Psychoanalysis and Critical Literary Theory

There are several important ways in which both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis can serve as a model for literary analysis as for example looking for the subversive in women’s literature – i.e. that which is not explicitly stated (for any number of good reasons) but nonetheless is still present.images

Most certainly if Austen felt so constrained to so as not to publish her novels under her own name, she felt constrained to express some of her real concerns. If we wish to potentially identify some of these concerns, we might turn to Jungian Literary Criticism which usually begins with the question – ‘what psychological factors (whether an image or complex of concerns) might have been responsible for that text. If for example we wish to identify any feminist concerns that Austen might have held, we would look for clues suggestive of recurring feminist themes. In this regard it is prudent to look to ideas of feminism in play during the period in which Austen was writing (rather than to modern constructions of feminism); one such idea would have been application of the same moral code to both sexes.

In Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, we find a heroine morally flawed (the citizens of Highbury are not impressed with the way that she treats them). When Emma undertakes to morally improve herself she does not do so on her own but instead seeks instruction from Mr Knightly. This in turn leads to his estimation of her to rise so much that he wants to marry her. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is also a heroine flawed and although in many respects she is portrayed in feminist terms – i.e. as speaking her own mind and refusing to marry as her guardian would like, when she seeks to improve herself. Like Emma, Fanny turns to her love interest, Edmund – who not surprisingly like Emma’s Mr Knightly decides that now Fanny, reformed in his own mould, is the girl for him. Arguably Catherine Morland in Northanger Abby is cut from a different mould – for the most part she is left on her own to develop her own ‘understanding’ of what is morally wrong and right – unfettered either by fathers, lovers, or husbands.

Jungian theory might suggest that we make the most of ‘meaningful coincidence’ in respect to these seemingly recurrent themes in Austen’s work. Even if she were not consciously replicating this theme of moral code in line with love interest = marriage, she was most likely unconsciously doing so for the Jungians would be quick to demonstrate that statistically these same motifs regarding equality amongst the sexes (especially in a society when there was almost certainly none) should not have occurred otherwise.

Jungian literary criticism has also highlighted archetypally inspired literary themes that recur across a broad cross-cultural spectrum – for example as with the process of ‘individuation’ whereby a protagonist struggles to experience the ‘triumph of consciousness over the unconscious’ and hence make his or her psyche whole. Individuation is depicted as the ‘Hero’s Journey’ and hence is often associated with the Bildungsroman or classic coming of age novel which has in turn been associated with classic accounts of stifled individuation such as with Dickens’ hero, David Copperfield. Most certainly his nasty stepfather, Mr Murdstone, tries very hard to mould David into his own (rotten) image and when he fails to do so sends him off to work his London-based wine-bottling business. Luckily David escapes this situation and hence commences on his process of individuation allowing him to fulfil himself in his own right – by not only getting the girl of his dreams, Agnes, but also with being a commercial success through expression of his own talents.

Freudian literary criticism also pays close attention an author’s unconscious motives and/or feelings in order to tease out ‘covert’ themes. The assumption is that these ‘covert’ themes are just as important if not more so than the ‘overt’ themes (i.e. those consciously expressed by the author) and also that they demonstrate classic psychoanalytic symptoms of blockage in the emotional /sexual development in the author and/or his/her characters.

Freudian literary criticism asserts that all art and literature fulfils some repressed infantile desire of its creator which it turn almost always relates to the Oedipal complex whereby the son wishes to murder his father because he sees him as a rival for sexual congress with his mother. There are obvious parallels in great literature with, for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where when the character by the same name is called upon to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle who in turn married Hamlet’s mother, Hamlet spends all day musing about ‘to be or not to be’ instead of committing what ought to be the fairly straight forward act of revenge-driven murder. Using Freudian theory, some critics have seized upon a possible explanation for such ‘irrational’ behaviour in the sense that Hamlet can not kill his uncle for doing that which he himself wanted to do.

Perhaps a less straightforward application of Freudian literary criticism may be found in the poetry of Christina Rossetti. With a women, the Oedipal complex takes a different form suggesting that once bound to her mother by homo-sexual desires, a young girl like Rossetti would then need to turn her desire toward father and the wish to have his baby. I would suggest that her signature poem – Winter: My Secret may reflect such an urge – and that naturally repressed because she was so religiously inclined – her Oedipal instincts remained her jealously guarded secret, preventing her from developing (1) other poetic themes (she predominately favours religion and the fallen women) in her work and (2) her life – in a society where women were expected to marry, she mystifyingly turned down three suitable marriage offers.

In summary, Jungian-based psychoanalysis can serve as a model for literary theory by rooting out subversive feminist themes in women’s literature, as for example, moral equality as demonstrated in the works of Jane Austen. Likewise Jungian-based literary theory seeks to identify underlying archetypal themes such as the process of individuation – or the Hero’s Journey – that recurs across a cross-cultural spectrum. The Bildungsroman is perfect for this. Freudian-based psychoanalysis also can serve as a model for literary theory likewise rooting out unconscious literary themes relating to sexually repressed desires that prevent either the author or his/her characters from moving forward with their personality development.

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