Psychoanalytic literary criticism can simply be defined as an approach to literature which aims to apply some of the techniques of psychoanalysis in the interpretation of literary works. The psychological principles which are used in Psychoanalytic literary criticism were mainly developed by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Psychoanalytic criticism adopts the methods of "reading" employed by Freud and later theorists to interpret texts. It argues that literary texts, like dreams, express the secret unconscious desires and anxieties of the author, that a literary work is a manifestation of the author's own neuroses. One may psychoanalyze a particular character within a literary work, but it is usually assumed that all such characters are projections of the author's psyche.
The key concepts which are used in Psychoanalytic criticism include but not limited to unconscious, repression, sublimation, super-ego, id, Infantile sexuality, Oedipus complex, libido, oral, anal, and phallic, transference, projection, Freudian slip, dream work, displacement ,etc.
All of Freud’s work depends upon the notion of the unconscious, which is the part of the mind beyond consciousness which nevertheless has a strong influence upon our actions. Freud was not the discoverer of the unconscious: his uniqueness lies in his attributing to it such a decisive role in our lives. Linked with this is the idea of repression, which is the ‘forgetting’ or ignoring of unresolved conflicts, unadmitted desires, or traumatic past events, so that they are forced out of conscious awareness and into the realm of the unconscious. A similar process is that of sublimation, whereby the repressed material is ‘promoted’ into something grander or is disguised as something ‘noble’. For instance, sexual urges may be given sublimated expression in the form of intense religious experiences or longings.
Later in his career Freud suggested a three-part, rather than a two- part, model of the psyche, dividing it into the ego, the super-ego and the diatheses three ‘levels’ of the personality roughly corresponding to, respectively, the consciousness, the conscience, and the unconscious. Many of Freud’s ideas concern aspects of sexuality. Infantile sexuality, for instance, is the notion that sexuality begins not at puberty, with physical maturing, but in infancy, especially through the infant’s relationship with the mother. Concerned with this is the Oedipus complex, whereby, says Freud, the male infant conceives the desire of eliminate the father and become the sexual partner of the mother. Many forms of inter-generational conflict are seen by Freudians as having Oedipal overtones, such as professional rivalries, often viewed in Freudian terms as reproducing the competition between siblings for parental favor. Another key idea is that of the libido, which is the energy drive associated with sexual desire. In classic Freudian theory it has three stages of focus, the oral, the anal, and the phallic. The libido in the individual is part of a more generalized drive which the later Freud called Eros(the Greek word of ‘love’),which roughly means the life instinct, the opposite of which is Thanatos (the Greek word for ‘death’),which roughly means the death instinct, a controversial notion, of course.
Several key terms concern what might be called psychic processes, such as transference, the phenomenon whereby the patient under analysis redirects the emotions recalled in analysis towards the psychoanalyst: thus, the antagonism or resentment felt towards a parental figure in the past might be reactivated, but directed against the analyst. Another such mechanism is projection, when aspects of ourselves(usually negative ones)are not recognized as part of ourselves but are perceived in our attributed to another, our own desires or antagonisms, for instance, may be ‘disowned’ in this way. Both these might be seen as defense mechanisms, that is, as psychic procedures for avoiding painful admissions or recognitions. Another such is the screen memory, which is a trivial or inconsequential memory whose function is to obliterate a more significant one. A well-known example of these mechanisms is the Freudian slip, which Freud himself called the ‘parapraxis’, whereby repressed material in the unconscious finds an outlet through such everyday phenomena as slips of the tongue, slips of the pen, or unintended actions.
A final example of important Freudian terminology is the dream work, the process by which real events or desires are transformed into dream images. These include: displacement, whereby one person or event is represented by another which is in some way linked or associated with it, perhaps because of a similar-sounding word, or by some form of symbolic substitution; and condensation, whereby a number of people, events, or meanings are combined and represented by a single image in the dream.
Thus, characters, motivation, and events are represented in dreams in a very ‘literary’ way, involving translation, by the dream work, of abstract ideas or feelings into concrete images. Dreams, just like literature, do not actually make explicit statements. Both tend to communicate obliquely or indirectly, avoiding direct or open statement, and representing meanings through concrete embodiments of time, place, or person.
Jacques Lacan, another post-Freudian psychoanalytic theorist, focused on language and language-related issues. Lacan treats the unconscious as a language; consequently, he views the dream not as Freud did (that is, as a form and symptom of repression) but rather as a form of discourse. Thus we may study dreams psychoanalytically in order to learn about literature, even as we may study literature in order to learn more about the unconscious. Lacan also revised Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex—the childhood wish to displace the parent of one’s own sex and take his or her place in the affections of the parent of the opposite sex—by relating it to the issue of language. He argues that the pre-oedipal stage is also a preverbal or “mirror stage,” a stage he associates with the imaginary order. He associates the subsequent oedipal stage—which roughly coincides with the child’s entry into language—with what he calls the symbolic order, in which words are not the things they stand for but substitutes for those things. The imaginary order and the symbolic order are two of Lacan’s three orders of subjectivity, the third being the real, which involves intractable and substantial things or states that cannot be imagined, symbolized, or known directly (such as death).
Thus, all psychoanalytic approaches to literature have one thing in common—the critics begin with a full psychological theory of how and why people behave as they do, a theory that has been developed by a psychoanalyst outside of the realm of literature, and they apply this psychological theory as a standard to interpret and evaluate a literary work.