Psychoanalytic Theory

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Psychoanalytic Theory

Florence Dore

Psychoanalytic readings of narrative fiction advance the idea that the novel's most important feature is its depiction of human subjectivity. The psychoanalysts who have most influenced literary studies believe that reading, whether clinical or literary, reveals the unconscious dimension of the human mind in particular. Scholars of the novel who employ psychoanalytic theory, accordingly, presuppose that the principal function of the novel is to describe the unconscious. Psychoanalytic study of the novel can be said to have originated in 1907 by none other than the founder of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud (1856—1939), but psychoanalytic theory did not become established as a preferred method for analyzing novels until the mid-1970s, following the introduction of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's (1901—81) theories into literary studies. In what follows, I will explain why Lacan had such a tremendous influence on novel theory. Lacan is known for his revision of the Freudian conception of the unconscious, and this change in psychoanalytic theory turns out to have overlapped, historically and theoretically, with narratologist Roland Barthes's (1915—80) influential revision of the idea of the author. In the 1970s Lacanian theory was taken up by literary scholars interested in Barthes, and in combination, psychoanalytic theory and narratology created a significant conceptual approach to understanding the novel as a genre (see NOVEL THEORY, 20th C.). Two of the three psychoanalytic readings Dorothy Hale identifies as crucial to the development of novel theory—by literature scholars Peter Brooks (“Turning the Screw of Interpretation”) and Shoshana Felman (“Freud's Masterplot: Questions of Narrative”)—were published in Felman's 1977 collection, Literature and Psychoanalysis. Of these early psychoanalytic readings influenced by Lacan, I will focus on Brooks's to demonstrate the particular version of psychoanalytic theory that would qualify it as a movement in novel theory.

In their elaboration of theories about the human mind over the course of the twentieth century, Freud and Lacan were above all concerned with the clinical redress of neurosis, but each saw the analysis of novels as relevant to this project because both saw the novel as a privileged site for the analysis of the human mind. Freud wrote two studies of novels, “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva” (1907) and “Dostoevsky and Parricide” (1928); and although between 1975 and 1976 Lacan gave a yearlong seminar on James Joyce's novels—published posthumously as Le Sinthome (2005, The Symptom)—he published just one novel analysis during his life, the 1965 “Homage to Marguerite Duras, on Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein.” In each of these readings, we can find versions of the famous declaration by Freud in his reading of Dostoyevsky's Brat'ya Karamazovy (1880, The Brothers Karamazov): “Before the problem of the creative artist, the analysis must, alas, lay down its arms” (“Dostoevsky and Parricide,” 177). Lacan referred to his analysis as “superfluous” to Duras's novel (1998a, 141), and in relation to his reading of Joyce noted his “embarrassment where art—an element in which Freud did not bathe without mishap—is concerned” (1978, ix). Reading novels seems to have clarified for both analysts that the novel's purpose was to describe the human mind, and in each case, the analyst saw himself as striving to achieve with theory what the novelist achieves with writing. These disavowals themselves may seem superfluous, until we consider them from the point of view of novel theory. Freud and Lacan study the human mind, but their statements of insufficiency where novel writers are concerned also implicitly theorize the novel: if novelists are the superior analysts, then novels reveal what psychoanalysis reveals. Although Freud and Lacan understood their readings of novels to be advancing their ideas about human subjectivity, they were, as importantly, contributing to the definition of the novel as principally concerned with those ideas.

The Novel and the Unconscious

Hale describes psychoanalytic theory not as a clinical method but instead as a branch of novel theory in its own right. In her assessment, psychoanalytic theory furthered STRUCTURALIST and poststructuralist theories of the novel; she demonstrates that psychoanalytic theorists drew from and advanced the idea that novels depict, engage, and create what is in effect a Lacanian model of human subjectivity. As she puts it, poststructuralists implicitly theorize the novel as offering a “partial and incomplete” (197) subject, and the influential psychoanalytic studies of the novel in the 1970s take this psychological model as the basis for their readings. This “partial and incomplete” subject Hale identifies turns out to distinguish Lacanian psychoanalytic theory from its Freudian origins, and Lacan's revision altered the way novels are read. This change can be gleaned in the contrast between Freud's reading of the unconscious in Wilhelm Jensen's novel Gradiva (1903) and Lacan's in The Ravishment of Lol V. Stein (1964). Freud's “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva” (1907) suggests that the novel's main character, Norbert Hanold, will find what we might understand as a kind of psychological coherence—what Freud understood as a reasonable view of himself and the world—once his delusion is cured. In particular, Norbert is delusional, Freud says, because he has repressed erotic feelings for his childhood friend Zoe Bertgang; as a result, he can see Zoe only as a statue come to life. For Freud, the image of Pompeii in the novel symbolizes the “disappearance of the past combined with its preservation” (1907, 45) in Norbert's mind, and thus perfectly illustrates the theory of repression. Freud's reading of the novel is based on the postulation that Norbert's unconscious can be plumbed, and it presumes that delusions can be alleviated. In Freud's reading, then, the novel portrays a coherent subject who is temporarily fractured, and in the end restored to himself. In his later analysis of Brat'ya Karamazovy, which he reads as a “confession” (1928, 190), Freud similarly advances this kind of subjective coherence in his assessment of the novel as evidence of the author's masochism—a symptom of a resolvable disturbance in Dostoevsky's unconscious (1928, 178).

