Psychoanalysis is one of the most well-known critical approaches in literature, it shows the literary critic the mental state of not only the main character, but the author as well. In the book Critical Theory Today, Lois Tyson describes psychoanalytic criticism as “The notion that human beings are motivated even driven by desires, fears, needs, and conflicts of which they are unaware – that is, unconscious.” (Tyson, 12) This theoretical approach was created by Sigmund Freud from his theories on the unconscious mind and that people repress the things they don’t want to remember and that they go through several stages when they trying to repress memories. Almost as if a person is dealing with the five stages of grief, the stages of repression follow a similar pattern these stages include selective “perception, selective memory, denial, avoidance, displacement, and projection.” (15) These stages come from what a person is most afraid of and would work its way through most of their repressed memories to remind them of what could happen. Another part of this theory which Freud developed comes from the theory of the id, the ego, and the superego. Tyson describes the three, the id is irrational and tends to want instant gratification, the superego works in direct opposition to the id because it internalizes cultural taboos and works to keep the id at bay, and lastly the ego is “the conscious self that experiences the external world.” (25) Using these theories in the analysis of a literary work the reader must interpret what the author is trying to convey as well as what the characters are doing in the story, and although it isn’t an easy task all students of critical theory have to know what they’re looking for when they’re studying a literary work.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart”, the protagonist fear of the old man’s eye is what drove him to dismember him and put him underneath the floorboards. So how is it that his repression caused him to act sane yet commit the crime? The protagonist explains in the beginning saying, “How, then, am I mad? Harken! And observe how healthy – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” (Poe, 715) According to him he is not mad which means that he is in denial over the crime that he has committed, he has already lost a sense with his unconscious and the superego because murder is a cultural taboo. The stories protagonist said that he had no reason to kill the old man except that “He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” (715) The eye was the reason for the murder not the old man the protagonist repressed all the good memories of the old man and sought to kill him all because of his eye. His fear was that in letting the old man live then one day the old man would betray him with his evil eye. This is his id working as the main part of his unconscious, he wants the old man dead without thinking about the consequences because he’s not thinking clearly. The superego the part that’s supposed to keep this thought at bay isn’t working so the protagonist is working directly into his fears and he’s projecting them onto the old man. What could be the fears of the protagonist of the story? This isn’t known because he’s not very reliable as a narrator because he defends his crime acting as if he had to do it and recounting each and every detail as if nothing had gone wrong in his quest to end the life of a man.
What makes psychoanalytic criticism difficult is that there are so many different ways the theory can spin the literary work that is being analyzed. Yet it can also make the reader see the literary work differently than a reader who is looking at the work from a purely entertainment perspective. A regular reader wouldn’t see how Poe’s narrative of the protagonist is fragmented and only told in a way that only the character would like others to know. There might be a lot of things that are missing from the story that need to be picked apart from what the character is saying. The character would be considered the antagonist of the story even though he is the one telling it. What makes Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” appropriate for psychoanalytic criticism is the character is in the middle of a psychological break and the theory can easily access every detail of what has gone wrong in his unconscious as well as using his treatment of the old man to tell that he fears being left by the old man. This fear becomes his obsession to find something wrong with the old man so that he wouldn’t feel so connected with him. Though others may interpreted this differently because the criticism can diverge into different directions.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Tell Tale Heart." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed.
Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 715-18. Print.
Tyson, Lois. "Psychoanalytic Criticism." Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. Third
ed. London, New York: Routledge, 2015. 11-50. Print.