Psychoanalysis and literature

This page is a set of suggestions as to what psychoanalytic thought may add to the study of literature. As I state on a page previous to this, psychoanalysis is an area in which imaginatively I do not feel very much at home, and my work here may reflect that.

This page is Copyright John Lye, 1996; it may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes. As is the case with my other Theory pages, this page is open (wide open, some may say) to revision and improvement. Please mail me any suggestions as to how I can improve the page.


What psychoanalysis and literature have in common, and what psychoanalysis can contribute to literature:

Psychoanalysis is a "talking cure"; language and narrative are fundamental to it. In a sense psychoanalytic therapy is the re-narratization of a person's life.

As psychoanalysis deals with language and with interpretation, it introduces a significant approach to the hermeneutics of suspicion, the idea that there are motives and meanings which are disguised by and work through other meanings. The "hermeneutics of suspicion" (Paul Ricoeur's term) is not limited to psychoanalytic thought but is found in structural thought generally -- the idea that we look, to understand action, to sub-texts, not pre-texts.

Psychoanalysis deals with motives, especially hidden or disguised motives; as such it helps clarify literature on two levels, the level of the writing itself, and the level of character action within the text. A 'companion' level to the level of writing is the level of reading; both reading and writing, as they respond to motives not always available to rational thought, can be illumined by psychoanalytic thought.

Psychoanalysis deals with many basic elements which we might think of as poetic or literary, including metaphor and metonymy; Freud deals with this particularly in his work on the interpretation of dreams, and Lacan sees metaphor and metonymy as fundamental to the workings of the psyche.

Psychoanalysis opens the nature of the subject: who it is who is experiencing, what our relationships of meaning and identity are to the psychic and cultural forces which ground so much of our being. This unde rstanding, particularly in terms of Lacan's sense that the subject is ex-centric to itself, is very important in contemporary understandings of reading, meaning, and the relation of literature to culture.

Psychoanalysis examines the articulation of our most private anxieties and meanings to culture and gives us a perspective on them as cultural formations.

Psychoanalysis looks to culture as informative of our deepest psychic levels.

Psychoanalysis deals with the relations of 'body' meanings (what Kristeva would call, in her formulation, the 'semiotic') and drives to symbolic, or cultural, meanings.

Psychoanalytic thought is part of the project of much 20th Century thought to 'correct' the Cartesian mind/body split, to see humans as bodily, incarnate beings. Psychoanalysis tends to read this split as a de racination of the self from its vital and formative being.

Psychoanalysis constitutes one approach to the questions of good and evil, and especially of suffering and error, which plague us as humans.


We live in a post-Freudian age; we cannot escape the fact that we think about human life differently from the way people in the past thought about it. While on the level of practice psychoanalytic approaches to literature may not always be rich or rewarding enough, may tend to be reductive, on the level of theory psychoanalysis is of great importance.