Introduction to Archetypes

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Introduction to Archetypes

Literature begins with myth, which is man’s effort to explain the natural world and humanity’s place in it. Confronted with a complex world, man imaginatively created a golden age or a “garden of Eden” where he and the universe were in complete harmony. This world or time was lost, but man seeks to lead our imagination back to it. It is this quest for identity and understanding that is the framework of all literature. Archetypes and archetypal stories are used by storytellers in different forms, cultures, and periods of time to communicate what it means to be human.

In this course, students will:

  • Identify and explain the archetypes present in a text(s), including the archetypal story.

  • Analyze and interpret a text using archetypes from the appropriate archetypal story.

  • Identify and explain connections between various archetypes.

  • Explain how archetypes contribute to understanding a work as a whole.

  • Explain how archetypes contribute to understanding the world and experiences of humanity

Essential Questions:

  • Where does meaning come from in texts?

  • How can we approach texts as literary artifacts?

  • How do archetypes contribute to understanding a work as a whole?

  • How do archetypes contribute to understanding the world and experiences of humanity?

Key Concepts & Vocabulary:

  • Archetype - A story, situation, symbol, or character that recurs in different forms, cultures, and periods of time.

    • Situational archetype - Common plots, conflicts, or themes in a work of literature, e.g. the hero’s journey.

    • Symbolic archetype - Common settings, objects, or visuals that represent something beyond themselves in a work of literature, e.g. heaven/hell, colors, nature.

    • Character archetype - Common characters that embody essential characteristics and values in a work of literature, e.g. hero, mentor, damsel in distress.

  • Denotation - The literal, most basic definition of a word or phrase; the dictionary definition.

  • Connotation - A secondary, often commonly associated meaning for a word or phrase.

  • Archetypal story - A basic plot about different kinds of the human experiences; each includes a particular set of archetypes. The four central stories exist on a continuum and are each related to one another; the cycle allows us to see how all of literature forms a related, interlocking “family” of stories:

    • Satire & Irony - In satire, we criticize and poke fun at the impossible ideal world of romance; in irony, we look at the difference between the real world and romance with a sense of resignation. In tragedy, we are sad and actively dealing with the realization of death and loss; the result of this process is either to criticize the world using satire or give up trying to make sense of the world in irony. As comedy begins, society is still too strong and a person cannot succeed, but eventually we move away from anger and despair towards hope and possibility.

    • Romance - The innocence of romance is lost and one might react with a desire to change the world for the better (satire) or with resignation and a sense of hopelessness (irony). When the ideal world of romance disappears or distorts, we have to deal with harsh reality found in tragedy. Comedy is an effort to get back to the ideal world of romance.

    • Tragedy - The losses experienced in tragedy lead to the anger or criticism that exists in satire; the realizations in tragedy lead to a sense of resignation in irony. In tragedy there is a realization that the ideal world of romance does not and cannot exist and the innocence of romance is lost. And while tragedy is a loss of innocence and hope, Comedy is an attempt to regain it.

    • Comedy - Comedy moves away from the anger and despair of satire and irony. The hope and new beginnings comedy produces turns into the adventure and ideal world of romance. It is also an attempt to regain the innocence lost in tragedy.

  • Theme - A central, universal message that is developed throughout the course of a work; there may be more than one in a given work. A theme is not a single word about a subject or an activity; it is a phrase, e.g. “love conquers all.”

  • Literary elements – Devices and techniques used by authors and readers to generate meaning in or for a work of literature (e.g. diction, characterization, metaphor, theme, etc.).

Satire & Irony

Satire and Irony are both reactions to the harsh realities of the world. When a person realizes that the world is not the way they want it to be, he/she can respond with either a desire to change the world for the better (satire) or with resignation and a sense of hopelessness (irony). Satire may include humorous or grim depictions of the difficulties of life, but it always ridicules ideas, customs, behaviors, or institutions for the purpose of improving society. Conversely, Irony depicts acceptance of ideas, customs, behaviors, or institutions with a sense of resignation that the world simply “is the way it is.” In both satire and irony stories, there is a strong awareness of reality and the way things are, as opposed to how they should be.

NOTE: Different forms of irony (verbal, situational, dramatic) can be used as literary elements in this or other kinds of stories. We also use the term “irony” to refer to the archetypal story because it has to do with a situation (life) in which an outcome (disappointment, hopelessness, and/or failure) is the opposite of what is expected or desired.
Central Theme: Hopelessness and the loss of an ideal world are inevitable, essential parts of life.

Associated Season: Winter

Key Satirical Devices:

  • Lack of logical plot - Events can occur without apparent reason or validity, making a story nonsensical or silly.

  • Thinly developed characters - While real people are complex, and cannot be simply categorized as “right” or “wrong,” the characters in a satire are purposely simple and generic. Characters represent a certain fault or folly and are a vehicle for conveying the author’s criticism about that greater problem.

