowledges and works with our 3Dness and more.

By anon9385 — On Mar 05, 2008

Jungian theory departs from Freudian theory in a number of ways. Please see the article on the Difference between Freud and Jung. Initially the two worked together, but Jung insisted that people needed a spiritual base (like a God to believe in). Freud's attitude toward God was much less charitable, believing God to be the opiate of the masses that deceived people.

Jung's theory is much more fleshed out imho than is Freud's, and is not mainly about dealing with the Oedipal complex. Aspects of personality are significantly more complicated in a hero's journey than they are in a Freudian reading of a text.

By anon6809 — On Jan 09, 2008

so jungian theory is basically a rip off of freud's work?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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