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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown

Psychoanalytic theory:

Of or relating to the psychological ideas of Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, the human psyche may be divided into three components: the id, the unconscious reservoir of instinctual or libidinal desires and impulses that seek gratification. often sexual, and follow the dictates of the pleasure principle; the superego, the moral censor that internalizes the "thou shalt not's" of a given social order, its ethical proscriptions; and the ego, the conscious self that tries to mediate between the conflicting demands of id and superego through accommodation, repression (denial of unconscious desires and impulses), or sublimation (translation of these desires and impulses into "higher" aims). Despite its mastery of the defense mechanisms of repression and sublimation, the ego is perpetually in a state of conflict.

From Freud's standpoint, literature is seen as the wish fulfillment or fantasy gratification of desires denied by the reality principle or prohibited by moral codes. These unconscious libidinal desires find symbolic expression in art as in dreams. Art is sublimation, the translation of instinctual desires into higher aims, and the goal of psychoanalytic criticism is to reveal the latent content of the work that underlies and determines its manifest content. Condensation -- the image as more than itself, a fusion of unconscious desires -- and displacement -- the image as other than itself, a substitution of the socially acceptable for the socially unacceptable -- are the two major resources of symbolism.

Freud's impact on the criticism and theory of literature has been enormous. Ernest Jones uses the notion of the Oedipus complex -- the desire of a boy to possess his mother and supplant his father -- as an explanatory model for Hamlet; Harold Bloom uses it as an analogy for the relationship between a strong poet and his literary predecessors. Jacques Lacan develops a linguistic interpretation of Freud, arguing that "the unconscious is structured like a language." Norman N. Holland applies psychoanalytic concepts to reader-response criticism. Feminist critics deconstruct Freud's patriarchal assumptions. Moreover, psychobiography, a genre that uses data from the real events of an author's life and the fictional events dramatized in his literature, is a product of psychoanalytic theory. In short, the analysis of literary symbolism is heavily indebted to Freudian theory.


© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
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Last modified: March 31, 1997