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< Back to question How should we think about interpreting literature? Show more Show less

In the world of literary criticism, there are many theories about the correct way to interpret literature. Some critics argue that the text alone determines a work's meaning, while others pay more attention to factors like historical context or the reader's experience. Scholars also practice other methods of literary criticism influenced by feminist, Marxist, or psychoanalytic theories, to name a few. So, what are the various theories about interpreting literature?

Psychoanalytic Criticism Show more Show less

Inspired by the theories of psychoanalysts, this school of criticism investigates the unconscious mind's influence on a text.
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Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic interpretation

Freud introduced an approach to psychology that he called “psychoanalysis” as a way of analyzing and treating neuroses. He soon realized that psychoanalysis can be used to analyze many important aspects of human civilization, like religion, mythology, art, and literature.
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Proponents


The Argument

Freud argues that art and literature are a reservoir of repressed desires that are unmet by reality and society.[1] Each person has a set of forbidden desires—primarily sexual—along with an awareness of a society’s morals and values. This "censor" suppresses the unacceptable desires in the artist’s mind. These new, unconscious desires manifest in their art and literature and take three forms.[1] The first is called “condensation,” whereby many things from the unconscious dimension merge into one thing in the literature.[2] The second is called “displacement,” whereby the artist replaces something that is longed for but unacceptable, and thus within the unconscious, with something acceptable.[2] The third is called “symbolism,” whereby suppressed, mostly sexual, entities of desire represent nonsexual entities with some qualities of the origin.[2] The main goal of the psychoanalytic literary critic is to decode and interpret all of the real, repressed desires, fixations, and anxieties of the text’s author.[1] The manifest content of a literary work includes its characters, its events, and its language. These often represent the author’s upsetting experiences as a child, his or her relationships and sexual desires, as well as any complexes (like an Oedipus complex) they may have.

Counter arguments

Even if one accepts Freud’s foundational theory, it cannot prove with certainty that beneath every work of literature there lies the unconscious psyche of its author. There are far too many baseless assumptions and unjustified interpretive leaps involved in substantiating this claim. If the author is fantasizing about or recollecting their actual neuroses through their literature, the psychoanalytic interpreter has to work backward to discover information about the author.[3] Just because the three processes may characterize unconscious neuroses and desires, they do not characterize works of literature. Literature may not be as mysterious as dreams, but to create literature, it requires planning, imaginative depth, and rhetorical structure.[3] The difference between literature and unconscious dreams is too significant. Thus, psychoanalysis should only be performed on dreams and not be applied to literary works to unearth hidden content about the author’s neuroses.

Premises

Rejecting the premises


References

  1. https://books.google.ca/books/about/A_Glossary_of_Literary_Terms.html?id=X7-iAgAAQBAJ
  2. https://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/psycho.crit.html
  3. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26304564

This page was last edited on Tuesday, 15 Sep 2020 at 15:17 UTC