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What Is Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism?

By Sarah Kay Moll
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1006138 — On Feb 02, 2022

How do I cite this page?

By lluviaporos — On Oct 31, 2013

@indigomoth - The problem is that we can look for common motifs in an author's work all we want, but there is no proof as to what those motifs mean. They might adore their own mother and think that the worst thing that could happen was for her to be hurt, so they write that into their stories to add drama.

Or maybe they were inspired by a story they read in childhood where the mother was hurt and it has become a necessary part of their storytelling ever since.

Not to mention that most of Freud's theories have been discredited by now, so I'd be very hesitant to take any psychoanalytic literary theory based on his work seriously.

By indigomoth — On Oct 31, 2013

@clintflint - I don't really like the idea of too much psychoanalysis with literary criticism to be honest. I'm more interested in the intentions of a great author and how they were trying to manipulate the reader, rather than how they were unconsciously putting their own issues into a book.

But, in some ways, it's the only method we have to get close to historical authors. And you do have to wonder if, when an author continually writes bad endings for motherly characters, they might have had an issue with their own mother.

By clintflint — On Oct 30, 2013

I've always wondered how much of the critical interpretation of novels is actually an exercise in imagination on behalf of the critic. I mean, I can't imagine that most authors go through their book assigning meaning to every little detail. Sometimes a black hat is just a black hat, or in Freudian terms, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I suppose this kind of psychoanalytical criticism at least acknowledges that some of the symbolism is unconscious, rather than overt.

I know that some people enjoy this kind of thing but it just makes me think of high school English and the way that it basically ruined many of the classics for me with over-analysis.

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