CompFAQ/Literary Interpretation/Psychoanalytic Criticism

From Gerald R. Lucas
📝 English Composition Writing FAQ 11011102📖

Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism synthesizes literary studies with psychological theories principally originating from Sigmund Freud and his intellectual successors. Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst, significantly reshaped psychoanalytic criticism, introducing revolutionary concepts that opened new pathways for literary interpretation.

Psychoanalytic criticism, rooted in Freudian theory, involves the interpretation of literature through a psychological lens, thereby revealing unconscious desires, anxieties, and conflicts that pervade the narrative. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is anchored in the understanding that human behavior and personality are primarily driven by unconscious forces and instincts, typically categorized into the id, ego, and superego, representing our instinctual drives, reality-based rationale, and moral conscience, respectively. In essence, psychoanalytic critics explore these complex layers within literary characters and narratives to yield a nuanced understanding of the human psyche.


Sigmund Freud (1923), often referred to as the father of psychoanalysis, dramatically influenced literary criticism through his psychological theories. His insights about the human psyche, despite being originally intended for clinical therapy, found a natural application in the analysis of literary texts, leading to the development of psychoanalytic criticism. Freud’s theories have fundamentally shaped our understanding of human motivation and conflict, providing a lens through which we can examine the underlying psychological forces at play in literature.

Sigmund Freud, by Max Halberstadt

Freud’s topographical model of the psyche, which divides the mind into the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious areas, plays a crucial role in psychoanalytic criticism. Freud suggested that a significant portion of human behavior, thought, and motivation originates in the unconscious mind, a realm inaccessible to our conscious self but expressed in dreams, slips of the tongue, and, importantly for literary criticism, in creative works like literature. Psychoanalytic critics often explore these unconscious expressions in a text, unlocking deeper, latent meanings.

Freud’s structural model, comprising the id, ego, and superego, is another cornerstone of psychoanalytic criticism. The id is the instinctual, pleasure-seeking part of the psyche, the ego is the realistic part that balances the demands of the id and superego, and the superego is the moralistic part, internalizing societal norms and values. This theory allows critics to understand characters’ actions and internal conflicts in a nuanced manner.

The concept of the Oedipus complex, Freud’s theory suggesting that children possess unconscious sexual desires for their opposite-sex parent, has also significantly influenced literary analysis. Critics have applied this theory to analyze complex familial relationships and tensions in countless literary works.

Freud’s theory of defense mechanisms, strategies used by the ego to protect the individual from anxiety, has informed the analysis of characters’ responses to stressful situations in narratives. For example, defense mechanisms like repression, projection, or denial often serve as critical keys to unlock a character’s motivations and behavior.

Finally, Freud’s work on dream analysis, where he posited that dreams are a form of wish fulfillment and contain both manifest (surface) and latent (hidden) content, provides a useful framework for examining symbolism and allegory in literature.


Among the significant practitioners of psychoanalytic criticism, two stand out: Harold Bloom and Jacques Lacan. Bloom (1973), an American critic and scholar, employed Freud’s theories to interpret characters’ relationships and their textual anxiety, proposing that poets experience an “anxiety of influence” as they creatively resist the formidable legacy of their precursors. Lacan, on the other hand, reinterpreted Freud’s theories within a linguistic context. He emphasized the role of language in shaping the unconscious, a concept that has significantly influenced modern psychoanalytic criticism (Lacan, 1966).

Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, exerted a substantial influence on the field of psychoanalytic criticism with his reinterpretation of Freud’s theories within the context of structural linguistics. One of Lacan’s most fundamental contributions is his assertion that the unconscious is structured like a language. Lacan asserted that our experience of reality is mediated through language, which influences our sense of self and our interactions with the world. This focus on language provided a new methodology for literary critics who sought to unravel unconscious desires and motives in a text.

Lacan’s concept of the “mirror stage,” where an infant first recognizes itself in a mirror, is also integral to literary analysis. This moment, Lacan argued, initiates the formation of the “I” or ego, which is fundamentally an illusion based on identification with an image. In the realm of literature, this concept helps critics analyze characters’ identities and their interactions with their self-image or others’ perceptions.

