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Freudian Criticism

Freudian Criticism

Have you ever looked at a cute photo of yourself as a toddler and remembered how you used to simultaneously fancy and want to murder your parents? No? Well, according to the psychoanalytic theorist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), you definitely (unconsciously) did.

If you ever thought literary theory was boring, get ready to read books through the eyes of this famous and highly controversial father of psychoanalysis. Before we start, let's first take a look at Sigmund Freud's books and some examples of how we can use Freudian psychoanalytic theory in literature.

Sigmund Freud: psychoanalysis

Think of a stereotypical psychological therapist's room. Have you imagined a room with a simple therapist's chair next to a long couch on which a patient can recline? Sigmund Freud and his work in psychoanalysis is the reason why we often associate psychological therapy with this image.

Psychoanalysis: a therapeutic approach that focuses on conflicts between the conscious and unconscious mind to treat psychological disorders

Have you ever heard of 'Freudian slips'? A Freudian slip is when you want to say something, but something else (usually embarrassing) slips out instead. We call these accidental errors Freudian slips because they are said to reveal 'truths' from the unconscious mind.

Sigmund Freud, a black and white portrait of Sigmund Freud as an older man, StudySmarterSigmund Freud looking deeply into your unconscious mind, Pixabay

History of psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud began developing psychoanalytic theory in the 1890s when he worked with patients suffering from hysteria and neurosis as a neurologist (a doctor specialising in the brain and nervous system) in Vienna. During this time, he realised that many of his patients' symptoms had no conscious or physical causes, and so he directed his attention to their unconscious, psychological origins.

Freud went on to co-write a book called Studies on Hysteria (1895). The book detailed the new psychoanalytical approach to target patients' unconscious minds, such as repressed memories of past traumas, in order to treat their present symptoms.

In the 19th century, hysteria was understood as a medical condition that affected women, characterised by emotional excess and a wide variety of physical and psychological symptoms. It is no longer considered a medical diagnosis.

Sigmund Freud: books

As well as Studies on Hysteria, Sigmund Freud published a huge number of books over the course of his life and career. Here is a very brief overview of a few you may come across in your studies.

Title and publication dateKey topics
The Interpretation of Dreams (1899)Introduces the theory of the unconscious and the Oedipus Complex through dream analysis.
'The Uncanny' (1919)It builds on German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch's (1867–1919) concept of the uncanny.
Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)Explores the conflict between instinctual drives for pleasure (the pleasure principle) and for destruction (the death drive).
The Ego and the Id (1923)Introduces the theory of personality, which divides the psyche into three parts: the ego, the superego, and the id.
Civilisation and its Discontents (1930)Explores the tensions between human instinct and the laws of civilisation.

Freudian psychoanalytic theory in literature

Sigmund Freud created and developed many theories that continue to be used in psychoanalytic literary criticism, including the three levels of consciousness, the theory of personality, the Oedipus Complex, and the uncanny.

Three levels of consciousness

Freud believed that human personality and behaviour are strongly influenced by three levels of consciousness: unconsciousness, preconsciousness, and consciousness.

  • Unconsciousness consists of repressed or forgotten feelings, thoughts, desires, and memories that cannot be accessed by the conscious mind.
  • Preconsiousness consists of feelings, desires, thoughts, and memories that can be recalled and brought into consciousness.
  • Consciousness consists of feelings, desires, thoughts, and memories that we can easily access and be aware of.

You can think of these levels of consciousness as an iceberg, where unconsciousness is deeply hidden underwater, preconsciousness is just below the surface, and consciousness is the tip of the iceberg that is in view.

Oedipus complex

Based on the Ancient Greek tragedy writer Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex (429 BCE), Freud theorised the Oedipus Complex. According to Freud, all infants develop an unconscious sexual attraction towards their opposite-sex parents and, as a result, aggressive rivalry towards their same-sex parents. This is a vital part of child development that usually resolves itself, but problems arise if it doesn't.

Personality

Freud argued that our behaviour and personality are affected by the three parts of our psyche: the id, the superego, and the ego.

