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Psychoanalytic theory

A critical approach influenced by Sigmund Freud’s work on the unconscious and human behavior. Freud believed that the existence of three competing impulses in the psyche—the ego, id, and superego—and the conflict inherent in child-parent relations structured human responses to the world. Initially, psychoanalytic literary theory consisted of applying psychoanalysis to either the author or the main character of a work, seeking unconscious or latent meaning underneath the manifest language and analyzing the symbols contained in a given work. Freud himself wrote many essays in this vein, applying his theories to characters such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ibsen’s Rebecca West. Influenced by Jacques Lacan, later psychoanalytic theory focused on the unconscious and language and shared some concerns with deconstruction and poststructuralist theory. Psychoanalytic theory has been enormously influential on a number of other theories, such as reader-response and feminist theory, as well as on individual thinkers. For example, critic Harold Bloom’s theory of the struggle between “strong” and “weak” poets owes much to Freud’s Oedipus complex.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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