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Psychoanalysis

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English Literature

Do you have an irrational phobia? Or have you ever accidentally had a ‘Freudian slip’? If so, you already know a little bit about psychoanalysis!

What is the meaning of psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis is one of the most well-known (and most controversial!) literary theories. Psychoanalytical readings focus on the relationship between literature, the unconscious mind and our conscious actions and thoughts. More specifically, psychoanalysis focuses on the following:

  1. The mind of the author: psychoanalysis treats the work of the author as a manifestation of their own unconscious desires. A psychoanalytic reading may attempt to relate certain aspects of a text to its author’s life to give the text a psychoanalytically biographical meaning.

  2. The mind of the characters: psychoanalysis can be used to analyse and explain the motivations and actions of certain characters in an author's work. This is the most common form of analysis, which we will apply to Hamlet (below).

  3. The mind of the audience: Freud makes references to universal anxieties and desires that we, as human beings, all innately share. Psychoanalysis can be used to explain why certain works are very appealing to a wide audience, as it appeals to the universal unconscious mind.

  4. The text: psychoanalysis can be used to analyse why certain linguistic and symbolic choices are made by the author to be used in a text.

Freud about psychoanalysis and examples

Let's look at Freud's theories under the headings of the Oedipus/Electra complex, the unconscious mind, the ego, id, and superego, and dreams.

The Oedipus/Electra complex

‘Literature thus exists for Freud as a form of evidence: the play’s centuries-long hold over the attention of viewers must correspond to its description of something universally fascinating and repressed.’

Vincent B. Leitch. The Norton Anthology Of Theory And Criticism

The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) was when Sigmund Freud first introduced the theory of the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex is named after the eponymous main character of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (429 BC). Oedipus was abandoned as an infant after a prophecy that he would grow up to kill his own father and marry his own mother. He was eventually rescued and adopted by another King until he came across the prophecy himself and, unaware that he was adopted, left his parents in order to protect them from his fate. On the journey away from his supposed parents, Oedipus unknowingly meets his biological father and kills him in an argument. He then arrives at Thebes, where he solves a riddle from the Sphinx and marries the newly widowed Queen Jocasta, as a reward. After a plague strikes Thebes, Oedipus makes the gradual discovery that he has married his own mother, whom he widowed by killing his own father, thus fulfilling the oracle’s prophecy.

Drawing from this story, Freud puts forward the suggestion that both modern and classical audiences were captivated by Oedipus as it depicts a subconscious desire that all humans experience as children. According to Freud, all sons and daughters develop a sexual attraction to their parent of the opposite sex. Not only do they desire that parent, but they also desire to kill the other parent due to viewing them as competition for their desired parent’s affection. For Freud, this was an essential part of a child’s development process.

The Oedipus complex is a term used for both genders, however when referring to this complex in women it is often called the ‘Electra complex’ instead. Like Oedipus, Electra was the main character of an eponymous play by Sophocles, in which she plots to kill her mother. However, the term ‘Electra complex’ was coined by Carl Jung, another psychologist, not Freud.

‘There is an unmistakable indication in the text of Sophocles’ tragedy itself that the legend of Oedipus sprang from some primeval dream-material which had as its content the distressing disturbance of a child’s relation to his parents owing to the first stirrings of sexuality’

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

The unconscious mind

The unconscious links the adult and their behaviour to their childhood experience. According to Freud, the unconscious is a part of the mind that you are not aware of. It sits outside the conscious mind, and contains elements of repressed or forgotten memories and urges that the individual either cannot acknowledge or refuses to acknowledge in their conscious mind. As an example, the childhood experience of the Oedipus complex is part of the unconscious: no child explicitly and consciously desires to replace their mother or father, but unconsciously they do.

The unconscious mind contains the ‘laws of transformation’, which are rules that explain how we repress memories (when we ignore the presence of the memory entirely) or ‘sublimate’ memories (when we express unconscious desires via a more socially acceptable channel).

... for Freud, human reason was not master in its own house but a precarious defense mechanism struggling against, and often motivated by, unconscious desires and forces’

Norton Anthology of Critical Theory

Ego, id, superego

Freud developed his theory of the mind as an ‘iceberg’, with the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mind making up the different levels of sky, surface, and deep sea (see the diagram below). In addition to this is the iceberg, which includes the id, ego and superego, often collectively referred to as the ‘psychic apparatus’.

