Psychological Novels and Novelists

From the ancient belief in humors to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ psychoanalytic and pharmacological methodologies, diverse theories about the mind have affected the literary production of novelists. Categorization according to these theories is difficult, because authors tend to mix them and use more than they admit. Hermann Hesse’s works, for example, began to overflow with the analytical psychology of Carl Jung after the latter treated him, yet Hesse tended to belittle that influence and spoke of being closer to Sigmund Freud. Consequently, psychological long fiction is most easily categorized not according to medical theories but according to four literary techniques: playful etiology, unrepentant confession, stream of consciousness, and Kafkaesque fantasy.

Playful Etiology

Charles Baudelaire’s novella La Fanfarlo (1847; the flaunter) attributes the idiosyncrasies of the protagonist, Samuel Cramer, to his mixed parentage (German and Chilean), his French education, and his heaven-bestowed partial genius. Baudelaire is thus practicing etiology—diagnosing the causes of a condition—but not with the seriousness a physician would adopt. Instead, he explains a condition through a whimsical mixture of rationales based on nature, nurture, and God. Such jocular syncretism (or, indeed, any extensive etiology) is common in fiction only from the eighteenth century onward. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), Myrrha’s incestuous passion for her father creates the kind of situation that later fascinated psychologists, but the narrator simply comments on that passion as criminal and disgusting without investigating why Myrrha had such an unusual craving. Presumably, fate or the gods are somehow responsible.

With the rise of the sciences in the eighteenth century, however, tacit reference to supernatural influence was not enough to explain personality differences. Before the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century, the characters to be diagnosed seldom deviated far from normality and thus were little in need of lavish elucidation. Thereafter, however, neurotics and psychotics began multiplying through a growing interest in extreme expressions of individuality.

To demonstrate this individuality, authors must at some point diagnose characters’ deviance from the norm; paradoxically, since what can be thus cataloged is not uniquely individual, the authors must also show a distaste for diagnosis itself. In Washington Square (1880), Henry James’s narrator details the characters’ psychological quirks quite directly, yet the story turns against such insights. The shrewd Doctor Sloper, known for diagnosing in too much detail, ruins his daughter’s life by exposing her fiancé’s temperament. In later works, James continues to provide etiological information, but it is filtered through points of view that render it ambiguous, as in his novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), which never establishes whether its ghosts are real or symptoms of a governess’s hysteria.

Even more complexly, the narrator of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend (1948) tries to demonstrate that the genius and mental illness of the composer Adrian Leverkühn are symptoms of both Germany’s brilliance and its degeneration. Moreover, the narrator’s mannered prose undercuts faith in his judgments. As Mann’s essays also demonstrate, he considered the complexity of life to transcend simple categories. On a somewhat less sophisticated level, his method (obsessive use of etiology, yet skepticism about its conclusions) also appears in many thrillers, including Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988). In these works, both a psychoanalyst-turned- cannibal and the investigating detectives employ psychological profiling. To this guesswork (which is not always accurate), Harris counterpoints pervasive religious imagery, meant to give the evil an apocalyptic quality, but without reducing it to any single theory, either psychological or theological.

In Against Interpretation, and Other Essays (1966), Susan Sontag combats the psychological and particularly the biographical study of literature. Accordingly, she peoples her novels with misfits on whom she comments in a manner that is more a parody of psychology than a reliance on it. Comparably, Thomas Pynchon took imagery from Jung’s psychological introduction to the Tibetan Book of the Dead and travestied it in his comic novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). As do others of Pynchon’s fictions, it treats all analysis as itself a form of paranoia. Causing controversy, the New Novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet placed obvious allusions to Oedipus (a basic pattern in the Freudian system) throughout Les Gommes (1953; The Erasers, 1964); he denied publicly that they were there. In her essays, Nathalie Sarraute, another New Novelist, has explained that her characterization describes tropisms (behaviors with which people try to control one another), but she believes that no depths lie beneath these. Citations of psychological diagnoses merely to deny or ridicule them occur on a popular level in such novels as Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), in which the character Nurse Ratched embodies a health care system eager to label patients as a way of demeaning and bullying them.

