freudian literary criticism

Freudian criticism takes many forms. The sexual imagery can be analyzed, but sheds little light on this poem. More useful is Freud's approach to dreams and fantasies. The processes of condensation, displacement, representation and secondary revision disclose elements that would have escaped traditional criticism.


Freud was a cultivated man and, while not entirely approving of artists, did take a close interest in artistic production and appreciation. Psychic energy (libido) was sexual at base, but was not channelled wholly into sexual activity. Amongst its expressions were dreams, fantasies and the personality disorders that arose when instinctual drives were constrained by exterior reality: the pleasure principle versus the reality principle. Desire was the motivating force of the artist — an inordinate desire to win honour, power, wealth, fame and the love of women with a corresponding lack of means of doing so. Notoriously, the artist was an introvert, and not far removed from a neurotic. Nonetheless, Freud did not confuse daydreams and artistic creation, did not reduce aesthetics to wish fulfillment, and admitted that psychoanalysis could not say how the artist achieved his successes. Dreams and art both employed strategies to transform primitive desires into the culturally acceptable, and indeed the artist masked and sweetened his daydreams with aesthetic form. Even Freud's much-criticized essay Leonardo and a memory of his childhood is more a psycho-biography than art criticism.{1}

Freudian literary analysis comes in various degrees of subtlety. At its most elementary, the novel or poem may be analyzed simply in terms of phallic symbols: the assertive male organ or receptive female organ. More usually there is some attempt to see these as the secret embodiment of the author's unconscious desires.

More penetrating is the psycho-biographic approach which seeks to explain an artist's life and work through childhood events, the Oedipus conflict and repression. Sometimes the psychic energy is regarded as the life-force, as in D.H. Lawrence's study of American nineteenth century literature, where a lust for power is attributed to a repressed Puritan conscience. {2} Different again is ego-analysis, which attempts to show that the pleasure of artistic creation and performance lies in the controlled play with primitive material, both artist and audience entering into the process. Art for Kleinians continues the encounter between infant and mother, contentment at the breast and separation, harmony and rebellion: the unconscious creates the form of the artwork through the interaction of artist with medium. {3} Anton Ehrenzweig saw the work of art as a womb which received fragmented projections of the artist's self. {4} Julia Kristeva talks of a "potential space" leading to language acquisition. {5} André Green extended analysis to reader and writer, so involving two sets of conscious and unconscious minds. {6} There are many schools, of varying plausibility, which lead to or become involved in Structuralism or Post-structuralism. {7}

The straightforward psychological approach is unpopular. The New Critics concentrated on textural analysis, and declared biography to be irrelevant. The Poststructuralists believe that authors have less control over their writing (or at least the import of their writing) than is supposed: all that authors can do is manipulate a language fraught with ethnic and political repressions, with indeterminacy and cultural imperialism. Even among traditional critics, psychology has earned itself a bad name by crudely fitting the novel or poem into some straight-jacket of psychoanalysis. The terminology of psychoanalysis is abstruse and/or repugnant. Too many of the psychoanalytic critics have no literary sensibility. {8} More damaging still is the plethora of psychoanalytic theories: all wildly different and all claiming the truth. Perhaps none is acceptable, as psychoanalysis evades scientific testing and has an indifferent therapeutic record.

Examples of Freudian Literary Criticism

Sigmund Freud's Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood (1910)

Edmund Wilson's The Turn of the Screw (1948)

Marie Bonaparte's The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1949)

Henry Murray's In Nomine Diaboli (1951)

Aubrey Williams's The 'Fall' of China in John Dixon Hunt's (Ed.) Pope: The Rape of the Lock (1968)

Maud Ellmann's Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism (1994)

Analysis: Sexual Symbols

Readers may wish to analyze themselves, or their whole body of work, dwelling in particular on obsessions and any favourite or repetitive imagery. But for the limited purposes of this exercise, it may be best to adopt something basic to Freud and start with a crude stocktaking. Suppose we identify (or hazard a guess at, these matters being somewhat conjectural) the imagery of sexual congress and the sexual organs — male and female:

The Architects

But, as you'd expect, they are very
Impatient, the buildings, having much in them
Of the heavy surf of the North Sea, flurrying
The grit, lifting the pebbles, flinging them
With a hoarse roar against the aggregate

They are composed of — the cliffs higher of course,
More burdensome, underwritten as
It were with past days overcast
And glinting, obdurate, part of the
Silicate of tough lives, distant and intricate

As the whirring bureaucrats let in
And settled with coffee in the concrete pallets,
Awaiting the post and the department meeting —
Except that these do not know it, at least do not
Seems to, being busy, generally.