  • The id is an unconscious part of our personality that we are born with. It is governed by the instinctive pleasure principle, which drives us to seek pleasure above all else and needs to be kept in check as a result.
  • The superego is a conscious and unconscious part of our personality. It develops after the id and the ego and conflicts with the id because it is driven by our morals.
  • The ego is a conscious and unconscious part of our personality that exists between the id and superego to keep a balance between them.

The uncanny

In Freud's paper 'The Uncanny', he explores the aesthetics of horror and how some things have 'uncanny' properties that stimulate a sense of dread in humans.

Expanding on existing research, Freud argues that something is uncanny if it resembles the familiar and the unknown at the same time, where the unknown is often related to a repressed feeling, desire, thought, or memory from infancy.

For Freud, certain themes are more likely to be uncanny, including:

  • Doubles, like twins or mirror reflections.
  • Uncertain identities, like waxworks or dolls that seem both alive and dead at the same time.
  • Madness, representing the uncontrolled manifestation of the repressed self.
  • The loss of eyes representing a young boy's fear of castration as punishment from his father (relating to the Oedipus Complex).

Sigmund Freud, a toy doll with one eye open, StudySmarterBaby dolls are uncanny because they seem both animate and inanimate at the same time, Pixabay.

Freud's concept of the uncanny has often been linked to the gothic novel.

Gothic novel: a genre of literature that evolved in the 18th century. Gothic novels can be characterised by an aesthetic of terror, suspense, and emotional excess. They deal with themes of death, madness, the supernatural, and the unknown and are often set in eerie locations haunted by their past.

Freudian literary criticism

Sigmund Freud's theories, including the three levels of consciousness, the theory of personality, the Oedipus Complex, and the uncanny, are often used in literary analysis. Freud, himself, used his own psychoanalytic theory to analyse literature and even published books about it, including his 1907 essay 'Delusion and Dream in Jensen's Gradiva.'

Freudian criticism examples

Let's take a look at some examples of how you can apply each of Freud's most prominent theories in your own literary analysis.

Freudian theoryText being analysedLiterary analysis
Three levels of consciousnessHarry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) by J. K. Rowling (1965–present)In the text, a young, orphaned Harry Potter sits in front of the Mirror of Erised and watches his reflection grinning back with his parents on either side of him. His headmaster, Albus Dumbeldore, tells Harry that the mirror shows the 'deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts' (Chapter 12). We could view the Mirror of Erised as a magical gateway to the usually inaccessible unconscious mind.
Oedipus ComplexHamlet (1603) by William Shakespeare (1564–1616)In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud argues that Hamlet hesitates to take revenge on his uncle who killed his father and married his mother because he unconsciously desired these things for himself.
PersonalitySense and Sensibility (1811) by Jane Austen (1775–1817)The novel's two protagonists, Elinor and Marianne, reflect the contrast between 'sense' (the highly moral superego) and 'sensibility' (the unrestrained id). While Elinor represses her feelings, Marianne expresses herself without hesitation. By the end of the novel, the narrative calls for a healthy balance of sense and sensibility, reflecting the necessity of the balancing force of the ego.
Uncanny 'The Yellow Wallpaper' (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)In this gothic short story, the protagonist is an unnamed woman who is unwell and sent to bedrest in an upstairs nursery room by her husband. The longer the woman spends in the nursery, the more uncanny it becomes. The nursery develops into a tormenting prison that drives her, the protagonist, to madness. She begins to see ghosts creeping behind the wallpaper, which she eventually identifies as a double of herself.

Sigmund Freud quotes

Here are some quotes from Sigmund Freud that reflect his thoughts on how his theories could be applied to literary criticism.

in the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life. ('The Uncanny')

In 'The Uncanny', Freud identifies literature as being a space in which authors can play with the concept of the uncanny. He argues that the more a work of fiction attempts to emulate real life, the higher its potential is for being uncanny.

every genuine poetical creation must have proceeded from more than one motive, more than one impulse in the mind of the poet, and must admit of more than one interpretation. (The Interpretation of Dreams)

In Freud's analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet in The Interpretation of Dreams, he argues that we can deduce aspects of the author's psyche from meanings in their texts and vice versa.