  • Hyperbole - A description made by an intentional exaggeration for emphasis or comic effect. Examples are often magnified past the point of being realistic in order to expose the faults and follies of society, but the characters within the story usually do not recognize how absurd the situation is.

  • Borrowing of archetypes - Using an archetype, then breaking from its familiar pattern in order to challenge the audience’s expectations. This shows  difference between what is expected (the ideal), and what actually happens (an exaggeration of the real). Most often, archetypes are borrowed from romance.

  • Tone - An expression of a writer’s attitude toward a subject. It is important to distinguish between the tone of the story and mood, which is the feeling or atmosphere that a writer creates for the reader. Satirical tone is determined by the author’s attitude towards the faults and follies being criticized and may be one of the following:

    • Horatian - Gentle and smiling, it aims to correct apparent wrongs by mild and sympathetic laughter; the author is advocating for reform, but would hardly be characterized as angry or disgusted with the faults and follies in question.

    • Juvenalian - Bitter and biting; it aims to correct apparent wrongs by harsh and unsympathetic criticism; the author is advocating for reform, and is characterized as angry and disgusted by the faults and follies in question.

  • Implication - The central message is not directly stated, but is implied. Neither the narrator nor the characters are necessarily aware of the need for change, so the audience must infer what is being ridiculed.

Key Archetypes

  • The Anti-Hero - A clearly flawed person who embodies the error-prone ways of the human race and is unable to overcome their shortcomings. Key characteristics include:

    • Clumsiness or unluckiness, particularly in social or emotional matters

    • Incompetence or stupidity

    • Failure and frustration on a regular or frequent basis

    • Opposite to the strong, wise Romance hero

  • Mortality - Death is a final, unavoidable part of the human experience.

  • A World Without Meaning- The world is filled with hopelessness and there is nothing humans can do to avoid or overcome it.


Romance is our vision of an ideal, innocent world. In our imagination, this world is full of hope and possibility; people are at their happiest and in their most desirable circumstances. As a result, examples of this archetypal story provide the possibility for magic, mystery, and miracles. In romance stories, there is a strong awareness of the way things should be, as opposed to how they really are.

Central Theme: Adventure, conflict, and triumph are desirable, essential parts of life.

Associated Season: Summer

Key Archetypes:

  • A Place Apart - A perfect, idyllic setting of innocence and happiness where there is peace between people and animals. Usually described with lush, life-filled imagery, e.g. “the garden.” It is associated with youth of the individual and/or humanity.

  • O Sweet and Spontaneous Earth - Emphasis on “the simple life” and going “back to basics” where humans are close to nature and the earth. Technology and machinery can be dangerous and damage an ideal, nature-filled society.

  • The Romance Hero - A special person who embodies the highest and best qualities and values of the human race and fights against those people or forces who are against such ideals. Key characteristics include:

    • Unique or mysterious origins; raised in exile, poverty, and/or danger

    • Associated with youth in their age and/or optimism

    • Strong (mentally and/or physically), creative, and smart

    • Dreams of an ideal world and has a vision for something better than the present

    • Brings good to many people as a leader

  • The Hero’s Journey - The romance hero makes a perilous quest, which is often physical, but also mental/emotional. His or her adventure, conflict, and triumph represents the victory of all mankind. The following are stages of the Hero’s Journey:

      • The Known World - Hero's normal world before the journey begins.

        • Need for Change/Growth - Hero and/or society is in need of some kind of change.

        • Call (& Refusal) to Adventure - Hero is presented with a problem or challenge and may refuse the journey because s/he is scared.

      • The Threshold - Hero leaves the ordinary world and goes towards unknown adventure.

        • Meeting the Mentor - Hero meets a mentor to gain advice or training for the journey.

        • Supernatural Aid - Hero receives some kind of magical or mysterious help for his/her upcoming adventure.

      • Challenges & Temptations - Hero faces tests, confronts problems, and learns the ways of his/her new surroundings.

        • Helper(s) - Hero encounters allies and friends who support them in their journey.

        • Challenge(s) - Hero hits setbacks during their trials and may need to try a new idea or strategy.

      • Abyss & Transformation - Hero’s biggest “life or death” crisis and subsequent victory.

        • Death & Rebirth - Hero faces their most difficult challenge of the journey and must overcome his/her greatest fears.

        • Revelation - Hero discovers something important that changes how they view the world.

      • Return to the Known World - Hero returns to their normal world, but with wisdom from their adventure.

        • Reward(s) - Hero earns some kind of physical and/or emotional reward for their actions.

        • Evidence of Change/Growth - Hero returns from journey having changed in an important way.

  • Utopia - An ideal world, usually derived from a vision of a better future society. This ideal cannot be found in the current world, so there is a journey to find a better place. A true utopia allows for freedom of the human mind; technology can distract us and in seeking physical or biological perfection we can forget moral and mental growth.

