Ego psychology and object relations theories - Psychoanalytical criticism - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


9. Psychoanalytical criticism


Hamida Bosmajian


Ego psychology and object relations theories


The generation of psychoanalysts that was influenced by, reacted against and revised Freud, distinguishes itself by overcoming Freud’s pessimism regarding the ego’s inevitable discontent. While the new focus does not deny the existence of the unconscious, it emphasises the possibility of healthy growth and development in the ego’s self-realisation in relation to its environment. Karen Horney and Abraham Maslow, Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott describe possibilities for growth through constructive management of the id’s pressures. Each insists that the developing psyche of the child responds to environmental conditions with a positive urge to self-actualisation that is thwarted only by hostile environments. From the perspective of ego psychology, author and reader participate in a shareable fantasy that constructively breaks down ‘for a time the boundaries between self and other, inner and outer, past and future, and ... may neutralise the primal aggressions bound up in those separations’ (Holland 1968: 340). Psychoanalytic literary critics have, however, also been concerned that ego psychology tends to be in one direction only, ‘namely from the ego as a publicly adjusted identity’ (Wright 1984: 57).


Karen Horney and Abraham Maslow

According to Horney, the goal of psychoanalysis is the patient’s discovery of the possibility of self-realisation and the recognition that good human relations are an essential part of this, along with the faculty for creative work and the acceptance of personal responsibility (1950: 334). Persistent denial of childhood conflicts and their screening with defensive self-delusions block self-realisation. Irrational expectations or ‘neurotic claims’ such as selfidealisation obscure not only self-hate, but also ‘the unique alive forces’ that each self possesses and that are distorted by the self-illusions. The therapeutic process weakens the obstructive forces so that the constructive forces of the real self can emerge (348). The constructive forces in ego psychology become known as the ‘Third Force’.

Bernard Paris has applied ‘Third Force’ psychology to several canonical novels whose self-alienating characters fit Horney’s descriptions of neurotic styles, while self-activating characters express their ‘Third Force’ as defined by Maslow (Paris 1974: 29). For Maslow, the ‘Third Force’ is our ‘essentially biologically based inner nature’, unique to the person but also species-wide, whose needs, emotions and capacities are ‘either neutral, pre-moral or positively good’ (1968: 3). Neuroses result when our hierarchically organised basic needs are not met (21). When one level of needs is satisfied, the needs of another level emerge as persons define themselves existentially. During that process the person has ‘peak experiences’, epiphanic moments that afford glimpses into the state of being fully actu- alised and can have the effect of removing symptoms, of changing a person’s view of himself and the world, of releasing creativity and generally conveying the idea that life is worth living in spite of its difficulties (101). Maslow admits that not all peak experiences are moments of ‘Being recognition’ (100), but he insists that people are ‘most their identities in peak experiences’ (103) where they feel most self-integrated.

The development of the ego as self-reliant and socially accepted is perhaps most evident in the young adult novel whose comic resolution integrates the young person with socially acceptable norms. Frequently such narratives include the figure of the social worker or therapist who aids the process, or the young protagonist plans to become a therapist so as to ‘help kids in trouble’. Such problem narratives are accessible to young readers through stories that occasionally seem like case studies. The young adult novel that projects the genuine misfit as a worthwhile subject is a rarity. The largely middle-class context of young adult novels generally furthers the optimism implied in ego psychology.


Melanie Klein and D. W. Winnicott

According to Klein, because the ego is not fully integrated at birth, it is subject to splitting and fragmentation as it projects states of feeling and unconscious wishes on objects or absorbs qualities of the object through introjection where they become defined as belonging to the ego.

Like Freud, Klein saw the ‘exploration of the unconscious [as] the main task of psychoanalytic procedure, and that the analysis of transference [was] the means of achieving this’ (1955/1975a: 123). Her analysands were primarily children whose inability to freely associate verbally led Klein to develop the psychoanalytic play technique already begun by Anna Freud (1925/1975b: 146).

