Understanding psychoanalysis and its application in literature
Freud Lacan Fairy Tales Children’s Story Stories
Psychoanalytic theory was founded by Sigmund Freud in the twentieth century as a means to evaluate and cure mentally disturbed patients. Since his publication of ‘The Uncanny,’ in which Freud gives an innovative and detailed analyses of ‘Der Sandmann,’ psychoanalysis has been applied to literature in the same way it was originally applied to dreams.
Psychoanalysis tells us that ‘the unconscious often expresses itself in the form of dreams,’ which allow hidden desires to manifest. While psychological analysis of patients leads to a deeper understanding of the subject’s sense of self, psychoanalytic criticism is slightly more ambiguous. Critics can either evaluate the author of the text, suggesting any psychoanalytic aspects are accidental/subliminal, or the protagonist, claiming that the work is composed deliberately of psychoanalytic symptoms designed to reveal more about the characters. Manifest content in literature allows for interpretation of latent desires and fears within the minds of writers, readers and characters.
This is particularly poignant in childrens’ literature, when seemingly innocent images prove to be manifestations of much darker desires. As collections of metaphor and motif, Fairy Tales are the most rife with psychoanalytic material, while other children’s stories harbour plenty of repression, uncanny doubling and fetish symbolism.
In An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, Bennet and Royal state that ‘secrets can be undiscoverable and yet at the same time unconcealed,’ hovering just beneath the surface of a text. Applying psychoanalysis to literature is like searching for clues beyond the obvious in a story, digging out buried treasures. It can be fun, fascinating, frightening, and enlightening all at once.
NB – Ex-University of Virginia professor Mark Edmunson urges lecturers to give up Freudian ‘readings’ of works of literature. Edmunson suggests we should read what is ‘true’ or ‘best thought’ in texts.