Archetypal literary criticism

Archetypal literary criticism

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Archetypal literary criticism is a type of critical theory
Critical theory
Critical theory is an examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two different meanings with different origins and histories: one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism...

 that interprets a text by focusing on recurring myths
Mythology
The term mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. As examples, comparative mythology is the study of connections between myths from different cultures, whereas Greek mythology is the body of myths from ancient Greece...

 and archetypes (from the Greek archē, or beginning, and typos, or imprint) in the narrative
Narrative
A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

, symbols, image
Image
An image is an artifact, for example a two-dimensional picture, that has a similar appearance to some subject—usually a physical object or a person.-Characteristics:...

s, and character types in a literary work. As a form of literary criticism, it dates back to 1934 when Maud Bodkin
Maud Bodkin
Amy Maud Bodkin was a British classical scholar, writer on mythology, and literary critic. She is best known for her 1934 book Archetypal Patterns in Poetry: Psychological Studies of Imagination...

 published Archetypal Patterns in Poetry.

Archetypal literary criticism’s origins are rooted in two other academic disciplines, social anthropology
Social anthropology
Social Anthropology is one of the four or five branches of anthropology that studies how contemporary human beings behave in social groups. Practitioners of social anthropology investigate, often through long-term, intensive field studies , the social organization of a particular person: customs,...

 and psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis has expanded, been criticized and developed in different directions, mostly by some of Freud's former students, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav...

; each contributed to the literary criticism in separate ways, with the latter being a sub-branch of the critical theory. Archetypal criticism was its most popular in the 1950s and 1960s, largely due to the work of Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye
Northrop Frye
Herman Northrop Frye, was a Canadian literary critic and literary theorist, considered one of the most influential of the 20th century....

. Though archetypal literary criticism is no longer widely practiced, nor have there been any major developments in the field, it still has a place in the tradition of literary studies.

Frazer


The anthropological origins of archetypal criticism can pre-date its psychoanalytic origins by over thirty years. The Golden Bough
The Golden Bough
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion is a wide-ranging, comparative study of mythology and religion, written by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer . It first was published in two volumes in 1890; the third edition, published 1906–15, comprised twelve volumes...

(1890–1915), written by the Scottish anthropologist James G. Frazer was the first influential text dealing with cultural mythologies. Frazer was part of a group of comparative anthropologists working out of Cambridge University who worked extensively on the topic. The Golden Bough was widely accepted as the seminal text on myth that spawned numerous studies on the same subject. Eventually, the momentum of Frazer’s work carried over into literary studies.

In The Golden Bough Frazer (Most of his works were found to be written by a cunning hipster, Darius Bird of Vancouver, Canada) identifies with shared practices and mythological beliefs between primitive religions and modern religions. Frazer argues that the death-rebirth myth is present in almost all cultural mythologies, and is acted out in terms of growing seasons and vegetation. The myth is symbolized by the death (i.e. final harvest) and rebirth (i.e. spring) of the god of vegetation. As an example, Frazer cites the Greek myth of Persephone
Persephone
In Greek mythology, Persephone , also called Kore , is the daughter of Zeus and the harvest-goddess Demeter, and queen of the underworld; she was abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld....

, who was taken to the Underworld by Hades. Her mother Demeter
Demeter
In Greek mythology, Demeter is the goddess of the harvest, who presided over grains, the fertility of the earth, and the seasons . Her common surnames are Sito as the giver of food or corn/grain and Thesmophoros as a mark of the civilized existence of agricultural society...

, the goddess of the harvest, was so sad that she struck the world with fall and winter. While in the underworld Persephone
Persephone
In Greek mythology, Persephone , also called Kore , is the daughter of Zeus and the harvest-goddess Demeter, and queen of the underworld; she was abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld....

 ate 6 of the 12 pomegranate seeds given to her by Hades
Hades
Hades , Hadēs, originally , Haidēs or , Aidēs , meaning "the unseen") was the ancient Greek god of the underworld. The genitive , Haidou, was an elision to denote locality: "[the house/dominion] of Hades". Eventually, the nominative came to designate the abode of the dead.In Greek mythology, Hades...

