Psychoanalysis in Literature

Psychoanalysis, a type of therapy which focuses on the underlying elements of a person’s mind which may manifest in some form of mental disorder, can also be applied to literature in terms of the same principles: the unconscious, dream interpretation, and repression. But psychoanalysis’s true strength lies deeper than its simple ability to analyze literature; instead, it is psychoanalysis’s ability to inspire a greater consciousness among people which is admirable.

For instance, one of the driving forces of psychoanalysis includes the idea of the unconscious, “the part of the mind beyond consciousness which nevertheless has a strong influence upon our actions” (Barry 96). When this idea is applied to literature, it quickly begins to reveal important information, such as the motivations and hidden intentions of characters. Not only is this essential for the purpose of understanding characters on a deeper level, but it also brings a greater level of consciousness to the world in general. It seems that if people begin to access literature in terms of what could be lying beneath the surface of words and actions – in terms of the unconscious – then this will encourage them to access the world in the same way. Thus, oddly enough, applying the idea of the unconscious actually encourages increased consciousness.

Psychoanalysis as therapy emphasizes the importance of dreams for consideration as part of the patient’s diagnosis. Dreams are regarded as beyond the conscious mind and therefore uncensored, making use of “images, symbols, and metaphors” (99) in order to convey a message that the conscious mind would otherwise not be able to handle or process. As dreams are in the realm of the unconscious, so it seems is literature.

If literature is considered a sort of dream – a story born from the author’s mind – then psychoanalysis truly becomes the best means to understanding literature. Both literature and dreams make use of images, symbols, and metaphors to convey a story that is beyond words alone, a story that can be delved into in order to find more layers of meaning. Like dreams, literature doesn’t just simply “say things” (99), but “shows them.” By analyzing literature in terms of the same tools that literature itself uses, psychoanalysis demonstrates its strength through its familiarity with many of literature’s key elements.

But psychoanalytical criticism does more than simply allow readers to interpret literature according to its own terms, it also helps readers recognize the significance of their own dreams and possibly the dreams of others. This concentration on what is not immediately visible is refreshing in a world that can seem too caught up in the immediacy of reality to pay much attention to the subtle nuances of dreams, behaviors, and inner motivations.

Repression, for example, illustrates the human tendency to focus on what is immediate and forthcoming in order to forget “unresolved conflicts, unadmitted desires, or traumatic past events, so that they are forced out of conscious awareness and into the realm of the unconscious” (97). If Freud’s definition of repression seems a little too intense to be believable, it does at the very least highlight people’s tendency towards escapism, finding life’s problems easier to live with when something else can occasionally and temporarily subdue them – like alcohol or drugs. As the idea of repression suggests, however, any manner of escapism can only last for so long, as these problems will manifest themselves despite the best efforts to the contrary. In psychoanalysis, this idea is known as the return of the repressed. Drawing attention to this human tendency and its ultimate result does some good for humankind in general, as awareness of something can be enough to decrease it’s prominence.

Another strength of psychoanalysis is that it seems to take issue with individuals within society, rather than society as a whole. Although everyone will not agree, I believe it is essential to focus first on individual change before societal change can ever be possible. Because “society” is not only a general term but indeed a generic entity, one can not expect society to one day come into consciousness and realize that it needs to change for the betterment of humankind. Because individuals do possess consciousness, however, it can be expected that many individuals will make an effort to change once they are empowered with the knowledge that will inspire them to strive for a higher level of existence for everyone. In this way, self responsibility leads to societal responsibility, and likewise, individual change inspires societal change.

The greatest strength of psychoanalysis is its ability to check itself. In other words, by applying some of the founding principles of psychoanalysis to literature, psychoanalysis has the uncanny ability to reveal its own absurdity. For instance, Freud believes that all women suffer from penis envy, the innate jealousy of and desire to possess a penis (and likely all the privilege and power that comes with it). The absurdity of this idea becomes apparent whenever one tries to apply this idea to literature and sees how hard it is to find evidence of such a thing as penis envy as a motivating factor in a female character’s psyche. Psychoanalysis, then, serves as proof that misogyny did and does exist. Though the idea of psychoanalysis as proof of misogynistic attitudes may seen trivial, it seems all too easy for people to assume that misogyny has been mostly obliterated within society at this point. It makes misogyny seem particularly more apparent when there is an entire school of psychological analysis that includes these negative ideas about women.

Psychoanalysis serves more than one purpose when it is used to analyze and critique literature. Rather than just be another kind of literary criticism which does nothing but interpret literature, psychoanalysis also manages to inspire a greater level of consciousness among people by using some of the principles of psychoanalysis to draw attention to things inherent in humankind.

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