Sigmund Freud

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Applying the subtle yet impactful ways of the unconscious mind to various characters in literature and their authors: How thoughts, behaviors, and actions are influenced by the unconscious mind according to the infamous psychologist, Sigmund Freud.

Psychoanalytic literary criticism does not constitute a unified field…However, all variants endorse, at least to a certain degree, the idea that literature…is fundamentally entwined with the psyche.” - Patricia Waugh
Sigmund Freud – Father of psychoanalysis

  • Psychoanalysis looks at how the unconscious mind impacts thoughts, behaviors, and actions.

  • Freud is known for creating a process called “free association,” in which the patient expresses whatever thoughts come into mind to the therapist.

  • Freud believed dream interpretation plays a large role in exposing what is repressed underneath conscious awareness.

Freud’s Theories

  • Freud developed a theory of personality referred to as the Five Stages of Psychosexual Development. This theory outlines five stages throughout birth to death: Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latent, and Genital stages.

  • The Id, Superego, and Ego, are the main components of the psyche, according to Freud. The Id conveys desires and is solely based on increasing pleasure. The Superego can be referred to as the conscience; it denies pleasure in order to follow morals and the rules of society. The Ego attempts to reduce conflicts between the Id and Superego by finding balance between the two.

  • A Freudian slip occurs when a person says something but meant to say something else. Freud believed this error in speech conveys underlying unconscious thoughts or feelings.

  • Freud’s iceberg analogy helps to explain his beliefs on the overall layout of the psyche in regards to the conscious and unconscious mind, as shown.

Psychological/Freudian Literary Criticism and Oedipus Rex

  • Psychological/Freudian literary criticism aims to understand the motives and psychological states associated with the actions of an interesting character in a literary device or why an author chose specific elements in his or her work.

  • One of the stages in Freud’s Psychosexual Development theory, the phallic stage, explains the Oedipal and Electra Complexes. The Oedipal Complex was named after Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

    • Freud believed that every young boy from ages 3 to 6 years starts to unconsciously have feelings of desire toward his mother and feelings of anger toward his father (the Electra Complex served as the female equivalent of the Oedipal Complex).

    • As an analysis to Oedipus Rex, Freud applied his theory to King Oedipus: Oedipus conveyed his unconscious repressed feelings of desire toward his mother prior to sleeping with her.

    • Queen Jocasta often conversed with Oedipus in a motherly fashion; Freud would say that Jocasta unconsciously knew Oedipus was her son, therefore causing her to act that way.

Further explanations, examples, and resources:
Key Terms:

  • Sigmund Freud – one of the world’s most influential psychologists; father of psychoanalysis

  • Psychoanalysis – the analysis of how actions, behaviors, and thoughts are influenced by the unconscious mind.

  • Id – the unconscious part of the psyche that is based on the pleasure principle; composed of wants and desires.

  • Superego – another part of the psyche that is based on denying pleasure for the sake of following society’s rules and standard morals.

  • Ego – the third part of the psyche that acts like the balance for both the id and superego; attempts to give pleasure in realistic ways.

  • Freudian slip – a misspoken phrase; reveals true unconscious thoughts.

  • Anxiety – an unpleasant state of mind that acts as a signal to the ego that the superego and id are still conflicting with one another.

    • Neurotic anxiety – unconscious worry that the id will not be controlled, resulting in punishment for the urges of the id.

    • Reality anxiety – fear of real-world happenings or threatening objects or situations.

    • Moral anxiety – fear of breaking our own rules of morality.

  • Defense mechanisms – used by the ego to reduce feelings of anxiety.

    • Denial – outright refusal to acknowledge a certain uncomfortable situation.

    • Repression – keeps information out of conscious awareness, influencing behaviors.

    • Suppression – the forced removal of unwanted information from awareness.

    • Displacement – inflicting frustrations upon less threatening objects or people.

    • Sublimation – converts unacceptable behaviors into a more acceptable form.

    • Projection – assigning unacceptable qualities of our own onto someone else.

    • Intellectualization –thinking cynically and intellectually about a situation

    • Rationalization – using logic to cover up true reasons behind a situation

    • Regression – reverting back to developmental stages to cope with an event

    • Reaction Formation – using the opposite feeling or impulse in behavior

  • Oedipal Complex – a young boy’s early developmental feelings of desire toward his mother and anger toward his father.

  • Electra Complex – a young girl’s early developmental feelings of desire toward her father and anger toward her mother.

  • Phallic symbol – an object that resembles a penis

  • Yonic symbol – an object that resembles a vagina or womb

Example 1:

Excerpts from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door./'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -Only this, and nothing more.
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December, And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore - For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore - Nameless here for evermore.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before; But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token, And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!' This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!' Merely this and nothing more.

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore. Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he; But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore, `Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven. Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore - Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!' Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor. `Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore! Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!' Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore - Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore - Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming, And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted - nevermore!

How would a psychoanalytic literary critic analyze this poem? How do concepts of id, ego, and superego correspond with Edgar Allan Poe’s poem and its characters?








Example 2:
Excerpts from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex

[page 34]


Poor foolish men, what wicked din is this?

With Thebes sick to death, is it not shameful

That you should rake some private quarrel up?

[To Oedipus:

Come into the house.

And you, Creon, go now:

Let us have no more of this tumult over nothing.
[page 51]


Why should anyone in this world be afraid,

Since Fate rules us and nothing can be foreseen?

A man should live only for the present day.

Have no more fear of sleeping with your mother:

How many men, in dreams, have lain with their mothers!

No reasonable man is troubled by such things.

How would a psychoanalytic literary critic analyze these parts of Sophocles’ play? What kind of points would Freud make relating to Jocasta’s motherly behavior, her words, and his theory of the Oedipal Complex?








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