Archetype Definition

In literature, an archetype is a typical character, an action or a situation that seems to represent such universal patterns of human nature.

An archetype, also known as universal symbol, may be a character, a theme, a symbol or even a setting. Many literary critics are of the opinion that archetypes, which have a common and recurring representation in a particular human culture or entire human race, shape the structure and function of a literary work.

Carl Jung, Swiss psychologist, argued that the root of an archetype is in the “collective unconscious” of mankind. The phrase “collective unconscious” refers to experiences shared by a race or culture. This includes love, religion, death, birth, life, struggle, survival etc. These experiences exist in the subconscious of every individual and are recreated in literary works or in other forms of art.

Archetype Examples in Literature

Below is the analysis of common archetypes that exist in literature.

Archetypes in Characters

Example #1

The Hero: He or she is a character who predominantly exhibits goodness and struggles against evil in order to restore harmony and justice to society e.g. Beowulf, Hercules, D’artagnan from “The Three Musketeers” etc.

Example #2

The Mother Figure: Such a character may be represented as Fairy Mother who guides and directs a child, Mother Earth who contacts people and offers spiritual and emotional nourishment, and Stepmother who treats their stepchildren roughly.

Some examples are:

  • In Literature: Lucy and Madame Defarge from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, Disely from Faulkner’s “The sound and The Fury”, Gladriel from “Lord of the Rings”, Glinda from the “Wizard of Oz” etc.
  • In Fairy Tales: Characters such as the stepmother in “Cinderella”, fairy godmothers, Mother Goose, Little Red Riding Hood etc.
  • In Mythology: The mythological figures of Persephone, Demeter, Hecate, Gorgon, Medusa

Example #3

The Innocent Youth: He or she is inexperienced with many weaknesses and seeks safety with others but others like him/her because of the trust he or she shows in other people. Usually, the experience of coming of age comes in the later parts of the narratives such as Pip in Dickens’ “Great Expectation”, Nicholas in Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickelby”, Joseph from Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” etc.

Example #4

The Mentor: His or her task is to protect the main character. It is through the wise advice and training of a mentor that the main character achieves success in the world e.g. Gandalf in “The Lords of Rings”, Parson Adams in Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews”, and Senex in L’Engle’s “A Wind in the Door” etc.

Example #5

Doppelganger: It is a duplicate or shadow of a character that represents the evil side of his personality. Examples are in popular literary works such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Poe’s William Wilson, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde etc.

Example #6

The Scapegoat: A character that takes the blame of everything bad that happens e.g. Snowball in Orwell’s “Animal Farm” etc.

Example #7

The Villain: A character whose main function is to go to any extent to oppose the hero or whom the hero must annihilate in order to bring justice e.g. Shere Khan from Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” stories, Long John Silver from Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”” etc

Archetypes in Situations

Example #8

The Journey: The main character takes a journey that may be physical or emotional to understand his or her personality and the nature of the world. For example, Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews”, Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travel” etc.

Example #9

The Initiation: The main character undergoes experiences that lead him towards maturity. We find such archetypes in novels like Fielding‘s “History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”, Sterne‘s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”, Voltaire’s “Candide” etc.

Example #10

Good Versus Evil: It represents the clash of forces that represent goodness with those that represent evil. Examples of this archetype are in famous literary works like Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” etc.

Example #11

The Fall: The main character falls from grace in consequence of his or her own action e.g. Oedipus from Sophocles “Oedipus Rex”, Lear from Shakespeare’s “King Lear” etc.

Function of Archetype

The use of archetypical characters and situations gives a literary work a universal acceptance, as readers identify the characters and situations in their social and cultural context. By using common archetype, the writers attempt to impart realism to their works, as the situations and characters are drawn from the experiences of the world.

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6 comments for “Archetype

  1. Ryan Sedgwick
    December 12, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    Thank you, this has helped me a lot.

  2. Ald
    December 31, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Using this outline as a skeleton for any work is an excellent start.

  3. Abagail Cole
    January 4, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    This is an excellent source. Perfect for those schooling, and need something for English Lit, or other classes!

  4. Ayomide
    January 5, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Nice one. Thanks a lot

  5. Avery
    February 21, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    Thank you so much. This definitely helps a lot!

  6. Siddharth
    March 3, 2016 at 3:33 am

    Thank you. I was under a half assed understanding of archetypes. His has given me a clearer insight. Taking examples from Plato’s Republic.

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