So perhaps it is only on those cloudless, almost
Vacuumed afternoons with tier upon tier
Of concrete like rib-bones packed above them,
And they light-headed with the blue airiness
Spinning around, and muzzy, a neuralgia

Calling at random like frail relations, a phone
Ringing in a distant office they cannot get to,
That they become attentive, or we do — these
Divisions persisting, indeed what we talk about,
We, constructing these webs of buildings which,

Caulked like great whales about us, are always
Aware that some trick of the light or weather
Will dress them as friends, pleading and flailing —
And fill with placid but unbearable melodies
Us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass.

In themselves the identifications tell us very little. But keeping them in mind, we now adopt Freud's approach to dreams and fantasies, employing his four processes of condensation, displacement, representation and secondary revision.

Application: Condensation

In condensation, two or more elements combine in a composite image. The first such image here is buildings. They seem unusually important, indeed the whole poem on one level is about buildings. We learn they have much of the North Sea in them, being composed of aggregates that derive from the land they occupy. That North Sea is somehow oppressive. When the aggregate is heaped up in cliffs, those cliffs become burdensome, underwritten by past days. Not created, note — which is literally true — but in some way guaranteed by past, stormy days. That past, moreover, spreads into and colours the present. It is glinting, obdurate and part of the stony lives of bureaucrats who occupy the levels of our modern buildings, described here as concrete pallets.

The word "silicates" is another composite image. Silicates are minerals making up all rocks except limestones, and thereby enter into the great mass of buildings, even those of glass, which is of course silica. But silicates, which have a complex crystal structure, are also used as an image for the rigid and unfeeling lives (tough, distant and intricate) of the bureaucrats who inhabit the buildings. Not just their inhabitants, moreover, but the buildings themselves are also seen as dead (with tier on tier / Of concrete like rib bones).

Finally, the buildings are regarded as whales, not only large and isolated (Caulked like great whales about us) but taking on their behaviour — their attitudes (pleading and flailing) and their sonic signalling to each other (placid but unbearable melodies).

There are many other condensations, but let us concentrate on those above and ask: what psychological purposes do they serve, i.e. why were they written? The author will initially say that he does not really know: they seemed intriguing at the time, and even now, after extensive analysis, they continue to carry some emotional charge. Attempts to make them more rational and explanatory led to what seemed to be a weakening of the poem.

Perhaps the reason is inaccessible to us. But note the preoccupation with sea and death. The buildings have something of the sea in them, but it is of past days. The bureaucrats' activities are likened to inert minerals. The buildings are described as concrete pallets or as possessing bare rib-bones. Even the whales are doomed animals, pleading and flailing (close to failing). The death instinct seems very strong.

Now look at the sexual symbols. The male symbols (buildings, grit, pebbles, obdurate) all carry something of the detrital, of a resistance to being worn down. They are not permanent or life-enhancing. The female symbols (surf, sea, burdensome, vacuumed, webs, deep, incurved) are again heavy and unregenerative. The images of sexual congress (impatient, flurrying, fill) are certainly not lusty and confident. In all there seems an air of sadness, even dejection, about the poem's symbolism. Only "impatient" runs against this trend, and that impatience, if buildings to reassumed the restless past of their constituents, would end in the buildings shaking themselves to pieces.

Application: Displacement

Why is this? The second of Freud's processes was displacement, whereby an image is replaced by a psychologically more significant one. We have one in the bureaucrats' lives, which are replaced by a silicate frigidity. We have another in vacuumed — the afternoons being not merely clear but evacuated, vacuum-cleaned. And the buildings that metamorphose into whales is perhaps another displacement. Indeed, in some ways, the whole process noted above is an extended displacement — of the useful (buildings), orderly (bureaucrats), structurally necessary (rib-bones) and purposeful (constructing these webs of buildings) by the defeated, the inert, the wearing away to nothing.

Is this symbolism maintained? It seems to be. The bureaucrats are time-wasters (awaiting the post and the department meeting). They are not aware either of the past history of the materials making up their building, or that their own lives are intricate but life-denying. Even the light-headedness of living in high buildings (the bureaucrat's, presumably, or just possibly the personified afternoon's: the syntax is confused) is not exhilarating, but brings on a neuralgia described either as troublesome and inconvenient (Calling at random like frail relations) or pointless (a phone / Ringing in a distant office they cannot get to).

Application: Representation

Now Freud's representation, in which thoughts take the form of images. We have seen that the poem views the world as inert, cyclic and pointless, so that we need to investigate the images employed. Why were they chosen? Are they apt? What deeper psychological need is served by them?

