Psychological Approach To Literature

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 added to 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. People like to label symptoms, leading to some suspicious psycho-babble.

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 1847, psychopathy, derived from the Greek, “suffering soul” was introduced while in 1885, G.E. Partridge identified sociopathy as any anti-social behaviour including compulsive lying, or manipulating others for you own advantage. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) labels ASPD, an Anti social Personality Disorder.

In On Rhetoric Aristotle 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.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Henry the Fifth illustrate the persuasive power of rhetoric.

Homer was wary of the “Gilded Tongue”, and warned that, “Words empty as the wind are best unsaid”.

Freudian Psychoanalysis #

Born in 1856, Freud was an Austrian neurologist who developed psychoanalysis. He worked mainly with “hysterical” bourgeois women of Vienna. He believed they suffered due to repressed sexual drives of their pre teen age years. His work encompassed the interpretation of dreams, the unconscious, the id/ego/superego, infantile sexuality, the Oedipal complex, the death drive, and repression. His work was highly controversial, and contemporary scholars and psychologists claim they have discredited many of his theories.

His methods of psychoanalysis included talking as a “cathartic” way of releasing “pent up emotions”.

Freud’s therapeutic technique is obvious only in retrospect, just as the story of one’s life only makes sense after one has joined the dots together.

Freud’s observation is that people’s problems arise from denying the truth of one’s past and present, letting oneself be caught up in the false sense of inescapable guilt. Past trauma needs to be dealt with, lest it fester and than erupts in recurring relivings of painful memories. Repressed memories and thoughts, insecurities and anxieties have a habit of manifesting themselves as neurosis or other psychological conditions unless fully confronted and resolved. Symptoms include low self esteem, feelings of inadequacy, paralysis, surface anger, substance abuse, self harm, including suicide.

Freud believed that people’s neurosis arises from denying the truth of one’s past and present, letting oneself be caught up in the dark memories of repressed memory.

Freud expressed a sense of wonder about the unknown, less rational parts of mind and of society, and to tend this part of life with “love.” This dark part strives to “serve enlightenment”.

When the Nazis arrived in Austria in 1938, Freud left for London with his wife and children where he died on 23rd September 1939, at the age of 85.


Freud coined the “narcissism of small differences” to illustrate why people who are very similar have the most heated debates. Why families fight, members of the same faculty have the hottest disputes and the most dangerous enemies are often people in your own factions.

Freud’s is concerned with people’s problems of denying the truth of one’s past and present, letting oneself be caught up in the false sense of inescapable guilt. Past trauma not dealt with, festers and erupts in recurring relivings of painful memories.

  1. Freud’s core theory relates to the unconscious aspects of the human psyche; the discovery of vast areas of irrational and unconscious forces within the human psyche, Most of our actions (mental processes) are motivated by psychic forces over which we have little control. The mind is like an iceberg — its greatest weight and density lies below the surface.

It is an irony that we are often put off by the people who, on the surface, seem most like ourselves, what Freud coined the “narcissism of small differences”.

Freud’s discovery of vast areas of irrational and unconscious forces within the human psyche, to avoid or solve neurosis, he reminded us to look honestly to look honestly at our own past.

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 revive most cceesfully blocked or repressed. Comes out in perverse ways.

Ex: Novel/Movie — “Marnie” deals with the phenomenon of multiple personalities

  1. 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 - the primary source of all psychic energy. It functions to fulfil the primordial life principle; — our basic drives, fulfilling the pleasure principle. It has no rational order / organisation / will. It is impulsive - to obtain gratification of instinctual needs with no regard for social conventions; asocial, amoral with no values, no concept of good/evil amorphous. It is the source of all aggression desires; — lawless, self—destructive — pre—Freudians called it the “devil” in man.

2. Ego

The Ego is a egulating agency to curb the Id. It protects the individual and society — rational, reasoning, logical — partially conscious — aware of reality

3.. Super Ego

Largely unconscious, acting as a moral censoring agent - conscience, self—image, pride. It works with moral strictures or repression of Id. By blocking off or repressing those drives which society regards as unacceptable, it operates on rewards and punishments

An overactive Super Ego creates unconscious guilt (complex).

A 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; sometimes an illness .

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.

  • Often pushed too far — Little Red Riding Hood
  1. Child Psychology

infant and childhood are formative years a period of intense sexual development and awareness. First five years mastasize our personalities.

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”.

Fixations: #

  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.

The movies “A Dangerous Method” involves Jung and Freud in an expedition into the uncharted territory of the unconscious. The mind is both slave and master of the body’s appetites, and the absurd and terrifying task of stabilizing that dynamic, in theory and in practice, is embraced equally by the film and the fragile, serious historical figures who inhabit it.