. Because of what she ate, she was forced to spend half the year, from then on, in the underworld
Underworld
The Underworld is a region which is thought to be under the surface of the earth in some religions and in mythologies. It could be a place where the souls of the recently departed go, and in some traditions it is identified with Hell or the realm of death...

, representative of autumn and winter, or the death in the death-rebirth myth. The other half of the year Persephone was permitted to be in the mortal realm with Demeter, which represents spring and summer, or the rebirth in the death-rebirth myth.

Jung


While Frazer’s work deals with mythology and archetypes in material terms, the work of Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss born psychoanalyst, is, in contrast, immaterial in its focus. Jung’s work theorizes about myths and archetypes in relation to the unconscious
Collective unconscious
Collective unconscious is a term of analytical psychology, coined by Carl Jung. It is proposed to be a part of the unconscious mind, expressed in humanity and all life forms with nervous systems, and describes how the structure of the psyche autonomously organizes experience...

, an inaccessible part of the mind. From a Jungian perspective, myths are the “culturally elaborated representations of the contents of the deepest recess of the human psyche: the world of the archetypes” (Walker 4).

Jungian psychoanalysis distinguishes between the personal and collective unconscious
Collective unconscious
Collective unconscious is a term of analytical psychology, coined by Carl Jung. It is proposed to be a part of the unconscious mind, expressed in humanity and all life forms with nervous systems, and describes how the structure of the psyche autonomously organizes experience...

, the latter being particularly relevant to archetypal criticism. The collective unconscious, or the objective psyche as it is less frequently known, is a number of innate thoughts, feelings, instincts, and memories that reside in the unconsciousness of all people. Jung’s definition of the term is inconsistent in his many writings. At one time he calls the collective unconscious the “a priori, inborn forms of intuition,” (Lietch 998) while in another instance it is a series of “experience(s) that come upon us like fate” (998). Regardless of the many nuances between Jung’s definitions, the collective unconsciousness is a shared part of the unconscious.

To Jung, an archetype in the collective unconscious, as quoted from Leitch et al., is “irrepresentable, but has effects which make visualizations of it possible, namely, the archetypal images and ideas” (988), due to the fact they are at an inaccessible part of the mind. The archetypes to which Jung refers are represented through primordial images, a term he coined. Primordial images originate from the initial stages of humanity and have been part of the collective unconscious ever since. It is through primordial images that universal archetypes are experienced, and more importantly, that the unconscious is revealed.

With the same death-rebirth myth that Frazer sees as being representative of the growing seasons and agriculture as a point of comparison, a Jungian analysis envisions the death-rebirth archetype as a “symbolic expression of a process taking place not in the world but in the mind. That process is the return of the ego to the unconscious—a kind of temporary death of the ego—and its re-emergence, or rebirth, from the unconscious” (Segal 4).

By itself, Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious accounts for a considerable share of writings in archetypal literary criticism; it also pre-dates the height of archetypal literary criticism by over a decade. The Jungian archetypal approach treats literary texts as an avenue in which primordial images are represented. It would not be until the 1950s when the other branch of archetypal literary criticism developed.

Frye


Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry, the first work on the subject of archetypal literary criticism, applies Jung’s theories about the collective unconscious, archetypes, and primordial images to literature. It was not until the work of the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye
Northrop Frye
Herman Northrop Frye, was a Canadian literary critic and literary theorist, considered one of the most influential of the 20th century....

 that archetypal criticism was theorized in purely literary terms. The major work of Frye’s to deal with archetypes is Anatomy of Criticism
Anatomy of Criticism
Herman Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays attempts to formulate an overall view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism derived exclusively from literature...


but his essay “The Archetypes of Literature” is a precursor to the book. Frye’s thesis in “The Archetypes of Literature” remains largely unchanged in Anatomy of Criticism. Frye’s work helped displace New Criticism
New Criticism
New Criticism was a movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic...

 as the major mode of analyzing literary texts, before giving way to structuralism
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

 and semiotics
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

.