Another crucial Lacanian concept in literary criticism is the “Other.” Lacan divides the “Other” into the “big Other” and the “little other.” The “big Other” represents societal structures, laws, and language systems, whereas the “little other” refers to other individuals who mirror and influence one’s ego. Literary critics often employ these concepts to explore the societal and interpersonal dynamics within a text.

The triadic structure of the “Real,” the “Symbolic,” and the “Imaginary,” another pivotal aspect of Lacanian psychoanalysis, aids in literary analysis. The “Real” is the state of nature from which we are forever alienated by our entrance into language (the “Symbolic”). The “Imaginary” is the realm of images and fantasies that we use to make sense of the world, including the idealized self-image formed in the mirror stage. This Lacanian triad provides a useful framework for examining how characters perceive and navigate their realities.

The Three-Prong Approach

Psychoanalytic criticism adopts a three-pronged methodology: firstly, the examination of the author’s psyche; secondly, an investigation into the characters’ minds; and thirdly, an exploration of the audience’s response (cf. Tyson (2006)). A holistic understanding of the work involves the integration of these three dimensions.

First, analyzing the author’s psyche provides insights into how an author’s personal experiences, unconscious desires, and psychological conflicts may have influenced the creation of the text. Critics often draw on biographical information and historical context to discern these influences. Sigmund Freud’s concept of “Freudian slip,” where unintentional errors in speech or memory are seen as manifestations of the unconscious mind, is a tool often used in this analysis. It is essential to remember, however, that such analysis must avoid reductionist tendencies that oversimplify the creative process.

The second prong, the examination of characters’ psyches, involves delving into the characters’ motivations, conflicts, and developments within the narrative. Critics apply psychological theories, like Freud’s structural model of the id, ego, and superego or Lacan’s mirror stage and the Other, to interpret the characters’ actions, reactions, and transformations. For example, a character’s internal struggle may be understood as a conflict between their id’s desires and the moral constraints of their superego.

The final prong focuses on the reader’s response, examining how readers’ unconscious thoughts and feelings are evoked and manipulated by the text. This aspect is tied to the idea that our interpretations of literature are influenced by our personal psychological makeup and unconscious biases. Lacan’s concept of the “Real,” the “Symbolic,” and the “Imaginary” can be used to examine how readers negotiate their perceptions and interpretations of a text within their psychological and linguistic realities.


Applying the psychoanalytic lens to literature offers captivating insights. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, we can uncover the characters’ unconscious desires. Gatsby’s longing for Daisy, a representation of his id’s desire for pleasure, is constantly at odds with the reality—the ego’s domain. This conflict mirrors Freud’s theory of the clash between the id and ego.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet provides another ripe canvas for psychoanalytic criticism. The titular character’s infamous indecisiveness is often attributed to an Oedipal complex. Hamlet’s procrastination in avenging his father's death is seen as a subconscious reluctance stemming from his Oedipal feelings towards his mother, Queen Gertrude. Critics can use Lacan’s theories to interpret Hamlet’s struggles with his self-image (mirror stage), his confrontations with societal expectations (big Other), his interactions with other characters (little other), and his confrontations with the harsh realities of his world (the Real).

A more contemporary example can be found in J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. The titular character’s struggles with traumatic past experiences and resultant fears mirror concepts of Freudian psychology. The Dementors, symbolic embodiments of depression, act as metaphoric triggers for Harry’s repressed traumatic memories, evoking a clear resonance with Freud’s theory of trauma.

A psychoanalytic approach also offers valuable insights into poetry. For instance, Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” can be seen as an exploration of mental deterioration. The poem’s progression mirrors the gradual escalation of psychological distress, resonating with Freud’s descriptions of anxiety.

Psychoanalytic criticism offers a unique lens to interpret literature, combining elements from psychology and literary criticism. By engaging with unconscious desires, anxieties, and conflicts embedded in the text, we gain a deeper understanding of the complex narratives that define human existence. This approach underscores that the unconscious, while elusive and complex, is a wellspring of valuable insights, offering readers an enriching and enlightening journey into the realm of literature.


  • Bloom, Harold (1973). The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP.
  • Freud, Sigmund (1923). The Ego and the Id. New York: Norton.
  • Lacan, Jacques (1966). Écrits: A Selection. New York: Norton.
  • Tyson, Lois (2006). Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge.
Written: 2002, 2022; Revised: 06-13-2023; Version: Beta 0.7 💬