Psychoanalytic reading has been practiced since the early development of psychoanalysis itself, and has developed into a heterogeneous interpretive tradition. As Celine Surprenant writes, ‘Psychoanalytic literary criticism does not constitute a unified field. However, all variants endorse, at least to a certain degree, the idea that literature … is fundamentally entwined with the psyche’.
Psychoanalytic criticism views the artists, including authors, as neurotic. However, an artist escape many of the outward manifestations and end results of neurosis by finding in the act of creating his or her art a pathway back to saneness and wholeness.
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. The criticism is 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 psychological case studies, attempting to identify such Freudian concepts as the Oedipus complex, Freudian slips, Id, ego and superego, and so on, and demonstrate how they influence 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.
Freud wrote several important essays on literature, which he used to explore the psyche of authors and characters, to explain narrative mysteries, and to develop new concepts in psychoanalysis (for instance, Delusion and Dream in Jensen’s Gradiva and his influential readings of the Oedipus myth and Shakespeare‘s Hamlet in The Interpretation of Dreams). The criticism has been made, however, that in his and his early followers’ studies ‘what calls for elucidation are not the artistic and literary works themselves, but rather the psychopathology and biography of the artist, writer, or fictional characters’. Thus ‘many psychoanalysts among Freud’s earliest adherents did not resist the temptation to psychoanalyze poets and painters (sometimes to Freud’s chagrin’). Later analysts would conclude that ‘clearly one cannot psychoanalyse a writer from his text; one can only appropriate him’.
Early psychoanalytic literary criticism would often treat the text as if it were a kind of dream. This means that the text represses its real (or latent) content behind obvious (manifest) content. The process of changing from latent to manifest content is known as the dream work and involves operations of concentration and displacement. The critic analyzes the language and symbolism of a text to reverse the process of the dream work and arrive at the underlying latent thoughts. The danger is that ‘such criticism tends to be reductive, explaining away the ambiguities of works of literature by reference to established psychoanalytic doctrine; and very little of this work retains much influence today’.