Psychoanalytic Study of Literature


An Introduction to Psychoanalytic Study of Literature

by Dianne M. Hunter, Emeritus Professor of English, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, USA

This independent-study course introduces a theory of literature based on Sigmund Freud’s models of dreaming and daydreaming as analogues for the transformative dynamics of literary responses.

Centered on a psychoanalytic theory of dreaming, this course leads from Sigmund Freud’s model of dream processes into a general theory of mind and psychosexual development. The psychology of unconscious mind theorized by Freud and the theory of ego psychology summarized by Erik Erikson provide the groundwork for analyzing literary transformations of unconscious fantasies toward meanings.  The readings below add up to a theory of literature as a transitional object in transitional space where fantasies can be transformed toward meanings in a way that is analogous to Freud’s idea that dreams are disguised attempts to fulfill unconscious wishes stemming from childhood pleasures and fears.

A list of readings is followed by a thematic guide for working through them and a series of desired results. The guide moves from the psychology of the unconscious (Freud, Jones), through ego psychology (Erikson), to object relations theory (Winnicott) and psychoanalytic feminism (Gardiner).


Erikson, Erik H., Childhood and Society (New York: Norton, 1950).

—–, “The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (1954) 2: 5–56; reprinted in Psychoanalytic      Psychiatry and Psychology, Ed. Robert P. Knight New York: International             Universities Press([1954]1970); and in A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers, Ed. Stephen Schlein (New York: Norton, 1987.

Evans, G. B. et al., Eds. The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

Gardiner, Judith Kegan, “Mind Mother,” in G. Greene and C. Kahn, Eds. Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism (London: Methuen, 1985).

Holland, Norman N., “Literary Interpretation and Three Phases of Psychoanalysis,” Critical Inquiry (Winter 1976): 221–233.

—–. Poems in Persons (New York: Norton, 1973).

—–. Psychoanalysis and         Shakespeare (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).

—–. The Dynamics of Literary Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).

Hunter, Dianne M., “Hamlet‘s Hysterical Form,” Literature and Psychology, Ed. F. Pereira (Lisbon: ISPA, [1999] 2001);

Jones, Ernest. Hamlet and Oedipus (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1949).

Knight, R., Ed. Psychoanalytic Psychiatry and Psychology (New York: International Universities Press, 1954).

Schlein, Stephen, Ed. A Way of Looking at Things (N.Y.: Norton, 1987).

Schwartz, Murray M., “Where is Literature,” College English (March 1975): 756-765.

Shapiro, David. Neurotic Styles (New York: Basic Books, 1965).

Strachey, James, Trans. and Ed. Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1955).

Waelder, Robert, “The Principle of Multiple Function: Observations          on Overdetermination,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly V (1936): 45–62.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1971).


Reading Guide to the Unfolding Concepts:

Start with Freud’s An Autobiographical Study, and his essays “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” (Strachey IX) and “The ‘Uncanny'” (Strachey XVII) for an overview of his career and the development of his ideas. Notice the differences between the Freudian aesthetic in the 1908 essay on daydreaming and the essay on the uncanny, written more than a decade later.  In what way has Freud’s concept of reality changed between 1908 and post-World War I?

Closely read chapters II–VI of The Interpretation of Dreams. Chapter I presents a general sense of the historical context out of which Freud is working, and chapter VII sets out Freud’s distinction between primary and secondary process thinking, and explains his complex model of the mind. Chapter VII is of speculative interest, but note the summary of Freud’s theory of the entire course of dream formation on the first two pages of chapter VII, section D. Commit this summary to memory.

In reading chapter II, concentrate on the Irma injection dream, a seminal event for the creation of psychoanalysis. What does Freud leave out of his analysis?  Do his omissions have a rhetorical basis?  To what use is Freud putting the Irma dream at this point in the book?   In later chapters, Freud says dreams are rooted in childhood wishes.  What childhood wishes do you think inform the Irma dream?

Essential themes of The Interpretation of Dreams are (1) the wish–fulfillment theory, (2) the existence of the unconscious as an aspect of the human mind, (3) the dream–work, the transformations that make the dream accessible to perception.

Freud sees dreams as disguised attempts to hallucinate the gratification of wishes; he proposes that the dream–work–the process of forming a dream—-makes use of distorting techniques—-especially condensation, displacement, and translation into pictorial representation—-to serve the purpose of disguised expression.

Freud’s free associational method of dream interpretation attempts to reveal the latent dream thoughts that have been transformed by the dream–work in its process of producing the manifest dream. What does Freud’s free associational technique have in common with the methods of interpretation which he seeks to replace: (1) the symbolic method (used by the Biblical master of dreams Joseph to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream of the seven lean and the seven fat kine [kine=cattle]), and (2) the decoding method (used in occult–studies dream dictionaries)?

What are the implications of Freud’s analogy between the formation of images in the manifest dream and the French system of election by candidate rankings to which he refers?

