Archetype: Generally, the original model from which something is developed or made; in literary criticism, those images, figures, character types, settings, and story patterns that, according to twentieth-century Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung, are universally shared by people across cultures. Archetypes are embedded deep in humanity’s collective unconscious and involve “racial memories” of situations, events, and relations that have been part of human experience from the beginning. They not only manifest themselves in the subconscious material of dreams but are also persistently expressed in the more consciously constructed material of myths and literature. Jung postulated that when an author recounts a narrative based on such unconscious memories, the reader’s mind is subconsciously stirred, producing a singularly powerful psychological effect because the memories evoke primordial feelings, concerns, and responses that cannot logically be explained.
Literary critics who follow Jung’s theory seek to identify archetypes within both specific works and literature in general. Referred to as archetypal, Jungian, or (even more commonly) myth critics, they look for and analyze certain recurrent images, character types, and story lines under the assumption that their persistence in literature indicates their presence in the memories of the collective unconscious. Some practitioners of archetypal criticism use the term archetype in a more limited fashion to refer to recurrent elements and patterns in literature and other representational forms and discourses, but without reference to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. Preeminent among archetypal or myth critics was Canadian scholar Northrop Frye, whose interest was in images and symbols so prevalent in literature as to provide a common thread through the diverse literary experiences of individuals.
EXAMPLES: The snake is an archetypal image (or figure), as is the trickster (e.g., the spider Anansi in West African and Caribbean folklore, Br’er Rabbit in African American folklore, Coyote in many Native American traditions). The Flood is an archetypal image persistently expressed in the myths and literatures of most of the world’s cultures, even as the Savior is an archetypal personage. For instance, the Christian and Hindu observances of Easter and Mahashivarati, respectively, celebrate deliverance from death, with Easter commemorating the resurrection of Jesus and Mahashivarati commemorating the night Shiva drank a poison that threatened the world.