Literary Theory

Key Terms

Oedipus complex - the complex of emotions aroused in a young child, typically around the age of four, by an unconscious sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and wish to exclude the parent of the same sex

Id - the impulsive (and unconscious) part of our psyche which responds directly and immediately to basic urges, needs, and desires

Ego- develops to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world. It is the decision-making component of personality. Ideally, the ego works by reason, whereas the id is chaotic and unreasonable

Superego- tries to control the id's impulses, especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression. It also has the function of persuading the ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones and to strive for perfection

Key People

Sigmund Freud

Carl Jung

Jacques Lacan

Key Works




Psychoanalytical theory has emerged from the work of Freud, Jung, and Lacan. It is focused on exploring how texts can be read or seen as reflections of the psyche, either in the characters presented, or the author themselves, in much the same way that dreams may be interpreted. It premises particular workings of the mind championed by Freud and uses methods of psychoanalysis to try and understand concepts of the unconscious, such as the id, ego or superego; repression; or the Oedipus complex. Lacanian criticisms build on Freud’s theory, but consider the relationships between signs and symbols in texts and the reader themselves. That is, Lacanian theory may turn the analyses of the psyche from the author to the reader.

What Psychoanalytical Critiques do

They give central importance to the distinction between the conscious and the unconscious mind They associate the literary work’s ‘overt’ content with the former, “and the ‘covert’ content with the latter, privileging the latter as being what the work is ‘really’ about, and aiming to disentangle the two.

Hence, they pay close attention to unconscious motives and feelings, whether these be (a) those of the author, or (b) those of the characters depicted in the work

They demonstrate the presence in the literary work of classic psychoanalytic symptoms, condition of phases, in particular those related to emotional and sexual development.

They identify a ‘psychic’ context for the literary work, at the expense of social or historical context, privileging the individual ‘psycho-drama' above the ‘social drama’ of class conflict. The conflict between generations or siblings, or between competing desires within the same individual looms much larger than conflict between social classes, for instance.

In literary analysis, a Jungian critic would look for archetypes in creative works.

What Questions to Psychoanalytical Critiques ask

How do the operations of repression structure or inform the work? Are there any Oedipal dynamics - or any other family dynamics - at work here? Is there a suggestion of Lacanian psychoanalytic symptoms or phases, for example, the mirror-stage? 

How can characters' behaviour, narrative events, and/or images be explained in terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind (for example, fear or fascination with death, sexuality - which includes love and romance as well as sexual behaviour - as a primary indicator of psychological identity or the operations of ego-id-superego)?

What does the work suggest about the psychological being of its author? 

How does the work reflect the unconscious dimensions of the writer’s mind?

What might a given interpretation of a literary work suggest about the psychological motives of the reader? 

How does the reader’s own psychology affect his response to the work?

Are there prominent words in the piece that could have different or hidden meanings? Could there be a subconscious reason for the author using these "problem words"?

General Web Links