Study Guide

Psychoanalysis Texts

  • Othello by William Shakespeare (1603)

    Duped by Iago into believing that his beloved Desdemona has betrayed him, Othello is consumed with jealousy. His jealousy is so intense, in fact, that it leads him to kill Desdemona and then take his own life.

    It's true that Hamlet takes center stage in most psychoanalytic discussions of Shakespeare. But it's not the only one of the Bard's works that can benefit from a psychoanalytic lens. There's actually an insightful reading of Othello in Klein's "Envy and Gratitude."

    For both Freud and Klein, Shakespeare's Othello is valuable because it gets at the intensity of ambivalence: that grandly intimate connection between love and hate. This ambivalence crops up in Othello's relationship with Iago, as well as in his tragic love for Desdemona.

    So put your Freudian hats on and let's get ready to rumble (with the psyche in Othello).

    1. The first line spoken in Othello is: "Thou told'st me thou didst hold him in thy hate." Hate, as we have seen, is at least as central to psychoanalysis as love. Do any of the psychoanalytic ideas introduced above help you to better interpret that line?
    2. Aside from hate, what other feelings in the play might psychoanalysis help us to shed some light on?
  • "The Purloined Letter" by Edgar Allan Poe (1844)

    C. Auguste Dupin, Poe's detective-hero, solves a tough case using wit alone in this piece. Spoiler alert: the letter named in Poe's title turns out to be "hiding in plain sight."

    Our boy Lacan had a field day with "The Purloined Letter," which he read as a parable of psychoanalytic interpretation. The analyst does something like what Poe's detective does, except that the patient's symptoms are the clues to solve the great mystery—and heal the great wounds—of neurosis.

    Poe's story is a delight to read. We swear, you'll get into it. And it's also a good way to get excited about psychoanalysis.

    If Freudian theory can sharpen our wits to Dupin's proportions, then it can't be all bad. So let's give it a go.

    1. How might an analyst be like a detective? How are symptoms like clues, and how is the psyche like the scene of a crime?
    2. What does it mean for the solution to some mystery to be "hiding in plain sight"? In what other areas of life would one expect to encounter this kind of open secret?
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

    Woolf's gorgeous modernist novel, To the Lighthouse, is more a meditation on the meaning of art and life than a page-turner. Still, there is the single suspenseful question that lingers throughout, as announced in Woolf's title: Will they make it to the lighthouse?

    Woolf's text also places death at the center of life. Freud's "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" are totally hovering somewhere in the background. The same world that produced Freud's reflections on the First World War, in other words, made To the Lighthouse possible.

    And we're here to tell you that Woolf's and Freud's world of war and death-desire is still very much our own. So let's briefly reconsider this text through a psychoanalytic lens.

    1. Woolf is often associated with a stream of consciousness writing style. How might Freud's idea of the unconscious complicate this understanding of Woolf's work?
    2. What's up with Lily Briscoe's repeating Mrs. Ramsay's name? (To help you get there, consider this other question: What would it mean to read To the Lighthouse alongside Beyond the Pleasure Principle?)
  • Tribute to Freud by H.D. (1944, 1956)

    This memoir looks back on modernist poet H.D.'s analysis with Freud. It's comprised of two short sections, written at different times. But her analysis—that is, her time on the couch, with Freud himself there listening—wasn't just about recovering from an illness. It was a journey of discovery and poetic invention.

    One recent commentator has called Tribute to Freud "an account of genuine collaboration." But one of the most interesting things about H.D.'s text is the way it paints Freud in a different light from the one we've gotten used to. Under H.D.'s gaze, he looks less like a punishing father or grumpy old man, and more like a great teacher.

    And maybe even a true friend. Feeling optimistic now? Try these questions on for size.

    1. How does H.D.'s portrayal of Freud differ from the other portrayals of him you've encountered? (To start with, you might compare H.D.'s version of Freud to our own?) What does Tribute to Freud add to your understanding of what Freud himself—the man, not the legend—was like?
    2. How does H.D. characterize the relationship between her analysis and her poetry? Does anything about her characterization surprise you? (We love surprises.)
  • "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath (1962)

    This famously disturbing poem follows the transformation of a dead father figure from a boot into a Nazi, and many other people and things. Eek.

    Plath's traumatized speaker declares repeatedly that she's "finally through," with an insistence that's as childlike as it is disturbing. But it's not at all clear that this speaker will succeed in keeping the ghost of Daddy at bay. After all, he's haunted her for her whole life, and keeps haunting her still.

    Let's consider how psychoanalytic lit crit might help us uncover some new meanings in this always-creepy piece.

    1. How might "Daddy" be read as both an homage to and a critique of some of the founding myths of psychoanalysis? (Hint: it may help to think not only about Oedipus, but also about the "primal father" whose murder is staged in works like Freud's Moses and Monotheism. And… go.)
    2. In a powerful reading of Plath's text, the critic Jacqueline Rose has argued that "what is most striking about 'Daddy' is its mobility of fantasy, the extent to which it takes up psychic positions which, it is often argued, if they cannot be clearly distinguished, lead to the collapse of morality itself. Plath, on the other hand, moves from one position to the other, implicating them in each other, forcing the reader to enter into something which she or he is often willing to consider only on the condition of seeing it as something in which, psychically no less than historically, she or he plays absolutely no part." Where and how do you see this "implicating" happening in the poem? Why do you think Plath might have wanted to produce discomfort in her reader? Especially when discomfort is so… discomforting.
  • Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood by Sigmund Freud (1910)

    An old master on another old master: Freud on Leonardo. Done and done, as we'd say. And it is truly a joy to read.

