The psychoanalytical literary lens was built on and developed from the work of the famous psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. Freud began his work in the 1880’s when he tried to treat behavioral disorders by helping patients talk through their problems. From his studies and treatments he came to believe that the actions of humans are ultimately ruled by their subconscious. Freud argued that humans are driven by desires, fears, needs, and conflicts of the subconscious, of which they are completely unaware (Brizee, Tompkins). In order to keep the conflict buried in the subconscious humans develop defenses such as selective memory, displacement, denial, irrational fears, and many others (Brizee, Tompkins).

Freud determined that there are three parts that make up the unconscious that fight for control as we grow (Brizee, Tompkins). The first of the three is called the id, which includes the basic human drives such as hunger, aggression, and sex. The second is called the superego, which is associated with morality and constantly opposes the id. The superego is formed from morals learned from society and family, and is responsible for judgment. The final part is called the ego, which is constantly in conflict, works to balance the id and the superego.

The Psychoanalytical lens directly applies psychology and psychoanalysis to literature, dreams, artwork, and many other types of text. Psychoanalytic literary critics apply the work or Sigmund Freud and others to texts to ultimately analyze the author. This lens views texts as the unconscious desires and conflicts of the author. Characters are also analyzed through this lens but are also considered to be another part of the author’s repressed inner conflicts (Brizee, Tompkins). Often the authors own inner experiences are hidden in the text and are indirectly shown through various symbols. The overall goal is to find unresolved conflicts and issues to understand the text and the author better.

Notable Scholars

Sigmund Freud: The Father of Psychology


“It is a mistake to believe that a science consists in nothing but conclusively proved propositions, and it is unjust to demand that it should. It is a demand only made by those who feel a craving for authority in some form and a need to replace the religious catechism by something else, even if it be a scientific one. Science in its catechism has but few apodictic precepts; it consists mainly of statements which it has developed to varying degrees of probability. The capacity to be content with these approximations to certainty and the ability to carry on constructive work despite the lack of final confirmation are actually a mark of the scientific habit of mind." — Freud

One could not begin to talk about psychoanalysis without mentioning the "father of psychology" Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist, who is without a doubt the most famous psychologist to date. He earned his degree from the University of Vienna in 1881 (Boeree). Freud developed theories on the unconscious and how it plays a vital role in people’s lives. Freud argued that understanding the unconscious mind was crucial in understanding the conscious mind (Boeree). He attempted to cure patients suffering from hysteria by helping them understand their unconscious conflicts and then talking through them. Freud determined that hysteria and mental illnesses were caused by unresolved traumas that occurred early in life. Freud said these unresolved traumas were due to repression, which is the act of unconsciously burying issues in the psyche and leaving them unresolved (Boeree). Freud’s work is often criticized, but when people disagree with his work they always compare their work to his. This is because he was the most influential figure in psychology and his work was the basis for clinical psychology. Freud’s developments in psychoanalysis and the inner workings of the human mind paved the way for future psychologists. Freud died in September of 1939 but his work was continued and developed by his students and colleagues like Alfred Adler and Carl Jung (Boeree).

Carl Gustav Jung


"Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar's gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart throught the world. There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul." — Carl Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist who studied at the University of Basel and University of Zurich (Boeree). Jung spent much of his time during and after graduate school working at an insane asylum in Zurich. Jung’s experiences at the asylum helped to develop his theories and ideals of unconscious mind (Boeree). In 1900, Jung’s studies of schizophrenia led him to meet Sigmund Freud, they became good friends. Jung and Freud traveled together attending lectures and meeting others interested in psychology. Jung and Freud eventually parted ways due to Jung’s disagreement of Freud’s ideas of sexuality being the main drive of the unconscious (Boeree). After his disagreement with Freud Jung spent many years traveling all over the world studying all types of native people. After his time abroad Jung began to develop his own theories which he called analytical psychology (Boeree). He built off of Freud’s theory of the unconscious and came up with the idea of the collective unconscious. Jung defined it as the cumulative experiences and knowledge of our species that are ingrained in us when we are born that we will never be conscious of. Jung argued that the collective unconscious was composed of archetypes which are the unlearned tendencies we have to experience life in certain ways. Ultimately archetypes are roles or symbols that we can recognize to help us understand relationships (Boeree). One example is the mother archetype, Jung says that before we are born we expect to have a mother and from her we are shown the role of a mother. Jung is also very famous for his work in the development of personalities and he coined the terms introversion and extroversion. His work was deemed to be so revealing of personality types that it was used to develop the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is a test that determines personality types (Boeree). Jung’s Freudian roots and his new developments made him one of the most influential psychologists even though his work is often criticized.

