Psychoanalytic Criticism

The goal of psychoanalysis is to help us resolve our psychological problems…, by focusing on patterns of behavior that are destructive in some way…in the existence of the unconscious…the storehouse of painful experiences and emotions and unresolved conflicts that we are overwhelmed by (Tyson 12)”.

Description of Theory:

Psychoanalytic Criticism calls for the understanding of the unconscious, the repressed mind in order to understand the human life experience, culture, language, and ultimately, society because the text, to critics, can only be analyzed as if it’s a dream.  In text this theory argues that because literature are much like dreams  the text represents the author’s unconscious desires, fears, anxieties, and traumas, and therefore through the text the author deals with his or her own psychosis.

Theory Benefit:

Outside of knowing of the author’s life to understand the text, psychologically, readers can also understand the character/s’ mind by what they go through within the story, especially if they have psychological problems.

Theory Disadvantage:

Theorists tend to ask  questions that relate to the author’s past and the mind state of the reader when interpreting the text which poses problems if the reader’s state of mind is in the positive or negative of what the author’s state of mind was or the condition of what the story is.

Questions of Psychoanalytic Theorists to Interpret a Text:

Through understanding the text’s author and characters readers can begin to understand their own psyche and how it plays out in society.

  • How do operations of repression structure the world of the text?   What repressed desires/wounds lie underneath?
  • Where are there oedipal (family/sexual) dynamics?   Where are the patterns in behaviors in the character/s?
  • Can character’s behavior/motivation be explained psychologically?  Is this behavior a product of the culture it’s around?
  •  What dreamlike symbols can be identified?  Are there any phallic symbols?
  •  What do these repressed symbols/desires/ fears suggest about the author?

Notable Theorist/s:

Sigmund Freud  established the namesake of “the unconscious”. He is often associated with the phallic symbols of dreams, the oedipal (family) complexes as he was deeply misogynistic and heavily focused on the male and mother bond, and what is known as Freudian slips to reveal unconscious desires.  His work was often to psychoanalyze the author through their works by uncovering what they are repressing which later created the triad model of the mind:  the Id (pleasure), the irrational unconscious (secret desires, darkest wishes, and intense fears), the Superego (morality), the internalization of cultural and societal taboos, and the Ego (reality), the rational, logical, and most conscious part of mind.

Jacques Lacan re-conceptualized Freud’s theory of the unconscious by delving into the self as the human being is created through social interaction i.e. culture (language) which creates desire. Lacan created a triad similar to Freud starting with infant sexuality and building into adulthood: the Mirror Stage where the child realizes its sense of self away from the mother, the Imaginary Order where the child becomes a part of the illusion of control over its environment, a world of images and perception, and the Symbolic Order where the child acquires language creating the conscious and unconscious (the repressed desire for union with mother in simplicity) mind.