In this lesson, we’ll learn about archetypes in literature, those recurring situations or character types that we immediately connect with. After we consider a full definition of an archetype and many possible examples, you’ll be sure to spot one in your next book or movie.
Definition of Archetype
If you’ve ever watched Braveheart or Gladiator and felt your pulse increase as the heroes overcome unimaginable odds to slay the enemy and proclaim vengeance for a lost love, you’ve already encountered an archetype.An archetype is a character, symbol or behavioral pattern that is basically a universal template for a character that is copied throughout all forms of storytelling. Some archetypes may even transcend cultural differences in stories. Because an archetype speaks to the basic human experience, it communicates meaning and emotion in all forms of literature – from folklore to the classics.Taken from the Greek archetupon, which means ‘pattern’ or ‘model,’ archetype was first seen in the writings of Plato and then later Sophocles, although it was officially coined and popularized by the psychologist Carl Jung.
Since stories communicate truths about who we are (identity) and where we’re going (destination), the most common archetypes are character and symbolism/situation. Let’s discuss these through some examples.
Examples of Archetypes
Picture Rapunzel trapped in her tower, and you’ll see one of the most classic and timeless forms of a character archetype: the damsel in distress. This archetype shows up in almost every adventure or love story, and you’re almost 100% guaranteed to see her paired with the hero, another character archetype.Character archetypes are varied and include protagonists, antagonists and the people in between.
Other character archetypes include the creature of nightmare (Grendel), loyal retainers (Ron and Hermione to Harry Potter) and star-crossed lovers (Romeo and Juliet), and many more. One popular character archetype is the outcast; we see an example of this with Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Because of Myshkin’s epileptic episodes, he is somewhat of an outcast, and Dostoyevsky capitalizes on this ‘flaw’ in Russian society to explore a protagonist with a beautiful and charitable nature. In many cases, the archetype of an outcast will also function as a Christ-like figure, another archetype.
Many of us read books or watch films to better understand ourselves and the world – there are situations or common life experiences that are characteristic of the human experience.
These include: coming of age, a journey, loss of innocence, ceremony, the task, rebirth and so on.Let’s look more closely at an example of a journey in the short story The Worn Path by Eudora Welty. In the short story, the protagonist Phoenix Jackson, an old African American woman, is on a journey to save her grandson. It’s a journey of love, but Welty also implies that Phoenix is on a second journey of the mind. We get the impression from Welty’s title and various descriptions that at least an aspect of the journey is navigating a failing mind. We all face aging and the ultimate deadline of death, so we can empathize with this character who seems lost in the maze of dementia.
In short, literature captures our interest because it is both familiar and unfamiliar. We recognize ourselves and/or the world in archetypes – the characters and symbols/situations that represent the human experience. Archetypes are a foundation of literature because they encapsulate those distinctive things that make us human while being universally relatable.
Completing this lesson should help you feel comfortable with the following tasks:
- Define archetypes and explain their purpose in literature
- Describe examples of character and symbolism archetypes