Psychoanalytic literary criticism

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Psychoanalytic literary criticism is literary criticism or literary theory which, in method, concept, or form, is influenced by the tradition of psychoanalysis begun by Sigmund Freud.

Psychoanalytic reading has been practiced since the early development of psychoanalysis itself, and has developed into a heterogeneous interpretive tradition. As Celine Surprenant writes, 'Psychoanalytic literary criticism does not constitute a unified field. However, all variants endorse, at least to a certain degree, the idea that literature ... is fundamentally entwined with the psyche'.[1]

Psychoanalytic criticism views the artists, including authors, as neurotic. However, an artist escape many of the outward manifestations and end results of neurosis by finding in the act of creating his or her art a pathway back to saneness and wholeness.


The object of psychoanalytic literary criticism, at its very simplest, can be the psychoanalysis of the author or of a particularly interesting character in a given work. The criticism is similar to psychoanalysis itself, closely following the analytic interpretive process discussed in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and other works. Critics may view the fictional characters as psychological case studies, attempting to identify such Freudian concepts as the Oedipus complex, Freudian slips, Id, ego and superego, and so on, and demonstrate how they influence the thoughts and behaviors of fictional characters.

However, more complex variations of psychoanalytic criticism are possible. The concepts of psychoanalysis can be deployed with reference to the narrative or poetic structure itself, without requiring access to the authorial psyche (an interpretation motivated by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's remark that "the unconscious is structured like a language"[citation needed]). Or the founding texts of psychoanalysis may themselves be treated as literature, and re-read for the light cast by their formal qualities on their theoretical content (Freud's texts frequently resemble detective stories, or the archaeological narratives of which he was so fond).

Like all forms of literary criticism, psychoanalytic criticism can yield useful clues to the sometime baffling symbols, actions, and settings in a literary work; however, like all forms of literary criticism, it has its limits. For one thing, some critics rely on psychocriticism as a "one size fits all" approach, when other literary scholars argue that no one approach can adequately illuminate or interpret a complex work of art. As Guerin, et al. put it in A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature,[2]

The danger is that the serious student may become theory-ridden, forgetting that Freud's is not the only approach to literary criticism. To see a great work of fiction or a great poem primarily as a psychological case study is often to miss its wider significance and perhaps even the essential aesthetic experience it should provide.


Early applications[edit]

Freud wrote several important essays on literature, which he used to explore the psyche of authors and characters, to explain narrative mysteries, and to develop new concepts in psychoanalysis (for instance, Delusion and Dream in Jensen's Gradiva and his influential readings of the Oedipus myth and Shakespeare's Hamlet in The Interpretation of Dreams). The criticism has been made, however, that in his and his early followers' studies 'what calls for elucidation are not the artistic and literary works themselves, but rather the psychopathology and biography of the artist, writer, or fictional characters'.[3] Thus 'many psychoanalysts among Freud's earliest adherents did not resist the temptation to psychoanalyze poets and painters (sometimes to Freud's chagrin').[4] Later analysts would conclude that 'clearly one cannot psychoanalyse a writer from his text; one can only appropriate him'.[5]

Early psychoanalytic literary criticism would often treat the text as if it were a kind of dream. This means that the text represses its real (or latent) content behind obvious (manifest) content. The process of changing from latent to manifest content is known as the dream work and involves operations of concentration and displacement. The critic analyzes the language and symbolism of a text to reverse the process of the dream work and arrive at the underlying latent thoughts. The danger is that 'such criticism tends to be reductive, explaining away the ambiguities of works of literature by reference to established psychoanalytic doctrine; and very little of this work retains much influence today'.[6]


Later readers, such as Carl Jung and another of Freud's disciples, Karen Horney, broke with Freud, and their work, especially Jung's, led to other rich branches of psychoanalytic criticism: Horney's to feminist approaches including womb envy, and Jung's to the study of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Jung's work in particular was influential as, combined with the work of anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Joseph Campbell, it led to the entire fields of mythocriticism and archetype analysis.

