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Critical Analysis Of Psychoanalytic Theories Infantile Sexuality English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2943 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Sigmund Freud’s theories have had an enormous influence on art, literature, and social thinking. Literary criticism has often looked towards psychoanalytic theory as a way of interpreting literature. Freud used literature to help him gain evidence for his theory of the unconscious, which led him to create his theory of the Oedipus complex. Sophocles’ tragedy, ‘Oedipus Rex’ inspired Freud’s theory, helping him to explain his theory behind unconscious desires. Moreover, Bruno Bettelheim’s, ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ explores how fairy-tales can give light to child psychology, and be of aid to explain what happens in the unconscious. Literature thus expresses unconscious thought and content in a masked-form.

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The Oedipus complex is fundamental to Freud’s theory, since it explores the unconscious thoughts that children have about their parents when they are young. The basic concept of the Oedipus complex states that with the onset of the phallic stage, the child’s genitals become sexually charged, and this leads to a desire for the parent of the opposite sex, and a feeling of competitiveness with the parent of the same sex. Freud believed that the fear of ‘castration anxiety’ leads males to resolve their Oedipus complex. He concluded that although a boy initially has a desire for his mother, he fears that this will lead to him losing his penis. He therefore rids these feelings for his mother and instead, identifies with his father. This conflict is then resolved, and the child starts to base his ideals and values upon his parents principles, thus resulting in the development of the superego.

Freud’s theory of the unconscious derives from his belief that the personality is made up of three core structures; the id, the ego, and the superego. These three levels of the personality commonly relate to consciousness, the conscience, and the unconscious. According to Freud, the ‘id’ consists of instincts which we are completely unaware of; they are unconscious to us. Following the id, there emerges a new structure of personality called the ‘ego’. This begins to develop as a child experiences the difficulties and demands which reality enforces upon them. The ego is therefore needed for the purpose of reasoning, so that the child can learn to make independent decisions in life. However, the id and the ego have no basis of morality, which means they do not take into account whether something is right or wrong. The final structure of the personality is called the ‘superego’, which is the moral section of our personality, or in other words, our conscience. It therefore helps us to make decisions about what is right or wrong ethically, and fuels our moral principles, such as not to murder another human being. Freud believed that the majority of our personality and thinking exists unconsciously.

Freud also researched a problem which the ego must experience. The ego is the part of our personality for reasoning, yet it has to deal with the conflicts between instinct, the demands for reality, and our moral conscience in order to make a decision and therefore to reason. This problem is resolved through defence mechanisms, which are unconscious methods that the ego employs in order to distort reality, and protect it from anxiety. According to Freud, the conflicting demands of the personality structures produce anxiety to alert the ego to resolve the problem by means of defence mechanisms.

The predominant defence mechanism, according to Freud, is ‘repression’, since it avoids harm by ‘forgetting’ and pushing unacceptable id impulses into the unconscious mind. Freud claimed that because some of our early childhood experiences are so traumatic, such as being born, or which are sexually laden, such as the Oedipus complex, they are thus too threatening and stressful for us to deal with consciously. Repression reduces this anxiety by pushing it into our unconscious.

Carl Jung worked with Freud for many years, yet parted from him when he began to develop his own ideas. They both used the term ‘unconscious’, but defined it differently. Like Freud, Jung called the conscious part of the personality the ‘ego’. However, he further suggested that amongst the ego, and thus our way of reasoning, and the outside world, we often discover a persona, or a facade. This persona is revealed to others only when undertaking a particular role, or when hiding our true feelings about a situation.

Freud believed the unconscious contains repressed material which always remains in the back of the individual’s mind. It is unequivocally personal and contains no commonly held or universal beliefs. Conversely, Jung upheld that although there is an underlying personal unconscious, this just supports a boundless collective unconscious which does not at all originate from the personal unconscious. Jung states that the unconscious’ “contents and modes of behaviour,” are in essence “the same everywhere and in all individuals.” [1] He does not mean to say that the unconscious conveys itself in the same way for each individual, but instead, that the typical patterns of development are universal. Some incidents convey the effects of the collective unconscious more clearly than others. For example, individual experiences of love at first sight, or of déjà vu, or the recognition of specific symbols and the meanings of certain myths, can all be understood through the juxtaposition of our outer reality with the inner reality of the collective unconscious.