Jacques Lacan


Jacques-Marie-Emile Lacan (1901-1981) was a French psychiatrist and doctor who spent most of his life giving lectures on his theories. Lacan is known for his return to Freudian thinking, although his work differed from Freud’s work the basis of his ideals were very similar. Lacan viewed the entirety of the human unconscious to be structured like language (Ross). The whole of Lacanian psychology is a three part union of what Lacan called the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary orders, which rely heavily on the development of language (Ross).


The real is the state of nature which is ended once we learn language, and is ultimately a time of basic needs for a child (Ross). The next order is the imaginary order, which is characterized by the mirror stage. The mirror stage is when an infant identifies its own image, which triggers the construction of the ego (Ross). Lacan argues that the imaginary is responsible for imagination, deception, and is the middle ground between the real and symbolic. The imaginary was believed by Lacan to be a continuous part of life and played a major part in shaping who we ultimately become The third order is the symbolic order, which is mainly about language and the structures of society (Ross). This part of Lacan’s order teaches us about society and laws through metaphors and symbols. This process creates the individual or self and is the primary functioning order after it begins (Ross). Lacans work has played a vital role in feminism and psychological theories but his work has also been criticized by many in his field. Despite the criticism Lacan has still had a large impact on the development of psychology and philosophy.

Examples in Text

Daddy by Sylvia Plath

A true example of an unresolved “Elektra Complex” , as an example in psychoanalysis in literature, can be seen in author Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy”, of which she wrote in 1962, a year before she committed suicide (Plath). The biographical poem deals with the author’s own unresolved Elektra Complex of which stemmed from the lifelong anger and resentment the author felt for her father when he passed away when she was eight years old. It is written at en equally difficult time of Plath’s life- when her husband had recently divorced her, and left her with those familiar painful feelings of emotional abandonment.


During the phase the Elektra Complex originates from, females idealize their fathers because their fathers are said to be their first and most impressionable link to the opposite sex, and are equated to all women’s first true loves (Cherry). Plath displays this aspect of her unresolved Elektra Complex in lines 8, 9 and 10, when she describes her father to be “marble-heavy, a bag full of God/Ghastly statue with one gray toe/Big as a Frisco seal.” The man was god to her, idealized, omnificent, and omnipresent. In line 14 she writes “I used to pray to recover you”, which emphasizes the idealized feelings she had. She prayed to her own father who was her “god” to bring himself back to her.
She wrote these lines from the piece of her mind where she was still a young girl who thought her father was capable of anything including self- resurrection.

Throughout the poem Plath clearly struggles with the fact that she never moved on from her unresolved issues and she writes about how she attemped to cope. Line 6, where she wrote “Daddy, I have had to kill you” shows that she tried to move past her complex. However, in line 7 she wrote “you died before I had time” which means that she was never able to. Then in lines 56-59, she writes “I was ten when they buried you/at twenty I tried to die/and get back, back, back to you”. She tried to kill herself at age 20 to get back to her father, which tells the reader that even 12 years after her father’s death, and 14 years after her “phallic phase” should have ended she was still developmentally halted. Her suicide attempt wasn’t a success, nor was it the resolution of her complex, so next she tried to resolve her conflicts by replacing her father with her husband.

A woman desiring to marry her father is a key element in the Elektra Complex concept (Cherry). Plath exposes this in lines 69-71 when she writes “I made a model of you/A man in black with a Meinkampf look/and a love of the rack and the screw and I said I do, I do.” The final example of how the Elektra Complex is prevalent when looking at a text through the psychoanalytic lens, is by looking at the overall appearance of the poem itself. Is written in couplets of five, and is nursery rhyme-like in tone, which gives an overpowering but also an underdeveloped tone to it. Both of these qualities in themselves are also much like Plath’s unresolved conflicts with her father. Further giving the reader a deeper psychoanalytic perspective into the mind of the author and the issues she faced.


Boeree, George C. "Sigmund Freud." Personality Theories. George C. Boeree, 1997. Web. 25 Jan. 2011. <>.

Boeree, George C. "Carl Jung." Personality Theories. George C. Boeree, 1997. Web. 25 Jan. 2011. <>.

Brizee, Allen, and J. C. Tompkins. "Psychoanalytic Criticism (1930's-present)." Purdue Online Writing Lab. Purdue University, 2005. Web. 25 Jan. 2011. <>.

Cherry, Kendra. "Electra Complex - What Is the Electra Complex." Psychology - Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts. Web. 02 Mar. 2011. <>.

Plath, Sylvia. "Daddy - Sylvia Plath." Poets. Web. 02 Mar. 2011. <>.

Ross, Stephen. "Lacan." A Very Brief Introduction to Lacan. 2002. Web. 26 Feb. 2011. <>.