Northrop Frye considered that 'the literary critic finds Freud most suggestive for the theory of comedy, and Jung for the theory of romance'.[7]


Waugh writes, 'The development of psychoanalytic approaches to literature proceeds from the shift of emphasis from "content" to the fabric of artistic and literary works'.[8] Thus for example Hayden White has explored how 'Freud's descriptions tally with nineteenth-century theories of tropes, which his work somehow reinvents'.[9]

Especially influential here has been the work of Jacques Lacan, an avid reader of literature who used literary examples as illustrations of important concepts in his work (for instance, Lacan argued with Jacques Derrida over the interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter").

'Lacan's theories have encouraged a criticism which focuses not on the author but on the linguistic processes of the text'.[10] Within this Lacanian emphasis, 'Freud's theories become a place from which to raise questions of interpretation, rhetoric, style, and figuration'.[11]

However, Lacanian scholars have noted that Lacan himself was not interested in literary criticism per se, but in how literature might illustrate a psychoanalytic method or concept.[12]

Reader response[edit]

According to Ousby, 'Among modern critical uses of psychoanalysis is the development of "ego psychology" in the work of Norman Holland, who concentrates on the relations between reader and text'[13] - as with reader response criticism. Rollin writes that 'Holland's experiments in reader response theory suggest that we all read literature selectively, unconsciously projecting our own fantasies into it'.[14]

Thus in crime fiction, for example, 'Rycroft sees the criminal as personifying the reader's unavowed hostility to the parent'.[15]

Charles Mauron: psychocriticism[edit]

In 1963, Charles Mauron[16] conceived a structured method to interpret literary works via psychoanalysis. The study implied four different phases:

  1. The creative process is akin to dreaming awake: as such, it is a mimetic, and cathartic, representation of an innate desire that is best expressed and revealed by metaphors and symbolically.
  2. Then, the juxtaposition of a writer's works leads the critic to define symbolical themes.
  3. These metaphorical networks are significant of a latent inner reality.
  4. They point at an obsession just as dreams can do. The last phase consists in linking the writer's literary creation to his own personal life.

On Mauron's concept, the author cannot be reduced to a ratiocinating self: his own more or less traumatic biographical past, the cultural archetypes that have suffused his soul contrast with the conscious self, The chiasmic relation between the two tales may be seen as a sane and safe acting out. A basically unconscious sexual impulse is symbolically fulfilled in a positive and socially gratifying way, a process known as Sublimation.

Anxiety of influence[edit]

'The American critic Harold Bloom has adopted the Freudian notion of the Oedipus Complex to his study of relationships of influence between poets...and his work has also inspired a feminist variant in the work of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar'.[17]

In similar vein, Shoshana Felman has asked with respect to what she calls "the guilt of poetry" the question: 'Could literary history be in any way considered as a repetitive unconscious transference of the guilt of poetry?'.[18]

Cultural examples[edit]

In Small World: An Academic Romance, one of David Lodge's satires of academia, the naive hero Persse follows Angelica to a forum where she discourses on Romance: '"Roland Barthes has taught us the close connection between narrative and sexuality, between the pleasures of the body and the 'pleasure of the text'....Romance is a multiple orgasm." Persse listened to this stream of filth flowing from between Angelica's exquisite lips and pearly teeth with growing astonishment and burning cheeks, but no one else in the audience seemed to find anything remarkable or disturbing about her presentation'.[19]

In A.S. Byatt's novel Possession, the heroine/feminist scholar, while recognising that '"we live in the truth of what Freud discovered"', concedes that '"the whole of our scholarship – the whole of our thought – we question everything except the centrality of sexuality"'.[20]

Understanding how Psychoanalytic Criticism works[edit]

Part 1 – What your dream tells you...