Unrepentant Confession

In classic psychoanalysis, discovering etiology is largely the doctor’s role. The patient engages in a secular form of confession, as a result of which (unlike the religious version) no one is required to repent. Literature has followed a similar path. In Fyodor Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground (1864), the narrator’s almost gloating self-exposure, without purgation or salvation, broke with Christian contrition and set a model for twentieth century confessional fiction. According to literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, Dostoevski’s later novels, at their best, consist of a dialogue of voices presented without a commenting narrator. This would make Dostoevski’s works confessional throughout, but, as Bakhtin admits, Dostoevski sometimes resorts to diagnosis and etiology, as in the epilogue to Crime and Punishment (1886), with an obtrusive psychology based on Christianity.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, André Gide’s The Immoralist (1930) took the confessional mode further toward the secular. Until near the book’s conclusion, its protagonist, Michel, is unaware of his homosexuality, so he cannot divulge it, except by reporting behavior he understands less than do the readers. Furthermore, since homosexuality in the novel is not an action but a tendency, it is not, in Christian terms, a sin; despite the guilt it instills, it does not seem susceptible to purgation. By persuasively associating the human condition with embarrassing impulses, The Immoralist sets a despairing tone for French fiction.

This tone continued at least as late as Albert Camus’s The Fall (1957). Its protagonist, Jean- Baptiste Clamence, is unwilling to risk his life to save a drowning man. Disillusioned by his own cowardice, Clamence abandons conventional behavior and slips into cruelty, intent on convincing everyone that his imperfection springs from an ineradicable strain within humanity itself: a fall for which there is no savior. Like Michel’s homosexuality, Clamence’s sadism is one of the conditions that the first half of the twentieth century brought to psychological attention. That age, shocked by the repressed, appears again in Kazuo Ishiguro’s nostalgic novels. They show how reluctant people were to discover their own destructiveness, as shown in the disguised sadomasochistic relationship between Sachiko and Mariko in A Pale View of Hills (1982), or in the selfdelusions of character Christopher Banks in When We Were Orphans (2000). Although Freud argued that aggressive and sensual drives might be sublimated into cultural achievements, novelists, along with the public, tended to be dismayed at psychology’s disclosure of an unconscious prone to irrationality.

With the exception of such nostalgic works as Ishiguro’s, confessional fictions in the twentieth century’s second half were not as easily dismayed by implacable instincts. In Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962; reprinted with final chapter, 1986), the narrator, Alex, is a rapist and murderer who is treated with aversion therapy so that he becomes nauseated at the thought of sex or violence. In other words, he has been coerced into being as repressed as a stereotypical Victorian. Readers are expected to condemn his psychological castration. In a victory of free will, however, he overthrows the conditioning and returns to committing mayhem.

Comparably, in Orson Scott Card and Kathryn H. Kidd’s Lovelock (1994), the narrator is an artificially enhanced capuchin monkey, who, like Alex, must overcome his conditioning to be capable of sex and violence. Here, even more clearly than in A Clockwork Orange, evil is an animal side of the mind to be freed. Liberation of the bestial permeates many first-person works that were popular in the 1960’s, such as Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958) and John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy: Or, The Rev. New Syllabus (1966). Although more conscious of evil than Kerouac, Barth makes psychological liberation sound relatively innocent compared with Burgess, whose acute awareness of human destructiveness is more typical of British fiction, such as J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973), which is about taking sadomasochistic joy in automobile accidents.

