Psychoanalytic Criticism - PBworks

Psychoanalytic Criticism
Sigmund Freud
Interpretation of Dreams (1901)
Tripartite structure of the human mind: Ego/Id/Superego
Ego: Conscious self, “I”
Id: Realm of desire, unconscious
Superego: Conscience, the external gaze of the other/culture
Development of the human mind throughout childhood (Oedipus, Electra
complex, etc)
How “the mind reworks repressed urges into acceptable forms” (Ryan 94)
The unconscious (sexuality, death, trauma)
Talk therapy—language as route to unconscious, where repressed
material can attain expression
Repression, anxiety, fear—sublimated into language, and thence into
culture, through processes of displacement (metonymy) and substitution
“Symptoms”—signs of an unconscious conflict; often seen in repetition
(OCD, for example)
“[T]he conscious mind often performed significant transformations on
unconscious material that meant its final expressed form little resembled
the unconscious urge or conflict that inspired it” (Ryan 95).
Other transformations/defenses: intellectualization, rationalization,
projection, etc…
Object relations theory: Theory about how people “relate to the world
around them” (Ryan 96)
Psychoanalytic Criticism
Melanie Klein
Love, Guilt, Reparation (1937)
Object relations theory: Theory about how people “relate to the world
around them” (Ryan 96)
“The physical and social world around the self is its ‘object world.’ As the
child emerges from its primary, close relation to its parents, it must
develop a separate sense of self, and it does that by learning to
distinguish between self and other, self and objects” (Ryan 96).
Boundaries and their formation (separation of self/other)
Representation is important for the process of self-formation; our ability
to “make images of the world” (Ryan 97)
If separation—boundary formation—is fraught with anxiety, then
representation of that process of self-formation is similarly fraught with
Introjection: the process of taking inside oneself a part of the other, the
not-self, as fantasy
Projection: internal fantasies are outered, projected onto the world and its
We are split beings
Psychoanalytic Criticism
Jacques Lacan
“On the Mirror Stage as Formative of the I” (1936)
“The Function and Field of Speech in
Psychoanalysis” (1949)
A linguistic account of the mind: the human
mind is structured like a language
Freud’s concepts of displacement and
substitution are linguistic processes
The Imaginary: pre-self-conscious sense of
wholeness, an imaginary wholeness (no
distinction between self and other, I am Mother)
Must break into the Symbolic realm:
Characterized by language and the Law (of the
The Rationale of Psychoanalytical
Literary Criticism
• If psychoanalysis can help us better understand
human behavior, then it must certainly be able to
help us understand literary texts, which are
about human behavior
• Notice the differences between psychoanalytic
accounts of literature and formalist accounts,
which rejected intention, affect, etc.
• Structuralist connection to psychoanalysis: Deep
How to Read a Text using
• The job of the psychoanalytical critic is to see which concepts
are operating in the text that will yield a meaningful
psychoanalytic interpretation. For example, you might focus on:
• the work’s representation of family dynamics (relation to the
mother, the father, etc)
• what work tells us about human beings’ psychological
relationship to death or sexuality
• how the narrator’s unconscious problems keep appearing over
the course of the story, and the way the repetition/symptoms of
the conflict changes
• the formation of the self and the development of boundaries
• the way a text uses techniques of substitution and displacement
to help you understand the human mind
An important thing to keep in mind:
• To some extent, all creative works are a
product of the author’s conscious and/or
unconscious mind.
• Any human production that involves
images, that seems to have narrative
content, or relates for the psychology of
those who produce or use it can be
interpreted using psychoanalytic tools
Some Questions Psychoanalytic
Critics Ask about Literary Texts
• What unconscious motives are operating in the
main characters? What is being repressed?
Remember that the unconscious mind consists
of repressed wounds, fears, unresolved
conflicts, and guilty desires
• Is it possible to relate a character’s patterns of
adult behavior to early experiences in the family
(as represented in the story)? What do these
behavior patterns and family dynamics reveal?
Some Questions Psychoanalytic
Critics Ask about Literary Texts
• How can characters’ behavior, narrative events,
and/or images be explained in terms of
regression, projection, fear of or fascination with
death or sexuality?
• What images or symbols are substituted for what
unconscious repressed, and how?
• What kind of ordering principle (Symbolic, law of
the Father) shapes the Imaginary into
recognition? What gets lost, repressed?
Some Questions Psychoanalytic
Critics Ask about Literary Texts
• In what ways can we view a literary work
as a dream? How might recurrent or
striking dream symbols reveal the ways in
which the narrator/author is projecting his
unconscious desires, fears, wounds, or
unresolved conflicts onto other characters
or the events portrayed?
• Look for symbols relevant to death and
Some Questions Psychoanalytic
Critics Ask about Literary Texts
• What might a given interpretation of a literary
work suggest about the psychological motives of
the reader?
• How does the reader participate in the Symbolic

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