Before we explore the specific features of this literary theory, consider this as a springboard that aims to activate our prior awareness. Often times, we consider dreams as part of our daily lives, particularly when we sleep at night. Seldom that we decide, we act based on our dreams. However, the anecdotes I’m about to share will probably change the way we perceive dreams.

Friedrich August Kekule's discovery of the molecular structure of benzene.

“Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth.”

* One night, this chemist dreamed of a string of atoms in the shape of a snake swallowing its tail. When he woke up, he drew this figure in his notebook and soon realized that it was the graphic structure of the benzene ring he had been struggling to decipher. When he reported his findings, he stated: “Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth.”

Giuseppe Tartini's The Devil's Trill Sonata

* One night he dreamed that the devil came to his bedside and offered to help him finish a rather difficult sonata in exchange for his soul. Tartini agreed, whereupon the devil picked up Tartini's violin and completed the unfinished work. Upon awakening, Tartini jotted down from memory what he had just heard, and he then produced his best-known composition: The Devil’s Trill Sonata. Yes, it was based on the same dream.

These are just two anecdotes that show how dreams became an integral part of the lives of at least these people, if not all. Many scientists, numerous authors, composer, authors also claimed that they too have received some of their best ideas from their dreams.

Our dreams and those of others that fascinate us cannot be denied.

* It may be bizarre, erotic sometimes, or even seemingly prophetic, dreams cause us to question and explore that part of our minds over which we have seemingly little control—that is the unconscious.

Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams

The best avenue for discovering some of the content and activity of the unconscious is through dreams. it is the interaction of the conscious and the unconscious, and not either one working in isolation, by which we shape ourselves and our world.

* In our study of Psychoanalytic Criticism, one renowned name reverberates in our mind, he is Sigmund Freud—a Viennese neurologist and psychologist who was one of the foremost investigators of the unconscious and its activities. He laid the foundation for a new model of how our minds work. Hidden from the workings of the conscious mind, the unconscious plays a large part on how we act, think, and feel.

Psychoanalysis is a method of treating emotional and psychosocial disorders by having the patient talk freely in a patient-analyst setting about early childhood experiences and his or her dreams.

* Freud was regarded as the father of psychoanalysis—the method defined as you can on your screen. When we apply these same methods to our interpretations of works of literature, we engage in psychoanalytic criticism.

It is said that psychoanalytic criticism is more of an approach to literary interpretation rather than a particular school of criticism because this approach can exist side by side with any critical method of interpretation. For example, Marxists and Feminists can utilize psychoanalytic methods in their interpretations because this approach attempts to explain the how’s and why’s of human actions without developing an aesthetic theory or introducing a systematic, philosophical body of beliefs concerning how meanings occur in literature. So, we can say that psychoanalytic approach is just instrumental to proving in the text the ideas of Marxism and Feminism.

Part 2 – The Unconscious

* While working with his patients diagnosed as hysterics, Sigmund Freud theorized that the root of their problems was psychological, not physical. Although it may sound odd to us, but he believed that these patients had suppressed incestuous desires that they unconsciously refused to deal. To have a better working knowledge on how psychoanalysis work in literature, a literary critic should recognize how the elements of the unconscious function.  

The name for the part of the psyche or mind that receives and stores our hidden desires, ambitions, fears, passions, and irrational thoughts.

* More often than not, we are unaware of the presence of the unconscious, so we operate consciously, believing that our reasoning and analytical skills are solely responsible for our behavior. However, our slips of the tongue, dreams, art, even irrational behavior that motivate our actions. Like whenever we do something unintentionally, others would say: “Oh, admit it! It appeared unintentionally, but that’s how you truly thought and felt deep inside, so you still did it.” You know for sure that you would suffer the consequences of cutting classes, but deep inside you feel the thrill of doing that, so it motivates you to still do it. This is a classic example of unconsciously dealing with repressed emotions. The thought is irrational but then it manifests consciously through the behavior.

Id, Ego, and Superego

Id – The irrational, instinctual, unknown and unconscious part of the psyche.

