Death of the Critic

Psychoanalytic Theory

Written by: Tom Blaich

As this site moves forward and we begin to introduce more complex topics it will become useful for us to give a primer in some of the themes and ideas that we are talking about. We've done a little bit of this already, but we will be digging in a little deeper into the topics in question. Death of the Critic is, at its heart, a critical website where we try to take a deeper look at different aspects of media. From movies to games to music and more, we aim to enhance the discussion around media in order to deepen our knowledge and understanding.

Let’s talk about schools of theory. When we critique, frequently we do so through a specific lens. Works can have a lot of meaning hidden deep within them, and if we aimed to fully analyze a book, movie, or game, we could easily fill an entire book. So we use these schools of theory as a way to focus in on one particular area of a work. This helps us hone in on a specific idea and expand upon it more fully than if we had tried to do a very broad reading. By centering on one aspect, the analysis becomes more clear and focused.

For our final school of theory (for now), let’s look at Psychoanalytic Theory, the school of theory based off of the now debunked psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and others. This is, in many ways, the stereotypical version of literary criticism, where a cigar is never just a cigar and everything has some sort of aded meaning. And of course, this view is a slightly distorted one. Sometimes phallic objects in texts mean something, but contrary to what some might thing, critics don’t spend all day with our noses buried in dusty tomes searching for penises. (Sometimes we look for vaginas too.)

This is a trap many students fall into. By looking too closely with only an eye towards Psychoanalytic criticism, they start to invent meaning and symbolism to fit their interpretations,. Psychoanalytic criticism looks for the symbolism included in a work, either by the author unintentionally or intentionally by one of the characters. It looks at preconceived biases and stereotypes to help develop a broader picture of a work.

If a married man in a novel is obsessed with cigars, pens, and other phallic objects, the author might be trying to tell us something. Maybe that same character has been having arguments with his wife or is coming to age at school. By building these layers, the author can hint at meaning and help build a character through symbolism.

You can also look at it the other way. Why does an author make a character fit into certain stereotypes? Let’s say that an author creates a fantasy world with a hyper-masculine, muscled warrior. He has got to go save a princess trapped by an evil witch. He has to fight his way through waves of enemies before venturing into a cave to visit a seer. While there, he is tested by illusions and hallucinations that he must conquer. He saves the princess, stabbing the evil with to death.

It’s an intentionally crude and rudimentary example of the masculine versus the feminine, and it isn’t always intentional in works. There is a stereotype to what power looks like to a large portion of people. High office buildings, big cars, giant biceps. And if an author chooses to use all of those, we can question why they followed these stereotypes. They don’t even have to realize that they are doing it, and that is why it is interesting to look at. Psychoanalytic criticism is about the subconscious actions of a writer or a character.

It is interesting because it looks at the unintended and the hidden, the meaning lying below the surface. It is frequently used in covert with other types of criticism as a supplement because it is so easily adaptable. Even though the works of Freud are long debunked, Psychoanalytic criticism has stuck around. Authors and creators have latched onto these ideas and used them for years to build characters and stories. Symbols are a powerful tool for writers because they allow the communication of extra meaning that isn’t obvious at first glance. Most of the time, a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes it isn’t, and we need to be able to tell when.

Further Reading:
The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious - Carl Jung
Jungian Literary Criticism - Richard Sugg
The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis - Jacque Lacan


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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