psychoanalytic criticism

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A form of literary interpretation that employs the terms of psychoanalysis (the unconscious, repression, the Oedipus complex, etc.) in order to illuminate aspects of literature in its connection with conflicting psychological states. The beginnings of this modern tradition are found in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which provides a method of interpreting apparently unimportant details of narratives as ‘displacements’ of repressed wishes or anxieties. Freud often acknowledged his debts to the poets, and his theory of the Oedipus complex is itself a sort of commentary upon Sophocles' drama. Ambitious interpretations of literary works as symptoms betraying the authors' neuroses are found in ‘psychobiographies’ of writers, such as Marie Bonaparte's Edgar Poe (1933), which diagnoses sadistic necrophilia as the problem underlying Poe's tales. A more sophisticated study in this vein is E. Wilson's The Wound and the Bow (1941). As Trilling and others have objected, this approach risks reducing art to pathology.

More profitable are analyses of fictional characters, beginning with Freud's own suggestions about Prince Hamlet, later developed by his British disciple Ernest Jones: Hamlet feels unable to kill his uncle because Claudius's crimes embody his own repressed incestuous and patricidal wishes, in a perfect illustration of the Oedipus complex. A comparable exercise is Wilson's essay ‘The Ambiguity of Henry James’ (1934), which interprets the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw as imaginary projections of the governess's repressed sexual desires. A third possible object of analysis, after the author and the fictional protagonist, is the readership. Here the question is why certain kinds of story have such a powerful appeal to us, and numerous answers have been given in Freudian terms, usually focusing on the overcoming of fears (as in Gothic fiction) or the resolution of conflicting desires (as in comedy and romance).

Although Freud's writings are the most influential, some interpretations employ the concepts of heretical psychoanalysts, notably Adler, Jung, and Klein. Since the 1970s, the theories of Jacques Lacan (1901–81) have inspired a new school of psychoanalytic critics who illustrate the laws of ‘desire’ through a focus upon the language of literary texts. The advent of post‐structuralism has tended to cast doubt upon the authority of the psychoanalytic critic who claims to unveil a true ‘latent’ meaning behind the disguises of a text's ‘manifest’ contents. The subtler forms of psychoanalytic criticism make allowance for ambiguous and contradictory significances, rather than merely discovering hidden sexual symbolism in literary works.

Subjects: Literature.

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