Jungian criticism - Psychoanalytical criticism - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


9. Psychoanalytical criticism


Hamida Bosmajian


Jungian criticism


Jungian criticism discovers archetypes that are the basis for the images in a text. Preconsciously, or consciously, the author connects with archetypal patterns of which the narrative becomes a variable whose content will somehow relate to the issue of the ego’s integration with the self. Jung’s concept of the therapeutic process begins with the recognition of the loss of an original wholeness, possessed by every infant, a wholeness lost through self-inflation and/or alienation of the ego. On a mythic level, the ego would experience a dark night of the soul followed by a breakthrough that establishes, not an integration with the self, but a connection with the transpersonal self. The end of Jungian analysis is not a complete individuation of the ego, but rather the analysand’s recognition that growth is a life-long process, a quest, during which conscious and unconscious connect primarily through symbols and archetypes.

Jung assumed a personal unconscious consisting of memories and images gathered during a lifetime, for the archetypes, as experienced by the individual, are in and of the world. This personal unconscious is raised to consciousness when the analysand connects the personal with the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is an a priori existence of ‘organising factors’, the archetypes understood as inborn modes of functioning, rather like a grammar that generates and structures the infinite variables of symbol formations whose recurrence is to be understood again as archetypal (Jung 1964: 67). Archetypes are ‘without known origin; and they reproduce themselves in any time or any part of the world - even where transmission by direct descent or “crossfertilisation” through migration must be ruled out’ (69). Jung, too, believed that dreams are meaningful and can be understood (102) as their specific images connect with archetypes whose force can suddenly overwhelm the dreamer. Such an experience contrasts with the conscious use of representing archetypes through culturally defined images and motifs. Jung’s own metaphoric use of archetypal images such as shadow, anima or animus and self, blurred the distinction between archetype as a grammar and archetype as symbol.

Jung, whose theory has been criticised for demanding a vast amount of knowledge of myth, did not perceive the unconscious as an instinctual and libidinal battleground, although he posited a ‘primitive psyche’ in the child which functions in dreams and fantasies comparable to the physical evolution of mankind in the embryo (1964: 99). In Jung’s ‘Psychic Conflicts in a Child’ (1946/1954: 8-46), the child-patient, obsessed with the origin of babies, fantasised that she would give birth if she swallowed an orange, similar to women in fairy tales whose eating of fruit leads to pregnancy. The child-patient was eventually enlightened by her father, but Jung concludes that, while false explanations are not advisable, no less inadvisable is the insistence on the right explanation, for that inhibits the freedom of the mind’s development through concretistic explanations which reduce the spontaneity of image-making to a falsehood (34).

Because the essential nature of all art escapes our understanding, Jung did not perceive literature as psychopathography. We can interpret only ‘that aspect of art which consists in the process of artistic creation’ (1931/1966: 65). While he admits that literary works can result from the intentionality of the author, they are also those that ‘force themselves on the author’, reveal his inner nature, and overwhelm the conscious mind with a flood of thoughts and images he never intended to create: ‘Here the artist is not identical with the process of creation; he is aware that he is subordinate to his work or stands outside it, as though he were a second person’ (73). An author may, for a time, be out of fashion when, suddenly, readers rediscover his work, because they perceive in it archetypes that speak to them with renewed immediacy (77). We can, therefore, only discuss the psychological phenomenology in a work of literature.

It is evident how readily children’s literature, especially when it has components of fantasy, connects with Jungian theories. Marie Louise von Franz (1977, 1978) has written comprehensive studies of fairy tales which the Jungian critic tends to see as ‘allegories of the inner life’ that meet ‘the deep-seated psychic and spiritual needs of the individual’ (Cooper 1983: 154). The problem with such criticism is that it reduces images in fairy tales to fixed allegorical meanings without regard for historical and social contexts, as the Jungian critic basically explains metaphor with metaphor. Northrop Frye’s discussion of archetypes in terms of convention and genre is an attempt to avoid such reductionism (1957). What makes the Jungian approach attractive to interpreters of children’s literature is that the theory assumes an original wholeness that can be regained after alienation is overcome. This coincides with the comic resolution of so many narratives for children and young adults.

In Jungian literary criticism children’s literature is often seen as privileged, just as the ‘primitive psyche’ of the child is in Jungian psychoanalysis. ‘Children’s literature initiates us into psychic reality, by telling about the creatures and perils of the soul and the heart’s possibilities of blessing in images of universal intelligibility’ (Hillman 1980: 5). At its best Jungian criticism is able to integrate the author’s and the reader’s needs as exemplified in Lynn Rosenthal’s interpretation of Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe (1980).