Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


9. Psychoanalytical criticism


Hamida Bosmajian


Because the child and childhood hold a privileged position in most psychoanalytical theories, the elective affinity between children’s literature and psychological criticism seems even more natural than the affinity between psychology and literature in general. Psychoanalytic theory adds to the literary text a ‘second dimension - unfolding what might be called the unconscious content of the work’ (Holland 1970: 131), but the condensations and displacements at work in the author-text-reader relation are problema- tised in children’s literature because of the double reader: adult/child.

Children’s fiction might be impossible because it rests on the assumption that there is a child who can be addressed when, in actuality, ‘children’s fiction sets up the child as an outsider to its own process, and that aims, unashamedly, to take the child in’ (Rose 1984: 2). The implied author, even in first-person narration by a child character, is a displacement of the contexts of personal and collective values and neuroses. Furthermore, while the analyst is supposedly the most reliable reader-interpreter of stories told in a psychoanalytic dialogue by the analysand-author, the reader of adult literature may or may not be a reliable interpreter of the text. In children’s literature the implied reader is, moreover, highly unreliable and, therefore, most easily ‘taken in’. Thus, the authorial self is in a sense liberated, in that the textual strategies and gaps that constitute the subtext of the work escape the implied reader, the child. The author can experience therapeutic release without anxieties over the scrutiny of an adult’s psychoanalytical critique.

The nemesis for the projection of the naive implied reader is the adult reader as psychoanalytic critic of children’s literature who exposes the gaps, substitutions and displacements of the author and appropriates the author’s text as a symptom of individual or cultural neuroses that underlie and undermine values associated with growth and development. While psychoanalytic critics of adult literature amplify the reader’s appreciation of the text, those same critics will, in the case of children’s literature, conceal their interpretation from the child and, therewith, both censor and protect the author. The child may be imaged as myth of origin - as father of the man and mother of the woman - but in children’s literature the adult is in control.

The correspondences between author-text-reader and analysand-psychoanalytic dialogue-analyst break down, for author-reader are not in a dialogical relation, no matter how intensely the reader responds, nor can the critic-interpreter make enquiries of a character in a narrative, as an analyst can in the psychoanalytic situation. While critics act as if one could ask about Alice’s relation with her parents as she develops from pawn to queen in Through the Looking Glass, they forget that she is a linguistic construct, a trope for the unresolved problems of her author (Greenacre 1955). It is important that psychoanalytic critics are aware of the ambivalences inherent in their method and do not seize one aspect of a psychoanalytical theory as a tool for interpretation, thereby reducing the text to universals about human development (compare Hogan 1990; Knoepflmacher 1990; Phillips and Wojcik-Andrews 1990; Steig 1990; Zipes 1990).

The following discussion will focus on defining those psychoanalytic theories that have influenced the criticism of children’s literature. Frequently such criticism relies on the informal developmental psychological knowledge of the interpreter without reference to any specific theory. This is especially true of realistic narratives for young adults. The strongest psychoanalytic tradition of criticism can be found in the interpretation of folk tales and marchen and, to a lesser extent in fantasy literature. While Freud, Jung and their disciples have been important in interpretations of children’s literature, the poststructuralist influence has not been as prevalent. Quite dominant, however, is the influence of psychological criticism that relates the development of the child character to the social context depicted in psychologically realistic narratives. Perhaps because of the deep issues involved in psychoanalytic criticism, critics of children’s literature occasionally seem to screen discussions of psychoanalytical issues with analyses of social contexts, even where the topic is announced as being psychoanalytical (Smith and Kerrigan 1985).


Freudian criticism


Classical Freudian criticism interprets the work as an expression of psychopathography, as a symptom whose creation provided therapeutic release for the author. In ‘The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming’ (1908), Freud saw the crucial relationship between child-play/poet-language:


every child at play behaves like an imaginative writer, in that he creates a world of his own or, more truly, he arranges the things of this world and orders it in a new way that pleases him better ... Language has preserved this relationship between children’s play and poetic creation.

(1908/1963 9:144)


Just as it does between dream and text.

Freud assumed that all psychoneurotic symptoms are generated by psychic conflicts between a person’s sexual desires and the strictures of society. The conflict is expressed through substitutions and displacements, just as in literature a metaphor’s tenor and vehicle condense two disparate ideas into one image that hides and reveals what is not articulated. Similarly, displacement substitutes socially acceptable modes for desires that are forbidden. Substitutions thus function as censors in dreams and daydreams, in play and in texts. Freud’s first triad of unconscious, pre-conscious and conscious defines the unconscious as a non-verbal, instinctual and infantile given and as dominated by the pleasure principle. The desires and conflicts (oral, anal, oedipal) of childhood persist throughout the adult’s life and can be made conscious only by being first raised to the level of the pre-conscious which facilitates the dynamic of consciousness and repression through condensation and displacement. Freud later modified his first triad with the paradigm of id, ego and superego, in part because he suspected a greater simultaneity in the dynamics of the psyche. The revised triad places the embattled ego between the deterministic forces of the id and the internalised strictures of society. It is here where we find the cause of the pessimism in Freudian psychoanalytic theory: the ego’s inevitable discontent.

Crucial for Freudian critics of children’s literature is the importance Freud gave to the child in the psychoanalytic process. Though the Oedipus complex has been accepted as part of child development, Freud’s insistence on the polymorphous sexuality of the infant (1962/1975: 39-72) is somewhat more troubling for most critics of children’s literature, for if such sexuality is displaced in the text but communicates itself sub-textually to the child-reader, then the author has transferred his infantile sexuality and communicates it to the child. Texts such as Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (see Bosmajian 1985) and Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen might fall into this category.

Freud’s profound appreciation of the psychological importance of language was bound to lead him not only to interpretations of everyday language phenomena in the processes of repression and substitution, but also to interpretations of major authors of European literature. In ‘The Occurrence in Dreams of Materials from Fairy Tales’, Freud notes that fairy tales have such an impact on the mental life of the child that the adult will use them later as screen memories for the experiences of childhood (1913/1963: 59).

‘The serious study of children’s literature may be said to have begun with Freud,’ acknowledges Egan in his discussion of Peter Pan (1982: 37). Psychoanalysts have indeed been the precursors of the study of children’s literature, which explains the powerful but dubious influence of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (1976), a discussion of familiar tales along infantile and adolescent psychosexual development. Bettelheim sees the child’s libido as a threat to both a meaningful life and the social order; therefore, the child needs fairy tales to order his inner house by acquiring a moral education through the tales (5), for, as the stories unfold they ‘give conscious credence and body to the id pressures and show ways to satisfy these that are in line with ego and superego’ (6). Literary critics have strongly critiqued Bettelheim not only for his a-historicality and reductionism of Freud’s theories (Zipes 1979), but also for his punitive pedagogy, for being ‘oddly accusatory towards children’ (Tatar 1992: xxii) and for displacing his ‘own real life fantasies, particularly of the dutiful daughter who takes care of her father’s needs’ (xxv) into his interpretative work.