Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism - Overview

Overview

The object of psychoanalytic literary criticism, at its very simplest, can be the psychoanalysis of the author or of a particularly interesting character in a given work. In this directly therapeutic form, the criticism is very similar to psychoanalysis itself, closely following the analytic interpretive process discussed in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and other works. Critics may view the fictional characters as a psychological case study, attempting to identify such Freudian concepts as Oedipus complex, penis envy, Freudian slips, Id, ego and superego and so on, and demonstrate how they influenced the thoughts and behaviors of fictional characters.

However, more complex variations of psychoanalytic criticism are possible. The concepts of psychoanalysis can be deployed with reference to the narrative or poetic structure itself, without requiring access to the authorial psyche (an interpretation motivated by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's remark that "the unconscious is structured like a language"). Or the founding texts of psychoanalysis may themselves be treated as literature, and re-read for the light cast by their formal qualities on their theoretical content (Freud's texts frequently resemble detective stories, or the archaeological narratives of which he was so fond).

Like all forms of literary criticism, psychoanalytic criticism can yield useful clues to the sometime baffling symbols, actions, and settings in a literary work; however, like all forms of literary criticism, it has its limits. For one thing, some critics rely on psychocriticism as a "one size fits all" approach, when other literary scholars argue that no one approach can adequately illuminate or interpret a complex work of art. As Guerin, et al. put it in A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature,

The danger is that the serious student may become theory-ridden, forgetting that Freud's is not the only approach to literary criticism. To see a great work of fiction or a great poem primarily as a psychological case study is often to miss its wider significance and perhaps even the essential aesthetic experience it should provide.

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