As to the first, the author replies that he cannot remember. The work is unusual for him, but was no doubt an attempt at making the worlds of rocks, natural processes and construction into a poem. There are no early drafts to hand, so that he cannot now see how the work progressed. But very probably it was from the first line, which then lead him into thinking about the constituents of buildings — natural for someone who spent many years as a professional geologist. But that is not a very full answer. The natural world is not necessarily sad. Indeed, for most who study it, even geology is immensely fascinating and invigorating. The trail again ends in matters not understood — unless the author was writing of his dissatisfactions with geology and reasons for leaving it, which is possible.

Are the images apt? If the poem intended was a sort of Arnold's Dover Beach, but without the sustaining power of love, then the answer is surely "no". There is imagery much closer to home than this — more vital, better grasped, impinging more directly on lives. If the poem is an oblique criticism of the stultifying way geology is addressed, then the answer is again "no". The approach is very obscure indeed. But if the poem is an attempt to extend the content of poetry and see the world as the product of forces that carry meaning and emotional significance, then analysis moves to another sphere, to the subject of poetry, where psychoanalysis does not pretend to arbitrate.

Application: Secondary Revision

Freud's fourth process was secondary revision, where the disparate elements are combined into an intelligible, coherent whole. Freud's terminology of course applied to dreams rather than literature, but it is noteworthy that the poem does have a dreamlike quality. The content appears by image association, and there are sudden shifts: from "they" to "we", and from buildings to whales. More pertinently, the need for an intelligible, coherent whole is the old demand for artistic autonomy and form. This fourth requirement is better examined under other approaches: traditional, textural or stylistic criticism. All we need do here is to summarize those findings and note that the poem is unbalanced, unnecessarily dreamlike and requires more suspense in plot and argument.

Conclusions: Suggested Corrections

Psychoanalysis does not have an aesthetic remit. Its claims are for a psychological truth; if a poem seems significant and carries a strong emotional charge, then the poem is operating on the hidden drives of the unconscious. The writer created the work in answer to some deep personal instincts, and the work appeals because it finds similar or equivalent instincts in the reader. There are no corrections indicated by psychoanalysis, only the proviso that the writer must ensure that in correcting along other lines that his corrections do not weaken that appeal. Further than that, of course, he has an obligation to examine what psychoanalytical criticism is suggesting, about his work, and about his fundamental nature.

Some of the shortcomings have been corrected in a new version, now entitled Office Workers.

This and other pages in the Literary Criticism section are now available as a free pdf ebook from Ocaso Press entitled 'Ten Approaches to Literary Criticism'.


1. Elizabeth Wright's Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice (1984), Chapter 17 of David Daiches's Critical Approaches to Literature (1982), and Chapter 3 of Wilfred Guerin at al.'s A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature (1979).
2. DH Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923).
3. Chapter 6 of Wright 1984, and Melanie Klein's Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, 1921-45 (1977).
4. Chapter 6 of Wright 1984, and Anton Ehrenzweig's The Hidden Order of Art: A Study of Psychology of Artistic Imagination (1970).
5. Julia Kristeva's Desire in Language (1980).
6. André Green's The Tragic Effect (1979).
7. Chapters 6-8 in Wright 1984.
8. pp. 120-122 in Guerin et al 1979.

Internet Resources

1. The Mind and the Book: A Long Look at Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism. Norman N. Holland. 1999. Short article presenting a sensible aim for literary criticism.
2. Art's Hidden Order: Ehrenzweig Conference. 1996. List of Ehrenzweig's interests and influences.
3. Definition of Psychoanalytic Criticism.
. Introductory article, with downloadable (pdf) analysis of Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish.
4. Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism. Tom Fish and Jennifer Perkins. Jul. 1999. Short article with links.NNA.
5. Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. Dan Geddes. 2003. Review suggesting that Bloom employs aspects of psychoanalysis in his account of poetic creation.
6. Psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud. Mary Klages. Sep. 2001. Simple, uncritical introduction.
7. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Stephen P. Thornton. 2001. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article outlining difficulties with Freud's theories.
8. The Assault on Freud. Jeremy Holmes. Jun. 1999. Online Dictionary of Mental Health article supporting a modified psychoanalysis.
9. Famous Figures in Psychology. J.W. Nichols. Jun. 2001. Not limited to psychoanalysts.
10. Melanie Klein. Robert M. Young. 2000. Introduction to the woman and her work.
11. 15. 16. Julia Kristeva. Kelly Oliver. 1998. Summary, bibliography and brief listings.
12. Julia Kristeva. Introduction, articles and exerpts.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.