Perhaps because the nature of drama predisposes it to public rituals, in such plays as Peter Shaffer’s Equus (pr., pb. 1973) and in countless films, psychoanalysis itself forms a setting for confession. In first-person fiction, however, the closest analogy to it is the relationship between narrator and reader. When psychoanalyst-like figures are present in fiction, they are often disguised to emphasize either the negative or positive associations of psychiatry. Thus, fresh from a productive therapy with Jung, Hesse made the rebellious, precocious title character of Demian (1919; English translation, 1923) into its narrator’s unofficial analyst. Similarly, in J. D. Salinger’s Glass family saga (such as in Seymour: An Introduction, 1963), although family members sometimes find themselves on a psychiatrist’s couch, the older brothers, one of whom commits suicide, combine the functions of guru and therapist. Whether the analyst is a cannibal or a friend who helps people live with their sins, the process has less to do with penitence and forgiveness than with providing the readers entertainingly shocking revelations about what Joseph Conrad, in his 1902 novel of the same name, termed humanity’s “heart of darkness.”

Stream of Consciousness

According to Keith M. May, stream of consciousness— an attempt to represent barely conscious thinking— belongs to a relatively brief period when the two world wars led people to once again recognize human irrationality. Significantly, May omits mention of Édouard Dujardin’s stream-of-consciousness novel We’ll to the Woods No More (1938) also known as The Bays Are Sere (1991), which was published generations before World War I. More perceptively, Dorrit Cohn contends that ungrammatical fragments in stream of consciousness approximate a deep stratum of the mind, since the psycholinguist Lev Vygotsky has demonstrated such incoherence to be its nature.

According to Shiv Kumar, psychologist-philosopher William James originated the phrase “stream of consciousness” in 1890, but it was introduced to literary criticism in a 1918 article by May Sinclair about the novels of Dorothy Richardson. In Pilgrimage (1938, 1967), Richardson confines herself to her protagonist’s consciousness, without providing the customary information readers expect early in a book. Fifty pages into the novel, the reader learns the character is a teenager. As Katherine Mansfield did for the short story, Richardson brought to the English novel the technique of stream of consciousness, whose major practitioners were Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner.

The first of Woolf’s novels to employ the technique is Jacob’s Room (1922), about the life of an Englishman who dies in World War I. It repeatedly marks characters’ inattention to traditional religion even when church bells chime in the background. (Her generation associated stream of consciousness with a world that was replacing theology with psychology.) By focusing on a single day, her next novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), achieves greater intensity in the depiction of relatively plotless mental flux. A unifying element, though, is repeated reference to Septimus Smith, who consults a psychiatrist and kills himself to avoid another physician. On an extreme level, his suicide parallels the importance that internal events have for the other characters.

Although stream of consciousness means something slightly different in each novelist’s works, Joyce shows the greatest range of techniques. In his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (serial 1914-1915, book 1916), most sections are in third person, but they are so attuned to their protagonist’s developing mind that they range from baby talk (in the earlier ones) to the erudition of an educated young man (in the concluding ones). Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), however, unifies each section by parodying some genre or style, such as journalistic prose or expressionist drama. The last section, rendering the mind of Molly Bloom as she falls asleep, is a flow of words without punctuation that particularly suits the term “stream of consciousness.” Her monologue should not be confused with works whose authors simply provide their own musings.

In the first draft of On the Road (1957), Kerouac, at maximum speed, wrote the whole work as a single, unedited sentence to achieve spontaneous self-revelation. In contrast, Joyce is distancing himself from Molly’s irrationality and somnolence. If stream of consciousness means representation of one mind at a time, then Joyce’s monumental last work, Finnegans Wake (1939), has moved beyond it to a very nonlucid dream that takes incoherence almost to unintelligibility. Its readers enter something like Jung’s collective unconscious: the whole human race’s heritage of symbols.

After treating Joyce’s daughter, Jung misunderstood even Ulysses, which he considered the spontaneous outpourings of hereditary madness, exacerbated by alcohol. Although no proof of its authors’ insanity, the incoherence of stream of consciousness can well portray characters’ mental aberrations. The first section of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) records the barely comprehended sensory impressions occurring to Benjy, an idiot. Readers then encounter the mental contents of other witnesses to the same story, including a young man who killed himself because of incestuous feelings for his sister. Similarly, in Faulkner’s next novel, As I Lay Dying (1930), Darl, a clairvoyant headed toward madness, is the character whose mind is most often sampled. Although interest in stream of consciousness was fostered by the rise of psychology, the technique itself implies that a mind is being observed not clinically but telepathically; thus, Darl’s clairvoyance has much in common with those who write or read stream of consciousness.