By 1977, Brooks and Felman would explicitly oppose this kind of psychoanalytic reading, and advocate instead for what Brooks called a “psychoanalytic criticism of the text itself” (299). The kind of psychoanalytic reading these critics envisioned for novels entailed recognition of an unconscious dimension, but in narrative itself, and both declare the insufficiency of readings that simply extract repressed material from the unconscious of authors, readers, or characters. Brooks offers a brief analysis of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1861) in which he identifies a broad narrative unconscious, one that explicitly replaces an idea of the unconscious in a discrete subject. Brooks's essay compares the Barthean idea that narrative is driven by a desire for meaning at ends to the Freudian death drive, and in making this comparison he theorizes that plot is a force that slows progress to those ends. One basic feature of plot, he observes, is repetition, and Brooks understands narrative repetition as a “binding” (289) of disparate temporal moments that resembles the repetition caused by trauma. In Great Expectations, he argues, a textual desire for the end moves through repetitions of what he describes as the “primal scene” of Pip's “terrifying” encounter with Magwitch (1977, 298). In Freud's conception of the primal scene (1918, 1925, “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis,” Complete Works 17), the analysand's delusional fear of wolves is a symptom of his repressed sexual identifications, but for Brooks the primal scene is an effect of the structural operations that create both narrative and life. Brooks does identify the primal scene as involving a discrete subject, Pip, but here the primal scene is simply an occasion for the discharge of an “energy” (298) that precedes and generates the character, Pip. To perform the new, preferred kind of psychoanalytic criticism in a reading of Dickens's novel, according to Brooks, the kind that avoids finding an unconscious in characters, readers, or authors, one has to “show how the energy released in [Great Expectations] by its liminary ’primal scene’ subsequently bound in a number of desired but unsatisfactory ways” (298). For Brooks as for Freud, repetition is a form of mastery, but in the new kind of psychoanalytic reading, it must not be understood as the character's attempt to master trauma. In accordance with Brooks' theoretical refusal of coherent subjectivity, he sees repetition as instead a mastery belonging to a disembodied, abstract agent—what both he and Felman understand as “text.”

A Psychoanalytic Narratology

Brooks argued that the “possibility of a psychoanalytic criticism” would now rely on “the superimposition of the model of the functioning of the mental apparatus on the functioning of the text” (300). But why did he think that psychoanalytic criticism would be impossible without his intervention? What has happened to invalidate psychoanalytic readings of novels that discover the unconscious in characters and authors? One reason psychoanalytic readings no longer seemed valid to Brooks is that he was also influenced by one of the inventors of narrative theory, the structuralist Roland Barthes. In S/Z, his 1970 reading of Honoré de Balzac's novel Sarrasine (1830), Barthes redefines the novel as text, and evokes a domain of signification that resembles the unconscious Brooks sees as preceding authors, characters, and readers. Hale explains that structuralist narratology, the “science” of reading narrative that Barthes was largely responsible for inventing, “builds itself around” the “linguistic law” (193) identified by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857—1913), and she clarifies that narratology emerged as “the logical next step in the Saussurian project” (189). For Barthes, indeed, it is the structural operations of signification defined by Saussure that allow for his definition of the novel as a “galaxy of signifiers” (1974, 5), and we can find traces of this emphasis on linguistic law in Brooks's reading of Great Expectations. Among the repetitions Brooks identifies in Dickens's novel, significantly, is the palindrome in the name Pip: “Each of Pip's choices...while consciously life-furthering, forward oriented, in fact leads back, to the insoluble question of origins, to the palindrome of his name” (298). Brooks sees the repetition of psychoanalysis as emanating from the same circularity that snares the character's “consciously life-furthering” choices, those forward movements that actually lead backward. This repetition, for Brooks, is an operation generated by the laws of language identified by Saussure—operations that can be identified even at the level of the name, Pip. For Barthes, moreover, the new structuralist idea of the novel as text entails a recognition of the author as similarly a collection of signifiers—as in this sense “dead.” Writing, he argues, is “a neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (1974, 142). What Barthes called the “death of the author,” we might say, can be understood as the birth of language, and it turns out to have coincided with the death of the coherent Freudian subject. Brooks perceived older modes of psychoanalytic criti-cism as no longer tenable because he embraced these ideas.

