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III.   Psychological Approaches to Literature


During the twentieth century there was a shift away from the “who done it “genre to the “why did he do it” Major writers have included Hermann Hess., Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

In literary criticism some critics have abandoned the formalistic/aesthetic approach because of their limitations and inadequacies in coming to terms with the major concerns of modern literature. Rather than being “Art for Arts sake”, modern literature tends to be more exploratory and didactic. The emphasis is more on character and motivation than on form and structure.

The psychological approach to literary criticism is very controversial and is easily  abused.

Some critics argue that it was already used by Aristotle in his Poetics in the 4 th century BC,  when he defined tragedy as combining the emotions of pity and terror to produce “catharsis”.. These critics argue that this is merely a sub—conscious emotional response to literature.

In On Rhetoric he argued that there are three controlling factors in persuasion. Logos is the intellectual dimension. He said that as rational beings we like to know (or think) that our beliefs are grounded in reality. But logos alone does not move people to adopt new beliefs or behaviours.  

Pathos, the emotional or psychological dimension, also plays a role. Beliefs are formed not only by rationalisation but also by "attraction". Arguments we "like", whether because they are presented beautifully or because they resonate with our hopes, will usually be more persuasive than ones we find unpleasant. I think this partly explains why, despite having some great minds in the cause, atheism continues to be an important minority viewpoint. Whatever its intellectual credentials, taken seriously it offers a very bleak outlook. 

However, logos and pathos do not fully account for why we believe what we believe. Aristotle reserved a special place in his theory for what he called ethos, the social or ethical dimension. Not only do we tend to believe ideas we like, we also tend to accept the ideas of people we like. 

We now call this the ''sociology of knowledge'' but Aristotle put his finger on it centuries ago: "We believe good-hearted people to a greater extent and more quickly than we do others on all subjects in general and completely so in cases where there is not exact knowledge." 

What counts in debate is a combination of intellectual, aesthetic and social factors.  To be persuasive are not just more facts but a narrative that stirs our hearts and a social movement that wins our trust. 


 1.    Core theory — the unconscious aspects of the human psyche.  

Most of our actions (mental processes) are motivated by psychic forces over which we have little control.

·        Mind is like an iceberg — its greatest weight and density lies below the surface.

Two kinds of unconsciousness

a) pre—conscious — latent not directly aware of something, however with effort. it can be retrieved

b) unconcious — something very difficult to revivte mocceesfully blocked or repressed. Comes out in perverse ways.

Ex Novel/Movie — “Marnie

.2. Second theory (now rejected by most psychologists including Carl Jung, his disciple).

All human behaviour is ultimately motivated  by sexuality.”

3. Freud’s Three Psychic Zones

1. The  Id      — reservoir of libido

— primary source of all psychic energy

— functions to fulfil the primordial life principle

— our basic drives (S)

— pleasure principle

— no rational order / organisation/ will

— impulse to obtain gratification of instinctual needs

no regard for social conventions — asocial

— no values — good/evil amorphous/ amoral

— source of all aggression desires

— lawless, self—destructive

— pre—Freudians called it the “devil” in man

2. Ego

regulating agency to curb the Id

— protects the individual and society

— rational, reasoning, logical

— partially conscious

— aware of reality


3.. Super Ego

—      Largely unconscious

—      moral censoring agent

—      conscience, self—image, pride

—      moral restrictions or repression of Id.

—      blocks off or represses those drives which society regards as unacceptable.. operates on rewards and punishments

—      an overactive Super Ego creates unconscious guilt (complex).

Healthy person has a well balanced Pyche, while an imbalance of any one force causes mental stress — neurosis  - today of called a syndrome or a disorder.


Id       pleasure principle  animals

Ego    reality mankind

Super Ego   morality       “        angels


Applications of Frued’s theories

1) Symbolism — most images interpreted in terms of sexuality

a) concave images (ponds, flowers, cups, vases, caves, hollows, tunnels)

—female or womb symbols

b) long  (erect) images (towers, snakes, knives, swords, trees, poles, sky scrapers, missiles)

— male or phallic symbols

c) activities (dancing riding, flying) symbols of sexual pleasure.

·        Of ten pushed too far — Little Red Riding Hood

2)  Child Psychology

infant and childhood are formative years a period of intense sexual development and awareness.

First five years children pass through several phases in erotic development.

1)       Oral   2) Anal         3) Genital

Frustration in the gratification of any of these: eating, elimination, or reproduction may result in an adult personality that is warped.

If a child’s development is arrested in any one of these phases, he may develop a “fixation”.


