Basics of Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytical criticism came into being in the 1920s, emerging from the romantic view that literature is an expression of the author’s persona. It is a critical movement that attempts to illuminate general psychological aspects in a text, whether they relate to its author or the characters in it. Under the influence of the Austrian medical practitioner, Sigmund Freud psychoanalytical criticism has moved along diverse paths.

According to Freud, literature is produced by the same mechanism as dreams. Desires, mainly sexual, in conflict with social norms, are censored and pushed into the ‘subconscious’ (repressed), from which they emerge in disguised forms in dreams.  Freud developed terms like the id, ego and superego to understand the different dimensions of the human mind. Id is the unruly bundle of instincts, desires and compulsions. Superego is the ‘censor’ prohibiting the id according to the strictures imposed by society, morality,  reality etc. Ego is the conscious mediator of the struggle between id and the superego. These are represented by sublimations, condensations, displacements or fixations in literature as in dreams. Both writers and readers are able to overcome psychological tensions through the experience of wish fulfillment created in a work of art.

The critic’s task is to reveal the psychological realities that underlie the work. Using psychoanalysis as his tool, Freud himself interpreted works of literature known to him. His “Interpretations of Dreams” and the essay “The Uncanny” are among the best known pieces of writing. He used psychoanalysis to interpret Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear. Ernest Jones’s “Hamlet and Oedipus” and Marie Bonaparte’s “Life and works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-analytic Interpretation” are two of the best known works of literary criticism of this school.

In the 1960s and 70s the emphasis of psychoanalytic criticism moved from the author to the reader. Norman Holland, an exponent of the psychological reader-response reading examines the interaction between the reader and the text, and states that the source of pleasure that a reader derives from a text lies in the transformation of unconscious wishes and fears into culturally acceptable meanings in a text.

In the second half of the twentieth century, psychoanalytic literary criticism regained great momentum under the influence of the French analyst Jacques Lacan, called the ‘French Freud’. With Lacan’s famous paper ‘Mirror Stage’ presented in 1936 is born modern psychoanalytic criticism and theory. Lacan’s view is that the unconscious is structured like a language, and comes into being along with language. It is result of the structuring of desire by language.

For Lacan, the subject comes into being when it develops a concept of the self. This happens in every human being at a mythic moment which he terms ‘the mirror stage’. This occurs usually between six months and eighteen months, when the child begins to think of itself as a unified being, separate from others. Initially, the child exists in a state called the “Imaginary” when there is no clear distinction between the self and the (m)other. The mirror stage is the pre-linguistic stage towards the end of which the child enters into the language system. This new stage Lacan calls the ‘Symbolic’. It involves the formation of language and gives access to the psyche and  the way it works. Lacan also speaks of the “Real” which is something that resists representation. It is pre-mirror, pre-imaginary and pre-symbolic. It is natural state from which the child is cut by entry into the mirror stage. The Lacanian method of psychoanalysis involves searching the text for uncovering meanings, which like the unconscious, lie beneath the overt text.

Thus, psychoanalytic criticism, whether Freudian or Lacanian, provides interesting tools for interpreting literary works. Psychoanalytic reading involves unraveling the sexuality that lies at the core of the subject. Oedipal dynamics, family dynamics, relationship to death, sexuality, unconscious problems etc. can be tackled with this persuasion. Any human production involving narration can be analysed and interpreted using psychoanalytic tools. The analysis could be author-based, text based or reader based.


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