Freudian Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalytic criticism (emerged in the 1960s), the most influential interpretative theory among the series of waves in the post war period is based on the specific premises of the workings of the mind, the instincts and sexuality, developed by the 19th century intellect, Austrian Sigmund Freud ( who along with Marx, Darwin and Nietzsche, subverted the centres of Western society by boiling down the human individuality into an animalistic sex drive).

Freud, greatly influenced by the psychiatrists Jean-Martin Charcot (an exponent in hypnosis) and Josef Breuer (pioneer of “talking cure”) proposed his theoretical opus, the notion of the unconscious mind (disseminated in his significant works like The Ego and the Id, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Interpretation of Dreams, Totem and Taboo etc.), which proved fatal to the Enlightenment ideals, Auguste Comte’s Positivism etc., the pivots of Western rationalism. This stream of criticism has become one of the most exciting and challenging areas of literary and cultural studies today.

The relationship between psychoanalysis and literary criticism which spans much of the  20th century is fundamentally concerned with the articulation of sexuality in language. It has moved through three main emphases in its pursuit of the “literary unconscious” — on the author (and its corollary character), on the reader and on the text. It started with Freud’s analysis of the literary text as a “symptom of the artist”, where the relationship between the author and the text is analogous to dreamers and their dreams.

Later it was remoulded by post-Freudian psychoanalytical Reader Response criticism where the psychological experience of the reader in relation to the text is foregrounded, but contested by CG Jung‘s “contra-Freud” archetypal criticism which states that the literary work is not a focus for the writer’s or the reader’s personal psychology, but a representation of the relationship between the personal and the collective unconscious, the images, myths, symbols and archetypes of past cultures.

More recently, this theoretical delineation has been reworked in Poststructuralist context by Jacques Lacan, who coupled the dynamic notion of desire with Structuralist Linguistics; this has been influentially innovative as echoed in the Feminist psychoanalytic criticism. The psychoanalytic impetus which is compatible with contemporary concerns of uncertainties of time, subjectivity and meaning gained a new critical currency in Postcolonial studies, where the interest in destabilized borders and identities is very much evident.

Classical/ Freudian Psychoanalysis

The uniqueness of Freud’s explorations lies in his attributing to the unconscious a decisive role in the lives of human beings. The unconscious is the repository of traumatic experiences, emotions, unadmitted desires, fears, libidinal drives, unresolved conflicts etc. This unconscious comes into being at an early age, through the expunging of these unhappy psychic events from the consciousness, a process which Freud terms “repression”. Repression is crucial to the operations of the unconscious (an idea later developed by Herbert Marcuse). There has been a consistent interest in contemporary literary studies in the unconscious (eg. Frankfurt School‘s synthesis of Freud and Marx) and the notion and effects of repression linked often with debates on sexuality (eg. Foucault‘s rejection of Western belief that history of sexuality has been the history of repression).

However, Repression does not eliminate our fears, agonies and drives, but it gives them force by making them the organizers of our current experience. Through a similar process called Sublimation the repressed material is promoted into something more grand or is disguised as something noble. For instance, sexual urges may be given sublimated expression in the form of intense religious longings. A related neologism is defence mechanism which is a psychic procedure for avoiding painful admission or, recognition.

A well-known example of this is the Freudian slip, which Freud himself called the “parapraxi” whereby repressed material in the unconscious finds an outlet through such everyday phenomena as slips of the tongue, pen or unintended actions. Thus, for psychoanalysis, the unconscious is not passive reservoir of neutral data; rather it is a dynamic entity that engages us at the deepest level of our being.

Id, Ego, Superego

Later in his career, Freud suggested a tripartite model of the psyche, dividing it into id, ego and superego. The id, being entirely in the unconscious is the most inaccessible and obscure part of our personality. It is the receptacle of our libido, the primary source of our psychic energy. Its function is to fulfil the primordial life principle, which is the pleasure principle. It is entirely without rationality and has a tremendous amorphous kind of vitality. Ego, governed by the reality principle, is defined as the rational governing force of the psyche. It is mostly conscious and protects the individual from the id. It is the site of reason and introspection. It is the intermediary between the world within (id) and the world outside (superego). The superego, which is another regulatory agent, protects the society from id. It is partly conscious and in moral parlance, can be called as the conscience of the individual. It is governed by the “morality principle” and represses the incestual, sexual passions, aggressiveness etc. Being a repository of pride, self esteem etc., it compels the individual to move towards perfection.


Psychosexual development

Many of Freud’s ideas are concerned with aspects of libido, human sexual drive, which he calls eros and places in opposition to thanatos, the death drive. This is exemplified in his postulate of infantile sexuality. Freud believes that sexuality arrives not at puberty with physical maturing, but in infancy, especially with the infant’s relationship with mother. Drawing from mythology and contemporary ethnography, Freud proposes his theory of psychosexual development (critiqued for its explicit phallogocentrism) in which the infant passes through a series of stages, each defined by an erogenous zone of the body. If the infant is reluctant or unable to move from one stage to another, s/he is said to be fixated at that stage of development. The stages of psychosexual development include:

1) Oral Stage: The first stage of psychosexual development lasts approximately from birth to 2 years. During this stage, the principle source of pleasure for the infant is the mouth and the pleasure is derived through sucking, biting, swallowing etc. A person fixated at this stage will be prone to obsession with oral activities (like eating, drinking, smoking, kissing etc.) and or excessive pessimism, hostility etc. Oral stage ends at the time of weaning and the infant’s focus is shifted.

