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Psychoanalysis as a Form of Literary Criticism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1586 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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Psychoanalysis is a set of psychological theories that was founded by the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud in his work Interpretation of Dreams (1900). By bringing up models for the human psyche such as tripartite model (considering human mind as being consisted of an Ego, Superego and Id), proposing different stages of human development (including oral, anal and phallic stage) and also mentioning Oedipus , Electra and Castration complexes, which were a great contribution towards Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic criticism .

Oedipus Complex: the unresolved desire of a child for sexual gratification through the parent of the opposite sex, especially the desire of a son for his mother. This involves, first, identification with and, later, hatred for the parent of the same sex, who is considered by the child as a rival.

Castration Complex: What prevents the male child from continuing to have incestuous desires for his mother is the fear of being castrated by his father as punishment for his desires.

This approach then continued by psychologists such as Carl.G.Jung and Jaques Lacan. Lacan tries to analyze the “hows and whys of human action”. In this regard language has a significant role, psychoanalysis declares that language shapes the individuals emotions and experiences and as Lacan believed “Language shapes and ultimately structures our unconscious and conscious minds while also shaping our self-identity”. (Bressler, I34)

Because psychoanalysis is concerned with the amorphous human “stuff”, before it is influenced by culture, language and history, its concern lies in the very intersection of “pre-history” and “history”.

Pre-history is recognized with qualities such as indivisibility, non-integration, plentitude and oneness while history is related through difference, subjectivity and separation. In other words, the main concern of psychoanalysis is the continual tension between differentiation and non-differentiation.

As Lacan believed, human beings go through different stages in order to be able to differentiate themselves as a separate entity in order to reach the sense of individuation. These stages are imaginary order, mirror stage and symbolic order. When the infant is in the first phase, the imaginary order, he imagines himself as united with his mother and cannot see the boundaries, but then in the mirror stage he begins to know that he is separated from his mother and the external world; although, this is just an allusion because he cannot move his body or eat whatever he desires. In the third phase, the symbolic order, the baby considers himself as separated and begins to learn language and this is where language gradually molds his identity.


John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity she’s a Whore encourages us to identify with its central character’s complete identification with the pre-Oedipal, only for that sympathy to turn belatedly to disgust. The play dramatizes an incestuous relationship between Giovanni and his sister Annabella which leads to pregnancy and ends in disaster and death. Set in Parma, Italy, the story takes place against a background of lust, vengeance and greed that serves as a critique of contemporary culture and morality. Giovanni was warned about the seriousness of his sin by the Friar, but as Giovanni describes it is out of his control. After Annabella decides to end her relation and marry her suitor Soranzo, Giovanni falls in distress. Soranzo plans to catch Giovanni and Anabella in the process of love-making so he leads the situation so that they end up in his own bedroom, and have them murdered. Giovanni talks to Anabella and after realizing their impossible situation he kills her and exits and later on enters Soranzos party with Annabella’s heart on his sword and after a battle kills Soranzo and dies himself from his wounds.


Giovanni the central protagonist is a pre-Oedipal narcissist, he returns subjectivity to a pre-Oedipal state which literally consumes the other part of a self and makes two completely separate things into one self-same entity. Incest is a case within the pre-Oedipal stage. It breaks the laws of the post-Oedipal sexual and linguistic difference, in this case confusing the names of brother and sister with the name of lover. Giovanni rejects God as the creator of the world and gives himself the right to refashion and restate laws as a result of his pre-Oedipal desire. Giovanni emphasizing on the oneness he believes with his sister which was the womb where the both were born of seeks reunion and conjoining, looking towards his sister as an object, an object of love and devotion which eases the feeling of division within him. Love symbolically castrates Giovanni and the castration leads him to exile from his identity and masculine self, leading him to a state of a pre-genital, pre-linguistic non-differentiation.   Giovanni also seeks another kind of unity which is the unity between sign, language and reality and he believes his words are directly from his emotions. Imitating words of poetic lovers; however, this language further separates and alienates him from the object of love which is Annabella for example when he is reading a sonnet for Anabella repeatedly interrupts him, these interruptions indicate Annabella’s refusal to see herself in Giovanni’s inscriptions and results in violence. Unable to cope with losing his Annabella to Soranzo and his refusal of reality he kills and removes Anabella’s heart from her body and enters the final scene with the heart on his dagger. Giovanni’s violent response to the trauma of exile (exile from Anabella’s heart, life womb and bed) is to destroy in order to retain everything that is to be separated from him. His pre-Oedipal narcissistic fantasy is based upon the utter eradication or absorption by others leading him to create an iconic approach in the final scene obliterating all competing realities.


In Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, an ensemble of various London characters attends the yearly fair in Smithfield commemorating the martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew. First performed in 1614, particularly the theme that when social order is turned upside down or absent, predators emerge to construct a new order based on cheating other characters. At the fair, the characters argue, steal, fight, and cheat while consuming roast pig, ale, gingerbread in a swirl of gluttony, profanity, and sex. Three authority figures, Humphrey Wasp, Justice Adam Overdo, and the Puritan Rabbi Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, seek to control other characters, but they cannot control their own appetites. When the three authority figures accede to their own appetites and gorge themselves, the audience and the characters realize that the fair has its own social order.


For the purpose of the psychoanalytic interpretation of Bartholmew Fair, ‘author’ will be read as Oedipal father/father-figure; audience as fathers wayward children conscripted by the father at the beginning of the play to the principle of solitary, and the fair as the occasional pleasure, sensual release and enjoyments forbidden by the father as audience are expected to keep their distance from the fair, preventing their fall into the pre-Oedipal world of the fair.

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The Carnival is the pre-modern equivalent of Freud’s polymorphously perverse pre-Oedipal child whose bodily drives have not yet been regulated. The bizarre game played by several of the characters of ‘vapours’ which involves contradicting one another for the sake of contradiction depicts the discharge of undirected bodily energies and the pig-woman Ursula who is the body of the fair psychoanalytical perspectives of the infantile desire towards the mothers body. Quarlous one of the spectators finds Ursula as a swamp that a man can sink within. Based on the Oedipus complex perspective, Ursula is that womb like state which can draw a man back to the non-differentiation state, while the aim of Ursula is to make money out of the fair’s visitors, a capitalist simulation of the blissful state of pre-Oedipal indivisibility. Cokes represent an unregulated infant who bothers his guardian because he is attracted to each and every capital object within the fair. Bartholmew Fair is a questioning of external authority and its externally imposed laws of difference and an embrace, which falls under the fantasies of pre-Oedipal state.


Psychoanalysis plays an important role in literary criticism, the approach to analyze a character’s “whats and hows” of action without an aesthetic concern and to find a reason for their thoughts can be beneficial to the way readers interpret a literary work, and for authors to create distinguished characters based upon their concern. The Oedipus complex and the personality disorders were enlightened through  Giovanni’s Violence and death in Tis pity she’s a Whore, which were a result of the intolerance of separation from his object of love; in addition, Cokes infantile desires in Bartholomew Fair is a shining example of rejecting adult-separateness.


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