The Psychology of ‘Game of Thrones’: Arya Stark

Drea Letamendi

The Night King has been defeated but the bitter wars for the crown in the Seven Kingdoms have yet to be settled. With so much still at stake, who among the throne-seekers will prove to be successful? To understand their personal motivations, strategies, and vulnerabilities, we must examine their psychological functioning. As part of a series of articles — including others focused on Jon Snow, Daenerys TargaryenCersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Tyrion Lannister — our consulting psychologist provides case formulations of some of Game of Thrones’ most compelling characters.

“I’m just the executioner.” 

Arya is led by self-determination and mental tenacity. To others, this appears “strange and annoying” because young women in Westeros are expected to be docile, if not completely inert. Unlike her sister Sansa, Arya Stark is not gender-conforming: She enjoys fighting and exploring, not dancing and sewing. Overall, young Arya is best characterized as a joy-seeker, someone who appreciates new and exciting sensations. She loves nature, discovery, and a healthy amount of risk. Instrumental to her development are older male figures in her life who are similarly good-natured, including her supposed half-brother (though actually her cousin) Jon Snow, her sword-fighting instructor Syrio Forel, and her father, Ned Stark. From them, she learns leadership, duty, and honor. One might recognize that Arya’s sense of self reflects the morality and disposition of her mentors. Like many children, Arya begins her journey with a strong belief that the world is just and that good people prevail. Disillusionment settles in soon after her father’s beheading. Arya realizes that she cannot depend on others; she must pull from within her strengths to overcome life’s real threats, however brutish and perilous. Though not by choice, she survives by pretending she is a boy – and proves to be cunning and resourceful in even the most dangerous situations.

Over time, Arya’s youthful impulsivity and feistiness give way to a characteristic known as psychological resilience. Resilience refers to one’s ability to bounce back or recover from adversity and traumatic experiences. It is a self-protective ability. Arya proves not only an endurance to overcome hardship – she actually learns from tough experiences in order to become stronger. She uses her pain – her grief, anger, helplessness –to transform and empower herself. Transformation and intrapersonal adjustment are essential to resilience; Arya takes this to the extreme when she experiments with “becoming no one.” As part of her resilient qualities, Arya creates personal goals that center her decision-making. This is exemplary of a concept in psychology called self-determinism, which is the belief that one’s state of being is a consequence of one’s own actions. In fact, perceived control of her future is what essentially allows Arya to move forward and overcome any setbacks.

Arya’s limits become increasingly challenged when she is mentored by a member of the Faceless Men, Jaqen H’ghar. In some of her most ruthless fights, even while blind, Arya builds combative strength. However, the Faceless Man’s tests reveal that her most difficult trial is psychological: Arya must completely dissociate from her identity to be seen as a worthy fighter. Denying her past, her family, and the experiences she’s had will ultimately transform her into a cold, mechanical killer. “A girl has no name,” she automates, in rejection of a handout, even while unsheltered, blind and starving on the streets of Braavos. Though she remains courageous, and though she successfully bests Jaqen’s top acolyte by defeating her in pitch blackness, Arya begins to lose her sense of self. She’s reached her goal, but found herself trapped by that darkness. Even the anger she once felt toward her enemies begins to dissolve and escape her reach. As if to recognize the importance of connecting with herself again, and in order to fulfil her objective of avenging her family, she reclaims her identity: “A girl is Arya Stark, and I’m going home.”

What follows is a triumphant demonstration of self-actualization and subterfuge. Reconnected to her feelings of vengeance, tied once more to her mission, Arya is powerfully deadly. Assuming the identity of a servant girl, she murders Frey’s sons, and feeds them to Walder Frey in a pie. (That she actually baked a people-filled-pastry and served it to Walder is next-level savagery!). After revealing her true identity to Walder, she brutally jabs a knife into his throat, fervently avenging her mother and brother. Lastly, in a victorious move that matches the horrors of the Red Wedding itself, Arya mercilessly kills the entire House Frey by poisoning their house wine.

Though Arya is bold, deceitful, and violent, she is not disinhibited or emotionally shallow. She does not display psychopathy, which is characterized by a complete lack of remorse for others and a thirst for violence simply for pleasure and self-gratification. Arya is actually still anchored by beliefs and values instilled by good people. She is purposeful; her actions are motivated by traumatic loss, a schema of an unjust society, a war that punished her family. Leaving the Hound to bleed to death on a mountain was a reenactment of her own trauma, a participation in brutality where she has control, and the inevitable internalization of men’s unforgiving war culture in her psyche. Though she has a tendency toward a viciousness, Arya is not unlike her male counterparts seeking to reset balance and justice in the world. If Arya were a man, there would be little questioning of her actions and fewer attempts to pathologize her.

Upon her return to Winterfell and reunion with her sister and brother, Arya’s spark begins to resurface. Is it possible that her emotional debt has been reconciled? We even see a glimpse of joy-seeking and positive energy when Arya spars with Brienne. Though nearly half the size of Brienne, Arya equals the female warrior in combat and demonstrates the accumulation of her life’s lessons. Recovery from her trauma is possible, and in Arya’s case, crucial. If she can access her propensities for healthy self-discovery and build safe relationships (Gendry certainly seems like a promising one), Arya may yet be able to overcome the invisible wounds that may otherwise haunt her for the rest of her life.

Click on the links below for our psychological profiles on other key Game of Thrones players…

Drea Letamendi
Dr. Drea is a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health educator. She co-hosts "The Arkham Sessions," a podcast dedicated to the psychology of Batman.