Attempting a psychoanalytic reading of a given text is a bit like attempting to understand a city by examining its sewer system: helpful, yet limited.

There are several reasons for using psychoanalysis as a critical literary theory; the critic might be interested in gleaning some sort of subconscious authorial intent, approaching the text as a "cathartic documentation" (my own term) of the author's psyche; the method might be useful in judging whether characters are well-rendered, whether they are truly three-dimensional and, therefore, worth our while as readers (thus satisfying the pleasure principle); finally, in a larger sense, the psychoanalytic approach can be employed to actually tell us something about our own humanity, by examining the relative continuity (or lack thereof) of basic Freudian theories exemplified in written works over the course of centuries.

If we are indeed scouring the text for what I call "cathartic documentation," we must, at the outset, look at the period in which the work was written. Pre-Freudian works, that is to say those poems, plays, short stories, and novels written before the late 19th century, are the major candidates for success with this approach. However, 20th century works, beginning with the modernist authors, pose a problem. How are we to be sure that the writer is not consciously playing with Freud's theories, perhaps even deliberately expanding and distorting them for additional effect? Herein lies the problem with Hedda Gabler: The play was written at roughly the same time that Freud was just beginning to publish his theories. The question is "who influenced whom?" Obviously Freud was taken with Ibsen's realizations of certain fundamental ideas which were to be the foundation of his (Freud's) work: repression, neurosis, paranoia, Oedipal complex, phallic symbols, and so on; all of these factors are present in Hedda Gabler. The question remains, however, whether Ibsen had caught wind of Freud's work and decided to utilize it in the play. Perhaps I am wrong, but having read A Doll's House and An Enemy of the People, both earlier works by some ten years, Hedda Gabler seems to embody Freudian concepts to so much farther an extent that the possibility of a conscious effort to create Freudian neurotic types and set them loose on one another does not seem altogether outside the realm of possibility.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, however, Ibsen has created extremely well-developed characters. Psychoanalytic criticism shows us this fact more clearly than we might "consciously" have recognized from a mere casual reading or viewing of Hedda Gabler. By applying Freudian theories to the characters, we discover that they are manifesting pre-defined behavior patterns that we can go on to compare to our own, thus establishing a connection between fiction and reality. The more a reader or an audience can relate to, or at the very least recognize, a given character via familiar neuroses, the more impact, the more "meaning" that character provides. In this way, psychoanalysis is a positive boon, both for writer and reader.

In my opinion, the most important feature of psychoanalytical criticism is what it does for us when we expand its theories. Freud himself was ultimately concerned with applying the same approaches used in relation to the individual to the society as a whole. This aim can be taken up in literary criticism by utilizing Freudian and post-Freudian psychology to look at literature over the course of history, as well as applying it to various world societies. Admittedly, Freud's theories are specialized and limited, pertaining mainly to western, patriarchal, industrialized societies, and clearly there will be instances in which, due to differing cultural norms, they simply don't work. Yet this, too, is beneficial. The chief aim of the scientific method is to, as it were, disprove itself; that is to say, to question continually the validity of a given scientific approach until every hole is found and mended, every inconsistency recognized and accounted for. So even when psychoanalysis fails, it still teaches us something. Any theory that succeeds in shedding some light, even when it fails, is worthy of consideration as far as I am concerned.

Therefore, in summing up, it should be stated that psychoanalysis, although it has its problems, has much to recommend it as a mode of literary criticism. While it may be at times vague, limited, untestable, and not applicable in all situations, yet it provides insight into the mind of the author, can contribute to the fleshing-out of characters, and can point to larger societal issues. The use of psychoanalysis in moderation, avoiding rigorous dogmatism, is an effective method of finding meaning, deep, dark, subconscious, perhaps neurotic meaning, in the pages of what we call sublimated is, literature.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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