A Guide to Psychoanalytic Criticism

Thinking novels as an analogy of dreams seems an excellent natural example. Same as dreams, novels are fictitious inventions of the human mind, which are although reality based but by definition they are not true. Just like a novel, dreams are said to interpret some truth, coming from one’s personal experiences or sub-conscious mind.

Many reasons make an analogy between novels and dreams seem natural. There is no denying that we vicariously live in a plot of romantic fictions as much as we live daydreams. Similarly, nightmares and terrifying novels have the same effect on our minds and plunge us into an atmosphere that remains clingy, even when the story is finished.

Hence, nothing is surprising when you hear someone saying Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is more like a frightening nightmare. Both its plot and structure allow the reader and author to explore fantasies, wishes, and fears.

The phenomena that dreams can allow psychic explorations, or make a connection between dreams and literary works, lead us to the philosophy of-of Sigmund Freud. A renowned Australian psychoanalyst, famous for his great deal of research on Psychoanalytic criticism, published an essay ‘The Interpretation of Dreams.‘

The Relationship between Freud’s Theory and Literary Criticism

Freud’s theory to some extent was able to bridge literary work and dreams. It makes the reality of dreams seem natural. Many critics, who agree with Freud’s theory, believe that whether you have read Freud’s philosophy or not, everyone is Freudians in one way or other. We all somehow come across or referred to the terms like unconscious desires, ego, sexual repression, ego, and libido.

The premises of the psychoanalytic approach, under Freud’s analysis, have vehemently influenced the western world. Every human being is a psychoanalytic interpreter, particularly teachers who learn from scholar’s criticism. In 1960, psychoanalytical criticism emerged as a new doctrine, containing an interpretive theory.

Sigmund Freud subverted the intellectual society by working on the premises of sexuality, instincts and human individuality. The connection between literary criticism and psychoanalysis mainly concerned with sexuality and its articulation in language. It focuses on three main phases to pursue literary criticism including the author (his or her subjectivity), text and reader.

The psychoanalytical theory considers the literary text as ‘Artist Symptoms’ in which both author and text established a relationship, which is synonymous with a relationship between dreams and dreamers. Later, the post-Freudian psychoanalytic theorists re-molded the approach called ‘Reader-response criticism’. The new approach talked about reader’s psychological experience with the text. It completely foregrounded the reader’s subjectivity with the text.

On the other hand, CG Jung contested the Freud’s approach, leading an archetypal criticism. According to archetype definition, the main focus of literary criticism is not the readers or writers personal psychology. It typically represents a relationship between collective unconscious myths, thoughts, desires, image and past archetype culture.

The horizon of Freud’s theoretical delineation expanded when Jacques Lacanre worked in poststructuralist context. He merged the structural linguistics with dynamic phenomena of desire. Under the influence of this archetypical criticism, psychoanalytic impetus considered compatible with uncertainties of subjectivity and time. Furthermore, its meaning gained popularity in a Postcolonial domain where the primary interest was in destabilized identities and borders of literary criticism.

Freud’s Psychoanalytic Explorations

The answer to the question ‘who is Freud’ lies in his psychoanalytical explorations about the unconscious mind and dreams. His theory gives a decisive role to the unconscious desires and their effects on the human beings. Freud considered unconscious desires a reflection of human suppressed emotions, traumatic experiences, fears, unresolved conflicts, unadmitted desires and libidinal drives.

All of these suppressed human emotions play an important role in constituting human unhappy psychic. Freud called it ‘Repression’ and considered it essential for the operation of the unconscious mind. Hebert Marcuse further developed this idea and showed his consistent interest in the literary studies related to repression and its effects and linked it with sexuality.

Repression as a psychoanalytic exploration of Freud does not exclude human excruciating experiences, drives, agonies, and fears. He stated that it strengthens these emotions by making them powerful organizers of the current events. There is another similar process Freud termed as ‘Sublimation’ that refers to the promotion of repressed material into something noble, disguised or grander. For example, a man can use the sublimated expression for his sexual urges by taking benefits from religious longings. Psychoanalysis uses ‘defense mechanism’ as a neologism that elaborates psychic procedures a human uses to avoid painful admission.

To explain this notion further, Freud demonstrated an example of ‘Freudian slip’ and called it ‘Paraprax.’ It explains how repressed material saved in unconscious mind finds a way out through unintended actions, a slip of the tongue and pen. Hence, the unconscious is psychoanalysis is not only a passive receiver or reservoir of everyday neutral data but a dynamic entity that keeps us engaged with our mind’s deepest level.

Freud’s Tripartite Model a and Psychoanalytic Criticism

Freud presented a structural model of a human personality. He studied the three major aspects that are responsible for creating human reactions. He pigeonholed human personality into Ego, id and the superego. Psychoanalysis, in this regard, greatly depends upon these three parts to analyze someone’s personality or the way someone behaves.

The theory significantly influenced literary critics as they apply the approach of a tripartite model for analyzing the literary characters and its actions. They use the same three parts of the personality structure that Freud has identified. Critics explored character’s ego, id, and superego in work. The primary focus was to determine how these character’s personality structures affect the work. A literary critic named this process psychoanalytic criticism. Freud explained the three parts of the personality structure as,

1. Id

According to Freud, id is one of the most important parts of the human personality based on primitive impulses like hunger, thirst, the desire for gratification and anger. Humans are born with their id, and it allows them to acquire their basic needs.