  • Ego: part of our conscious personality, the ego acts as the intermediary between the id and the socially oriented external world. It is governed by logic and reason in contrast to the more intuitive id. The ego often restrains and directs the impulses of the id.

  • Id: the most primitive part of our personality. Motivated by instinct, the id contains the libido along with urges and impulses that we typically do not give into. The id only responds to what Freud calls ‘the pleasure principle’, which essentially states that we only do things that are pleasurable.

  • Superego: developed during the child’s early years of psychosexual development (remember the Oedipus complex?), the Superego forms a part of the unconscious. It is attributed as the voice of our conscience and also our self criticism. The Superego often incorporates our own values and morals, which are taught to us by our parents and other parental figures as children. The Superego controls the id and protects it against impulses that are socially unacceptable.

Psychoanalysis, Iceberg analogy picture, StudySmarterThe idea of the conscious, unconscious, ego, superego and id is often presented using an 'iceberg' analogy, pexels

Dreams

Freud thought of dreams as the ultimate insight into an individual’s unconscious mind. This was based on a dream that he had in 1895 about a patient, Irma, who was not responding well to treatment. Freud dreamt that Irma’s condition was caused by an infected syringe that was used by her previous doctor. This lead Freud to conclude that dreams function as a wish fulfilment exercise for our unconscious mind. Freud came up with a list of terms that relate to how we interpret dreams, which we have provided below:

Dream terminology

Freud states that dreams have two types of content: manifest and latent.

Manifest content is the dreamer’s memories that have materialised in their dream.

Latent content is the symbolic or underlying interpretation of that dream.

Displacement involves dreaming of one thing as another thing, usually with that thing taking on a symbolic meaning. For example, if you refer to your mother-in-law as a cow, you may dream about being trampled to death by a cow.

Condensation is the act of combining multiple images or symbols into one thing. This allows for symbols in dreams to take on multiple meanings.

Freud calls the process of translating an individual’s unconscious desires into the manifest content dreamwork. Dreamwork transforms the wishes of the id (which may be forbidden or socially unacceptable) into a more palatable form in an individual’s dream.

Secondary elaboration refers to the unconscious mind ordering a sequence of wish-fulfilment events into an order that is believable to the dreamer, thus hiding the latent content of the dream.

What did Lacan say about psychoanalysis?

Jaques Lacan was another significant psychoanalytical theorist in the latter half of the twentieth century. Lacan expanded Freud’s theory in two ways:

Mirror stage

This refers to the period when a child develops a sense of self through noticing a distinction between the self and the other. Lacan named this stage the ‘mirror stage’ as it is around this period that a child will recognise their own image in a mirror, suggesting that they have developed the concept of self identity. This is also the stage in which language emerges.

Symbolic, real and imaginary

Lacan suggested that there are three ‘orders’ to the mind: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.

The symbolic is a register that encapsulates things like the law, language, and tradition. It is the symbolic register that affords us names and the ability to communicate through language, and our relationship with our own relatives are governed by the symbolic register. For example, if a mother tells a child that they have their ‘father’s temper’, they will define their temper in relation to their father and seek to either conform or rebel against this expectation.

The real is a register of existence that lacks meaning entirely. In Lacan’s own words, ‘the real is all that cannot be symbolised and that is excluded from the symbolic and imaginary registers.’ The only being that can truly and entirely live in the ‘real’ order is a newly born baby. As soon as the baby learns to speak, it ceases to live entirely in the real register, instead living in the symbolic register. As Lacan explains, whatever we do not say or symbolise through communication, we leave in the ‘real’ register.

The imaginary is the relation between the self and the self image. Lacan theorised that when identifying one’s image in the mirror, the disharmony between the cohesive image and the fragmented self produces the ego (not to be confused with Freud’s definition of the ego). The imaginary order is therefore the development of the ego during a child’s mirror stage. It is a process in which an individual creates a fantastical, wish fulfilment image of themselves and the object of their desire.

What is an example of the application of psychoanalysis to literature?

As mentioned above, let's examine Hamlet through the lens of psychoanalysis.

Hamlet

Freud originally used Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an example of the Oedipus Complex in action. As Freud explains, in Hamlet, the Oedipus complex is ‘repressed’, ‘we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences' (Norton).

A stickling point for many critics is that Hamlet hesitates to take revenge on his uncle for the murder of his father for a significant part of the play. In fact, much of the tension of the play is Hamlet morally wrestling with the idea of avenging his father. Freud begins his analysis by disproving a previously popular theory, put forward by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The theory stated that this hesitation is because Hamlet is excessively developed in his intellect and that he is simply not a man of action (‘pathologically irresolute’).

