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Archetype Definition: a common character, image, symbol, or situation that occurs in literature and in life, and considered to be universal across most cultures

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Archetype - Universal Ideas

All works of literature from all time periods and cultures are recognized to have similar themes and ideas, despite their geographical distance from one another. What causes this phenomenon? Many of these stories explore the most common theme of all: the human condition. Humans are brave, flawed, and face many dangers, both internally and from nature, and these are often reflected in common ways in stories across the globe. Authors of these stories use archetypes to create a setting, form, characters, or symbols that are universal. Readers often feel more connected to works of literature that use ideas and concepts they are already familiar with. For example, the Bildungsroman is an archetypal form of literature that many readers will recognize immediately. In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, both Pip and Scout face villains, tests, have allies and mentors, and reach a point of maturity on their journeys from childhood to adulthood. Readers that are already familiar with these ideas and concepts can see deeper meanings revealed by the archetypes.

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Notable Archetype Examples in Literature


The Villain
The Mentor
The Sidekick

Symbols or Motifs

Light vs. Darkness
Winter/Death vs. Spring/Life
Red as Sacrifice or Passion

Be sure to check out our article, Archetypes!

Learn more about various devices in literature in our Picture Encyclopedia of Literary Elements!
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