Benefits of a Jungian Archetypal Approach to Literature

My previous posts outlined six objections to using Jungian archetypal theory as a method for approaching a work of literature. This post presents a few of the benefits that come with using Jung’s theory as a tool for literary analysis.


Jung writes that “the human psyche is the womb of all the arts and sciences,”[1] meaning that the creative process is originates in the psyche, and literature then may be considered a psychological subject.[2] The extent to which psychology deals with “the process of artistic creation”[3] means that psychology may interpret art, but cannot define art, a task Jung leaves to aesthetics.


According to Susan Rowland, Jung believes that art reflects society’s problems and expresses the “cultural consciousness” and “surface preoccupations” of a given time.[4] As an observer of human struggle, art serves humanity in a compensatory capacity and shapes the energy of ignored or neglected social attitudes into images or archetypes, that transforms these attitudes into “something strange yet mysteriously necessary to the culture” and the individual.[5] An author, Jung writes, demonstrates “the unspoken desire of [the] times and shows the way” in which humanity may satisfy this need.[6] As a compensatory aspect of society’s world, Jung states, art “represents a process of self-regulation”[7] in which, Edward F. Edinger notes, “[l]anguage, art, drama and learning” hold a mirror to society’s beliefs and practices.[8] A culture or collective may “fail to experience” the “true symbolic value” of an artistic or literary work, Rowland observes, until that society has evolved to a point where it is able, and perhaps more willing, to understand the work’s message of adjustment and what it requires for a renewal of social balance.[9] David L. Shores insists that the literary critic must remain mindful of pursing the work of art rather than the author, a caveat intended to help critics avoid misunderstanding psychological literary analysis as an activity of author profiling.[10]


For Daniel Russell Brown, Jungian theory is “one of the best solutions for combining the various demands of human thinking,” specifically “the analytical and spiritual,” which merge in Jung’s theory of archetypes.[11] Because it is impossible to avoid finding archetypes in literature,[12] Brown writes, Jung’s archetypal theory “offer[s] an unusually delicate critical tool” that examines archetypes “to see if important aspects [of the literature’s meaning] have been overlooked.”[13]


According to Bert O. States, archetypes are part of humanity’s “social experience as a whole”[14] and, rather than remaining within a fixed scheme of interpretation from era to era and culture to culture, archetypes are “infinitely tolerant of new content,” and therefore, remain “ever fresh, ever archaic.”[15] The adaptability of archetypes, Brown writes, permits each culture to create its own “minor myths” that help achieve its societal goals.[16]


In sum, the benefits of a Jungian approach to literature include:

  1. Creativity is a psychological process because it is born in the psyche. Literature, a creative product, also then comes from the psyche. Thus, it is fitting to use a psychological approach for a work that originates in the psyche.
  2. Art reflects the concerns of a society and mirrors life for people so that we can look at our situation from another perspective. This reflects creativity’s contribution to the psyche’s self-regulating process: the psyche knows what we need to see and produces imagery that reflects these needs, so that we may reflect on those needs in an objective manner.
  3. Archetypes are everywhere in literature, so Jung’s archetypal theory provides a way to decode the meaning behind these archetypes and perhaps reveal some aspect that has been otherwise overlooked.
  4. Because archetypes have an intellectual and spiritual character, using archetypal theory helps understand the intellectual and spiritual needs communicated within a work of art.
  5. The meaning of archetypes change over time, given the person doing the interpreting and the culture in which the artist/author lives. Thus, the imagery remains simultaneously new and old. In other words, archetypes are adaptable. Because of their consistent existence and adaptable nature, Jung’s archetypal theory helps investigate works at every point of their existence to discover how that work speaks to the current generation.


Although brief, this discussion of benefits suggest that Jungian archetypal theory, when used to approach a literary work in a holistic manner, stands to uncover a complex view of an author’s involuntary and spontaneous psychological response to conflict with societal demands.



Next time: Why use Jungian archetypal theory to investigate The Master and Margarita?


[1] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, trans. by R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 15 (Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 1966), par. 133.

[2] Jung, CW 15:97.

[3] Jung, CW 15:97.

[4] Susan Rowland, Jung as a Writer (London: Routledge, 2005), 10-11.

[5] Rowland, Jung as a Writer, 10-11.

[6] Jung, CW 15:153.

[7] Jung, CW 15:131.

[8] Edward F. Edinger, The Creation of Consciousness: Jung’s Myth for Modern Man (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1984), 40.

[9] Rowland, Jung as a Writer, 9.

[10] See David L. Shores, “Psychoanalysis in Literary Study,” Peabody Journal of Education 43, no. 5 (Mar., 1966): 293-98.

[11] Daniel Russell Brown, “A Look at Archetypal Criticism,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 28, no. 4 (Summer, 1970): 467.

[12] Brown, “A Look at Archetypal Criticism,” 472.

[13] Brown, “A Look at Archetypal Criticism,” 465.

[14] Bert O. States, “The Persistence of the Archetype,” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 2 (Winter, 1980): 337, emphasis in original.

[15] States, “The Persistence of the Archetype,” 334.

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

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