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Psychoanalytic Approach

Page history last edited by Jayson Yeagley 12 years ago

An Introduction to Psychoanalytic Criticism


Sigmund Freud is the author of the structural model of personality. In this theory, Freud explains that each person’s personality is formed of three parts: the Ego, the Superego and the Id. Psychoanalysis is the process of using what we know about these three parts of someone’s personality to analyze the ways that person behaves.

Literary critics sometimes analyze the actions of literary characters using the three personality structures that Freud identified. As critics explore the ego, superego, and id of characters in a work, they focus on the ways that these parts of the characters’ personalities influence the work as a whole. This process is called psychoanalytic criticism.

In the next activity, you will use Freud’s theory to analyze the characters in The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Seuss. To help prepare you for this activity, read the following explanations for id, ego, and superego.



The id is the part of the personality that contains our primitive impulses—such as thirst, anger, hunger—and the desire for instant gratification or release. According to Freud, we are born with our id. The id is an important part of our personality because as newborns, it allows us to get our basic needs met. Freud believed that the id is based on our pleasure principle. The id wants whatever feels good at the time, with no consideration for the other circumstances of the situation. The id is sometimes represented by a devil sitting on someone’s shoulder. As this devil sits there, he tells the ego to base behavior on how the action will influence the self, specifically how it will bring the self pleasure.



The superego is the part of the personality that represents the conscience, the moral part of us. The superego develops due to the moral and ethical restraints placed on us by our caregivers. It dictates our belief of right and wrong. The superego is sometimes represented by an angel sitting on someone’s shoulder, telling the ego to base behavior on how the action will influence society.



The ego is the part of the personality that maintains a balance between our impulses (our id) and our conscience (our superego). The ego is based on the reality principle. The ego understands that other people have needs and desires and that sometimes being impulsive or selfish can hurt us in the end. It is the ego’s job to meet the needs of the id, while taking into consideration the reality of the situation. The ego works, in other words, to balance the id and superego. The ego is represented by a person, with a devil (the id) on one shoulder and an angel (the superego) on the other.



Psychological and Psychoanalytic Criticism. Psychological criticism deals with a work of literature primarily as an expression, in fictional form, of the personality, state of mind, feelings, and desires of its author. The assumption of psychoanalytic critics is that a work of literature is correlated with its author’s mental traits:

  1. Reference to the author’s personality is used to explain and interpret a literary work.

  2. Reference to literary works is made in order to establish, biographi- cally, the personality of the author.

  3. The mode of reading a literary work itself is a way of experiencing the distinctive subjectivity or consciousness of its author.

This theory requires that we investigate the psychology of a character or an author to figure out the meaning of a text (although to apply an author’s psychology to a text can also be considered biographical criticism, depending on your point of view). For example, alcohol allows the latent thoughts and desires of the narrator of “The Black Cat” to surface in such a way that he ends up shirking the self-control imposed by social mores and standards and becomes the man his psyche has repressed his whole life. 





Psychological Approach



Psychological critics view works through the lens of psychology. They look either at the psychological motivations of the characters or of the authors themselves, although the former is generally considered a more respectable approach. Most frequently, psychological critics apply Freudian psychology to works, but other approaches (such as a Jungian approach) also exist.


Freudian Approach:

A Freudian approach often includes pinpointing the influences of a character's id (the instinctual, pleasure seeking part of the mind), superego (the part of the mind that represses the id's impulses) and the ego (the part of the mind that controls but does not repress the id's impulses, releasing them in a healthy way). Freudian critics like to point out the sexual implications of symbols and imagery, since Freud's believed that all human behavior is motivated by sexuality.


Jungian Approach:

Jung is also an influential force in myth (archetypal) criticism. Psychological critics are generally concerned with his concept of the process of individuation (the process of discovering what makes one different form everyone else). Jung labeled three parts of the self: the shadow, or the darker, unconscious self (usually the villain in literature); the persona, or a man's social personality (usually the hero); and the anima, or a man's "soul image" (usually the heroine).  A neurosis occurs when someone fails to assimilate one of these unconscious components into his conscious and projects it on someone else. The persona must be flexible and be able to balance the components of the psyche.



It can be a useful tool for understanding some works, such as Henry James The Turning of the Screw, in which characters obviously have psychological issues. Like the biographical approach, knowing something about a writer's psychological make up can give us insight into his work.



Psychological criticism can turn a work into little more than a psychological case study, neglecting to view it as a piece of art. Critics sometimes attempt to diagnose long dead authors based on their works, which is perhaps not the best evidence of their psychology.  Critics tend to see sex in everything, exaggerating this aspect of literature. Finally, some works do not lend themselves readily to this approach. 




The focus is on a pattern of behavior that are destructive in some way.  Pattern of behavior focuses on our repetition of destructive behavior reveals the existence of some significant psychological difficulty that has probably been influencing us for some time without our knowing it.  Use not knowing it gives it so much control.


The Unconscious= the storehouse of those painful experiences and emotions, those wounds, fears, guilty desires, and unresolved conflicts we do not want to know about because we feel overwhelmed by them.


Unconscious= Repressed wounds, Fears, Unresolved Conflicts, and Guilty Desires.


1. Regression-the temporary return to a former psychological state.


2. Crisis- a crisis refers not necessarily to a traumatic situation or event, but to a person’s reaction to an event. One person might be deeply affected by an event, while another individual suffers little or no ill effects. The Chinese word for crisis presents a good depiction of the components of a crisis. The word crisis in Chinese is formed with the characters for danger and opportunity. A crisis presents an obstacle, trauma, or threat, but it also presents an opportunity for either growth or decline. 


3. Projection-


4. Fear of or fascination with death-


5. Sexuality (love or behavior)-






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