Note that Freud’s model of the mind is a dynamic one. For Freud, the mind comprises forces represented as agencies in conflict with each other.  For Freud, there is both conscious and an unconscious thinking, and mental productions such as dreams are always compromise formations between conflicting mental agencies.  Freud explains the puzzling nature of dreams as the result of distortions created by the multifunctional and overdetermined processes of the dream–work. He explains the emergence of repressed ideas in dreams by theorizing the partial turning off of censorship in the state of sleep, when there is little chance that the dreamer will act out.

Following completion of your reading of The Interpretation of Dreams, proceed to Parts I and II of Freud’s General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, and then turn to On Dreams for a summary, review, and elaboration of Freud’s theories of mental dynamics, especially as applied to verbal behavior such as puns and slips of the tongue.

Read Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and then E. Jones’s Hamlet and Oedipus, a classic of early psychoanalytic literary criticism, when psychological concepts took precedence over literary ones. Jones works on the basis of an assumption that no dramatic criticism of characters in a play is possible except under the pretense that they are real people, an assumption that is typical of first-phase, id-centered psychoanalytic readings known as psychology of the unconscious.

What is Jones’s account of the spying and eavesdropping in Hamlet?

How does spying work at the staging of the play-within-the play?

How does the play-within-the-play in Hamlet correspond to what Freud says about dreams-within-dreams in On Dreams? What does the play-within-the-play reveal about the deepest meaning of Hamlet according to Freud’s model? What do you make of Hamlet’s reference to Lucianus “nephew to the king” (my italics)?

Is Jones’s treatment of Hamlet as a literary character similar to the way in which Freud analyzes the manifest and latent levels of a dream?

Has Claudius acted out Hamlet’s oedipal desires?

In what sense can Claudius and Hamlet be seen as doubles? Are there other doubles in this play?  What do you make of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this regard?

How many fathers does this play dramatize?   How many sons? Why are there so many?

What aspects of Hamlet can Freud’s concept of displacement be used to illuminate?

Does Hamlet treat Ophelia as a stand-in for Gertrude? If so, why?

What do you make of Osric?

In what way does Jones go beyond Freud’s original one–paragraph commentary on Hamlet as it appears in The Interpretation of Dreams?

See Norman N. Holland’s book Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, pp. 88–89 and 163–193, to follow out the development of Jones’s essay through forty–five years of reprinting.

Keeping in mind that according to psychoanalysis human behavior is overdetermined, expressing a convergence of conscious and unconscious motives, and that the adult psyche is simultaneously responding to childhood patterns and adult situations, read Robert Waelder’s 1936 essay “The Principle of Multiple Function” for an explication of ego psychology, the psychoanalytic study of the way the mind mediates and synthesizes inner and outer realities.

Ego psychologist Erik H. Erikson’s Childhood and Society presents a model for studying the relationship between collective institutions and the psychosexual development of individuals brought up within their context; and he reveals the childhood patterns that underlie adult societies. Focus on these important ideas in Erikson: his ground plan of the stages of development (oral, anal, oedipal, latency, puberty, young adulthood, adulthood, maturity) and the ego themes and styles of interaction that arise from the issues to be resolved (or not) at each stage (trust vs. mistrust; autonomy vs. doubt and shame; initiative vs. guilt; industry vs. inferiority; identity vs. role confusion; intimacy vs. isolation; generativity vs. stagnation; integrity vs. despair).

What is Erikson’s explanation for how development can go wrong?

Notice Erikson’s architectural metaphors. Is his model of thinking about human development deterministic? In Eriksonian terms, how would Freud’s remark in his book The Ego and the Id that “the ego is first and foremost a body ego” fit with his revision of Napoleon’s claim that “geography is destiny” to read “anatomy is destiny”? Do Freud and Erikson think anatomy is destiny?

Is there an alternative to Erikson’s interpretation in Childhood and Society of the little girls’ preoccupation with enclosures and gates?

Parts I and III of Childhood and Society summarize Erikson’s basic developmental theory, and the other sections illustrate helpful applications. For further study of ego styles, see David Shapiro, Neurotic Styles.

Now turn to Erikson’s essay “The Dream Specimen of Psychoanalysis,” a comprehensive reinterpretation of Freud’s famous dream of Irma’s injection. Notice how Erikson gives special attention to the dreamer’s unique style of representation and to the specific cultural and personal life-situation of the dreamer.  This essay is fundamental to understanding the integrative and cognitive aspects of dreaming—-that is, dreams as problem–solving activity, and the synthetic function of the ego.  According to Erikson, what bodily modality dominates Freud’s ego style as a dreamer?  How does this modality or style fit with Freud’s self–definition as a scientist?

How would you summarize the continuities and differences between Freud’s method of dream interpretation and Erik Erikson’s?

Now read Dianne Hunter, “Hamlet‘s Hysterical Form.” How does her treatment of the dramatic form of the play use and go beyond E. Jones’s reading of Hamlet’s character? How does she deploy Erikson’s idea (in “The Dream Specimen”) of a dream as a constellation of characters?   How does this concept compare with Jones’s method of working with dramatic characters as though they were real people?

Having read Murray M. Schwartz’s “Where is Literature?,” summarize the connections Schwartz makes between Erikson’s form of analysis and thematic and phenomenological literary criticism.

