3 More Objections to Jungian Literary Criticism

My previous post outline three objections against a Jungian approach to literary analysis. This post offers three more:

Objection 4: Jungian literary criticism is nothing more than source hunting, or finding the external sources of a text.

While “[t]he discovery of the presence of mythic elements is a beginning,” Brown states, “identification [of these mythic elements] is not the end of criticism.”[1] A Jungian analysis of The Master and Margarita based solely on its Faustian, Gogolian, Dostoyevskian, and/or Tolstoyan elements, for example, reduces the novel to a work of imitation and excludes the uniquely Bulgakovian elements of the text. This type of critical approach does little if anything to illuminate the contents of The Master and Margarita and only confirms that Bulgakov read these other authors and was influenced by them. In response to this objection, Jung might say that his approach to literary theory seeks to discover the internal sources of a text, that is, the unconscious psychic sources that call up various symbols and archetypes found within the text. For this reason, Jung asserted that interpretation of archetypes cannot occur without “taking up the context,” [2] or examining the context of the individual to whom the archetype belongs.


Objection 5: Jungian literary criticism ignores aspects of a text that do not fit within an archetypal interpretation.

Jung noted in his method of dream interpretation that an individual could not remove aspects of a dream to arrive at the meaning that best suited her or him. That, Jung would say, creates a misleading and incorrect interpretation. You cannot remove elements of a text to create the archetypal experience that you want. Jung does acknowledge that some symbols and archetypes are not as meaningful as others; sometimes an image is what it is and bears no deeper significance. In such cases, Jung would advise his patients (and analysts alike) to keep the image, and the interpretation of the image as simple as possible. This objection seems to go hand in hand with the assumption that, when examined psychologically, every image, conversation, or plot point must mean something extraordinarily significant.


Objection 6: Jungian literary criticism is mystical, and anything mystical is suspect. [3]

Jung acknowledged his process was too mystical for Westerners who may have lost touch with their religious roots and do not understand “why a self should become a reality when it enters into a relationship with the world on the first day of creation.”[4] Dreams, on which Jung’s theory of archetypes and active imagination are based, contain humanity’s religious impulse; however, Jung observed, modern humanity has difficulty viewing dreams as a place of religious encounter. [5] Since the divine chiefly communicates with humanity through dreams, [6] it follows that the symbols and archetypes found in dreams and active imagination would bear religious themes as well. [7] Any mystical aspects detected within Jungian theory reflect the natural and spontaneous religious impulse of the individual in whose psyche these symbols and archetypes appear. Given that Bulgakov proclaimed himself “a MYSTICAL WRITER” in a letter to Stalin, [8] using an equally mystical interpretive approach to explore this work seems fitting.


These six objections demonstrate a misunderstanding of Jung’s purpose. Rather than using a work to establish a full psychological profile of an author, a Jungian critical analysis of literature focuses on the work as a unified whole, the symbolic and archetypal content within the work, and the manner in which these contents function for the author. In its focus on the function of the work rather that the work’s association with neurotic symptoms, a Jungian view of literature concentrates on the psychological and spiritual support the act of composition provides an author. The notion of Jung’s so-called “mystical” association also serves to facilitate a discussion of a novel in a religious context as it addresses the spiritual nature of creative processes (i.e., active imagination) involved in an individual’s spontaneous psychological response to life struggles.

Despite the various objections made against the use of Jungian theory in literary analysis, Jungian theory remains a beneficial tool for literary interpretation.

Next time: The benefits of using Jungian literary theory.


[1] Daniel Russell Brown, “A Look at Archetypal Criticism,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 28, no. 4 (Summer, 1970): 468.

[2] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Practice of Psychotherapy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 16 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), par. 339.

[3] Brown, “A Look at Archetypal Criticism,” 467.

[4] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed. Vol. 14 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 762.

[5] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Civilization in Transition, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 10 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), par. 330.

[6] C. G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1968), 92.

[7] See Jung CW 10:330; C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Psychology and Religion, West and East, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 11 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 39.

[8] See Letter from Bulgakov to Stalin of 28 March 1930 in Mikhail i Elena Bulgakova, Dnevnik Mastera i Margarity, ed.s I. V. Andon’eva and V. P. Kochetov (Moscow: Vagrius, 1998), 86.


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