Archetypes and Archetypal Criticism

Back to the Literature Home Page

To Character Archetypes

To Plot Patterns/Elements Archetypes

To Archetypal Images/Symbolism

To Four Archetypal Narrative Patterns


The popular saying “when they made you, they threw away the mold” hints that literally the statue or figuratively the person is singular, exceptional, unique.  With no mold or pattern to follow, a duplicate is impossible.  An archetype, however, is the mold that has not been discarded.  The archetypal mold, flexible and long-lasting, provides many close copies of the original.  Consider possibly the most popular archetype of all—the Hero.  John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones are strikingly different actors, but as heroes who overcome the obstacles in their respective paths, they are undoubtedly from the same mold, an obviously flexible one given the girth of Wayne.  The hero archetype appears in every culture; it’s a favorite mold of humanity.

     An archetype then is a pattern or prototype of character types, images, descriptive details, and plot patterns that find their way from our minds to our myths to our literature to our lives (Holman 34).  The psychologist Carl Jung, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, first popularized the use of the term archetype (pronounced ark-uh-type) when he postulated the theory that, similar to the instincts of animals, humans are born with a “collective unconscious,” a level below the conscious and subconscious, wherein the source of the archetypes or the molds exist.  He believed it was this collective unconscious that gave humans certain predispositions to specific stimuli.  In other words, we all respond to archetypes in the same way because our minds are made the same way and “preprogrammed” by thousands of years of human experience.  Some texts refer to this idea as a “racial memory,” as in human race.  A fair analogy might be the mind reacts to an archetype in the same way that the body reacts when a doctor taps the knee with a hammer—reflexively and predictably.  As a product of our collective unconscious, archetypes naturally found their way into our subconscious and our dreams.  Jung believed he could analyze his patients by focusing on the archetypal elements of their dreams.  From dreams archetypes migrated to myths, the stories we told to explain our world before science arrived to help, the stories that reveal our “deepest instinctual life,” the stories that reveal to us our inner selves (Guerin 159).  Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, believed that there was really just one universal hero story. Anthropologists like James Frazer have reinforced the universality of archetypes by finding that peoples who could never have encountered each other have the same archetypes in their myths and rituals.  From mythology archetypes made the short hop into literature.  From our minds to our myths to our literature is a natural progression that shows us that the study of literature is the study of ourselves, archetypes included.

      So what the heck does one do with archetypes?  Take note of them and use them to explain the story and its appeal to the reader. Patterns that frequent literature and have universal appeal bear watching because they help explain both story and humanity.  Use the archetypal hammer to tap your brain’s knee and watch the results.  They should help you see what the author intended on many levels. You may have never noticed these before on a conscious level, but by viewing this table you’ll see just how familiar they are.  Archetypal literary criticism can also augment other types of literary criticism.

Character Archetypes

Three sources were compiled for these tables:,, and the source below.

 The Hero
 The protagonist on a literal or figurative journey often from childhood to adulthood, innocence to experience.
The antagonist or character blocking the hero’s path.
The hero’s inner evil, the dark side of his psyche that makes success difficult or impossible unless accepted.
Mother and Father
Yup, the parental units are near and dear to our hearts and especially our minds because of their nurturing or lack thereof.
The Wise Old Man
 A mentor, a teacher, a counselor
The Friendly Beast
This shows that nature is pro-hero.
The Devil
 The bad, bad person who tempts the hero
The Scapegoat
 A person (or animal) whose death relieves others of a sin or wrong
The Outcast
 A character banished because of his wrong doing; often a wanderer
The Earth Mother
 A female character, naturally, who offers spiritual and emotional comfort
The Temptress or Terrible Mother
 A female who tempts the hero and tries to bring about his end.  Synonyms include femme fatale, witch, sorceress, and siren because these suggest the magical powers of a seductive woman.
The Platonic or Perfect Woman
 The hero has primarily an intellectual love for this woman who inspires his best.  
The Unfaithful Wife
 Cheater, cheater.
The Damsel in Distress
 Help me!  Help me, please!
Star-crossed Lovers
 Lovers fated to suffer a tragic end.
The Trickster
 This character has a negative nature, a character that might be a fraud, a prankster, a con man, a joker, etc. However, they might be helpful to the hero at some point.
And Many More…
 This list is by no means an exhaustive one.
Back to the Top

