Archetypal criticism

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Archetypal criticism

Archetypal criticism: A type of literary criticism that emerged in the 1930s focusing on those patterns in a particular literary work that commonly recur in other literary works. Archetypal criticism owes its origin chiefly to the work of the Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung, who argued that humanity has a collective unconscious that manifests itself in dreams, myths, and literature through archetypes: persistent images, figures, and story patterns shared by people across diverse cultures. Archetypal criticism was also influenced by the studies of a group of Cambridge University anthropologists who found that certain myths and rituals recurred in a wide variety of cultures.

Critics taking an archetypal approach to literature seek to identify archetypes within both specific works and literature in general. Some argue that the presence of certain recurrent images, story lines, character types, and so forth is ipso facto evidence of their status as memories in the collective unconscious; others refer to persistent elements and patterns in literature (and other forms of representation) as archetypes without reference to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.

Heavily influenced by Maud Bodkins’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934), archetypal criticism emerged as a dominant critical practice in the 1950s and 1960s. The influential Canadian critic Northrop Frye further explored and refined archetypal criticism in The Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Incorporating into archetypal criticism a typological interpretation of the Bible and the visionary poet William Blake’s concept of imagination, Frye challenged the conventional terrain of literary criticism and theory. He proposed the existence of four mythoi (types of plots) that formed the basis of the four major genres, each of which has archetypal associations with one of the four seasons: comedy (spring), romance (summer), tragedy (fall), and satire (winter). Frye viewed the vast corpus of literary works as a “self-contained literary universe,” one created by the human imagination to quell fears and fulfill wishes by reducing nature in all its threatening vastness and incomprehensibility to a set of basic, manageable (archetypal) forms.

EXAMPLE: A “Fryed” reading of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” (1832), a poem about a virgin who dies after glimpsing Sir Lancelot from the lonely tower in which she lives, would view it as a tragedy whose overall archetypicality is autumnal but that also contains other archetypal images, such as the river, the virgin bower/tower, the unrequited lover, and the phallic male.