a resource for studying literary theory


PsychoanalyticPsychoanalytic theory takes as its starting point an analysis of the human mind. It can be challenging to study. This is partly because the basic concepts of Freud’s theories, for example, are very much part of our contemporary culture. Everyone knows, or think they know, about the Oedipus Complex, and that everything is about sex, and about the superego, the ego and the id – but psychoanalysis is far more complex and contested than this, and in some cases key concepts haven’t been popularized. This means it is essential to go back to the original text for your theoretical readings, even if you think you understand the broad ideas. For example, many people have not heard about Freud’s concept of the ‘death drive’, a bodily drive opposed to sexuality, which aims instead at death, self-destruction or complete passivity and quiescence, but this idea could easily be essential for an essay that you were writing.

When we apply psychoanalytic theory to literature it usually means applying specific concepts and patterns originating from the work of Freud, and theorists who have followed or diverged from him, to literary texts in order to reveal hidden ideas – in this sense we attempt to interpret literary texts as psychic phenomena. We analyse the literary text in a manner not so dissimilar from Freud’s attempts to analyse dreams or analyse the speech of his patients – in fact if you look closely you’ll find that theorists like Freud and Lacan are already thinking about literary texts. Most famously, of course, Freud used Oedipus Rex and Hamlet to formulate his theory of the Oepidus Complex. In fact, Perry Meisel’s book The Literary Freud argues that Freud was a literary critic. Psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theory should thus be distinguished to a certain extent from therapeutic psychiatry (which aims to cure people) and from modern scientific psychology which looks primarily at the brain, as psychoanalysis rather aims to study and offer theories of the individual mind and its development – this is where it is useful to us as students of literature.

As we might expect, psychoanalysis places a huge amount of importance on childhood experience. The Oedipus Complex is of course central to Freud’s theory, explaining not just human sexual behaviour but also the nature of selfhood. This is how it works, according to Freud:

A child

  1. Desires the Mother
  2. Perceives Mother’s lack of phallus
  3. Fears castration by the Father
  4. Turns from close relationship with the mother to identify with the Father.

Of course, as Freud was aware and as many people since have pointed out, this theory only works well for men – because the girl lacks the phallus she has no reason to fear castration. However, a similar complex, the Electra Complex, was developed from Freud’s theories by Jung, with ‘penis envy’ taking the place of castration anxiety. In Freud’s theory, out of the resolution of the Oedipus Complex comes both heterosexual desire and a split subject, torn between conscious and unconscious (as the child’s primary desire is repressed and goes underground). Freud’s emphasis on dreams in ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ occurs because he believed that this was a way of accessing and interpreting the unconscious. As Freud developed his theory further in the 1920s, especially in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ and ‘The Ego and the Id’, he would add to this, by suggesting that the subject is divided between the superego (the conscience, the voice of the Father and of society), the ego (the rational ‘self’) and the id (our basic drives). Dreams were particularly important in cases of neurosis, where, according to Freud, mental illness has been caused by excessive repression of the unconscious by the superego – analysis of the patient’s accounts of their lives and of their dreams could help to heal them. Freud’s later work takes a slightly different turn – in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, he moves beyond his earlier work – he had previously seen the ‘pleasure principle’ (Eros), especially sexuality, as underlying all of human behaviour, but in this work he adds the idea of the ‘death drive’ (Thanatos) and sees these two principles as warring in human psychology. So, in fact, we can refute the claim that for Freud everything comes down to sexuality, as his vision of the human subject becomes much darker – the only thing keeping the individual alive at times is the ‘reality principle’ a part of the psyche made up of knowledge of cultural constraints and ‘real life’.

Freud’s legacy is very contested, but probably the most important theorist to appropriate and rewrite his work is the poststructuralist psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan equally concerns himself with childhood development, but has his own theories that both map on to and depart from Freud’s. Probably the most important way into Lacan’s work is via the idea of ‘The Mirror Stage’: through this process the child begins to move from the ‘Imaginary’, a pre-Oedipal state where the child is defined by its close relationship with the mother’s body, into the Symbolic, the realm of language, Law and the idea of selfhood. This is accomplished by the child seeing itself for the first time in a mirror – in this moment the child sees itself as a physical whole and begins to develop a sense of self to go with this image of its body.  This image of the united, independent body is actually a fiction or ‘Imago’, according to Lacan, because the child is still physically unready to take care of itself or to be a self and has yet to go through the Oedipal drama. Lacan’s unique contribution to the Oedipus complex is to associate it with the child’s entry into language – his first contact with language and signification is in relation to the father’s incest taboo (the nom/non du pere or no/name of the father) and the signifying potential of the father’s phallus. In accepting that he cannot have the relationship he desires with his mother, he finally moves from the ‘Imaginary’ to the ‘Symbolic’. Language is offered as compensation; for Lacan, this is inadequate compensation due to its ‘empty’ nature, for the mother’s body – which leads to a different version of the unconscious as well, an unconscious which is, he writes in ‘The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious’, structured like a language. The mind becomes a text, albeit one that is almost unreadable. This links to Lacan’s own readerly fascination with the difficult texts of European modernism, such as James Joyce’s novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake – we’ve already seen Freud as a literary critic, but Lacan seems rather to see himself in a poststructuralist way as simply a reader of texts that are somewhat beyond him, content to explore them as systems without fully explaining them. Some people see a weakness in Lacan’s approach in that, like psychoanalysis in general, it is ahistorical, and, to a certain extent, contradictory and antisystematic. Further, despite the fact that Lacan has been used by feminist theorists, some theorists and critics suggest it still tends to essentialize the body and gender difference. The strength of Lacanian psychoanalysis is that it goes beyond Freud in its emphasis on language in relation to the unconscious, informed by Saussurean linguistics and poststructuralism, and also that it allows us to read and critique power structures both in the individual mind and a wider society.


Image ‘Poetry and dreams’ by Cher Amio (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr