One of the fundamentals of psychoanalysis is that individual behavior is deeply marked by
ancient psychical processes. Conscious, “sane”, behavior as well as irrational or “abnormal”
behavior both show traces of our unconscious. Psychoanalytic criticism looks at the content
and creation of literary works from this basic premise.
Literary works can be seen as ‘dream work’ produced by the artist’s imagination that is fueled by
the unconscious. If you are studying a particular writer’s oeuvre or at least 2 – 3 works, you
could look for certain repetitive patterns in their works which might betray, from a psychoanalytic
perspective, some psychic symptom or process that seems particular to an artist (or a genre).
For instance, why are so many of Hemingway’s protagonists men who seem psychologically or
physically injured? Or why nearly all of the women in Shakespeare’s tragedies die ‘by mistake’?
Is there a reason (psychoanalytic explanation) of why so many fairy tales have motifs of children
being eaten up by witches?
But even in individual works you can analyze characters or plot patterns and trace the presence
of psychological processes or symptoms
Freud’s tripartite model of the mind: the ego, or conscious ‘I’ is constantly negotiating between
the instinctive drives and irrational desires of the Id and the socio-moral injunctions (matters of
morality, law, conscience) enforced by the superego. The ego tries to find ways to satisfy the
unacknowledged but very real desires of the id while not completely flouting the behavioral laws
put forth by the superego. The behavior of different characters might be understood in this
context. Gallimard or even Puccini’s Madame Butterfly seem to manifest irrational desire for
another. How might Freud’s theorization of the topography of the mind be used to understand
Barry notes how, according to Freud, the unconscious is represented in dreams through ‘dream
work’ which displaces unacceptable material on to acceptable images through certain devices
such as sublimation, displacement, condensation, fixation, splitting, introjection, projection, etc.
There are a couple of ways of using this insight. An opera like Madame Butterfly might be seen
as the ‘dream work’ of the unconscious desires of an entire culture – through the various
devices here mentioned by Barry, one can see the opera as a manifestation of the West’s desire
to possess and/or destroy the East. Or, we might consider the dreams, visions or artistic
creations of different characters (Butterfly’s son’s dream in the opera, Gallimard’s ‘visi