Id is directly related to pleasure principal and compels humans to seek anything that feels good at a particular time without considering any restrictions of the situation. Freud believed that id has a power to influence ego and can easily maneuver human’s behavior to bring self-pleasure.

2. Ego

Ego is another significant part of the human’s personality that aims to maintain a balance between conscience (superego) and impulses (id). The ego scaffolds on the reality principle, and understands the desires and needs of other people. It knows that being impulsive is equal to being selfish and can hurt people sometimes.

Ego carries a great responsibility to understand the needs of impulses while considering the situation’s reality. To put it simply, Ego’s job is to balance the superego and id.

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3. Superego

The superego is the moral part of human personality, representing conscience. The development of superego relies on ethical and moral restraints placed on every human being by his/her caregiver. Not only does it influence human personality, but also dictates his/her moral beliefs, (right or wrong). The superego is synonymous to the good angel sitting on the shoulder, telling people to control ego’s behavior.

Role of Dreams in Freud’s Theory

A significant part of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory deals with the dreams and their role in human life. Freud believed that dreams are the royal roads that lead us to our unconscious mind. Dreams are the reflection of our repressed desires, hidden in our subconscious minds. Dreams are more like the symbolic fulfillment of human desires or wishes.

Freud asserted that dreams contain symbolic texts that everyone needs to decipher when his/her watchful ego is alert and at work, even when a person is dreaming. However, deciphering ego’s message is not easy as it censors or scrambles the messages due to the peculiar functioning modes of the unconscious to increase the obscurity.

Making the dream content latent, unconscious does not vividly display the desires and conceals it in the complex codes and structures. Freud called it ‘dream work’ in his neologism.

Freud’s Work in the Eyes of Critics

Although Sigmund Freud is one of the leading figures in the world of psychoanalysis, his work and theories faced a great deal of criticism. Carl Jung, in this regard, is not only known for his outstanding and impactful contributions to the psychological treatments but also for criticizing and countering Freud theories.

Even though both psychoanalysts developed camaraderie and greatly admired each other’s work, they became most prominent critics of each other works. The major differences lie in their psychoanalytical theories that also became a cause of Freud and Jung’s intellectual break.

Both Freud theory and work explored the unconscious processes of mind, where he foregrounded the role of dreams and its complex messages. According to him, it is our unconscious mind which is responsible for specific human behavior. Among all the forces, Freud considers sexual desires as the most ostentatious and powerful yet suppressed emotions of our childhood. It is our conscious mind that constantly repressed these desires.

On the other hand, Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist. He was a great admirer of Freud’s theory until Freud stereotyped Jung as an heir apparent to the psychoanalysis domain. Their relationship deteriorated, as manifested in Jungian criticism. Jung notably disagreed with many of Freud’s theories, ideas, and critical concepts. The primary disagreement was with Freud’s emphasis on sexuality as one of the fundamental motivating force of behavior. Besides this, Jung criticizes Freud’s concepts of dream work and unconscious. According to him, Freud’s theories are overtly negative and cannot be over generalized.

Psychoanalysis Criticism- Freudian vs. Jungian

There is no denying that the discipline of psychoanalysis has greatly benefitted from the work of Freud and Jung. Both contributed a lot in establishing an understanding of personality psychology and marked a notable impact on the fields of psychoanalysis and psychology.

However, to analyze the critical disagreements between Freudian and Jungian approaches, it is essential that we understand their perspectives.

Concept of Unconscious

This concept is one of the most important central disagreements between Freud and Jung.

For Freud, the unconscious is the epicenter of repressed experiences, traumatic memories, fears, thoughts, sexual desires, and aggression. He viewed the unconscious mind as a place to accumulate hidden desires that may result in neuroses.

On the contrary, Jung categorized the psyche into three key parts including the ego, the collective unconscious, and personal unconscious. Jung considered ego as the conscious part and personal conscious that collects suppressed and recalled memories. It is our collective unconscious that holds knowledge and experiences.

Concept of Dream

Freudian vs. Jungian was a battle of perspectives and ideas. The concept of ‘Dream’ has played a crucial role in it. To Freud, dream exhibits a lot about an individual’s personality, and you can learn many things about by just interpreting his/her dreams.

Freud stated that human deepest desires are weak when he/she is conscious and awake. Furthermore, there are considerations of morality and reality which restrain an individual from acting upon his/her deepest desires. However, during sleep, all these forces disappear and allow an individual to experience his/her deepest desires.

Jung, on the other hand, saw eye to eye about the dream as a window to an unconscious mind but he did not agree that all dreams are about sexual desires. Also, he did not believe that dream disguises its meanings through codes and complex messages. According to Jung, dream depicts different meanings through symbolic imagery that somewhat depends on the dreamer’s experiences and associations.

Jung did not agree with the philosophy of ‘dream dictionary’ that tend to interpret dreams by a fixed definition. He believed that a dream has its distinctive language and it speaks in the form of metaphors, images, and symbols.

Bottom Line

Overall, psychoanalysis criticism has an interesting facet that literary critics used to validate the significance of literature. Its approaches and theories were used to decode unresolved emotions, guilt, psychological conflicts and ambivalence of the author’s life. The disciplined helped critics trace the author’s childhood traumas, fixations and sexual conflicts within his character’s behavior in the literary work.