2) Anal Stage: Here, anus is the prime source of pleasure. Elimination of faeces gives pleasure to the child, but with the onset of toilet training, s/he is forced to postpone or delay this pleasure. A fixation at this stage is identified as the reason for the development of an “anal retentive’ personality described as being stubborn and stingy

3) Phallic Stage: Children aged from 4-5 years seem to spend a good deal of time exploring and manipulating the genitals — their own and others. Pleasure is derived from the phallic region, through behaviours such as masturbation and through fantasies. The basic conflict of the phallic stage centres around the unconscious incestuous desire of the child for the parent of the opposite sex, which is corollary with the child’s desire to replace or annihilate the parent of the same sex. Out of this conflict, arises one of Freud’s theoretical pivots, the Oedipus complex, where the male child conceives the incestuous longing for the mother, and the desire to eliminate the father, his rival. Through both fantasy and overt behaviour, he exhibits his sexual longings for the mother.

The male child’s desire to replace his father is accompanied by the fear of his father, which Freud explains in genital terms — Castration anxiety. As his castration fear supersedes his sexual desire for his mother, the latter is repressed, a concept which the psychoanalyst dubs as the “resolution of Oedipal conflict.” This resolution incorporates in it, the replacement of the sexual desire for the mother with a more acceptable affection and duping a strong identification with the father, through which he can access a degree of vicarious sexual satisfaction. One of the significant offshoots of Oedipus complex is the formation of the superego (“the heir of the Oedipus complex”, in Freud’s terminology). Many forms of inter-generational conflict are seen by Freudians as having oedipal overtones, such as professional rivalries, often viewed in Freudian terms as reproducing the competition between siblings for parental favour.

Electra complex, the female version of the phallic conflict (about which Freud was less clear) is more complicated. The girl’s first object of love , like the boy, is her mother, for she is the primary source of food, security and affection in infancy (relates to Queer theorists’ fascination with the idea that, the first sexual experience of the female is the homosexual). During phallic stage, the father becomes the object of her desire, as she identifies that both her mother and herself are castrated and powerless (a severe critique of this Freudian concept is one of the concerns of Feminist psychoanalysts).

The girl child loves her father for his possession of penis and blames the mother, for the “lack” (a concept theorized further by Lacan) of this organ. The daughter’s love for the father is coupled with a feeling of envy, which Freud calls “penis envy“, the counterpart of boy-child’s castration anxiety.

Freud, though not specific about the resolution of electra complex (as the resolution of girl’s phallic conflict is not so urgent as she is not threatened by castration) suggests that the girl identifies with her mother thus represses her desire for the father. Freud further states that the female heteronormative relationships are tinged with a certain degree of penis-envy as she seeks a surrogate father for such bondings.

If a child is fixated at the phallic stage, or if s/he has an unresolved Eedipal/ Electra complex, such a condition will lead to neurosis, and in turn to a more adverse psychosis.

4) Genital Stage: The final stage of psychosexual development begins at the time of puberty. Even though there are social conflicts, they are minimalised through the use of sublimation.

Dream Work

Freud described dreams as the royal road to the unconscious, as they provide a better understanding of the repressed desires in the unconscious. They are considered as the symbolic fulfillment of the wishes of the unconscious. According to him, dreams are symbolic texts which need to be deciphered, since the watchful ego is at work, even when we are dreaming. The ego scrambles and censors the messages as the unconscious itself adds to this obscurity by its peculiar modes of functioning. Thus the latent dream content is not vividly displayed within the manifest one, but is concealed within complex structures and codes, which is called dreamwork in Freudian neologism.


The dream work includes displacement, whereby one person or event is represented by another which is someway associated with it (perhaps by a similar sounding word or by some form of symbolic substitutions and condensation whereby, a number of people, events and meanings are combined and represented by a single image in the dream).

For instance, the Roman soldier in the dream might represent the father by a process of association (displacement), as the father is associated with ideas of strictness, authority and power in the domestic sphere, and likewise the soldier is linked to these same ideas in the political sphere.

Several meanings may also be condensed into this symbol. If the dreamer is tempted to rebel against the father by entering into a sexual liaison of which the father would certainly disapprove, then the soldier may represent the envisaged lover. Thus both the  feared father and the desired lover are condensed into the single dream figure of the Roman soldier.

The purpose of devices like condensation and displacement are two-fold: primarily they disguise the repressed fears and desires contained in the dream, so that they can get passed the censor which normally prevents their surfacing into the conscious mind, and secondly, they fashion this material into something which can be represented in a dream, i.e., images, symbols, metaphors. Freudian interpretation, then, has always been of considerable interest to literary critics as the unconscious, like a poem/ novel/play, cannot speak explicitly but does so through images, symbols, metaphors, emblems.

The Freudian critics’ analysis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a commendable attempt. Hamlet’s procrastination is attributed to his Oedipus complex, i.e., Hamlet is reluctant to avenge his father’s murder as he is guilty of wishing to commit the same crime himself. (The critics also make notice of the death of Shakespeare’s father in 1601 and of his son Hamnet, a name identical with Hamlet). Another illustration is MW. Rowe‘s Freudian reading of Harold Pinter‘s The Homecoming (which is considered a Surrealist farce) given in her article Pinter’s Freudian Hoemcoming, in which she places Oedipal complex, at the centre of the action.

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21 replies

  1. Wow interesting article. I am looking for information to write a great article about Sigmund for guest blogging at

  2. Reblogged this on Students Hub and commented:
    1) Please provide an explanation for your answer and address as stipulated in the instructions for work. Do not answer with one word or sentence, and do not cut and paste your answers from the web. Use the material in the textbook and cite your sources. These short answer questions should be answered in at least three paragraphs. Failure to follow these instructions will result in a grade point deduction. Any answers taken from the web will result in a failing grade. Your answer should be no less than 500 words.

    Discuss the impact of Freud on literature, film and the arts. Discuss how his psychological approach affected society.


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