Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Unraveling Abstract Concepts

Classical psychoanalytic theories have long been the standard approach to literature. However, a nontraditional psychoanalytic theory is emerging in the undergraduate English curriculum: that of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981). Lacan's work is characterized by abstraction, ambiguity, and difficulty of understanding. He argued that writing about the unconscious should mirror its ambiguity, as its manifestations in dreams, behavior, and art often carry multiple meanings, making it inherently challenging to comprehend. Disagreements among interpreters further complicate matters, as Lacan sometimes altered the meanings of key terms over time. Despite these challenges, gaining an introductory understanding of Lacanian psychoanalysis is crucial, as these concepts are increasingly influencing students' writing, albeit frequently leading to incorrect interpretations.

Misconceptions Surrounding Lacan's Terms

One common issue arises when students misapply Lacanian terms, such as "symbolic," without grasping their specific meaning within his theory. Lacan's use of "symbolic" differs significantly from our general interpretation, referring to literary symbols within a work. To address this problem, we must delve deeper into the core concepts of Lacanian psychoanalysis, recognizing the limitations of brief and abstract summaries that often echo Lacan's own writing. Although this exploration may not yield a profound understanding of Lacan's work, it will offer clarity on what his ideas do not entail, providing a better grasp of their essence.

Lacan's Theory of Infant Development

The Early Months: A Formless Experience

Lacan's theory of psychological development commences with the infant's early months. During this stage, the infant perceives itself and its environment as a random, fragmented, and formless mass. It lacks the capacity to distinguish itself from the external world and remains unaware that its body parts belong to itself. Even its own toes become objects of exploration, much like any other items in its surroundings.

The Mirror Stage: Embracing Wholeness

Between six and eight months of age, Lacan introduces the concept of the "Mirror Stage." This pivotal phase marks a profound shift in the child's perception, as it begins to recognize itself as a unified whole rather than a disintegrated mass. Whether the child sees its reflection in a mirror or perceives itself mirrored in the reactions of its mother, the outcome remains the same—a newfound sense of self-identification with the whole image it beholds. Consequently, the child develops a sense of itself as a complete entity, akin to identifying with its mirrored reflection.

Preverbal Nature and the Imaginary Order

The child lacks the linguistic ability to express these feelings, as it is still preverbal. Lacan contends that the Mirror Stage initiates what he terms the "Imaginary Order," a world dominated by images rather than words. It is not the realm of imagination but one of perception. In this world, the child experiences a sense of fullness, completeness, and delight, fueled by an illusion of control over its environment and its mother. The child perceives itself as inseparably linked to its mother and experiences a mutual sense of satisfaction: my mother fulfills all my needs, and I fulfill all her needs. Although this preverbal sense of unity and control is illusory, it is profoundly gratifying and influential. Lacan refers to this experience as the "Desire of the Mother," signifying the reciprocal desire between mother and child.

The Significance of Language

The primary dyad, or twosome, between the child and its mother remains pivotal until the child acquires language—a transformative event according to Lacan. Language acquisition marks a paramount shift, shaping the child's perception and experience of the world in significant ways.


In conclusion, Lacanian psychoanalysis presents abstract and intricate perspectives on human psychology and its connection to literature. While challenging to grasp fully, exploring Lacan's concepts opens new avenues of literary interpretation. By understanding the Mirror Stage and its impact on the formation of self-identity, we gain valuable insights into character development and the complexities of the human psyche within literary works.

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