1.       Oral — pre—mature weaning    may result in cigarette smoking

2.       Anal — overly strict toilet training — fastidious, fussy

3.       Genital — close attachment to parent — may develop either  an Oedipus or Electra Complex.

Psychological  Defence Mechanisms

Our ego is very delicate and fragile and so we often use ways and means to try to protect it.  In the face of confusion, disappointment, failure, conflict and frustration, our psyche needs help to cope. Without “psychological crutches” we become stressed or anxious. We can have  three reactions to Anxiety or stress:

1) Attack problem and develop solutions.

2) Ignore the problem, hope it will go away.

3) Defend ourselves (our ego, self esteem, image)

The fight or flight reaction.

Psychological Mechanisms,

I   Substitution   -  Compensating

·        Overdoing one thing to cover up deficiencies in other areas.

·        conversationalist — good talker — not a doer.

I I.  Repression   - Blocking

·        Try to forget failures or unfortunate incident.

·        we forget to perform unpleasant duties.

I I I    RATIONALISATION  -  Justifications

·        we substitute a “good reason” for an action rather than the real one.

·        wishful thinking — not reasoning

IV.   REGRESSION   - Reverting to former states.

·        Reverting to childish behaviour or habits -  Immature behaviour can be an indication of stressful situations triggering child like behaviour.

·        often covers up fact that we can not cope with problem. 


·        Basic drives become expressed in socially accepted forms.

·        hostility expressed in competitive sports.

·        a blood thirsty individual becomes a butcher.


·        Role—playing — we take on characteristics of a person we admire. a Hero—worship or modelling (apeing)


·        Protective Shell

·        being aloof, distant, unconcerned, cold, “don’t  care”

·        self-sufficient,  detached  “cool”.

VIII.  SCAPEGOATING     -  Justification

·        Blaming our own faults, deficiencies, inadequacies on others.



·        Trying to remain objective, analytical, untouched in an emotionally threatening event.

X.       MALINGERING    -  A Psycho-somatic disorder

·        Adjusting through injury.

·        Taking to your bed

·        Having a headache

·        Feeling sick to the stomach

XI.         AGGRESSION  - 

 Reacting rather than responding to a situation.

·        You become overwhelmed by frustration and a sense of powerlessness or impotence to the extent that you react in a violent, vindictive and destructive manner.

XII.  Stockholm Syndrome:

In 1974 US newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Over the course of the next three months she warmed to their cause and embraced it; she slung an M1 carbine over her shoulder and pulled a bank robbery for them.

Hearst may be the classic example of the Stockholm syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which hostages eventually identify with their captors.

XIII.   The Abilene Paradox.

A family member suggests that they all drive 53 miles to Abilene that night for dinner. One by one they agree. Great idea. They drive to Abilene; the meal sucks. And on the way home they all confide they actually didn’t want to go to Abilene in the first place. 

XIV.   The Ozymandias Syndrome:

look on my works, ye mighty and despair,

Nothing besides remains….…

The lone and level sands stretch far away  Shelley


XV.    The Imposter Syndrome:
A feeling of inadequacy where the subject feels fraudulent. The causes of imposter syndrome are complex but perfectionism and family dynamics are believed to play a significant role.

“If we’ve been raised by people who are perfectionists, instead of looking at what we’ve achieved, we look at how far we’ve got to go until we’re perfect rather than the achievements, which reinforces that feeling of not being good enough.  New Daily  Mar 26, 2016 ANGELA TUFVESSON 

XVI..      Paris Syndrome

The Paris Syndrome is a surreal phenomenon whereby Japanese tourists in particular arrive in Paris and seem to undergo some sort of mental collapse, experiencing raised anxiety, delusions, irrational feelings of persecution and hostility, even hallucinations, or vomiting. The main theories as to what’s happening here is that Japanese tourists have an incredibly romanticised belief in what Paris is like thanks to countless media and film portrayals. The reality of it being, you know, mostly a normal city, coupled with the tangible differences in behaviour and manners between Japanese and Parisian culture, induces an intense and debilitating form of culture shock.

Merits of Psychological Approach: 

In the right hands, this approach can be useful in understanding motivation and causality.  Psychoanalysis has helped us to understand human behaviour and many writers have explored this field to great advantage.

Freud’s contribution to the formative and impressionable childhood years has also assisted us in providing conditions to maximise children’s potential. 

Limitations of Psychological Approach:

While beneficial, we have to realise that Psychoanalysis alone will not lead to a full understanding of a work of art.  There are many other valid interpretations.

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