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Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Psychoanalytic Criticism


Literary Critical Theories 101 series intends to concentrate on how literary analysis represents itself from five different critical approaches by portraying the basic principles of the theory with both earlier and current versions of them since all define themselves against earlier versions of each. The approaches will be exemplified by different literary works for readers to comprehend how analysis from different lenses highlights the different aspects.

Literary Critical Theories 101 is divided into six chapters:

  1. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Psychoanalytic Criticism

  2. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Feminist Criticism

  3. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Deconstructive Criticism

  4. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Post-Colonial Criticism

  5. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of New Criticism

Learning psychoanalysis contributes to the understanding of human behavior and therefore, it enables understanding and analyzing literary texts. For that reason, this article will briefly cover the classical psychoanalysis principles, set by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and the works of psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) to be able to analyze Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) under the psychoanalytic lens.

Freud: The Storehouse of Unconscious, The Core Issues, Dreams, and Sexuality

Sigmund Freud by Mathieu Laca.

One of Freud's most revolutionary insights of his time was the idea that behaviors of human beings are caused by fears, desires, needs, and conflicts arising from the unconscious part that people are unaware of. Negative psychological events such as wounds, fears, unresolved conflicts, or guilty desires are getting compiled up in the unconsciousness through repression; however, as this process does not eliminate these events, they 'secretly' find a way to direct behaviors. Freud believed that human sexuality also is a part of the identity and therefore it is the most consistent barometer of the psychological state. To him, the id is assigned for prohibited desires of all kinds while the superego works as cultural taboos. In that sense, the sexuality of a human being is partly ruled by the cultural context.

Some theories of Freud on these unconscious wounds during developmental stages are the oedipal conflict meaning the competition with the parent for the parent of the opposite gender, sibling rivalry meaning the competition with siblings for the affection of parents, penis envy meaning girls' experiencing anxiety over the male's possession of a penis. With the recognition of the psychological motivations for destructive behaviors, one can begin to change toward healthy behaviors.

To Freud, anxiety reveals the core issues within the unconscious: Fear of abandonment, fear of being abandoned by the loved ones physically or emotionally; fear of intimacy, a strong belief that emotional closeness with another ends up in destroying, and in defense, people choose not to build relationships; fear of betrayal, the loved ones cannot be trusted in any way; low self-esteem, the belief that the person is less worthy and not deserve to be loved by others. These core issues arise in the behaviors and also in the dreams. Freud claims that the unconscious expresses itself in dreams; however, there is no one-to-one parallel between the symbol and its meaning. In order to interpret dreams accurately, one should discover their unconscious, motivations, anxieties, repetitive behaviors, and so on.

Lacan is drawing the Symbolic, Imaginary and Real Order schemas.

Lacanian concepts are rooted in his explanation of the psychological development of an infant. Between six and eight months, the Mirror stage emerges and the infant begins to develop a sense of self. In the next stage, The Imaginary Order, meaning the world of perception rather than "imagination," the infant builds a powerful and satisfying bond with the mother. The desire of the mother even refers to the two-way desire both for the child and the mother. With the entrance of the Symbolic Order, the opposite of the Imaginary Order, the child experiences separation from others and most importantly from the mother. This separation results in "objet petit a" as Lacan named it, meaning the lost object of desire. Because of this desire to reunite with the mother, the unconscious is formed and the repressed desire leads to anxiety, fears, and defenses, in brief, the core issues that were discovered.

To interpret a literary work through the Lacanian lens, these questions can be formed in mind: whether the narrative embodies the Imaginary Order (fantasy or the delusional world); the text demonstrates any signs of the Symbolic Order such as characters in control of social norms; the characters have an unconscious desire for objet petit a or not.

Surreal painting of 'Concept Art of Psychology'

The Yellow Wallpaper is a story presenting how a woman in a marriage including obsession and abuse can experience psychological decadence. Gilman uses the yellow wallpaper as a symbol to describe the situation the protagonist is in. The wallpaper symbolizes how the entrapment and domestic abuse caused by her husband's obsession lead to the madness of the protagonist. The protagonist of the story, Jane, suffers from postpartum depression and anxiety. Her mental health is getting worse throughout the story since she feels "trapped" in the room decorated with yellow wallpaper that she interprets as a cage. The more the protagonist examines the wallpaper at the summer house, the more her psychology is badly triggered.