Instead, Freud suggests that Hamlet delays his vengeance for so long because his uncle has accomplished his own unconscious wishes. That is, killing Hamlet’s father and replacing him by marrying his mother. Therefore, whilst Oedipus himself unwittingly realises his own subconscious desires, Hamlet sees his own repressed wishes played out in front of him, except with his uncle playing the role that he desires.

Applying psychoanalysis, then, Hamlet does not ultimately desire to kill his uncle in order to defend his father: he desires to kill his uncle in order to replace him, as his uncle has acted out his own desire to replace his father.

Can you think of any other works of literature that you could apply a psychoanalytic reading to?

Key takeaways

  • Psychoanalytical readings focus on the relationship between literature, the unconscious mind and our conscious actions and thoughts.

  • There are two influential psychoanalytical theorists: Sigmund Freud and Jaques Lacan.

  • Freud developed theories on the Oedipus Complex and the interpretation of Dreams. He also developed ideas about our unconscious mind and separated our psyches into the id, ego and superego.

  • Lacan expanded on Freud through developing the mirror stage theory, and separating the psyche into the symbolic, real and imaginary realm.

Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalytical readings focus on the relationship between literature, the unconscious mind and our conscious actions and thoughts.

An example of psychoanalysis can be found in Freud’s reading of Hamlet. According to Freud, Hamlet delays his vengeance for so long because his uncle has accomplished his own unconscious wishes. That is, killing Hamlet’s father and replacing him via marrying his mother. Therefore, whilst Oedipus himself unwittingly realises his own subconscious desires, Hamlet sees his own repressed wishes played out in front of him, except with his uncle playing the role that he desires. 

Psychoanalytical readings were derived from the work of Sigmund Freud

The Ego acts as the intermediary between the Id and the socially oriented external world. It is governed by logic and reason, in contrast to the more intuitive Id. The Ego often restrains and directs the impulses of the Id. 

Whilst some of Freud's ideas have a scientific backing, many more of them have been disproven. Many of Freud's theories are based on assumptions that we now know to not be true, leading many to conclude that psychoanalysis is likely pseudoscience, or at least questionable science. 

Final Psychoanalysis Quiz

Question

Who first developed the theory of the Oedipus Complex?

Show answer

Answer

Sigmund Freud

Show question

Question

Who wrote the play Oedipus Rex?

Show answer

Answer

Sophocles

Show question

Question

What areas of literature does psychoanalysis focus on?

Show answer

Answer

  1. The mind of the author
  2. The mind of the character
  3. The mind of the audience
  4. The text's language and symbolism

Show question

Question

Who is Oedipus' female equivalent in psychoanalysis?

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Answer

Electra

Show question

Question

Who coined the term 'Electra Complex'?

Show answer

Answer

Carl Jung

Show question

Question

What is the Id?

Show answer

Answer

The id contains the libido along with urges and impulses that we typically do not give into. 

Show question

Question

What is the Ego?

Show answer

Answer

The Ego is a part of our conscious personality and functions as the intermediary between the Id and the socially oriented external world.

Show question

Question

What is the Superego?

Show answer

Answer

The Superego is our conscience and also our self-critical voice. 

Show question

Question

What is the difference between manifest and latent content?

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Answer

Manifest content is the dreamer’s memories that have materialised in their dream. 


Latent content is the symbolic or underlying interpretation of that dream. 

Show question

Question

What is displacement?

Show answer

Answer

Displacement involves dreaming of one thing as another thing, usually with that thing taking on a symbolic meaning.

Show question

Question

What is condensation?

Show answer

Answer

Condensation is the act of combining multiple images or symbols into one thing. This allows for symbols in dreams to take on multiple meanings.

Show question

Question

What is dreamwork?

Show answer

Answer


The process of translating an individual’s unconscious desires into the manifest content.

Show question

Question

What is secondary elaboration?

Show answer

Answer

The unconscious mind ordering a sequence of wish-fulfilment events into a believable or logical order, thus hiding the latent content of the dream. 


Show question

Question

What is the mirror stage?

Show answer

Answer

When a child develops a sense of self through noticing a distinction between the self and the other. 

Show question

Question

What did Lacan say was the three orders of the mind?

Show answer

Answer

Imaginary, Real and Symbolic

Show question

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