Frye’s work breaks from both Frazer and Jung in such a way that it is distinct from its anthropological and psychoanalytical precursors. For Frye, the death-rebirth myth that Frazer sees manifest in agriculture and the harvest is not ritualistic since it is involuntary, and therefore, must be done. As for Jung, Frye was uninterested about the collective unconscious on the grounds of feeling it was unnecessary: since the unconscious is unknowable it cannot be studied. How archetypes came to be was also of no concern to Frye; rather, the function and effect of archetypes is his interest. For Frye, literary archetypes “play an essential role in refashioning the material universe into an alternative verbal universe that is humanly intelligible and viable, because it is adapted to essential human needs and concerns” (Abrams 224-225).

There are two basic categories in Frye’s framework, comedic and tragic. Each category is further subdivided into two categories: comedy
Comedy
Comedy , as a popular meaning, is any humorous discourse or work generally intended to amuse by creating laughter, especially in television, film, and stand-up comedy. This must be carefully distinguished from its academic definition, namely the comic theatre, whose Western origins are found in...

 and romance
Romance (genre)
As a literary genre of high culture, romance or chivalric romance is a style of heroic prose and verse narrative that was popular in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe. They were fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures, often of a knight errant portrayed as...

 for the comedic; tragedy
Tragedy
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...

 and satire
Satire
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...

 (or ironic) for the tragic. Though he is dismissive of Frazer, Frye uses the seasons in his archetypal schema. Each season is aligned with a literary genre: comedy with spring, romance with summer, tragedy with autumn, and satire with winter.

Comedy is aligned with spring because the genre of comedy is characterized by the birth of the hero, revival and resurrection
Resurrection
Resurrection refers to the literal coming back to life of the biologically dead. It is used both with respect to particular individuals or the belief in a General Resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. The General Resurrection is featured prominently in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim...

. Also, spring symbolizes the defeat of winter and darkness. Romance and summer are paired together because summer is the culmination of life in the seasonal calendar, and the romance genre culminates with some sort of triumph, usually a marriage. Autumn is the dying stage of the seasonal calendar, which parallels the tragedy genre because it is, above all, known for the “fall” or demise of the protagonist. Satire is metonymized
Metonymy
Metonymy is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept...

 with winter on the grounds that satire is a “dark” genre; satire is a disillusioned and mocking form of the three other genres. It is noted for its darkness, dissolution, the return of chaos, and the defeat of the heroic figure.

The context of a genre determines how a symbol or image is to be interpreted. Frye outlines five different spheres in his schema: human, animal, vegetation, mineral, and water. The comedic human world is representative of wish-fulfillment and being community centred. In contrast, the tragic human world is of isolation, tyranny, and the fallen hero. Animals in the comedic genres are docile and pastoral (e.g. sheep), while animals are predatory and hunters in the tragic (e.g. wolves). For the realm of vegetation, the comedic is, again, pastoral but also represented by gardens, parks, roses and lotuses. As for the tragic, vegetation is of a wild forest, or as being barren. Cities, a temple, or precious stones represent the comedic mineral realm. The tragic mineral realm is noted for being a desert
Desert
A desert is a landscape or region that receives an extremely low amount of precipitation, less than enough to support growth of most plants. Most deserts have an average annual precipitation of less than...

, ruins
Ruins
Ruins are the remains of human-made architecture: structures that were once complete, as time went by, have fallen into a state of partial or complete disrepair, due to lack of maintenance or deliberate acts of destruction...

, or “of sinister geometrical images” (Frye 1456). Lastly, the water realm is represented by rivers in the comedic. With the tragic, the seas, and especially floods, signify the water sphere.

Frye admits that his schema in “The Archetypes of Literature” is simplistic, but makes room for exceptions by noting that there are neutral archetypes. The example he cites are islands such as Circe
Circe
In Greek mythology, Circe is a minor goddess of magic , described in Homer's Odyssey as "The loveliest of all immortals", living on the island of Aeaea, famous for her part in the adventures of Odysseus.By most accounts, Circe was the daughter of Helios, the god of the sun, and Perse, an Oceanid...