Now read British pediatrician and object–relations theorist D. W. Winnicott’s book Playing and Reality. Summarize how Winnicott’s version of the significance of cultural spaces and what he calls transitional objects informs Schwartz’s views of literature.

How would you summarize Winnicott’s concept of mothering?

What is Winnicott’s theory of intersubjectivity?

Norman N. Holland’s two books The Dynamics of Literary Response and Poems in Persons apply psychoanalysis to the study of literary texts and to the processes of responding to them. In these two books, Holland acts as an Eriksonian in the literary domain.  A close reader of texts, Holland works on the basis of an analogy between literature and dreaming along the lines of Freud’s 1908 essay on creative writers and daydreaming.  Holland says a literary work dreams a dream for its reader; it embodies in words a transformation of a core fantasy which the reader takes in and elaborates according to his or her own unique style of relating to the world. The Dynamics of Literary Response focuses primarily on the literary work as a system of fantasy and defensive transformation, while Poems in Persons shifts attention to reading styles. Holland places particular emphasis upon the phases of bodily development in proposing a model for understanding the dynamic interplay between the core fantasy–defense interaction informing any literary text and the subjective processes of a reader’s response to that text.  Consider the ways in which Holland’s emphasis on literary form meshes with his role as a literary psychoanalyst.  What kinds of preoccupations do psychoanalysts share with literary critics?  If we think of literature as imaginative use of words designed to get the reader to play the role of art perceiver, how does this relate to an analyst listening to a dreamer report a dream and its associations?

How does Norman Holland’s claim that literary forms are analogous to psychical defense mechanisms compare to Dianne Hunter’s reading of the hysterical form of Hamlet?

Compare E. Jones’s premise that a literary character should be treated as if he were a real person with N. Holland’s view of literary characters in The Dynamics of Literary Response. How would you contrast Jones’s reading of the psychology of the person Shakespeare through analysis of Hamlet with Holland’s reading of the poet H.D. in Poems in Persons? How does Holland’s model of mind and creativity differ from Jones’s?  Are Holland and Jones both biographical interpreters?  How would you summarize the focus of each of these interpreters?

Now reread Winnicott’s essays in Playing and Reality, concentrating on his theory of creativity and his comments about Hamlet.

Is Winnicott’s interpretation of Hamlet in Playing and Reality an improvement on Ernest Jones’s?

Does Winnicott think “masculine” and “feminine” are essential or socially-constructed characteristics? How does his treatment of gender in analyzing Hamlet compare to Hunter’s in “Hamlet‘s Hysterical Form”?

Finally, read N. Holland’s Critical Inquiry essay on “Literary Interpretation and Three Phases of Psychoanalysis” along with Judith Kegan Gardiner’s essay, “Mind Mother,” in Making a Difference, pp. 113-145.  Summarize the convergences and divergences between Holland’s scheme of the unfolding of psychoanalysis as applied to literary study, and Gardiner’s view of the past and future of feminist-psychoanalytic literary criticism.  Is Holland’s presentation of what he calls “third–phase” psychoanalysis consistent with Murray Schwartz’s views as presented in the 1975 essay “Where is Literature”?

At the end of working through this Introduction to Psychoanalytic Study of Literature, you should be able to do the following:

Summarize Winnicott’s view of the role of the mother in the birth of the infant’s self image.

Summarize how Winnicott’s theory of cultural space is related to his theory of subjectivity.

Explain what Winnicott means by a transitional object, and how, according to Murray Schwartz, literature may be analogous to a transitional object.

Explain how Winnicott’s theory of creativity in his book Playing and Reality differs from Freud’s in the 1908 essay on daydreaming and the later essay on the uncanny.

Define what psychoanalysts mean when they speak of “overdetermination,” and explain how this concept is deployed in the works in this Introduction to Psychoanalytic Study of Literature.

Explain why Freud says the dreamer’s associations are necessary in order to interpret a dream.

Explain how the free associational method is relevant to psychoanalytic literary criticism.

Explain the basis of Norman Holland’s claim that literary works resemble dreams, and say how he thinks they differ.

Define primary process thinking, and give some examples to illustrate your definition.

Define a dream screen.

Summarize and explain the differences between Freud’s and Erikson’s interpretations of the dream of Irma’s injection.

Explain why certain dreams are recurrent, and explain the implications for literary study of the recurrence of certain dreams.

Explain what Erik Erikson says about the concept of an “anal character.”

Summarize Ernest Jones’s explanation for the proliferation of father figures and son figures in Hamlet.

Say how Dianne Hunter puts Jones’s ideas together with Erik Erikson’s in interpreting Hamlet.

State what psychoanalysts mean when they speak of a “defense mechanism,” and cite some examples of defense mechanisms and explain the dynamics of their operation.

Summarize what Norman Holland’s book The Dynamics of Literary Response says about the relationship between literary forms and psychological defense mechanisms.

Summarize how Murray M. Schwartz applies D. W. Winnicott’s idea of potential space to literary study.

Summarize how Judith Kegan Gardiner’s account of the development of psychoanalytic feminism fits with Norman Holland’s view of the “Three Phases of Psychoanalysis.”

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