Sigmund Freud - Key takeaways

  • Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) is often referred to as the father of psychoanalysis.
  • Psychoanalysis is a therapeutic approach that focuses on conflicts between the conscious and unconscious mind to treat psychological disorders.
  • Sigmund Freud created and developed many theories that continue to be used in psychoanalytic literary criticism, including the three levels of consciousness, the theory of personality, the Oedipus Complex, and the uncanny.
  • Sigmund Freud believed that we can deduce aspects of the author's psyche from meanings in their texts and vice versa.
  • Sigmund Freud applied his theories of psychoanalysis to literature, including William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603).

Frequently Asked Questions about Freudian Criticism

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) is a psychoanalytic theorist from Vienna, Austria. He is known as the father of psychoanalysis.

Sigmund Freud invented and developed many treatments and theories in the field of psychoanalysis.

Sigmund Freud is famous for being the father of psychoanalysis.

Sigmund Freud created and developed many theories including theories of personality and consciousness, the uncanny, and the Oedipus Complex.

Freud argued that human psychological development is divided into 5 stages: the oral, the anal, the phallic, the latent, and the genital. 

Final Freudian Criticism Quiz

Question

Fill the gap: Sigmund Freud is famously known as the father of _____.

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Answer

Sigmund Freud is famously known as the father of psychoanalysis.

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Question

Fill the gaps: psychoanalysis is a therapeutic approach that focuses on conflicts between the _____ and _____ mind to treat psychological disorders.

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Answer

Psychoanalysis is a therapeutic approach that focuses on conflicts between the conscious and unconscious mind to treat psychological disorders.

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Question

What is a 'Freudian slip'?

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Answer

A Freudian slip is when you want to say something but something else slips out instead. We call these accidental errors Freudian slips because they are said to reveal 'truths' from the unconscious mind. 

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Question

Where was Sigmund Freud born?

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Answer

Vienna, Austria

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Question

Sigmund Freud first introduced his psychoanalytical approach in his co-authored book about what illness?

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Answer

Anxiety

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Question

In which text did Sigmund Freud introduce the Oedipus Complex?

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Answer

The Interpretation of Dreams (1899)

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Question

What are the names of the three levels of consciousness Freud believed influenced human personality and behaviour?

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Answer

Unconsciousness, preconsciousness, and consciousness

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Question

Fill in the gaps: according to Freud's Oedipus Complex, all infants develop unconscious sexual attraction towards their _____ parents and aggressive rivalry towards their _____ parents.

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Answer

According to Freud's Oedipus Complex, all infants develop unconscious sexual attraction towards their opposite-sex parents and aggressive rivalry towards their same-sex parents.

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Question

Into which three parts did Freud say our psyche is divided?

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Answer

The id, the superego, and the ego

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Question

The ego is...

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Answer

An unconscious part of our personality that we are born with.

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The id is...

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Answer

A conscious and unconscious part of our personality that exists to maintain a balance between our instincts and morals.

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Question

The superego is...

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Answer

An unconscious part of our personality that we are born with. 

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Question

What does it mean if something is uncanny?

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Answer

Something is uncanny if it resembles the familiar and the unknown at the same time, where the unknown is often related to a repressed feeling, desire, thought, or memory from infancy.

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Question

Name something that Freud considered to have the potential to be uncanny.

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Answer

Doubles/uncertain identities/madness/the loss of eyes

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Question

What genre of literature is the uncanny often linked to?

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Answer

The gothic novel

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Question

True or false: Freud thought that psychoanalysis should only be used to interpret real life.

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Answer

False. Freud used psychoanalysis to interpret literature and examples from literature to illustrate many of his psychoanalytic theories. 

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Question

Which Shakespeare play did Freud famously refer to in his demonstration of the Oedipus Complex?

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Answer

Hamlet (1603)

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