Symbolism in English Literature

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Archetypal figures present in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” By José Luis Guerrero Cervantes

According to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, an archetype is a symbolic formula that begins to work wherever there are no conscious ideas present. They are innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge[1]. The archetype is experienced in projections, powerful affect images, symbols, moods, and behavior patterns such as rituals, ceremonials and love.

Jung[2] compared the archetype, the pre-formed tendency to create images, to a dry river bed. Rain gives form and direction to the flow, we name the river, but it is never a thing located in any place, it is a form but never the same, it is always changing but it is still a river. Following this analogy, the archetype would be the dry river bed that motivates and modifies our conscious understanding of ourselves and the world (the water of the river) from which emotions, attitudes and ideas arise.

It is possible to track the use of archetypes in universal literature, according to Joseph Campbell[3], from the origins of human civilization. Archetypes help Chaucer to his main purpose when writing The Canterbury Tales: to reflect on the personal concerns and solutions of the evolving medieval society of his time. Characters with strong archetypal features has an automatically and unconsciously effect in the reader’s mind, allowing his mind to recognize experiences, emotions, and typical patterns of behavior, establishing a “dialog” or “unconscious link” between the reader and the text. The purpose of the present essay will be to identify such archetypal characters and situations and their impact in the reader’s psyche.[4]

It is possible to recognize in Nicholas’ behavior elements that match with the archetype of the “Trickster”. In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster is a god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphic animal that plays tricks or, otherwise, disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior[5].

In modern literature, the classical figure of the trickster survives as a character not necessarily supernatural or divine, but as a clever, mischievous man or creature, who tries to survive the dangers and challenges of the world using trickery and deceit as defense. For example, many typical fairy tales present kings who want to find the best man for his daughter by setting a trial to obtain the hand of his daughter. Brave knights are not able to overcome the trial until a poor and simple peasant comes. Armed only with his wits and cleverness, instead of fighting, he evades or fools the obstacles between him and the desired object. This way, the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. One example of this character in English Literature is Shakespeare’s Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice who, in order to marry Portia, must pass a trial set by Portia’s father. In this case, Nicholas is described similarly to this archetype:

This lad was known as Nicholas the Gallant,

And making love in secret was his talent,

For he was very close and sly, and took

Advantage of his meek and girlish look[6].

Nicholas is characterized as somebody whose main attributes are not physical strength or economic power, but cleverness in managing the weak points of people for his own benefit (expressed in the words “talent”, “sly”, “took advantage”) hidden under a humble figure (expressed in the word “meek”). Here it is possible to identify the breaking of conventional behavior that it is proper of the classical tradition when it is said that Nicholas makes love “in secret”. In addition, in order to gain Alison, he must figure out a trick, otherwise, both might die if caught together.

Alison’s behavior, on the other hand, shows characteristics that matches with the “Anima” archetype developed at the level of “Eve”. The Anima and Animus, in Carl...
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