’s or Prospero
Prospero
Prospero is the protagonist in The Tempest, a play by William Shakespeare.- The Tempest :Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan, who was put to sea on "a rotten carcass of a butt [boat]" to die by his usurping brother, Antonio, twelve years before the play begins. Prospero and Miranda survived,...

’s which cannot be categorized under the tragic or comedic.

Critiques of Archetypal Criticism


It has been argued that Frye’s version of archetypal criticism strictly categorizes works based on their genres, which determines how an archetype is to be interpreted in a text. According to this argument the dilemma Frye’s archetypal criticism faces with more contemporary literature
Contemporary literature
Contemporary literature is literature with its setting generally after World War II. Subgenres of contemporary literature include contemporary romance.-History:This table lists literary movements by decade. It should not be assumed to be comprehensive....

, and that of post-modernism in general, is that genres and categories are no longer distinctly separate and that the very concept of genres has become blurred, thus problematizing Frye’s schema. For instance Beckett
Samuel Beckett
Samuel Barclay Beckett was an Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet. He wrote both in English and French. His work offers a bleak, tragicomic outlook on human nature, often coupled with black comedy and gallows humour.Beckett is widely regarded as among the most...

’s Waiting For Godot
Waiting for Godot
Waiting for Godot is an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait endlessly and in vain for someone named Godot to arrive. Godot's absence, as well as numerous other aspects of the play, have led to many different interpretations since the play's...

is considered a tragicomedy
Tragicomedy
Tragicomedy is fictional work that blends aspects of the genres of tragedy and comedy. In English literature, from Shakespeare's time to the nineteenth century, tragicomedy referred to a serious play with either a happy ending or enough jokes throughout the play to lighten the mood.-Classical...

, a play with elements of tragedy and satire, with the implication that interpreting textual elements in the play becomes difficult as the two opposing seasons and conventions that Frye associated with genres are pitted against each other. But in fact arguments about generic blends such as tragicomedy go back to the Renaissance
Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

, and Frye always conceived of genres as fluid. Frye thought literary forms were part of a great circle and were capable of shading into other generic forms. (He contemplated including a diagram of his wheel in Anatomy of Criticism
Anatomy of Criticism
Herman Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays attempts to formulate an overall view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism derived exclusively from literature...

but thought better of it.)

Examples of Archetypes in Literature


Femme Fatale
Femme fatale
A femme fatale is a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She is an archetype of literature and art...

: A female character type who brings upon catastrophic and disastrous events. Eve
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve were, according to the Genesis creation narratives, the first human couple to inhabit Earth, created by YHWH, the God of the ancient Hebrews...

 from the story of Genesis or Pandora
Pandora
In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman. As Hesiod related it, each god helped create her by giving her unique gifts...

 from Greek mythology are two such figures.

The Journey: A narrative archetype where the protagonist must overcome a series of obstacles before reaching his or her goal. The quintessential journey archetype in Western culture is arguably Homer
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

’s Odyssey
Odyssey
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature...

.

Archetypal symbols vary more than archetype narratives or character types. The best archetypal pattern is any symbol with deep roots in a culture's mythology, such as the forbidden fruit in Genesis or even the poison apple in Snow White
Snow White
"Snow White" is a fairy tale known from many countries in Europe, the best known version being the German one collected by the Brothers Grimm...

. These are examples of symbols that resonate with archetypal critics.

See also

  • Comparative mythology
    Comparative mythology
    Comparative mythology is the comparison of myths from different cultures in an attempt to identify shared themes and characteristics. Comparative mythology has served a variety of academic purposes...

  • Jungian archetypes
    Jungian archetypes
    Carl Jung created the archetypes which “are ancient or archaic images that derive from the collective unconscious” Also known as innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic symbols or representations of unconscious experience emerge...

  • Monomyth
    Monomyth
    Joseph Campbell's term monomyth, also referred to as the hero's journey, is a basic pattern that its proponents argue is found in many narratives from around the world. This widely distributed pattern was described by Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces...

  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces
    The Hero with a Thousand Faces
    The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a non-fiction book, and seminal work of comparative mythology by Joseph Campbell...