Responding to Clayton Chrusch:
Here’s Frye’s extended definition of “Archetype” from the Harper Handbook to Literature:
Archetype. A term that has come down from Neo-Platonic times, and has usually meant a standard, pattern, or model. It has been sporadically employed in this sense in literary criticism down to at least the eighteenth century. An archetype differs from a prototype (even though the two words have often been used interchangeably) in that prototype refers primarily to a genetic and temporal pattern of relationship. In modern literary criticism archetype means a recurring or repeating unit, normally an image, which indicates that a poet is following a certain convention or working in a certain GENRE. For example, the PASTORAL ELEGY is a convention, descending from ritual laments over dying gods, and hence when Milton contributes Lycidas to a volume of memorial poems to an acquaintance who was drowned in the Irish Sea, the poem is written as a pastoral elegy, and consequently employs a number of conventional images that had been used earlier by Theocritus, Virgil, and many RENAISSANCE poets. The conventions include imagery of the solar and seasonal cycles, in which autumn frost, the image of premature death, and sunset in the western ocean are prominent; the idea that the subject of the elegy was a shepherd with a recognized pastoral name and an intimate friend of the poet; a satirical passage on the state of the church, with implied puns on pastor and flock (naturally a post-Virgilian feature); and death and rebirth imagery attached to the cycle of water, symbolized by the legend of Alpheus, the river and river god that went underground in Greece and surfaced again in Sicily in order to join the fountain and fountain nymph Arethusa.
One of the conventional images employed in the pastoral elegy is that of the red or purple flower that is said to have obtained its colour from the shed blood of the dying god. Lycidas contains a reference to “that sanguine flower inscrib’d with woe” [l. 106], the hyacinth, thought to have obtained red markings resembling the Greek word ai (“alas”), when Hyacinthus was accidentally killed by Apollo. Milton could of course just as easily have left out this line: the fact that he included it emphasizes the conventionalizing element in the poem, but criticism that takes account of archetypes is not mere “spotting” of such an image. The critical question concerns the context: what does such an image mean by being where it is? The convention of pastoral elegy continues past Milton to Shelley [Adonais], Arnold [The Scholar Gypsy], and Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d. Here again are many of the conventional pastoral images, including the purple lilacs: this fact is all the more interesting in that Whitman regarded himself as an antiarchetypal poet, interested in new themes as more appropriate to a new world. In any case the gathering or clustering of pastoral archetypes in his poem indicates to the critic the context within literature that the poem belongs to.
The archetype, as a critical term, has no Platonic associations with a form or idea that embodies itself imperfectly in actual poems: it owes its importance to the fact that in literature everything is new and unique from one point of view, and to the reappearance of what has always been there, from another. The former aspect compels the reader to focus on the distinctive context of each particular poem; the latter indicates that it is recognizable as literature. In other genres there are other types of archetypes: a certain type of character, for example, may run through all drama, like the braggart soldier, who with variations has been a comic figure since Aristophanes’ Acharnians, the first extant comedy. The appearance of a braggart soldier in a comedy by Shakespeare or Molière or O’Casey is quite different each time, but the archetypal basis of the character is as essential as a skeleton is to the performing actor. Thus the archetype is a manifestation of the extraordinary allusiveness of literature: the fact, for example, that all wars in literature gain poetic resonance by being associated with the Trojan War.
In JUNGIAN CRITICISM the term archetype is used mainly to describe certain characters and images that appear in the dreams of patients but have their counterparts in literature, in the symbolism of alchemy, in various religious myths. The difference between psychological and literary treatments of archetypes is that in psychology their central context is a private dream. Hence they tell us nothing except that they appear, once we leave the psychological field of dream interpretation. The dream is not primarily a structure of communication: its meaning is normally unknown to the dreamer. The literary archetype, on the other hand, is first of all a unit of communication: primitive literature, for example, is highly conventionalized, featuring formulaic units and other indications of an effort to communicate with the least possible obstruction. In more complex literature the archetype tells the critic primarily that this kind of thing has often been done before, if never quite in this way.
There’s of course Frye’s oft-reprinted essay “The Archetypes of Literature” (1951). Less well known is his “The Literary Meaning of “Archetype,’” presented at the MLA convention in 1952. Frye intended to send this talk to the Hudson Review or Essays in Criticism, but he apparently never got around to it, and the essay was not published until fifty years later (in Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 1936–1989 , 182–9). This paper is actually an early version Frye’s theory of symbols, developed in the Second Essay of the Anatomy, and in the Anatomy the archetype is the key category at the “mythical” level in Frye’s theory of symbols––his version of Dante’s levels of polysemous meaning.
As to the question of whether or not archetypes are Eurocentric, Frye would clearly answer no. There’s nothing Eurocentric about the archetypes Frye’s treats so impressively in the final four chapters of Words with Power––the mountain, the garden, the cave, and the furnace. All cultures may not have all of these archetypes (Frye calls them “themes”), but they are obviously present in countless non‑European contexts.
As Joe says, archetype is primarily a term that relates to image and symbol, which means that it’s a spatial category, belonging to what Frye calls the dianoia of literary experience, with its analogies to dream. But Frye occasionally refers to “narrative archetypes,” which means that the term can be extended to include the temporal features of texts––their mythoi, with analogies to ritual. “We may,” Frye says, “distinguish two kinds of archetypes: structural or narrative archetypes with a ritual content, and modal or emblematic archetypes with a dream content. The former are most easily studied in drama: not, as a rule, in the drama of the educated audience and the settled theatre, but in naive or spectacular drama: the folk play, the puppet show, the pantomime, the farce, the pageant, and their descendants in masque, comic opera, and commercial movie. Modal archetypes are best studied first in naive romance, which includes the folk tales and fairy tales that are so closely related to dreams of wonderful wishes coming true, and to nightmares of ogres and witches” (“Forming Fours,” a review of two books by Jung in “The Educated Imagination” and Other Writings in Critical Theory, 210).