The Influence of Freud On English Literature

Now when the twentieth century is close to its end, we can say that the two seminal thinkers who have most influenced life and literature in this century are Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud-though the former had his birth and death in the nineteenth. Marx was primarily concerned with society, Freud with self. Marx was the father of communism-an ideology which has changed the face of half the world. Freud was the father of psychoanalysis which has revolutionized the science of psychology.

As human psychology is of vital importance in literary art, the significance of Freudian theorie’s- ;s obvious. Before proceeding further in our discussion of the impact of Freud on twentieth-century English literature let us pause to have a view of some of the basic postulates of Freud.

Freud’s Principles:
John Drakakis identifies three basic principles of Freud.
“The first is psychic determinism, the principle that all mental events, including dreams, fantasies, errors and neurotic symptoms have meaning.
The second is the primacy of the unconscious mind in mental life, the unconscious being regarded as a dynamic force drawing on the energy of instinctual drives, and as the location of desires which are repressed because they are socially unacceptable or a threat to the ego.
“The third is a developmental view of human life, which stresses the importance of infantile experience and accounts for personality in terms of the progressive channelling of an undifferentiated energy or libido.”
Several well-known Freudian concepts such as infantile sexuality Oedipus complex, and art as neurosis as also the techniques of free association and dream analysis arise from the above-mentioned principles-.
Freud’s Impact More on Literary Criticism Than On Literature:
Though there is no area of literature which Freudian theories have left untouched, yet it must be admitted that they have influenced literary criticism (both theory and practice) much more than creative literature. In other words, Freud has helped us more to understand and appreciate the existing poems, novels, and plays than to write new ones. We now know Hamlet far better because of the work of Freudian psychoanalytic critics like Ernest Jones but no Freudian has ever written a better play than Hamlet A literary work is not an illustration of a theory, however correct and profound. As Herbert Read so well puts it, “the author who imagines that he can start from psychoanalysis and arrive at art is making a complete mistake. No literature, not even a novel, can arise out of a chematic understanding of the phenomena of life rt is itself a chematic construction; an order imposed on the chaos of life.”
Though perhaps no novels have been written to embody or illustrate Freudian theories yet there are quite a few novelists who have a good grasp of them, and this makes their works so much the better. Consider, for example, such works as The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner, The Outsider (1942) by Albert Camus, Catcher in the Rhye (1951) by Salinger, and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth.
Influence on Poetry and Drama:
The examples of Freudian novels quoted above are all American except one-which is French. It is significant that almost no English literary artist of note has written anything expressly Freudian. (We shall consider D.H. Lawrence’s Sons arid Lovers later.) However, till the sixties Freud was the ruling deity in literary circles in England too. An obviously hostile critic. A C. Ward, complains in his Twentieth-Centwy English Literature (1964): “‘Freudianism in all its imperfectly understood manifestations and speculations has become rooted in the very substance of much contemporary fiction, drama and verse. Whatever light psychiatry may throw upon mental problems…it has led to much disorder in imaginative literature as it has contributed to the disintegration of individual ersonality       A new trade has imposed itself on the community and is ub-served by much modern literature that exploits abnormality.”
Abnormality, however, plays the second fiddle to sexuality in Freudian literary works. Under the impact of Freud sexuality, which had been a taboo, came to the force with all its neurotic and deviant components. The Victorians had treated the beast of sex with a hush-hush incommodiousness. Now the beast was very much “in.”
So far as English poetry and drama are concerned, the impact of Freud .is discernible only here and there. D.H. Lawrence’s poem Snake,’ which is avowedly a narration of a personal experience, is a Freudian (or Laurentian) acknowledegment of the potency of the sex instinct which is repressed by the ego into the dark layers of the unconscious from which it emerges now and then into the open (that is, consciousness), only to be forced to scurry back into its dark abode. The sex instinct is the snake in the poem. He is the “lord” of all creation and yet treated shabbily by civilized man. The major poets of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, also acknowledge the supremacy of the sex instinct but their predilection is to sublimate or overcome it. In The Waste Land- the greatest poem of the twentieth century- Eliot blames sex, or rather its degradation and commercialization, as both the cause and the symptom of the decay of Western civilization. Eliot’s poems like “The Love Song of Alfred J. PrufrocK” and The Waste Land are structured on the basis of free association and make use of the technique of interior monologue. Prufrock is evidently a victim of repression. His song remains unsung. As regards drama, Absurdists like Beckett and Pinter show a penchant for dramatizing the absurdity of existence as well as the interplay of subconscious drives. Explicit sexuality with an uninhibited use of four-letter words and violence characterize the work of the most important of contemporary English dramatists, Edward Bond (1934—). In Saved (1965) a baby is stoned to death, in Early Morning (1968) Queen Victoria is represented as a lesbian, and so on.