    This book is clearly and brilliantly argued, even if it's kooky at times. The book focuses on the dense symbols that fill Leonardo's images. It also paints a compelling portrait of a great artist at work.

    So let's start chipping away that paint, and see what's underneath.

    1. What does Freud mean by "sublimation"? (Try providing a definition in very simple, nontechnical terms.) What is the relationship between sublimation and cultural production?
    2. Can you think of a memory from your childhood that might have stamped your work (like the memory that Freud discusses stamped Leonardo's)?

    You don't have to get all psycho-sexual and grandiose—you know, all Freudian—on us. Just use these questions as food for thought. We want you to enjoy bringing Freud's text into your own life. It's possible for this psychoanalysis business to be fun, we swear.

  • "The Uncanny" by Sigmund Freud (1919)

    Freud is at the height of his lit crit powers in this dense text. And hold onto your seats, because it turns into a bumpy ride when Freud enlists etymology. Then, it gives us some serious goose bumps, because the doctor starts talking about someone called "The Sandman"…

    1. How would you characterize Freud's approach to literature in "The Uncanny"? What does fiction give him that the stories of real-life patients might not?
    2. Write a lullaby from the perspective of "The Uncanny." Read it to your friends at your next dinner party; you won't be sorry.
  • Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud (1939)

    Freud's last book spins a great yarn involving the founding of monotheistic religion. There are lots of twists and turns, and there's some very amateurish archaeology. So be prepared.

    Oh, and here's a little spoiler to get you hooked: Moses, Freud says, didn't just walk like an Egyptian. He actually was an Egyptian.

    Now let's unpack this text a little bit, shall we?

    1. Why might Freud have turned to religion at the end of his life? Does his interest in religion seem consonant with or different from his interest in literature?
    2. If you were to make Moses and Monotheism into a movie, who would you cast to play Moses? What about the other roles? Who would compose the music? What genre would the movie belong to: Biblical epic (like Ben Hur or Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ)? Western? Murder mystery? Go nuts thinking about a screen adaptation for the book. Go ahead, it's okay. Then ask yourself whether this exercise changed your understanding of Freud's text.
  • "Envy and Gratitude" by Melanie Klein (1957)

    Klein's ideas are wild. And this is a great introduction to her account of the wild world of infant life.

    She makes Freud's "polymorphously perverse" child look tame, in some ways, since the Kleinian infant is not just desirous. She's straight-up murderous. But not to worry: this isn't Chucky.

    "Envy and Gratitude" is kind of like a horror film for a time, but it has an unexpectedly happy ending. So stick with it. And chew on these questions when you get a chance. They'll do your body good.

    1. What relationship does Klein propose between envy and gratitude?
    2. Take a look at Question 2 under "Moses and Monotheism." Now try the same exercise, only this time, adapt "Envy and Gratitude" for the silver screen. You'll have to make different kinds of choices here. First, for instance, are you going to turn Klein's essay into a more plot-driven film, or something more like a visual collage? Again, ask yourself how thinking about a movie adaptation changed your relationship to the text.
  • The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis by Jacques Lacan (1973)

    The Four Fundamentals are not for the faint of heart. In fact, they're barely readable for the most hardcore lit critics among us. But it's worth at least spending some time staring at the pages of this book.

    If nothing else, the text will give you a sense of just how opaque Lacan's thinking can be. But you may find that there are lucid moments—on repetition, or the gaze, or the transference, meaning the relationship between patient and analyst—amid the labyrinth of technical terms and elliptical interpretations.

    Have fun, we guess? And if you do give this work a go, we think these questions might help light your way.

    1. Why would Lacan choose to write in such a difficult style? What work does Lacan's language do for the reader (aside from making her super confused)?
    2. What on earth is the objet petit a, and why does Lacan think it's important? Try giving a definition that's as basic as possible—and then see what's lost in your translation of Lacan's phrase, and what's gained.
  • "Trauma TV: Twelve Steps Beyond the Pleasure Principle" by Avital Ronell (1994)

    If you think this tour de force by our fave feminist deconstructionist won't interest you, think again.

    If you've got the theory guts to try and the endurance to stick this one out, you won't regret it. We promise. With astonishing intelligence and razor-sharp wit, Ronell demonstrates the relevance of Freud's trauma theory to the social landscape of the 1990s: including all the spectacles and the media-broadcast wars.

    Avital Ronell places psychoanalytic theory alongside the Rodney King riots, to unbelievable effect. Seriously. See for yourself.

    1. Why does Ronell turn her attention to "the wasted, condemned bodies that crumble before a television"? How could these bodies inspire us to rethink our own ethics?
    2. What do you make of the form of Ronell's essay? What is the "twelve-step" structure about? And what about those wacky repeated interruptions from the broadcast?