One example which has been considered recently, is the near-death experience. It would appear that most individuals, of many diverse cultural backgrounds, find that they all have comparable recollections when they are brought back to life from a near-death experience. Similarities include, seeing clearly their bodies and the events surrounding them, being inside a long tunnel and pulled towards a bright light, and they speak of their disappointment at having to leave this happy place to return to their bodies. Consequently, it would appear from this information that we are all collectively ‘built’ to experience death in this manner.

Freud therefore believed that the individual’s past and biology are most significantly associated with the unconscious, whereas Jung believed that it was more the collective unconscious which holds the answers behind the individual’s psyche.

Carl Jung believed that the structure of the unconscious was different for young girls than for boys; a distinction which Freud generally ignored. He thus introduced the term, ‘Electra complex’. Jung believed that young girls regard their mothers as competition for the love of their fathers. They are initially attached to their mother, but during the phallic stage, on finding out that she lacks a penis, the young girl becomes attached to her father, becoming more hostile toward her mother. Freud rejected Jung’s term, because it he claimed it “seeks to emphasise the analogy between the attitude of the two sexes.” [2] However, Freud did develop the term ‘penis envy’, in which he believed a girl is unconsciously jealous of the male penis.  According to his theory, the young girl then resents her mother, believing she caused this ‘castration’. However, she then fears losing her mother’s love, and stops these feelings of hostility; identifying with her mother. Moreover, the attachment to her father creates a positive value, since it is thought to influence a girl to choose her future husband who reflects similar personality traits, and who looks similar in appearance to her father.

The Electra complex is also apparent in literature, especially in the poems of Sylvia Plath, where the Electra complex is often related to the characters’ insecure relationship and anxious feelings towards their fathers. For example, in her poem, ‘Full Fathom Five’, Plath portrays the Electra complex by directly conveying a sexual scene, “Your shelled bed I remember/Father, this thick air is murderous/I would breathe water” [3] , suggesting that the narrator ardently wishes to be united with her father through committing suicide. It would therefore seem that Freud should not have disregarded the Electra complex to the extent that he did.

A further individual who disagreed with Freud’s notion of the structure of the unconscious was Alfred Adler. He was an Austrian psychologist who argued against Freud’s emphasis on the unconscious and instinctual drives. Adler took the belief that we are ruled by environmental factors and not by biological instincts. Moreover, he believed that the chief motivation in our personality is to strive towards being the best person we can possibly be; self-actualisation.

Adler argued that the fundamental notion between all human beings is to aim towards a feeling of superiority. Individuals thus move away from feelings of inferiority, guided towards superiority by their unconscious. Adler stated that, “The feeling of inferiority rules the mental life and can be clearly recognised in the sense of incompleteness and unfulfillment, and in the uninterrupted struggle both of individuals and humanity.” [4] Therefore, although he agreed with Freud that we all feel inferior at points in our life, he claims that this occurs mainly because we begin life as fragile and moderately powerless children, surrounded by authoritative adults.

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However, Adler believed that the progress and maturation of all human beings results from compensating for one’s own inferiorities. These feelings of inadequacy may also derive from our personal limitations. For example, we may not feel clever enough, or attractive enough; everyone is therefore attempting to overcome something that is obstructing them from becoming who they really want to be. Each individual compensates for different limitations whilst striving towards superiority. Adler believed that this generates a unique way of life for each individual, and subsequently each personality pattern is exclusive to the individual.

To understand the connection between psychoanalytic theory and literature, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have explored fairytales in an attempt to understand the human psyche. This is achieved either by studying the psychology of the creators of these stories, or by exploring the characters within them. Many fairytales have a plot centred around a revelation of the truth about individuals who have been disguised, which reflects Jung’s notion that many individuals create a facade; fairytales thus portray the essence of the human mind and are a further way in which the unconscious mind can be accessed on a cultural, collective level.

