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Psychoanalytic literary criticism is a way of analyzing and interpreting literary works that relies on psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalytic theory was developed by Sigmund Freud to explain the workings of the human mind. In this field of literary criticism, the major concepts of psychoanalytic theory, such as the idea of an unconscious and conscious mind, the divisions of the id, ego, and superego, and the Oedipus complex, are applied to literature to gain a deeper understanding of that work.
The idea of a conscious and an unconscious mind is one of the most important tools in psychoanalytic literary criticism. Freud theorized that people have a conscious part of the mind, where thinking takes place and where they are aware of their thoughts. He also proposed the idea of an unconscious part of the mind, where desires and drives exist that people are not aware of, but that affect them and sometimes cause psychological problems.
Freud would often analyze dreams, which he believed were windows into the working of the unconscious mind. He believed dreams had obvious, or manifest, content that masked the latent, or unconscious, desires and drives. He used symbolism and dream analysis to discover the latent content of the dream.
One technique in psychoanalytic literary criticism is to treat a work of literature as though it is a dream. The goal of this technique is to understand the unconscious symbols and desires through interpretation of the more obvious content. This type of literary criticism uses symbolism and other forms of analysis to get at the latent content of a work of literature.
Childhood experiences are extremely influential and, to a large degree, shape a person’s psyche, according to Freud. In his theory of the Oedipus complex, a child begins life by being very attached to the mother figure. The child begins to be jealous of the attention the mother gives to the father, which leads to repressed anger toward the father and a desire to possess the mother. Psychoanalytic literary criticism may use this theory of development as a way to understand the repressed content of literature.
Freud believed the experiences of childhood lead to the development of three divisions in the mind: the ego, the id, and the superego. The ego is the conscious part of the brain, the part a person is aware of. The id is the unconscious or repressed desires a person has, including the desires caused by the Oedipus complex. The superego is the conscience, the judge and jury in a person’s mind. Psychoanalytic literary criticism looks for the influences of all three parts of the mind in literature.