Ego – The rational, logical, waking part.

Superego – It acts as an internal censor, causing us to make moral judgments in the light of social pressures.

* The ego’s job is to mediate between the instinctual (especially sexual) desires of the id and the demands of social pressure issued by the superego. What the ego (consciousness) deems unacceptable, it suppresses and deposits in the unconscious. And what it has most frequently repressed in all of us is the sexual desires of our early childhood. At this point, we can recall the stages of early childhood we have mastered when we were in our undergraduate level, trying to understand how children or our students think. These are oral, anal, and phallic stages. Nonetheless, I won’t be dealing with each. I trust that our prior or working knowledge on these stages and the appertaining elements therein will help us clarify how the unconscious is demonstrates in a literary work.

Neurosis – It refers to the internal battle between the ego and id.

* When certain repressed feelings or ideas cannot be adequately released through dreams, jokes, or other mechanisms such as slips of tongue, the ego (rational part) must act and block any outward response, causing adverse effects like pounding headache or anxiety. In other words, neurosis shows itself in many physical and psychological abnormalities.

According to Freud, it is the job of the psychoanalyst to identify those unresolved conflicts that give rise to a patient's neurosis and through psychoanalytic therapy, which includes dream analysis, return the patient to a state of well-being. For Freud, the unresolved conflicts that give rise to any neurosis constitute the stuff of literature.

A work of literature, he believed, was the external expression of the author's unconscious mind.

* Accordingly, the literary work must then be treated like a dream, applying psychoanalytic techniques to the text to uncover the author's hidden motivations, repressed desires, and wishes.

Carl Gustav Jung's Archetypal Criticism

Conscious – The waking state directly affected by the unconscious.

Personal Unconscious – The first part of the unconscious; exists directly below the surface of the conscious and contains elements of all those private affairs that occur daily in each of our lives.

Collective Unconscious – It houses the cumulative knowledge, experiences, and images of the entire human race.

* The famous yet rebellious student of Freud disagreed with him. Although Jung accepted Freud's assumption that the unconscious exists and plays a major role in our conscious decisions, he rejected Freud's analysis of the contents of the unconscious, and he formulated a new approach to the understanding of a literary work. Jung’s is more specific when he described the role of the unconscious. For example, basing on the definition of the personal unconscious, we can say that what may be in one’s personal unconscious, may not appear in someone else’s.

The collective unconscious plays an essential role as to how we perceive things around us and how we behave. According to Jung, we respond to certain myths, stories (or in our context, literature in general) in the same way not because not because all of us know and appreciate immediately the story, but because lying deep in our collective unconscious are the memories of humanity's past. These memories now are embodied by what we call archetypes.

Archetypes – These are patterns or images of repeated human experiences (such as birth, death, rebirth, the four seasons, and motherhood, to name a few) that express themselves in our stories, our dreams, our religions, and our fantasies.

* These archetypes, as defined for you, occur in literature in the form of recurrent plot patterns, images, or character types. These archetypes stir profound emotions or memories in the reader because they awaken images stored in the collective unconscious. As a result, the readers produce feelings or emotions over which the they initially have little control.

[Picture of an infant in diapers surrounded by a litter of puppies licking the child's face]

* This the reason when we see or read about an infant in diapers surrounded by a litter of puppies licking the child’s face, feelings of contentment, warmth, and love seemingly pop up in most of us. Also, when we read the adventures of Odysseus, we were reminded of a hero as an archetype and all his enemies in that journey to Ithaca as the villains. Again, these somewhat uncontrollable emotions that we associate to the elements of literature, according to Jung, are the result of the stirring of an archetype through one of our senses in our collective unconscious. And when we apply these theories and methods to literature, we are engaged in archetypal criticism. This archetypal criticism is not entirely a new branch of psychoanalytical criticism, since as we just discovered, it is more of a development of our understanding of the role of the unconscious in approaching the text. It’s like archetypal of Jung is under psychoanalytical of Freud. Well, after all, a student is always a student. No matter how rebellious Jung was, he was still a student of Freud.

