A Psychoanalytic Criticism of Emma, Jane Eyre, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles

May 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

Although his methods have largely been discredited, Sigmund Freud’s theories about the unconscious, the subconscious, and repression are extremely useful when applied to literary texts. None of the three novels discussed here – Jane Austen’s Emma, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles – contain overtly psychoanalytic themes such as frequent dreams or psychological diseases (aside from the madwoman in the attic found in Jane Eyre), yet they can all be read with the aim of discovering latent themes, displaced or repressed thoughts and feelings, and subconscious desires. The traditional approach to psychoanalytic criticism involves the neglect of a work’s other contexts (historical, socioeconomic, etc.), thus making it extremely difficult to gain significant insight into these texts by means of Freudian psychoanalytic criticism alone. Sigmund Freud revolutionized human psychology by suggesting that people are motivated mainly by unconscious powers. He stated that “much of what lies in the unconscious mind has been put there by consciousness, which acts as a censor, driving underground unconscious or conscious thoughts or instincts that it deems unacceptable” (Murfin 503). This repression cannot lie dormant, and it often reappears in disguise; or, as Freud famously quoted, “There is always a return of the repressed” (Barry 100). Repressed thoughts commonly appear in the guise of symbolic dreams. Freud was a huge proponent of dream analysis, and it remains one of his most famous legacies. The analysis of dreams, called dream work, examines the numerous ways in which repressed thoughts are handled. These include condensation, in which a number of events or people are summarized into one symbol, and displacement, in which a person or event is represented by another person or event that is in some way associated, through meaningful or superficial connections. In addition to reappearance in dreams, repressed thoughts and emotions can also be redirected in a number of ways, through what are called defense mechanisms. Some examples of defense mechanisms are transference, when emotions felt towards someone in the patient’s life get transferred onto the analyst; projection, when undesirable aspects of ourselves are perceived instead as aspects of another; screen memories, or insignificant memories that serve to block more significant memories; and Freudian slips, accidental slips of the tongue or pen that represent repressed material (Barry 97-98). Freudian psychoanalytic criticism was officially applied to literature in 1908, when Freud published “The Relation of a Poet to Daydreaming” (Murfin 505). It quickly caught on, for its analysis of symbols in the mind can easily be applied to symbols in literature. In general, Freudian psychoanalytic critics look at the relationship between a literary work’s overt content and its covert content (which can also be seen as conscious content vs. unconscious content), observe unconscious motives in both the characters and the author, and look at the psychic context for the literary work (not the historic, socio-political, or economic context). Another branch of psychoanalytic criticism originates from the work of Jacques Lacan. Starting in the 1950s, Lacan developed a theory of psychoanalytic criticism that can be summarized by the statement, “the unconscious is structured like a language” (Barry 111). The structure of language as it relates to the unconscious lies in the fact that “meaning in language is a matter of contrasts between words and other words, not between words and things,” and that “there is a perpetual barrier between signifier (the word) and signified (the referent)” (Barry 111). In addition, “words and meanings have a life of their own and constantly override and obscure the supposed simplicities and clarity of external reality,” thereby implying that “language is detached from external reality, and becomes an independent realm” (Barry 111). Lacanian criticism echoes the deconstruction method, in that it seeks to find meaning in the contradictions in the text, in addition to observing the aforementioned psychoanalytic techniques. However, I will analyze the following texts by observing the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition. Freudian psychoanalytic criticism seems to be least applicable to Jane Austen’s Emma. The story is almost entirely devoid of serious conflict, traumatic events, dreams, or mental illness. One can, however, see the seeds of repression on the first page of the novel: “[Emma] was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father, and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been a mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses” (Austen 23). The narrator goes on to describe the governess, Mrs. Taylor, who essentially raises Emma, though she becomes more of a friend than a disciplinarian. Throughout the novel, Emma must not only indulge and care for her fickle and dependent father, but she must also serve as the reigning queen of Highbury society. In addition, Emma thrives on arranging relationships and marriages, as well as taking on protégés to groom into proper ladies, as is the case with Harriet. Emma functions perfectly well in her society by conforming to her role in all ways save for one: her rejection of marriage. A Freudian would likely explain her rejection as a maladjustment resulting from the absence of a mother figure. In a general sense, it could be seen that Emma feels a deep responsibility to act as the maternal figure for everyone else, because she herself did not have that figure (and any attribution of that role to Mrs. Taylor would likely be seen as unfounded because of Mrs. Taylor’s portrayal as a friend rather than a mother figure). She is thus reluctant to marry and abandon that responsibility. This idea is proved later, when she does marry and insists that she and her husband live in her father’s house so that she may continue to care for him. A more intensely Freudian approach would pin all of Emma’s problems on the disruption of the process (formation and later rejection) of an Electra complex, which prevents her from developing proper romantic feelings for the male sex, and thus explains her reluctance to marry. All of the above, however, seem a bit far-fetched, for the text shows hardly any evidence of psychological conflict in Emma. A Freudian psychoanalytic criticism of Emma can be developed, but it is a stretch. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre complies more readily to Freudian analysis, considering Jane’s problematic childhood and her lack of parents. Orphaned at a young age, Jane lives under the care of her aunt and uncle, the Reeds. After the death of Mr. Reed, the only father figure she knew, Jane is looked after solely by Mrs. Reed, a cruel woman who wrongfully blames and punishes her at every opportunity. Jane’s childish rebelliousness – she yells at Mrs. Reed more than once – is a result of her feelings of isolation and abandonment (both by her parents and by Mr. Reed). In addition, one cannot overlook the scene in the red room, for Jane imagines Mr. Reed’s ghost coming to avenge “the wrongs of his sister’s child,” and works herself into a fit of hysteria that ends in unconsciousness (Brontë 29). Two factors are at work here – the displacement of Jane’s sadistic (and even masochistic) desires against Mrs. Reed onto the ghost of Mr. Reed, and the loss of consciousness that prevents her from fully realizing those repressed emotions – a defense mechanism to protect the conscious mind from a disturbing realization. Another important issue arises from the disruption of Jane’s development of a normal relationship with a father figure, and Jane’s banishment to Lockwood (a miserable boarding school in which she encounters punishment, malnourishment, and humiliation) as punishment for her misbehavior. This inculcation of obedience and sacrifice, in addition to her lack of a father figure, leads to what Dianne F. Sadoff describes as a “sadomasochistic” tendency in Jane’s romantic relationships (Sadoff 518). She always looks for someone to fill that missing paternal role, as an object of affection and also as a disciplinarian. The frequent references to the fact that Mr. Rochester is “old enough to be [her] father,” and her constant vows to the effect of, “can I help you sir? – I’d give my life to serve you,” are evidence of the relationship’s power dynamic: both thrive on Jane being submissive to Rochester (Sadoff 519, Brontë 204). In fact, Rochester constantly calls Jane patronizing pet names and insists on lavishing her with expensive clothes, not to mention the fact that Jane works under him, as a governess for his illegitimate daughter. Jane ultimately marries Rochester, but again she lives her life as his servant. However, it becomes very difficult to extricate this view from a Marxist or socioeconomic context, for Jane was raised to be working class and to be submissive to upper classes. In addition, she has nothing like this kind of role with St. John, who actually is a male relative. Aside from the red room scene, it seems that a Freudian psychoanalytic criticism of Jane Eyre goes further than with Emma, but not far enough to merit any real consideration. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles seemingly presents the perfect setup for a Freudian analysis, through the plot elements of neglectful parents, burdensome family responsibilities, rape and its consequential guilt and shunning, rejection by Tess’s true love as a result of circumstances over which she had no control, her passivity and blurring of consciousness, and her act of murder. Yet it seems as if all of these events are portrayed as consequences of Tess’s socioeconomic status rather than her psychological condition. It can be proposed that Tess’s foggy or blurry state of consciousness at crucial moments in the book (her rape being the most notable example) serves as a defense mechanism for her to repress painful memories or events. In fact, Tess shows a great deal of guilt, originating when she blames herself for her horse’s death and its role in her family’s poverty. In reality, however, Tess serves as the only responsible member of the family; it is she who is charged with caring for everyone. It may even be a consequence of having so much responsibility at such a young age that Tess experiences guilt so readily. Yet the structure of the novel prevents any significant psychoanalytical insight, because Hardy purposefully externalizes and mutes his heroine, positioning her as the object of the gaze rather than as the gazer. The reader rarely sees Tess’s thoughts or emotions even through her behaviors. In addition, Hardy deliberately constructs Tess as a victim of circumstance, class, and fate, making it hard for the reader to ignore the role of those contexts or any other historical or socioeconomic context, in order to focus on a Freudian psychoanalytic criticism. Interestingly enough, the novel that is most rich with conflict and repression – Tess of the D’Urbervilles – is arguably the least applicable to Freudian analysis. While Freud’s theories are fascinating and illuminating, I believe that Freudian psychoanalytic criticism cannot stand on its own as a way to significantly analyze a literary work; it works best in conjunction with another method of literary criticism.WORKS CITEDAusten, Jane. Emma. Ed. Alistair M. Duckworth. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2002. Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary Criticism. 2nd ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 2002. Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1996. Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1998. Murfin, Ross C. “A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism – Pyschoanalytic Criticism and Jane Eyre.” Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1996. 502-517. Sadoff, Dianne F. “A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism – a Pyschoanalytic Perspective – the Father, Castration, and Female Fantasy in Jane Eyre.” Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1996. 518-535.

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