Self-portraits of the instincts. The instinctive forces and instinctive strategies or ways of behaving. 'Archetypal images' are the symbols through which these instinctive things show themselves in dreams.

Archetypal images include symbols that occur in mythology, fairytales and religions. They are older than mankind and belong to the collective unconscious. Archetypal images are symbols that represent contents within the psyche that were never conscious experiences.

They are the 'universal' symbols that are available to us all even though we have no knowledge of them in our waking lives.

Archetypes are common psychic structures that parallel the common human physical stucture.

Understanding literary archetypes

This is a guide to help you understand and appreciate literary archetypal references, including different types and examples.

Archetypal analysis of a work is one of the most common forms of literary analysis. It is easy to understand and use with a little knowledge of the basics.

First of all, an archetype is a pattern from which copies can be made. That is, it is a universal theme that manifests itself differently on an individual basis. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that these archetypes were the result of a collective unconscious. This collective unconscious was not directly knowable and is a product of the shared experiences of our ancestors. Jung believed it was:

Primordial: That is, we, as individuals, have these archetypal images ingrained in our understanding even before we are born.

Universal: These archetypes can be found all over the world and throughout history. The manifestation of the idea may be different, but the idea itself is the same.

Archetypes fall into two major categories: characters, situations/symbols. It is easiest to understand them with the help of examples. Listed below are some of the most common archetypes in each category.


The hero - The courageous figure, the one who's always running in and saving the day. Example: Dartagnon from Alexandre Dumas's "The Three Musketeers"

The outcast - The outcast is just that. He or she has been cast out of society or has left it on a voluntary basis. The outcast figure can oftentimes also be considered as a Christ figure. Example: Simon from William Golding's "The Lord of the Flies"

The scapegoat - The scapegoat figure is the one who gets blamed for everything, regardless of whether he or she is actually at fault. Example: Snowball from George Orwell's "Animal Farm"

The star-crossed lovers - This is the young couple joined by love but unexpectedly parted by fate. Example: Romeo and Juliet from William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet"

The shrew - This is that nagging, bothersome wife always battering her husband with verbal abuse. Example: Zeena from Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome"


The task - A situation in which a character, or group of characters, is driven to complete some duty of monstrous proportion. Example: Frodo's task to keep the ring safe in J. R. R. Tolkein's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy

The quest - Here, the character(s) are searching for something, whether consciously or unconsciously. Their actions, thoughts, and feelings center around the goal fo completing this quest. Example: Christian's quest for salvation in John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress"

The loss of innocence - This is, as the name implies, a loss of innocence through sexual experience, violence, or any other means. Example: Val's loss of innocence after settling down at the mercantile store in Tennessee William's "Orpheus Descending"

The initiation - This is the process by which a character is brought into another sphere of influence, usually (in literature) into adulthood. Example: Ayla's initiation both into the Clan and into adulthood in Jean Auel's "The Clan of the Cave Bear"

Water - Water is a symbol of life, cleansing, and rebirth. It is a strong life force, and is often depicted as a living, reasoning force. Example: Edna learns to swim in Kate Chopin's "The Awakening"

Hopefully, you will now be able to recognize and understand archetypes as you come across them in your readings. They help to add depth and underlying significance to some of the world's best literature.

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