The advent of what I will call psychoanalytic narratology, the theoretical model of psychoanalytic reading I have been tracing in Brooks, came from an apparent perception among literary scholars that Lacan and Barthes were theorizing the same thing. And, in point of fact, psychoanalysis was revolutionized by the same Saussurean ideas that fueled the creation of narratology. It was the theoretical compatibility of these two projects that led to the establishment of psychoanalytic theory as a preferred mode for understanding the novel. Like Barthes, Lacan was heir to Saussure's ideas, but if for the narratologist linguistics offered a way to reimagine the author, for Lacan it provided the theoretical basis for a sweeping redefinition of the human subject. And Brooks's narratological reading of linguistic repetition in the novel is clearly indebted to Lacan, who himself similarly emphasized puns in his reading of Joyce's Finnegans Wake (2005). We can see the compatibility of these approaches in a comparison of “Death of the Author,” Barthes's landmark essay of 1968, and Lacan's “Signification of the Phallus,” first given as a lecture ten years earlier. Barthes's theory of the text is rooted in the belief that language creates the author—not the other way around—and the Lacanian conception of the incoherent subject relies on the same reversal. As for Barthes, “it is language that speaks, not the author” (1974, 143), so for Lacan, it is “not only man who speaks, but in man and through man that it [ça] speaks” (2007, 578). For both of these theorists subjectivity emanates from language, and for Lacan this meant that the unconscious is an aspect of the subject's irresolvably alienated, incoherent condition.

Turning now to Lacan's analysis of Duras's novel, we can see how his theoretical model of subjectivity leads to the kind of novelistic reading Brooks preferred. Cautioning against what he terms the analytic “pedantry” of postulating an authorial unconscious (1998a, “Homage,” 138), Lacan finds in Duras's novel instead the linguistic structure that generates all subjects—Duras, his reader, her reader, himself. Because Lacan understands all of these subjects to exist in a common linguistic realm, his reading identifies not repressed material in the unconscious of a single subject, but the laws structuring all. In his analysis of Lol's dress, this perception leads Lacan to figure his own reading as a “thread” (1998a, 139) that will “unravel” something in the novel, and to suggest that he pulls this “thread” from a “knot” involving the reader (ibid.). Because his reading of the dress is a “thread,” and because readers are implicated in the “knot” he unravels, all subjects relevant to his reading can be understood to inhabit the same quasi-fictional dimension as Lol's dress. Quite unlike Pompeii, Freud's image of burial that makes of the unconscious a depth, the dress is for Lacan a cover into which analysis itself collapses, and in his reading depth is altogether eradicated. Lacan asks: “What is to be said about that evening, Lol, in all your passion of nineteen years, so taken with your dress which wore your nakedness, giving it brilliance?” (ibid.). Here, in the reversal—the dress wears the naked body instead of the other way around—Lacan intimates the idea of subjectivity that we might identify as the most basic feature of psychoanalytic reading after Saussure. In Freud's reading, the unveiling of Norbert's unconscious undoes his delusion, and he thus returns to a coherent version of himself. In Lacan's reading, characters emerge as instead constitutively defined by that which seems to cover their inmost depths—and the idea that such a return to coherence might be possible is the delusion. For psychoanalytic critics who follow in Lacan's wake, the novel's function is to reveal this fracture, to identify in the novel the same linguistic operations that generate human subjects. In the conception of the novel that Lacan and Barthes inaugurated, authors emerge as beings who are, if dead, somehow also especially attuned to the operations of language, and therefore, it seems, to humanity itself.


1. Barthes, R. (1974), S/Z, trans. R. Miller.

2. Barthes, R. (1977), “Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text.

3. Brooks, P. (1977), “Turning the Screw of Interpretation,” in Literature and Psychoanalysis, ed. S. Felman.

4. Felman, S., ed. (1977; 1982), Literature and Psychoanalysis.

5. Freud, S. (1907 German [1917 English]), “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva,” in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. J. Strachey, vol. 9.

6. Freud, S. (1908 German [1925 English]), “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. J. Strachey, vol. 9.

7. Freud, S. (1928 German [1929 English]), “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. J. Strachey, vol. 21.

8. Girard, R. (1965), Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.

9. Hale, D.J., ed. (2006), Novel.

10. Irwin, J.T. (1975), Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge.

11. Jameson, F. (1981), Political Unconscious.

12. Jones, E. (1949), Hamlet and Oedipus.

13. Lacan, J. (1978), Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. J.-A. Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan.

14. Lacan, J. (1998), “Homage to Marguerite Duras, on Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein,” in Critical Essays on Marguerite Duras, ed. B.L. Knapp, trans. P. Connor.

15. Lacan, J. (1998), The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XX: Encore 1972—1973, trans. B. Fink.

16. Lacan, J. (2005), Seminaire XXIII, ed. J.-A. Miller.

17. Lacan, J. (2007), “Signification of the Phallus,” in Écrits, trans. B. Fink.

18. Lydon, M. (1998), “ The Forgetfulness of Memory,” Contemporary Literature 29(3): 351—68.