Etymology, Meanings, and Definition of “Psychoanalytic Literary Theory”

Etymology: The term “psychoanalytic” comes from the Greek word “psyche,” which means “soul,” and the word “analysis,” which means the study or examination of something. “Literary theory” refers to the study and interpretation of literature.

Meaning: Psychoanalytic literary theory analyzes literature that focuses on the psychological motivations and conflicts of characters within the story. It often uses the theories and techniques of psychoanalysis, which is a method of understanding and treating psychological disorders, to delve into characters’ unconscious motivations and desires.

Definition: Psychoanalytic literary theory is a method of analyzing literature that uses the theories and techniques of psychoanalysis to understand the psychological motivations and conflicts of characters within a story. It seeks to uncover the unconscious desires and conflicts that drive characters’ actions and behaviors.

Origin of “Psychoanalytic Literary Theory

The psychoanalytic literary theory originated from the theories and practices of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud believed that human behavior and mental processes were motivated by unconscious desires and conflicts, and these could be revealed through examining dreams, language, and other forms of expression.

The psychoanalytic literary theory applies these principles to the literature analysis, exploring how characters and themes within a work may be influenced by unconscious desires and conflicts. This theory also focuses on how literary works may serve as a means of exploring and resolving unconscious conflicts within the reader.

The origins of psychoanalytic literary theory can be traced back to the early 20th century when Freud’s ideas were first applied to literature and the arts. However, it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the theory gained widespread acceptance and influence within literary criticism. Today, the psychoanalytic literary theory remains a significant and influential approach to interpreting and analyzing literature.

Principles of Psychoanalytic Literary Theory

Psychoanalytic literary theory is a way of interpreting literature through the lens of psychology and psychoanalysis. It is based on the idea that literature is a reflection of the unconscious mind and that the characters, symbols, and themes in a work of literature can be analyzed to understand the psychological motivations and conflicts of the author and the characters.

There are several principles that guide psychoanalytic literary theory:

The Oedipus complex: This concept, developed by Sigmund Freud, refers to a child’s unconscious desire to possess their opposite-sex parent and eliminate the same-sex parent as a rival for affection. This complex is often explored in the literature to understand character motivation and relationships.

The defense mechanisms: Freud also identified several ways the mind protects itself from unpleasant thoughts and feelings, such as repression, denial, and displacement. These defense mechanisms can be seen in literature as a way to understand how characters cope with their own internal conflicts.

The unconscious: According to Freud, the unconscious mind is the source of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that we are not aware of. This concept is often explored in literature to understand characters’ hidden motivations and desires.

Symbolism: Psychoanalytic literary theory looks for symbolic meaning in literature to understand the characters’ unconscious motivations and conflicts. This can include symbols such as water, fire, and animals, which may represent unconscious desires or fears.

The archetypes: Psychoanalytic literary theory also look for archetypes in literature, which are universal patterns or themes that are found in myths, legends, and literature across cultures. These archetypes can represent fundamental human experiences and conflicts, such as the hero’s journey or the mother-child relationship.

Criticism Against This Theory

Psychoanalytic literary theory has faced criticism for its emphasis on the unconscious mind and the role of the psyche in interpreting literature. Some argue that this approach is overly deterministic, as it suggests that individual psychological states and experiences are the primary drivers of literary interpretation rather than the text itself.

Additionally, psychoanalytic literary theory has been criticized for its reliance on Freudian concepts, which have been challenged by other schools of psychology. Some argue that Freud’s theories are outdated and oversimplify complex psychological phenomena, making them less useful for literary analysis.

Another criticism of the psychoanalytic literary theory is that it often focuses on individual characters’ psychological motivations and desires rather than considering the broader social and cultural contexts in which literature is produced and consumed. This can lead to interpretations that prioritize individual psychology over broader societal issues and themes.

Finally, psychoanalytic literary theory has been accused of being overly subjective and open to personal interpretation, as it relies on the individual analyst’s own psychological experiences and biases in interpreting literature. This can make it difficult to establish objective, universally applicable meanings in literature.

Examples of Psychoanalytic Literary Theory from Literature

In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator’s murder of an old man manifests his repressed feelings of anger and resentment towards the man’s “evil eye.” According to psychoanalytic theory, the narrator’s actions can be seen as a result of his unconscious desire to rid himself of these negative emotions.

In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the titular character’s indecision and hesitation in taking revenge on his uncle for the murder of his father can be seen as a result of his own guilt and self-doubt. According to psychoanalytic theory, Hamlet’s internal conflicts and doubts can be traced back to his unconscious guilt for not being able to prevent his father’s murder.

In J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist Holden Caulfield’s rebellious behavior and disdain for authority can be seen as a result of his unconscious desire to rebel against the expectations placed on him by his parents and society. According to psychoanalytic theory, Holden’s actions can be interpreted as a manifestation of his unconscious feelings of anger and resentment towards the limitations placed on him.

In Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy’s initial aloof and arrogant behavior can be seen as a result of his insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. According to psychoanalytic theory, Mr. Darcy’s behavior can be traced back to his unconscious desire to protect himself from rejection and vulnerability.


To conclude, Psychoanalytic theory is a theory of personality and a method of therapy that was developed by Sigmund Freud. It is based on the idea that unconscious psychological processes, such as repressed emotions and desires, can significantly influence a person’s behavior.

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