Psychoanalyzing Literary Characters and Literature

In classical psychoanalysis, there are many more concepts than the ones discussed earlier. Different psychoanalytic theorists may disagree on aspects such as the formation of personalities and the treatment of dysfunctional behavior. Similarly, among psychoanalytic literary critics, there is disagreement about how psychoanalytic concepts should be applied to the study of literature.

Some questions arise when using psychoanalysis to analyze literature:

  • What role should an author's literary output play in psychoanalyzing their life?
  • To what extent is it legitimate to psychoanalyze literary characters as if they were real people?
  • Which psychoanalytic theorists provide the best insights when psychoanalyzing literary characters?
  • What role do readers play in projecting their desires and conflicts onto the text they're reading?

Psychoanalysis and reader-response theory, which will be covered in chapter 6, share similarities in focusing on the psychological experience of the reader. Additionally, there may be overlaps of psychoanalysis with Marxism and feminism in chapters 3 and 4, as well as instances where Marxism and feminism reject the psychoanalytic perspective.

When reading psychoanalytically, not every psychoanalytic concept discussed will be present in every literary work. The goal is to identify which concepts are at play in the text to enhance our understanding of the work or to create a meaningful psychoanalytic interpretation if we plan to write about it.

From a classical psychoanalytic perspective, some aspects to consider in literary analysis might include the representation of oedipal dynamics or family dynamics in general, the psychological relationship to death or sexuality, how the narrator's unconscious issues influence the story, or any other psychoanalytic concepts that offer valuable insights into the text.

The application of psychoanalysis to understand the behavior of literary characters has been met with objections, primarily due to the argument that literary characters are not real individuals with psyches that can be analyzed. However, proponents of psychoanalytic literary criticism argue that examining the behavior of literary characters through the lens of psychoanalysis offers valuable insights into the human psyche. This approach has been defended on two crucial grounds: first, the psychoanalysis of literary characters does not imply they are real people but rather representations of universal human experiences, and second, it is as legitimate as analyzing characters from other critical perspectives such as feminism, Marxism, or African American criticism.

Psychoanalytic Exploration of Literary Characters

In psychoanalyzing literary characters, the main objective is to uncover and understand the underlying psychological motivations and conflicts that drive their actions and decisions. For instance, a psychoanalytic reading of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949) offers compelling insights into the behavior of Willy Loman. Willy's recurrent flashbacks to the past can be seen as regressive episodes, a manifestation of his present psychological trauma arising from his own and his son's lack of success in the business world. These setbacks exacerbate Willy's profound insecurity, a lingering consequence of his abandonment during childhood by his father and older brother.

Defending Psychoanalytic Criticism

The objections raised against psychoanalyzing literary characters rest on the premise that fictional characters lack real psyches. However, psychoanalytic critics maintain that literary characters are symbolic representations of human experiences. When analyzing these characters, the focus is not on treating them as autonomous individuals but rather as embodiments of universal psychological struggles and desires shared by humanity. Furthermore, psychoanalytic literary criticism stands on equal footing with other critical theories that analyze characters from various perspectives. Just as feminist, Marxist, or African American criticisms shed light on different aspects of literary works, psychoanalysis delves into the depths of human consciousness and the complexities of the human mind, adding valuable layers of interpretation to the text.

Unveiling Hidden Meanings

A psychoanalytic approach to literary characters unravels hidden meanings and motivations behind their actions. It delves into the subconscious realm, exploring the repressed desires, fears, and conflicts that influence character development and shape the narrative. This deeper analysis allows readers to comprehend the characters' psychological struggles and emotional complexities, providing a richer understanding of the work.

The Play of Symbols and Subconscious

Psychoanalytic readings often reveal how symbols in the text are linked to unconscious desires and fears. For example, in Death of a Salesman, Willy's fixation on the American Dream symbolizes his pursuit of success and recognition, which serve as substitutes for his unresolved childhood traumas. Understanding these symbols through a psychoanalytic lens unveils the underlying psychological tensions that drive the narrative.

Conclusion

In conclusion, psychoanalyzing literary characters offers valuable insights into the human psyche and enriches our understanding of literary works. By recognizing that characters represent universal psychological experiences and exploring the subconscious dimensions of their behavior, psychoanalytic critics bring hidden meanings and complexities to the surface. This approach should be seen as complementary to other critical theories, as it adds a unique and profound perspective to the interpretation of literature.

Examples

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Unconscious Motivations

A psychoanalytic reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) offers fascinating insights into Victor's creation of the monster. It can be argued that Victor's creation of the creature, responsible for the deaths of his family and friends, stems from his unconscious need to punish his father and mother, with Elizabeth serving as a surrogate figure. The unresolved sibling rivalry created by his parents' adoption of Elizabeth as the "perfect" child when Victor was five years old might have contributed to the repressed feelings of abandonment. Victor's frequent protestations of love for Elizabeth, coupled with the absence of any normal childhood jealousy, hint at the unresolved conflicts in his unconscious mind.

Psychoanalytic Signifiers in Victor's Adult Life

Numerous signs of these unresolved conflicts emerge in Victor's adult life, such as his failure to mention subsequent siblings during his narrative of childhood with Elizabeth, his prolonged absence from his beloved family, and the dream sequence revealing a psychological merger of Elizabeth and his deceased mother, foreshadowing Elizabeth's death. Victor's fits of feverish disorientation and frequent expressions of fear of losing his mind or claims of perfect sanity further illustrate the presence of unconscious turmoil. Additionally, his uncanny ability to facilitate the monster's next murder may indicate a deeper psychological connection between Victor and the creature.

Connection to Mary Shelley's Life

A cautious exploration of the novel's representation of psychological abandonment raises questions about potential connections to Mary Shelley's own experiences. Her mother's death shortly after her birth, her father's struggles with single parenthood, and the neglect she faced from her father's subsequent wife in favor of her step-sister may have left lasting impressions of abandonment, reflecting in the themes present in Frankenstein.

The Unconscious in Literature

Psychoanalytic Presence in Literary Texts

A common question arises concerning psychoanalytic readings of literary works: Do the presence of psychoanalytic concepts imply deliberate inclusion by the author? The answer lies in the fact that Freud did not invent psychoanalytic principles but discovered their operation in human beings. Authors need not have been aware of these principles to incorporate them into their works, as psychoanalytic concepts are intrinsic to human behavior and the human psyche. Consequently, any literary text that accurately portrays human behavior or stems from the author's unconscious will inherently contain psychoanalytic principles.

Universal Application of Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism is not confined to a specific literary genre or artistic medium. It can be applied to works of fiction, poetry, drama, folklore, and nonfiction. Furthermore, it extends its reach to paintings, sculptures, architecture, films, and music. Essentially, any human production involving images, narrative elements, or psychological relevance can be effectively interpreted using psychoanalytic tools.

Uncovering the Depths of Human Consciousness

By delving into the subconscious realm of literary characters, psychoanalytic readings unveil hidden complexities and motivations. These interpretations provide a profound understanding of the characters' psychological struggles and emotional depths, enriching the overall comprehension of the literary work. As readers explore the inner workings of characters' minds through psychoanalytic analysis, they gain unique insights into the intricacies of human behavior and the human condition.
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