Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction Analysis

Annis Pratt

Form and Content

Convinced that women’s fiction over the past three hundred years has formed a body of work with a continuity of themes and issues, Annis Pratt undertook an investigation into what specifically ties women’s fiction together. She based her research on the Jungian notion of archetypes. Psychologist Carl Jung had suggested that throughout history humans have been heir to unconscious, primordial images that exist across cultures and across time, which he named archetypes. Pratt set out to look for what archetypal images underlie women’s fiction, and whether these are the same images found in men’s fiction.

What she found was that although women writers share thematic patterns with male writers, they also have a thread of their own, expressing a peculiarly feminine body of concerns and issues. Examining a large number of women’s fictional writings, Pratt found that they seem to divide into several categories archetypally. Further, she discovered that when women write about the same archetypal themes as men, they look at the images from a different point of view.

An example is the mythical image Pratt chose for the frontispiece of her own book, that of the Greek nymph Daphne turning into a tree rather than be raped by the god Apollo. Noting that this same image would be evaluated differently by individuals and cultural groups with varying points of view, she gives some examples. Medieval Christians would focus on Daphne’s purity for going...

(The entire section is 476 words.)


While Annis Pratt accepts in her book the reality of Jungian archetypes, attempting to use this concept as a framework for understanding women’s fiction, it is possible to find value in Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction without any reference to Jungian theory. What Pratt analyzes is the themes of women’s fiction, which is a valid and helpful approach with or without the Jungian underpinnings.

The advantage of the archetypal framework is that Pratt is able to see how women authors have taken archetypal patterns used by men and transformed them into completely different themes based on women’s experiences of their own development within their restrictive patriarchal roles. She finds that, in reflecting the stages of women’s lives under patriarchal structures, women’s fiction can be grouped under three life-stages and a fourth category which might be called authentic relationship. This category is an androgynous lifestyle which is usually punished regardless of the life stage of the woman living it, but which can also serve as a model of female possibility.

What Pratt’s analysis does is to take the body of women’s fiction over the past three hundred years, sort it out, and group it together in such a way that it provides an illustrative pattern of the lives of Western women under patriarchy. The reader learns of the pain of choosing to follow prescribed roles that require giving up the developmental freedom and authentic eros of the green world. The reader learns of the paradoxes and sacrifices of women enclosed within marriage and family. The reader learns of the consequences of the chosen relationship, whether it be heterosexual, woman-to-woman, or the relationship of the woman in solitude to herself. Finally, the reader learns of the freedom many women finally find at the end of their lives to pursue their own destiny. In essence, Pratt’s analysis is a picture of the three life-stages of the ancient goddess, as distorted by patriarchy: the maiden, the mother, and the crone.

Pratt’s book is also a history of women in patriarchy. Although patriarchal structures go back much further than the three hundred years in her analysis, the images and issues that she presents and the stories that she discusses create a portrait of women’s lives over this time period.


Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1869. Reprint. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1947. This popular novel of the Civil War period chronicles the lives of a mother and her four daughters, each with a distinct personality and approach to life. Pratt suggests that the character of Jo fits into the theme of the young woman struggling between authentic development and submission to patriarchal restriction.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1962. A popular nineteenth century novel about two young women in England and the choices they make from within the range allowed for women of their time. Pratt describes this book as an example of novels of marriage.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Reprint. London: Longmans, Green, 1959. The story of a young orphan growing up in nineteenth century rural England and of the hurdles that she had to overcome, including the struggle to fulfill her love for her employer, Rochester. Pratt uses this book as an example of the disapproval given to females who declare their love, or to authors who allow them to do so unpunished.

Harding, M. Esther. Woman’s Mysteries Ancient and Modern. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Discussed extensively by Pratt in her opening explanation of archetypes, this work takes the Jungian archetypal framework and applies it to women’s use of the archetypes, particularly in the realm of spirituality and mythology.

Jung, Carl G. Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. Jung’s theory of archetypes, which are present across cultures and across history in what he calls the collective unconscious, is the basis for Pratt’s study. This work by Jung will explain further what these concepts mean.

Sarton, May. Journal of a Solitude. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973. This autobiographical journal takes the reader through a year in the author’s life. Past midlife, she reflects on the importance of solitude while at the same time juggling the demands of friendships, her love relationships, and her writing.