  • The Serpent in the Garden - Romance is destroyed as evil corrupts innocence and the “real world” collides with the ideals of romance. The hero’s journey involves searching for dreams, but sometimes those dreams become nightmares in the face of the pain and sorrow of reality. This is an allusion to the serpent in the Judeo-Christian Bible’s Garden of Eden, and other examples include a fatal treasure, demon bride, and triumphant rival.


Tragedy is our realization that the world is not what we thought it was. As we gain experience in life, we lose our innocence, as experience often comes with great suffering and loss. As a result, examples of this archetypal story try to manage and understand the physical and emotional effects of catastrophe or death. In tragedy stories, there is a growing sense that bad things happen happen in the world, no matter what we do.

Central Theme: Disaster and loss are inevitable, essential parts of life.

Associated Season: Autumn

Key Archetypes:

  • Tragic Hero- A person of some power or influence who embodies the mortality of the human race and suffers a great downfall due to their choices. Key characteristics include:

    • Tragic flaw - Hero’s characteristic or personality trait that makes them prone to making a tragic choice; eg. ambition, ignorance, or excessive pride (hubris).

    • Tragic choice - Hero’s most serious error or mistake that contributes to their downfall; also known as hamartia.

    • Reversal of fortune - The hero’s actual downfall and point at which they lose their position of power, moving from a high position in society to a low one; also known as peripeteia or “falling from grace.”

    • Recognition - Hero sometimes gains self-knowledge or insight as a result of their experience; also known as anagnorisis.

  • Loss of Innocence - The realization that the world is not the way it should be, usually as a result of lies, knowledge, and/or suffering.

  • Loss of Innocent People - The death of young people or things who do not deserve to die.

  • Martyr - A person who voluntarily suffers death for a cause. Examples from history include Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Scapegoat - A person on whom others place blame in order to deal with senseless suffering. Examples from history include the Muslim community after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Japanese community in the United States after the Pearl Harbor bombing.

  • Fate - Choices do not matter; there is some higher power controlling our lives.


Comedy is our realization that the obstacles in the world are something we can work to overcome. As we embrace love and find ways around blocking forces in our lives, humans can regain their hope and optimism. As a result, examples of this archetypal story deal with the infallibility of the individual and collective human spirit. In comedy stories, there is a growing sense that good things can happen in the world if we stand up for what we want and believe in.

Central Theme: The renewal of hope, love, and the human spirit is an inevitable, essential part of life.

Associated Season: Spring

Key Archetypes

  • The Comic Hero - A normal, “average” person who who embodies the resilience of the human race and overcomes a strong blocking force due to their spirit. Key characteristics include:

    • Associated with youth in their age and/or optimism

    • Flawed in some way, so that they are seen as an “underdog” or “loveable loser”

    • Average to below-average in moral character

    • Witty and resourceful

    • Determined in their struggle against more powerful forces (i.e. the blocking character)

    • Struggles against more powerful forces; these forces are often representative of established society (see blocking character)

  • Blocking Character/Force - A character or force representative of established society, authority, and/or rigidity. Examples include the government or political figures, bosses, parents, and teachers.   

  • Phases of Comedy - These stages often inform the progression of comedy stories from a world of harsh reality to optimistic potential; not all phases are always used, or follow in this order:

    • The Way of the World - Society is too strong and the blocking character prevails over the comic hero, who is too innocent (to the point of ignorance) and lacks resourcefulness needed to succeed in a harsh world.

    • The World's Way Undone - The hero outwits the blocking character by overcoming his/her ignorance of the world and using resourcefulness to defeat blocking character. However, s/he may show questionable moral character and is more concerned at this point about personal than societal gain.

    • Love Conquers All - Love is a powerful force that can overcome all obstacles. The hero becomes less selfish because s/he’s driven towards finding love and/or family. This drive stems from the natural human desire to renew the human race through relationships, families, and communities.

    • The Beautiful Changes - Humans, like nature’s seasons, are prone to transformation. The comic hero and/or society undergoes a major change; the hero’s change may affect the societal change or coincide with it. Imagination often plays a key role in this transformation, as the potential for renewal stems from the mind.

    • From the Mountaintop - Society as a whole is seen as the comic hero as human life is viewed from a distance. By looking at the whole of society, we can see the natural connection and “brotherhood” between all human beings. This gives a view of a new, tolerant society detached from the negative aspects of the world.

    • The People Will Live On - No matter what happens, life will go on and we will remember the good more than the bad. Human beings are resilient and no matter what happens, we will carry on into the future.

Works Cited:

Fanous, Kate, and Liza Feldman, comps. Archetypes: A Guide to the Tenth-Grade Curriculum. Needham High School, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2013. .

Jewkes, W. T., and Northrop Frye. The Ways of the World: Satire and Irony. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Jewkes, W. T., and Northrop Frye. A World Elsewhere: Romance. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Jewkes, W. T., and Northrop Frye. A World Enclosed: Tragedy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Jewkes, W. T., and Northrop Frye. A World Remade: Comedy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

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