Part 3 – The author's dream in literature

* At this point, let me now refocus everyone to Freud’s psychoanalytic criticism, for unquestionably, the foundation for all forms of psychoanalytic criticism is Freud’s theories and techniques he developed during his psychiatric practice. Although, we sidetracked a little when we met Jung, because his contributions are also essential to our evaluation of a literary work, still we must acknowledge Sigmund Freud as the intellectual founding father of this form of criticism.

Psychoanalytic criticism views the artists, including authors, as neurotic. However, they escape many of the outward manifestations and end results of neurosis by finding in the act of creating his or her art a pathway back to saneness and wholeness.

* Central to psychoanalytic criticism is Freud's assumption that all artists, authors or writers in our case, are neurotic or they all experience neurosis—the clash between ego and id/ the battle between expressing repressed desire or continue repressing these desires or emotions. However, unlike other neurotics, an artist escapes his/her madness or self-destruction by a pathway back to saneness and wholeness.

What does this remind you? Of course, the plot arrangement that we often observe in stories of literature. Odyssey is a concrete example. The almost-endless journey of Odysseus and his men going back to Ithaca after the Trojan war was a roller-coaster ride. It is in fact an understatement, because we know their adventure is death-defying. They battled against monsters, witches in forms of queens or princesses, and even against a god—Poseidon—the very reason for that 20-year, death-defying journey.

A psychoanalytic critic would assume that the phenomenon described in the text are perhaps manifestations of the Homer’s neurosis. Nonetheless, he was able to overcome this battle of his conscious and unconscious, as depicted in the way Odysseus finally reached the island of Ithaca.

According to Freud, an author's chief motivation for writing any story is to gratify some secret desire, some forbidden wish that probably developed during the author's infancy and was immediately suppressed and dumped in the unconscious.

* According to Freud, the longingness to gratify desires inspires authors to produce literature. The outward manifestation of this suppressed feelings, wishes, or desires is the literary work itself.

Freud declares that the literary work is therefore the author's dream or fantasy.

In actuality, Freud believes that the literary work is the author’s dream or fantasy. If this is the case, the text should be analyzed like a dream. The psychoanalytic critic employs the techniques used in dream therapy to unlock the hidden meanings housed in symbols throughout the story and arrive at an accurate interpretation of the text.

This also means that we have to assume that the dream is a disguised wish. These can be traced back when were kids when we longed to be sensually and emotionally satisfied, and one way or another these are not fully gratified.

But the actual wish is often too strong and too forbidden to be acknowledged by the mind's censor, the ego.

Latent Content – the wish of the dream

Manifest Content – the changed or radically different dream

* Accordingly, the ego distorts and hide the wish or the latent content of the dream, allowing the dreamer to remember a changed and often radically different dream. It is this changed dream or manifest content of the dream that the dreamer/author tells the dream analyst/ reader/ literary critic. More often than not, this latent content directly relates to some element and memory of the Oedipal phase of our development. This Oedipal development, as we recall in our subject before, which was Child & Adolescent, refers to the stage in child development (between ages of three and six). This is when a child develops a sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex. Oedipus complex for male child-affection toward his mom; and Electra complex (according to Jung) as female child’s affection toward her father. Of course, we have to understand that the latent content is not limited to repressed sexual desires. This wish could also refer to our fantasies (good or bad) that were not gratified for some reason; parents’ discipline, for example.

By directly applying the techniques employed in Freudian dream analysis, the psychoanalytic critic believes the actual, uncensored wish can be brought to the surface, thereby revealing the story's true meaning.

* In turn, our role is to analyze by uncovering the various layers of the dream. Remember that only the manifest content lies on the surface. The hidden and censored throughout the story on various levels lies the latent content of the story—its real meaning or interpretation.

