Psychoanalytic Readings


Who?               Freud,  Lacan

When?             1900’s – 2000’s



The fundamental idea behind psychoanalysis is that we have an unconscious mind that is somehow sealed off from our conscious mind and where we hide all of the things that we don’t want to deal with such as memories that are too painful for us to confront.


The unconscious can, however, sometimes break through and affect our behaviour or our consciousness in subtle ways: in dreams, for example, or in Freudian slips where we say something that we didn’t want to say but actually really mean. The unconscious can also be accessed through hypnosis, hence people getting themselves hypnotised to re-live past lives or remember traumatic events. The idea behind hypnosis – and the stereotypical Psychoanalysts couch in the movies – is that by putting the conscious mind in a relaxed state it won’t be able to keep the unconscious thoughts so tightly controlled so they will slip through into our conscious minds and we can talk about them.


These days we are all quite happy with the idea of the unconscious but this wasn’t always the case and when Freud introduced this idea in the 1900’s it was fairly radical. After all, it basically amounts to saying that we are not really fully in control of ourselves, we are not fully free, and that, worse still, we are sometimes controlled by this mysterious little untouchable monster locked away in the back of our heads somewhere.


Freud’s explanation of where the unconscious comes from is a little bit weird but is quite interesting. This is a simplification of the process:

·         As children we are a mess of unrestrained desires and do whatever we have to, to get pleasure.

·         We can get pleasure from our mouths, our sexual organs and even our bowel movements.

·         Even more bizarrely, Freud believes, we have a secret sexual desire for our parents. This is called the Oedipus complex in boys or Electra complex in girls.

·         Needless to say having a child that takes pleasure in his or her own bowel movements or secretly fancies his or her parents is going to be quite upsetting. So parents, representing society, train the child that certain behaviours are wrong and forbidden.

·         All of these unacceptable desires get pushed to the back of the child’s mind and become the unconscious. This store of pent up, unacceptable, childish desires is called the ‘Id’ and the ‘Ego’ is what is in charge of telling us what is and is not socially acceptable and keeping the Id in its place.


This relates to the ideas of ‘Discourse’, ‘Ideology’ and ‘Readings’ which are discussed elsewhere on the website. A discourse or an ideology is just an acceptable way of thinking about the world and so, in a sense, the parents of a child teach them about the acceptable way of thinking about the world in their society; they teach them to share the discourse or ideology that everyone else in their society has. Anything unacceptable gets pushed to the sides.


So, how does this affect the way that we read? Well, critics who read texts from a psychoanalytical perspective believe that, just like people, texts have an unconscious too and all of the things that are unacceptable in the society where the text was written will be buried in that unconscious. However sometimes, again just like people, these unacceptable things will break through to the surface in unusual ways. Psychoanalytical readings of texts look out for these break-throughs in the following places:


·         In symbols, images, metaphors and allusions

·         In descriptions of scenery and nature

·         In the gaps and silences in a text


A psychoanalytical reading might also look out for examples of this process of socialisation, where the parents teach the children how to behave acceptably in society, at work in a text. Lord of the Flies is a great text to read psychoanalytically: in addition to the scenery, which is heavily sexually charged, the inexplicably close relationship between boys and the almost orgiastic killing of Simon there is clearly the idea that, having been removed from the control of society, the boys are gradually unleashing all their unconscious desires with destructive and disastrous results.