Quite obviously, the origin of the process of psychoanalytic criticism can be traced to the principle development of psychoanalysis in general, and largely to turn of the century psychologist Sigmund Freud. Freud was famously infatuated by the idea of the human unconscious, and how it manifests itself in our everyday lives. Even today, we speak of 'Freudian slips' and seek to interpret seemingly irrational behavior and/or actions (including dreams); this is due mostly to the cultural influence of Freudian theory. Literary critics have adopted many of these modes of thought in seeking greater understanding of literary texts through analysis of the psychological forces behind their creation. Thus, the concept of creativity demands special attention.

Psychological analyses of creativity

One of the influences Freud has had on modern thought is the way in which we think about creativity, specifically the way in which it may be tied to neurosis; in Freudian terms, condensation and sublimation. To expand:

The processes of "condensation" and "displacement" are both described by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams: thoughts and images in dreams may have more than one meaning, Freud says, and one thought or image may be transferred onto another one, possibly because the mind finds the second thought or image more acceptable than the first one. Freud labels the former process "condensation" and the latter one "displacement."1
The connection to literary theory is apparent. Critics have simply expanded on Freud's theories to incorporate the possibility that the creative process is largely dominated by the mental state of the author. In simple terms, trust fund babies who have actually found ways to buy love don't/can't write about poverty and unrequited love. This leads to the concepts of author psychology and psychobiography.

Psyhologically profiling authors

What the above suggests about the methodology of psychoanalytic criticism is that one must describe the mental history, and to some extent, the personal biography of the author in order to illuminate how it has informed that individual's creative process. Even more explicitly, this can mean tying specific details and even characters to corresponding images from an author's past that may or may not have come to dominate his or her psyche. the label for this also comes from Freud: "overdetermination." This is meant to reflect how one image has taken on multiple meanings--a theory of the origin of symbols.

Criticism for this criticism

Like most theory, psychoanalytic criticism has its obvious good points and weaknesses, and relying on it exclusively for understanding will undermine the depth of the text. On the other hand, there are more profound problems with psychoanalysis than this. Feminist criticism, especially, has all sorts of problems with Freud, in many ways revolving around the way he has classified the female psyche as being defined by a sort of lack. It is my personal opinion that this problem does not taint the entire field, but is rather a mere cultural remnant left over from the victorian age. However, it is important to recognize the general danger of using a general rule to interpret images and symbols that have sprung from the creative consciousness of a unique individual, male or female.


I've received a flurry of unput regarding this write up requesting more in-depth information. First, I think it is well-worth adding that significant developments have occurred in this field since Freud, he is by no means the standard any longer. Although I am not familiar enough with the thinkers to review them significantly, I have been asked to refer you to writers Jaques Lacan and Julia Kristeva. It was my intention to introduce the subject; anyone with valuable contributions is heartily invited to add another write-up.

(back to Literary criticism)

Read Ross Murfin! Read Freud! (He's not so bad). This was also helpful --> http://www.lawrence.edu/dept/english/courses/60A/psycho.html#psyint

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