From the article titled "Why Literature Needs Psychology?"

The reality Jane was living in at the beginning of the story was the Symbolic Order as Lacan calls it. It was a male-dominant setting that Jane was obedient to her husband's demands and directions without thinking about her own well-being. However, as her mental illness develops further, her writing becomes fragmented as if she is distanced from reality and language. This is where she enters the Imaginary Order. As soon as Jane is separated from the Symbolic Order, her illusions with the yellow wallpaper start. Her mental illness sways between the realities in the Symbolic Order and illusions in the Imaginary Order.

She constantly hallucinates in the room: “The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!" (Gilman, 1892, p. 654). She obviously thinks that there is a woman behind the wallpaper shaking the walls. She also adds “she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern – it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white! If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad" (Gilman, 1892, p. 654). As she states, the woman is also trying to escape from the wallpaper. The fact that she is hallucinating about the woman trapped behind the horrific wallpaper and that the way she demonstrates the efforts of the woman to be free symbolize her own entrapment by her marriage and her struggle to escape from it. In that sense, the woman behind the wallpaper actually symbolizes the state the protagonist herself is in.

The scene is from the trailer for The Yellow Wallpaper movie. Alexandra Loreth stars as Jane.

From the Lacanian psychoanalytic lens, the story clearly presents the conflict between the Symbolic and Imaginary Orders by using the yellow wallpaper as a symbol. The protagonist of the story, Jane, is in search of her freedom which can be seen as her ultimate objet petit a. Thus, by questioning the connections between Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts and literary elements in the story, one can analyze the text for psychoanalytic criticism.

Consequently, the analysis of psychoanalytic criticism, regarding whether the notions of Freud, Lacan, Jung, or any other psychoanalyst, contribute to the understanding of human attitudes or emotions. To analyze a literary text through a psychoanalytic lens, the questions listed above and the psychoanalytic concepts must be applied to the text by focusing on one or a combination of these points. The notions of psychoanalysis can display themselves apparently or slightly covered; however, close psychoanalytic reading reveals the unconscious conviction of the characters in any literary text just like it does in The Yellow Paper.

Bibliographical References

Brooks, P. (1987). The idea of a psychoanalytic literary criticism. Critical Inquiry, 13(2), 334-348. Retrieved from

Bruss, N. H. (1981). Lacan & Literature: Imaginary Objects and Social Order. The Massachusetts Review, 22(1), 62–92.

Crews, F., Levin, R., & Marshall, C. (2003). Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism. PMLA, 118(3), 615–617.

Dean, T. (1998). What’s the Point of Psychoanalytic Criticism? Oxford Literary Review, 20(1/2), 143–162.

Delchamps, V. (2020). “A SLIGHT HYSTERICAL TENDENCY”: Performing Diagnosis in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In J. BRAUN (Ed.), Performing Hysteria: Images and Imaginations of Hysteria (pp. 105–124). Leuven University Press.

Gilman, C. P. (1981). The Yellow Wall-Paper. The New England Magazine. E-Book. Retrieved from

Gholipour, M., & Sanahmadi, B. M. (2013). A psychoanalytic attitude to The Great Gatsby. International Journal of Humanities and Management Sciences (IJHMS), 1(1), 51-53. Retrieved from

MacPike, L. (1975). Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, 8(3), 286–288.

Visual Sources (2022). ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ Movie Trailer Brings the Classic 1892 Story to the Screen by John Squires. [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Laca, M. (n.d.). Sigmund Freud. [Oil on Canvas]. Retrieved from (2016). Why Literature Needs Psychology by Jennifer R. Bernstein. Retrieved from

Shutterstock. (n.d.). Surreal painting of 'Concept Art of Psychology'. Retrieved from

Yansori, A. (2016). Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis. [Photograph]. Retrieved from


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Melis Güven

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