Literary Criticism Questions and Answers

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Comment critically on the relevance and limitations of the mythic-archetypal approaches to literature.

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Mythic-archetypal interpretation contends that there are universal symbols and motifs encoded in all literature (and, unconsciously, in human minds) across time and place. For example, "the journey" is a repeated motif throughout literature. A staircase might be the universal symbol of the ascent to heaven. Bachelard, in his book The Poetics of Space, argues that all sorts of spaces and domestic items have a mythic, archetypal significance. For example, a light in the window of a cabin symbolizes safety and homecoming across cultures.

This way of interpreting literature has value in that we often can see archetypal structures throughout literary works, and this can help us understand the appeal of certain works and the way they use archetypes, even if unconsciously, to impart information about characters. For instance, Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby wandering the streets of New York at night after work and looking longingly into lit windows fits the archetype of a search for safety and helps us to understand his loneliness.

Nevertheless, myths and archetypes have been criticized by theorists such as Roland Barthes for flattening history. We do not live entirely, or even mostly, in an unchanging universe but in a world that is in constant flux due to the influence of history. Mythic-archetypal criticism can overstate how different societies are alike. We may share common archetypes with the medieval world, for example, but we are not the "same" as the people of those times. Mythic criticism has therefore been attacked, especially by Marxists, as inherently conservative or even reactionary, implying that nothing can improve and that history does not really matter.

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