4.3 Archetypes in literature

6 min readjanuary 25, 2023



AP English Literature 📚

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Hey there! Welcome to study guide 4.3. Today, we’ll be exploring a few topics. We’ll focus on archetypes, but also briefly look at contrasts within texts. The form relates to plot, and the latter relates more so to the conflicting ideas represented in a text. Let’s get started!

What are Archetypes?

First, let’s begin with an introduction/definition of archetypes. You may have heard of this word before, but maybe not!
Archetypes are universal, recurring patterns or themes that are present in works of literature. They are universal patterns that are deeply ingrained in the human psyche and often reflect fundamental human experiences or desires. Examples of archetypes in literature include the hero, the mentor, the villain, the mother, the trickster, and the outcast. You can almost think of them as “templates” for characters. These archetypes can be found in stories, myths, and legends from around the world and are often used by authors to create complex and relatable characters.
Let’s define a few archetypes to better understand each:
  • The Hero: This archetype is typically a protagonist who overcomes obstacles and adversity to achieve a goal or accomplish something great. Examples include Beowulf, Odysseus, and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.
  • The Mentor: This archetype is typically an older, wiser character who guides and advises the hero. Examples include Merlin in Arthurian legend, and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • The Villain: This archetype is typically an antagonist who opposes the hero and cause conflict. Examples include Iago in Othello, and the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
  • The Mother: This archetype is typically a nurturing, supportive character who cares for the hero. Examples include Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Marmee in Little Women.
  • The Trickster: This archetype is typically a clever and cunning character who uses wit and deception to achieve their goals. Examples include Loki in Norse mythology and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • The Outcast: This archetype is typically a character who is marginalized or rejected by society. Examples include Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein and Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
These are just a few examples, and different books will use archetypes in different ways. Archetypes are not limited to any single work of literature and are not limited to the above examples.
Note: on the AP Lit exam, you will not be expected to identify/name archetypes. However, you may find them useful to know for essay writing and general English literature studying purposes.

Archetypes Importance

Archetypes in literature serve several important functions. One of the most important is that they help to create relatable, multi-dimensional characters. By using archetypes, authors can write stories that resonate with readers across different cultures and time periods. Everyone knows the difference between a hero and a villain, for example. The archetypes impart on the reader certain expectations for what the character’s actions will be like and how the story will progress.
Archetypes also help to create a sense of familiarity and comfort for the reader. Because they are based on universal patterns, readers can often identify with the characters and situations in a story even if they are in a completely different setting or context. This can make the story more engaging and memorable for the reader.
Third, archetypes can be used to add depth and complexity to a story by exploring the different facets of a single archetype. For example, a writer may create a hero-like villain, where it is unsure what the character really is. This can create a rich and nuanced narrative that explores the human experience from multiple perspectives.
Finally, archetypes can also be used to create a sense of unity and continuity within a work of literature. By using archetypes that are found in myths, legends, and stories from around the world, authors can create a sense of shared humanity and connect their work to a larger literary tradition.
Overall, archetypes play an important role in literature by helping to create relatable characters, convey universal themes, and add depth and complexity to stories.

What are Contrasts?

A contrast in literature refers to the use of two or more elements, such as characters, themes, or writing styles, to create a sense of opposition or difference between them. As the name of the concept suggests, this technique can create a sense of contrast between different themes or ideas in a work of literature. This technique is also used to highlight the similarities and differences between characters and to create tension or conflict in a story.

Contrasts Importance

In literature, contrasts are used to draw attention to the specific traits, aspects, or characteristics of the elements being compared. This helps the reader to understand the similarities and differences between those elements, and to see how they relate to each other.
For example, in a novel, a contrast may be used to compare and contrast the main character with a secondary character. This helps the reader to understand the main character's personality, motivations, and beliefs, and to see how they differ from those of the secondary character. Additionally, this can also help in understanding the theme and message of the story.
Furthermore, contrasts often represent conflicts in values related to character, narrator, or speaker perspectives on ideas represented by a text. This means that the different elements being compared may have different beliefs, values, or perspectives on the ideas and themes presented in the text. This can create a sense of tension or conflict, which can be used to drive the plot or to explore complex ideas and themes.

“Metamorphosis” Example

Let’s look at an example to make this concept more concrete. We’ll use Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” 
In Kafka's "Metamorphosis," there is a contrast between the character of Gregor Samsa, the protagonist, and his family. Before Gregor's transformation into a giant insect, his family relies on him for financial support, but they show little appreciation for him. After his transformation, his family's attitude towards him changes to one of disgust and repulsion. They see him as a burden and are eager to be rid of him. They become increasingly neglectful and abusive towards him, and ultimately, they lock him away in his room.
This contrast in the attitude of Gregor's family towards him before and after his transformation emphasizes the theme of alienation and rejection. Before his transformation, Gregor feels alienated from his family due to their lack of appreciation for him. After his transformation, this alienation becomes even more pronounced as his family actively rejects and mistreats him. This contrast also highlights the theme of the dehumanization of the individual in modern society and how one's value is often determined by their usefulness.

“Moby Dick” Example

In Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," there is a contrast between the characters of Ahab, the captain of the ship, and Ishmael, the narrator. Ahab is consumed by his obsession with revenge against the white whale, while Ishmael is more level-headed and rational. This contrast between the two characters highlights the theme of obsession and its destructive effects. Ahab's obsession with the white whale ultimately leads to the destruction of his ship and the deaths of many of his crew, while Ishmael is able to survive and tell the story. This contrast also helps to create a sense of tension and conflict, which drives the plot of the story.
Additionally, there is a contrast between the natural and the supernatural, as the giant white whale is seen as a supernatural creature, and the sailors are portrayed as mortal, limited, and fallible. This contrast helps to create a sense of awe and danger, and also to emphasize the theme of the human being in front of nature.
Overall, the contrast in "Moby Dick" is a powerful tool to convey the themes of obsession, destruction and the human being's relation to nature.


In this guide, we looked at two main concepts: archetypes and contrasts. Archetypes are universal patterns or themes that are present in works of literature and help to create relatable, multi-dimensional characters. Contrasts in literature are used to create a sense of opposition or difference between two or more elements in a text to highlight similarities and differences and create tension or conflict. Both archetypes and contrasts play important roles in literature by helping to convey universal themes and add depth and complexity to stories.
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