Freud believed that dreams and fairytales arise from the same place, meaning that fairytales, like dreams, could be openings into the unconscious. For Freud, fairytales are wish-fulfilment fantasies with complex sexual underlying meanings. Moreover, Freud established that fairytales employ a symbolic language which can be interpreted psychoanalytically in order to reveal the unconscious content of the mind. For example, in Freud’s famous analysis of the ‘Wolf Man’, which is explained in his essay, ‘From the History of an Infantile Neurosis’, 1918, he illustrated that his patient’s dreams actually used the same symbolism as the Grimms’ stories of ‘The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ to convey sexual anxiety, resulting from traumatic childhood experiences.

Fairytales are, however, very much linked to Carl Jung’s work. The Jungian approach states that archetypes are the contents of the collective unconscious, and are accordingly universal themes which affect our behaviour, such as birth, death and religion. These are made up of collective symbols, guiding the way towards transformation and development. Some Jungians state that fairytales often appeal to children because they are in a stage of their development only slightly removed from deeper layers of the collective unconscious. Jungian therapists therefore study fairytales in order to assist them in analysing the dreams of their patients.

More recently, and possibly the most well-known psychologist to include fairytales into his practice is Bruno Bettelheim, who published ‘The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales’, in 1976. Bettelheim proposed that fairytales are imperative for children’s learning and vital to help them understand reality and survive in an adult-governed world. The problems which the protagonists experience in fairytales, such as family conflicts and moral dilemmas could consequently offer models of coping, “Despite all the angry, anxious thoughts in his mind to which the fairytale gives body and specific context, these stories always result in a happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on his own.” [5] In dealing with collective human problems, and predominantly those which possess the child’s mind, fairytales further the development of the child’s burgeoning ego, whilst at the same time reduce unconscious anxieties. As the fairytales unfurl, they give conscious credibility to id anxieties.

Fairytales pose significant human dilemmas directly to the child. For example, many fairytales open with the death of a parent, which consequently produces distress in both the character who has lost their parent and the child watching. However, this permits the child to deal with the issue in its most critical form, because a more elaborate plot could confuse matters for them; the fairytale always makes situations more straightforward. For example, the characters are always clearly drawn and there is often a lack of intricate details, depicting the characters as typical rather than unique.

Moreover, the presence of evil in fairytales is as collective as virtue. In virtually every fairytale, good and evil are conveyed through characters and their actions, just as good and evil are present in human beings, and the propensity for both is present in everybody. This binary consequently creates a moral dilemma, which then demands the struggle to resolve it. Often in fairytales, the evil characters succeed for some time, such as the ugly sisters in ‘Cinderella’. However, the fact that the hero ultimately always wins is unconsciously highlighting to the child watching that good always wins over evil. However, morality is not encouraged because virtue wins; it is promoted because the hero is always designed to be the more attractive character to the child, with whom the child can identify with through all their struggles. This identification encourages the child to believe that he himself suffers along with the hero, and ultimately triumphs with him at the end when good destroys evil. The child makes these identifications on his own and the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him.

The fairytale helps the child to cope with deep inner conflicts which originate in their primitive drives, leading them to display violent emotions, such as the need to be loved, or the fear of death. Fairytales offer solutions to these unconscious anxieties, by often concluding ‘And they both lived happily ever after’. This does not lead the child to believe that life on Earth is eternal, yet it signifies that by developing a satisfying bond to another, death does not seem as daunting, because it is universal. Fairytales instruct us that when one has created this bond to another person, one has achieved emotional security of existence, which can relieve the fear of death. Therefore, if one has found true love in adult life, the fairytale illustrates to us that one does not need to wish for eternal life. The fairytale guides the child through terms which he can understand in both his conscious and his unconscious mind. It will lead him eventually to abandon his infantile dependency wishes, and strive towards a more fulfilling independent existence.

Psychologists generally believe that the fairytale has a significant and positive role in the psychological development of children. They consequently consider fairytales as not just useful therapeutic tools in clinical practice, but also as children’s literature that is vital for every child’s experience. The basic principle is that the child learns how to overcome psychological conflicts, and therefore mature, moving towards new phases of development through a symbolic understanding of the maturation process which is expressed through fairytales.


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