Psychoanalytic Literary Theory

Focuses on writer's psyche, study of creative process, study of psychological types and principles present within works of literature, or effects of literature upon readers.

Unconscious: irrational part of the psyche available only through dissociated acts or dreams.

Freudian Slips: (parapraxis) unconscious stores our memory and our suppressed conflicts, which manifest themselves in dreams, literature, play and slips of the tongue.

Oedipus or Electra Complex:

In the early stages of development, children are connected to their mothers.

To grow into a man a boy needs to denounce his ties to the mother and be more like the father (in the hope of one day possessing a woman like his mother)

To grow into a woman a girl turns her desires from mother to father seeing in him what she lacks. Failing to win father, she emulates mother (hoping to possess a man like her father)


The unconscious redirects and shapes its concealed wishes into acceptable social activities through dreams and writing. The psyche here creates a window to the id by allowing these repressed desires to come into the conscious. This is done by:

Displacement or switching of hatred to a person called Appleby into appearance of a rotten apple in a dream.

Condensation of oneís feeling to a variety of people or objects into one image or symbol.

Neurosis results when unconscious desires are not released (through dreams or writing)

Literature is the external expression of the authorís unconscious mind. Thus it must be treated like a dream where the psychoanalysts attempts to explain seemingly unexplained images.

Freud's model of the psyche:

Id: completely unconscious part of the psyche that serves as a storehouse of our desires, wishes, and fears. The id houses the libido, the source of psychosexual energy.

Ego: conscious part of the psyche that processes experiences and operates as a referee or mediator between the id and superego.

Superego: often thought of as one's "conscience"; the superego operates "like an internal censor [encouraging] moral judgments in light of social pressures"

Lacan's model of the psyche:

Imaginary: a child (6-18 months) begins to develop a sense of separateness from her mother as well as other people and objects; however, the child's sense of sense is still incomplete. The child (later adult) creates fantasy images of both himself and his ideal object of desire. Tied to the mirror stage, this stage continues to exert its influence throughout the life of the adult and is not superseded in the child's movement into the symbolic.

Symbolic: a child's entrance into language (the ability to understand and generate symbols); in contrast to the imaginary stage, largely focused on the mother, the symbolic stage shifts attention to the father who, in Lacanian theory, represents cultural norms, laws, language, and power (symbol of power is phallus)

Real: an unattainable stage representing all that a person is not and does not have. Both Lacan and his critics argue whether the real order represents the period before the imaginary when a child is completely fulfilled--without need or lack, or if the real order follows the symbolic and represents our "perennial lack" (because we cannot return to the state of wholeness that existed before language nor express it in language).

Typical questions:

How do the operations of repression structure or inform the work?

Are there any oedipal dynamics - or any other family dynamics - are work here?

How can characters' behavior, narrative events, and/or images be explained in terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind (for example...fear or fascination with death, sexuality - which includes love and romance as well as sexual behavior - as a primary indicator of psychological identity or the operations of ego-id-superego)?

What does the work suggest about the psychological being of its author?

What might a given interpretation of a literary work suggest about the psychological motives of the reader?

Are there prominent words in the piece that could have different or hidden meanings? Could there be a subconscious reason for the author using these "problem words"?