The technique Jung adopts is the talking cure. She sits with her back to him and recalls traumatic episodes from her childhood, while he takes notes and asks questions.

Jung eventually takes the flouting of extreme ethical norms as a therapeutic and moral necessity.

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. Through escapist fantasies we can attempt to satisfy our continuing drives for pleasure or gratification. Our Defence Mechanisms become adaptive strategies to block or divert our fears and horrors.

We can have three reactions to Anxiety or stress:

Fight or flight

  1. Attack problem and develop solutions. Confront and deal through carthartic expression.

  2. Ignore the problem, hope it will go away - denialism. Suppression can create sub-conscious complications.

  3. Defend ourselves (our ego, self esteem, image) The fight or flight reaction.

Freud describes trauma as resulting from any attacks from outside which are powerful enough to break through our protective shield. This failure of defensive measures result in trauma standing outside of memory. Trauma can be extremely debilitating, often called “nerves” or “shell shock” and is today called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Syndrome) PTSD.

Psychological Mechanisms, #

I . Substitution, Compensating, Displacement

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

  • conversationalist — good talker — not a doer.

II. Repression - Blocking - Suppresion

  • Try to forget failures or unfortunate incident.

  • we forget to perform unpleasant duties.


  • 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 (carthated) in competitive sports.

  • a blood thirsty individual becomes a butcher or a surgeon.


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

Projection: Attributing your own motives or accusing others wrongly of a kind of behavior we ourselves engage in. A lazy and self-centered extrapolation from our own perspective and attitudes to interpret others.

VII. INSULATION - Denialism - Escapism

  • 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


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:

This term was first used by the media in 1973 when four hostages were taken during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. It developed into a theory why hostages identify positively with their captors and appear to join their cause.

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.

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith eventually comes to love Big Brother.

After a nine day investigation, Alex Sigley’s North Korean interrogator began acting like a normal human being, patting me on the back and making jokes. Call it Stockholm syndrome, but I actually quite liked this man.

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:

Posturing or strutting your superiority to assert your dominance through coercive power of office and fear.

look on my works, ye mighty and despair,
Nothing besides remains….…
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

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.

Imposter Syndrome, can arise as a feeling of not having done enough to achieve perfection, often when you are surrounded by extremely competent people.

“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.

XVII. Prolonged grief disorder:

The latest edition of the DSM-5, sometimes known as “psychiatry’s bible,” includes a controversial new diagnosis: prolonged grief disorder.

XVIII Factitios Disorder

factitious disorder imposed on another. Once known as Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, the disorder involves someone imposing symptoms of severe illness on another person

Effects #

I. Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognise their mistakes.

Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude,

“the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”.

Although the Dunning-Kruger effect was put forward in 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger have quoted Charles Darwin (“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” and

Bertrand Russell:

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision” as authors who have recognised the phenomenon.

II. Ikea Effect

To place higher value on something you have created yourself.

A psychological quirk behavioural economists call the endowment effect, is a cognitive bias related to the broader concept of loss aversion.

“In essence, people value things they have been given or purchased far more than things of similar value that belong to others or are sitting on the shelf.”

III. Mandela Effect

Mistaken memory

IV. Rashoman Effect

A number of witnesses all describe different versions of a single event.

V. CSI Effect

Witnesses give greater emphasis on forensic evidence in Crime Scene Investigations.

VI Streisand Effect

Phenomenon where people look at something even more intensely after being told not to look.

VII. Bystander Effect

We are more likely to take action when more people are present.

VIII. Baader-Meinhof Effect

Frequency illusion or frequency bias, is a cognitive bias with the tendency to notice something more often after noticing it for the first time, leading to the belief that it has an increased frequency of occurrence.

IX. Hawthorne Effect

Individuals modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed.

X. Placebo Effect

We react to a neutral medicine as we would to the real thing.

XI. Pygmalian Effect

High expectations lead to better performance.

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.** ** Parents can be more conscious of providing children with trauma free childhoods.

Narcissism In today’s world we all have a self-accredited Phd in Pop psychology - you don’t need any training, qualifications or diplomas. Media and literature is saturated with diagnosis of symptoms and panaceas for all cognitive dissonances. Then there are all the self-help books.

Trump has been analysed and labelled on many spectrums: as a narcissist, pathological liar, demagogic, He is arrogant and insecure in equal measure, and even his allies say he makes no distinction between the national and the personal. “I think the president has difficulty conflating how people treat him personally with representing our national interests,” said Bob Corker.
How do you a narcissist from a drama queen?

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. Not all of human motivation and behavior can be neatly packaged and pigeon-holed.