Influence on the Novel:
Freudian psychology has influenced English novel much more than poetry and drama. As a genre the novel has a greater scope for the representation of the network of diverse human relationships in their fullness. The novel, closest to being a “slice of life,” cart represent the subtle interplay of psychological forces which motivate the characters consciously or otherwise.
The first Freudian novel in English was D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) based largely on his own life-experience. It is an artistically transubstantiated “case history” of the young Lawrence ridden by Odeipus complex and mother-fixation. Interestingly, Lawrence was not aware of Freud’s theories when writing this novel, which is now treated as a locus classicus of Freudian fiction. In the novel Paul Morel (Lawrence) is the son of a robust and coarse coal-miner and an educated, sensitive, and possessive mother who is brutalized by her husband. Th« children-three sons, including Paul, and two daughters-make a “united front” against their father. After the death of his elder brother, Paul becomes a “mamma’s boy” and her surrogate husband. On growing to adulthood, mother-fixated as he is, he is unable to form  satisfactory relationship with Miriam, the girl that he meets. After a long Platonic courtship, he breaks up with her, blaming her with being overly possessive and spiritual. In fact, the blame lies with him. For a brief while he goes steady with Clara who has quarreled with her husband, who reclaims her however. When Paul’s mother dies of a cancer, he contemplates suicide but then decides to live on.
Freud’s influence may also be seen on English psychological novelists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The Stream-of-consciousness technique used by these novelists combines perceptions of everyday reality with reverie, dream, and fantasy. In Finnegans Wake Joyce plunges into the profundities of a dream-state which makes no sense to an ordinary reader. In Pincher Martin Golding captures the consciousness of the protagonist while it is flickering into extinction, and even after his death. And so on.
Influence on Literary Criticism:
There is virtually no practising literary critic today without good knowledge of Freud and post-Freudian thinkers like Lacan and feminist theorists. After Structuralism literary criticism has become more and more interdisciplinary. Disciplines like political science, sociology, psychology, economics, and even the experimental sciences tend to interpenetrate and become one at the apex building up a comprehensive interpretative system applicable to all knowledge. In a sense we are back to the good old pre-Baconian days. It is no wonder then that we have very few purely Freudian critics of literature-the like of Ernest Jones who psychoanalysed Hamlet and discovered his Oedipus complex which explained the enigmatic problem of delay. I.A. Richards and William Empson may be mentioned as other critics of note who have made some use of Freudian theories in their work. Good critics such as Edmund Wilson and the two named above “allow psychoanalysis,” in Prichard’s words, “to supplement but not supplant other bases of judgment.”
Freudian approaches to literary works are various, but chiefly ths following three:
(i)                 The author-oriented approach
(ii)               The text-onented approach
(iii)             The reader-oriented approach
The first two are much more popular than the third. The author-oriented approach (a new version of the old bio-critical approach of the English Men of Letters Series and even of Johnson’s Lives) collects the entire data of the author’s life for analysis and then reads the text as the “dream” (Freud) or “Phantasy” (Jung) of the author for further elucidation of his character. Thus from Baudelaire’s works Freudian critics have found traces of his unconscious resentment at the second marriage of his mother. Similarly Oedipal symptoms have been found in Kafka and incest fantasies in Emile Bonte’s Withering Heights. The text-oriented approach is more common, though not completely separable from the first one. Jones’s analysis of Hamlet is indeed remarkable, but his conjecture that Shakespeare ‘nimself was passing through a Hamlet-like phase is questionable.
The reader-oriented approach is notably practised by Richards-but is is not really Freudian. Richards shows no concern for the author at all. He values a poem if it can induce in the reader what he calls “synaesthesia”‘- a balance of related or conflicting impulses-which sives specifically aesthetic pleasure.

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