Stream of consciousness began attracting a new generation of writers at the end of the twentieth century. Two examples are Patrick McCabe, whose narrator in The Butcher Boy (1992) is a young boy who deals with a troubled family by retreating to a fantasy world, and Irvine Welsh, whose Trainspotting (1993) is narrated by several drug users from the same town. Novels that employ wordplay, nonlinear structure, and footnotes in addition to stream of consciousness include Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2002), and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). The most celebrated example, however, is Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Its protagonist is Sethe, an escaped slave traumatized by the brutality she endured and by the despair that led her to murder her daughter, Beloved. Sethe’s narration is fragmented, like the woman herself, and Morrison’s use of stream of consciousness helps readers understand Sethe’s psychological state.

Kafkaesque Fantasy

Stream of consciousness views characters’ minds as if the author were separate from them. In Kafkaesque literature, however, characters and their authors converge. Indeed, Kafkaesque writers tend to place images of themselves within their works. Franz Kafka names the protagonist of Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930) with the initial K., while the main character of Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937) is Joseph K.  Kurt Vonnegut puts himself in his own novel, Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969), as a minor character who describes the book’s composition and thereby tells the readers that the action is imaginary. Billy Pilgrim slips back and forth through time because of an association of ideas in Vonnegut’s mind.

Milan Kundera makes his part in composition even more explicit by interrupting action with essays explaining how he created one character or another. In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), he shapes the protagonist through meditations on living in truth as this idea is expressed by Kafka and Václav Havel. Although Kafka himself was subtler, examination of his works demonstrates that he structured events in quite as artificial a way as Kundera, with almost no attempt at verisimilitude. Rather, Kafkaesque fiction is like a lucid dream or nightmare in which the action, however exciting, is never quite real.

In non-Kafkaesque fiction, the work is a buffer between author and reader, so that they lose sight of each other. The Kafkaesque creates at least the illusion of transparency, where author and reader may glimpse one another as if they were characters. In Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1981), readers take an active part in the plot; indeed, a male reader of Calvino’s book is described as having a romance with a female reader. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is one of the most elaborate attempts to make “you” a character, but other notable novels that do this include Michel Butor’s  A Change of Heart (1957) and Carlos Fuentes’s novella Aura (1962).

In Kim Newman’s second-person novel Life’s Lottery: A Choose-Your-Own Adventure Book (1999), the reader is invited to become Keith, the protagonist, and to make decisions on Keith’s behalf; choosing one path over another directs the reader to another section of the novel. Kafka’s fragmentary The Great Wall of China, and Other Pieces (1933) has both a first-person narrator, related complexly to Kafka himself, and a “you” as protagonist.

Like characters in nightmares, Kafkaesque protagonists may sometimes lack individual depth. Nonetheless, in its detailed probing of the authorial mind’s dreaming its fictions, the Kafkaesque mode is at least as introverted and self-reflexive as are the other forms of psychological narrative.

Source: Rollyson, Carl. Critical Survey Of Long Fiction. 4th ed. New Jersey: Salem Press, 2010.
Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Crosthwaite, Paul. Trauma, Postmodernism, and the Aftermath of World War II. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Edel, Leon. The Modern Psychological Novel. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973.
Hume, Kathryn. American Dream, American Nightmare: Fiction Since 1960. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
May, Keith M. Out of the Maelstrom: Psychology and the Novel in the Twentieth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977.
Rosenberg, John. Dorothy Richardson, the Genius They Forgot: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.
Schur, Owen. The Regulation of Consciousness in the English Novel: Desire and Power. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.
Weinstein, Arnold L. Recovering Your Story: Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison. New York: Random House, 2006.
Whitlark, James. Behind the Great Wall: A Post-Jungian Approach to Kafkaesque Literature. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Novel Analysis, Psychoanalysis, Psychological Novels

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