Psychological Approach

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The psychological approach has been one of the most productive forms of literary inquiry in the twentieth century. Developed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his followers, psychological criticism has led to new ideas about the nature of the creative process, the mind of the artist, and the motivation of characters.

Freud’s principal ideas are essential to an understanding of modern literature and criticism. Although the works of Freud consist of many complex volumes, there are four main ideas that have been so influential that it is hard to believe they were not always with us.

The Unconscious

According to Freud, human beings are not conscious of all their feelings, urges, and desires because most of the mental life is unconscious. Freud compared the mind to an iceberg: only a small portion is visible; the rest is below the waves of the sea. Thus, the mind consists of a small conscious portion and a vast unconscious portion.


Observing the conservative, prudish upper middle classes of the late nineteenth century, Freud came to the conclusion that society demands restraint, order, and respectability and that individuals are forced to repress the libidinous and aggressive drives. These repressed desires, however, emerge in dreams and in art. The artist and the dreamer are both creators; both have a need to express themselves by creating beautiful or terrifying images and narratives. But the lust and aggression may not be represented directly. This leads to the use of symbols and subtexts in dreams and literature.

The Tripartite Psyche

We know this symbolically as the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. Freud developed his psychoanalytic theory around three principles: the ego, the id, and the superego. The ego is conscious and represents the face we share with the world. This part of the mind interacts with the environment and with other people in social situations. As the conscious waking self, the ego is reasonable, sane, and mature. The id is unconscious and is comprised of the basic drives of hunger, thirst, pleasure and aggression. The id is removed from reality, that is, from the outer world of society and environment. The id is the mind of the infant, demanding instant gratification, incapable of tolerating the delayed gratification that makes the ego socially acceptable. At first, Freud thought that the id had only one principle, the pleasure principle, also known as the libido or sex drive. However, he found he could not account for aggression, violence, and self-destructiveness without postulating a second principle, the aggressive drive, also known as the death wish. The superego is the final part of the tripartite psyche. Representing parentally instilled moral attitudes, the superego may seem to look like the conscience. Like the id, however, the superego is largely unconscious. Sometimes the superego is thought to represent an idealized image towards which the ego strives. During the normal course of development an individual gains a balanced, healthy ego that handles the demands for instant gratification that are part of the id with the demands for conforming to proper belief structures that are part of the superego.

The novel, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevens represents the concrete example of the individual who struggles to balance the id and superego. Perhaps we can also look at Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker as a similar “Jekyl and Hyde” character. One person seems to inhabit two extreme personality types. One personality type is driven by impulses and aggression (Mr. Hyde and Darth Vader) and the other is concerned with creating a better world (Dr. Jekyl and Anakin).

Consider the characters that you have read in literature. Are their personalities completely balanced and healthy? Or does one character have a stronger id or a stronger superego?

Consider television shows. Examine the characters in Modern Family. Which character is concerned with being right and doing the correct thing because it is ultimately important to be your very best for your family and society? Which character/s seem to give into their childish impulses? Apply this exercise to any television show or movie.

The Oedipus Complex

In Greek mythology, Oedipus was King of Thebes who, having been abandoned in childhood and consequently ignorant of his own identity, unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. In describing the psychosexual development of children, Freud analyzed the powerful feelings that develop between mother and son. Freud believed that boys develop strong attractions to their mothers during the phallic period (2-6) with a corresponding rivalry developing between the boy and his father. Usually these conflicts are resolved as the boy matures and develops love interests outside the home, but some neuroses of adult life are supposed to result from insufficiently resolved Oedipal conflicts.

The Oedipus Complex has been very controversial and some psychoanalysts have modified or reject it. Alfred Adler, one of Freud’s pupils, reinterpreted the Oedipus Complex when he developed his own theory of the Inferiority Complex. Adler believed that the primary motivation for human beings is not the libido, as Freud has posited, but the will to have power and the confusion for gaining power. For Adler, then, the Oedipus Complex is essentially a power struggle between the boy and the father, in which the boy tries to overcome feeling of inferiority by successfully capturing the mother’s attention.

Consider the following:

Which Shakespearian play involves a young prince who struggles with his feelings regarding his mother? This young prince is often compared to Oedipus.

Can you think of any Disney movies that deal with a young male character in conflict with feelings regarding his father?

Other Psychologists:

The psychological approach in literature focuses on the motivation of the character. For instance, what motivates the different characters in the novel, Seedfolks? What motivates Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart? All of these characters have very different life experiences that develop who they are and the face that they share with the world.

Freud was not the only psychologist to offer insight into personality and character motivaton. Other psychologists have created theories that help understand why people behave the way they do. Consider the following psychologists.

Alfred Adler:

Birth order was significant to Adler. He felt that the manner in which you are coddled or the manner in which you are treated has a significant impact on your success as an adult. Adler also felt that based on young experiences, children develop a narrative about who they are and they live out this narrative. Think about the character, Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird. What would Alfred Adler say about her?

Carl Rogers:

Examining Self was critical to Rogers. He believed that a healthy person had a closely linked Ideal Self and Real Self. If a person had a significant discrepancy between the Ideal Self and Real Self then the individual would have an unhealthy self image and personality. While it is normal to attempt to live up to your “ideal person” –it is critical to understand your limitations and the “real” strengths and weaknesses in your personality. Consider the story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or The Necklace. In both cases, the main character has an unhealthy view of their “Real” self and act under the illusion that they actually are existing as their “ideal” selves.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs helps explain how a person’s ability to be emotionally secure is linked with having a strong, secure foundation that includes a safe home environment and food. Once the basics of life are secure, then a person can advance to a belonging stage and then it is possible for an individual to work toward a state of Self-Actualization .

Consider the characters that you have read about in literature or that you have seen in movies. Where would you place the characters on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Where would you place Atticus? Where would you place George from Of Mice and Men? Can you identify textual evidence to support the level you identified?

B.F. Skinner:

Skinner was a behaviorist known for developing his theories involving reinforcers. He felt that individual personality was formed based on positive and negative reinforcers and that using positive and negative reinforcement could alter an individual’s behavior. Skinner was quoted as saying: “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” What do you think he means? Can you think of a character in literature who was a product of either positive or negative reinforcement? Consider what is learned about Boo in the first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird. Consider what Scout learns during her first days in school. What time of reinforcement does the teacher use with Scout? How does Scout react? What type of reinforcement does Atticus use with Scout? How does Scout react to Atticus?

Common Questions for the Psychological Approach:

  • What motivates the characters’ actions?

  • What is the nature of the creative process that led to this literature?

  • How do the theories of various psychologists apply to the plot or characters?

  • What level of Maslow’s hierarchy is motivating the actions of various characters?

  • How does the family dynamic play out in the plot and character relationships?

  • Which psychological theory can be applied to the characters?

  • Is there evidence of the unconscious, repression or the tripartite psyche?

  • Are any of the characters demonstrating a particular complex?

  • What is the nature of the interpersonal relationships among the characters?

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