Part 4 – Psychoanalyzing the Text

By gaining an in-depth understanding of the author, these critics assumed they could better interpret the author's canon (a long list of works taken as authentic).

* At this point, we want to know how to reveal the tenets of psychoanalytic criticism in a text. From what we have recalled and unlocked earlier; we can then deduce that this approach focuses mainly on the author. Part of our task as a literary critic deals mainly on gathering data about the author through biographies, personal letters, lectures, and any other written documents that will help us construct the author’s personality with all its idiosyncrasies, internal and external conflicts, and most importantly, the author’s neuroses.

In the 1950s, psychoanalytic critics turned their attention away from developing a theory based on the author's personality to an exploration of the minds of the characters found in an author's canon.

* However, eventually, psychoanalysis was refocused from solely the author’s implied influence to the text to the individual characters within the text. Realizing that the author obviously had in mind a particular personality for his or her characters, we are now open to the idea that readers develop their own conceptions of each character's personality based on their psychoanalysis.

Consider asking the typical questions that aim to have a close analysis of the text using Psychoanalytical Criticism:

  1. How do the operations of repression structure or inform the work?
  2. Are there any Oedipal dynamics - or any other family dynamics - at work here?
  3. How can characters' behavior, narrative events, and/or images be explained in terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind (for example, fear or fascination with death, sexuality - which includes love and romance as well as sexual behavior - as a primary indicator of psychological identity or the operations of ego-id-superego)?
  4. What does the work suggest about the psychological being of its author?
  5. What might a given interpretation of a literary work suggest about the psychological motives of the reader?
  6. Are there prominent words in the piece that could have different or hidden meanings? Could there be a subconscious reason for the author using these "problem words"?

Psychoanalytic criticism still relies heavily on Freud's theories and declarations concerning the development of human personality and the underlying motivations concerning our actions.

* If we consider the literary work as a manifestation of the author’s dream, this then requires us to apply Freud's psychoanalytic techniques of dream analysis, personality development, and psychological theories, helping us to dive beneath the surface level of a text and ascertain its true meaning. However, there is really no concrete system that includes overly specific questions that guide the interpretation, but our working knowledge or mastery of Freudian theory or Jungian principles will help us discover the truth that lies within each of us as reflected or manifested in the literature.


  1. ^ Celine Surprenant, 'Freud and Psychoanalysis' in Patricia Waugh ed., Literary Theory and Criticism (OUP 2006) p. 200
  2. ^ Guerin, Wilfred L., et al., A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature (Harper & Row, 1979). ISBN 0-06-042554-7
  3. ^ Waugh, p. 200
  4. ^ Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (London 1989) p. 764
  5. ^ Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994) p. 45
  6. ^ J. Childers/G. Hentzi eds., The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (New York 1995) p. 247
  7. ^ Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton 1973) p. 214
  8. ^ Waugh, p. 203
  9. ^ Waugh, p. 208
  10. ^ Ian Ousby ed., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (Cambridge 1995) p. 767
  11. ^ Waugh, p. 208
  12. ^ Evans, Dylan (2005). "From Lacan to Darwin" in The Literary Animal; Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, eds. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005, pp.38-55.
  13. ^ Ousby ed., p. 767
  14. ^ L. Rollin/M. I. West, Psychoanalytic Responses to Children's Literature (2008) p. 12
  15. ^ Michael Shepherd, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Dr Freud (London 1985) p. 26
  16. ^ Des métaphores obsédantes au mythe ersonnel
  17. ^ Childers/Hentzi eds., p. 248
  18. ^ Shoshana Felman, Jacques Lacan and the Adventures of Insight (Harvard 1987) p. 50
  19. ^ David Lodge, Small World (Penguin 1985) p. 322-3
  20. ^ A. S Byatt, Possession: A Romance (London 1990) p. 254 and p. 222


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  • Understanding how Psychoanalytic Criticism works: Bressler, C. E. (1994). Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
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External links[edit]