Plot Patterns/Elements Archetypes

The Quest
The search for someone or something that will restore rightness to the hero’s world that involves hardships, monsters, or riddles (literal or figurative in nature like all of these) Vogler's Version of the Quest Archetype
The Task
The hero must perform a deed beyond the norm.
The Initiation or Transformation
The hero undergoes a hazing to pass from ignorance and immaturity to social and spiritual adulthood. It usually occurs in three stage: separation, transformation, and return and thusly may include the fall and death/rebirth
The Journey
In search of information, the hero passes into a real or figurative hell from which he may emerge after he discovers the blackest truths of himself
The Fall
The hero falls to a lower level from a comparative heaven after a loss of innocence and happiness because of a transgression, a wrong.
Death and Rebirth
Usually a metaphorical death, a spiritual or emotional death and reviving of the spirit and emotions
Nature vs. the Mechanical World
Nature good, machines bad.
The Unhealable Wound
A physical or psychological wound that indicates a loss of innocence
The Ritual
Weddings, baptisms, coronations—real or figurative—that mark a rite of passage to another state or level
The Magic Weapon
The Hero’s weapon that no one else can use to its full potential if at all.
Paradise, innocence, unspoiled beauty, fertility
Life of the cosmos, immortality
Spiritual aridity, death, nihilism, hopelessness

Back to the Top

Archetypal Images

Archetypal images are often just labeled as examples of symbolism, but they are able to symbolize because of their archetypal origin. The only source for this table of archetypes is A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature (Guerin 161-166). 

Water has archetypal possibilities in every form it takes.  It can represent purification, redemption, birth-death-resurrection, sadness, etc.
The Sea
The mother of all life, spiritual mystery and infinity, death and rebirth, timelessness, eternity, and often the unconscious mind
Death/rebirth, the flowing of time, the life cycle, gods
Creative energy, natural law, the conscious mind, the father principle; the rising sun is birth, creation, and enlightenment while the setting sun is death.
Red: blood, sacrifice, violent passion: disorder

Green: growth, sensation, hope, fertility or negatively death/decay

Blue: truth, religious feeling security, purity

Black:  chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, evil, melancholy (sadness), primal wisdom

White:  light, purity, innocence, timelessness or death, terror, the supernatural or blinding truth
A mandala, figure that represents the desire for spiritual unity and integration
The Egg
The mystery of life
That funky Chinese symbol for a union of opposites: male-female, light-dark, activity-passivity, conscious-unconscious
Symbol of energy, pure force, evil, corruption, sensuality, destruction, mystery, wisdom, the unconscious
Three:  light, spiritual awareness, and unity, the male principle

Four:  associated with the circle, the life cycle (seasons) earth, nature (four elements)

Seven: the sum of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order
Back to the Top

Four Archetypal Narrative Patterns

These survive, according to Frye, “because they are fundamental structures of the human imagination, perennially useful ways of perceiving the world we experience.”

 A world where goals are achieved and dreams fulfilled.
Goals are thwarted and nightmares become reality
Moving from a desirable state to an undesirable one
From an undesirable state to a desirable one
Literature uses all these archetypes, but usually in camouflaged ways.  No literal magic weapon or damsel in a tower waiting for aid or garden appears in most stories, but figuratively they do.  A magic weapon can simply be a character’s education or skills; the damsel can be a woman with a flat tire on the roadside; the garden can be any peaceful, natural place like a park or a character’s dream world.  A journey can be a spiritual journey. When the archetypes are used literally, the stories can become more mythological and dated but no less enjoyable.  Consider The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars trilogies.

Back to the Top

Back to the Literature Home Page