The use of simple toys in a simply equipped room brought out ‘a variety of symbolical meanings’ bound up with the child’s fantasies, wishes and experiences. By approaching the child’s play in a manner similar to Freud’s interpretation of dreams, but by always individualising the child’s use of symbols, Klein felt she could gain access to the child’s unconscious (1975a: 137). She discovered that the primary origin of impulses, fantasies and anxieties could be traced back to the child’s original object relation - the mother’s breast - even when the child was not breastfed (138).

In commenting on the influence of Klein on literary theory, Elizabeth Wright regrets that Klein’s demonstration of fantasy as a precondition of any engagement with reality has been neglected by literary critics who have instead focused on the aesthetic of ego psychology (1984: 83-4). It is through the structure of fantasy that the child acts out not only real or imagined damage, but also the desire for reparation. Klein saw the monsters and menacing figures of myths and fairy tales as parent displacements exerting unconscious influences on the child by making it feel threatened and persecuted, but such emotions ‘can clear our feelings to some extent towards our parents of grievances, we can forgive them for the frustrations we had to bear, become at peace with ourselves’ so that ‘we are able to love others in the true sense of the word’ (1975b: 343).

In criticisms of children’s literature, Klein’s approach can reveal how the text enables the actualisation of the ego intentionally or how it falls short of it. For example, an interpretation of Bianco’s The Velveteen Rabbit reveals it as a fantasy of unresolved ambivalence between the need to be loved and becoming independent, that is, real. Because ‘the story never acknowledges the Rabbit’s desire to grow away from the object of his attachment, and hence never acknowledges the basis for his entry into the depressive position, it cannot credit him with working through it’ (Daniels 1990: 26). The Kleinian perspective also offers insight into the relation of fantasy to guilt and reparation as exemplified in White’s Charlotte’s Web (Rustin and Rustin 1987: 161).

While Klein focused on play as a means to the end of the therapeutic process, D. W. Winnicott saw play as intrinsically facilitating healthy development and group relationships. Even psychoanalysis is an elaborate playing ‘in the service of communication with oneself and others’ (1971: 41). In his studies of babies and children, Winnicott retained the psychoanalytic attention to inner reality along with an emphasis on the child’s cultural and social context. Crucial in his discovery is the concept of the ‘transitional object’: ‘one must recognise the central position of Winnie-the-Pooh’ (xi). By transitional object and transitional space Winnicott designates the intermediate area of experience between the thumb and the teddy bear, between oral eroticism and true object relationships. Identifying the mother’s breast as part of itself, the baby must develop the ability of the ‘not me’ through substitutions which are transitions between the illusion of identification and the acceptance of the ‘not me’. The baby’s relationship with the transitional object has special qualities: the infant assumes right but not omnipotence over the object which can be loved and changed, even mutilated, by the infant. Gradually, the infant will be able to detach itself from the object which becomes consigned to a limbo, rather than being introjected by the infant (1-5). The object is not a signifier for some hidden unconscious content, but a crucial partner in the game of intersubjectivity as the playing infant tests out the ‘me’/‘not me’.

Winnicott’s concept of the transitional object not only lends itself to the interpretation of content images in narratives, but also to the text itself. Both author and reader can claim the text as transitional object. Small children do indeed appropriate a book as object - loving it, adding to it, mutilating it. An especially Winnecottian book would be Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night Moon, which has been cited as an example of the child’s having just learned the distinction between animate and inanimate objects. ‘Good night, bears’ (toys) and ‘good night, kittens’ is acceptable, but saying good night to chairs and mittens provokes shrieks of laughter in the child (Applebee 1978: 41) who does not yet accept the object ‘bear’ as inanimate. Good Night Moon is, for a certain age, a transitional object containing many transitional objects that assuage bedtime anxieties as the child connects with all of them, thus assuring itself of the ‘me’ before the lights go out at bedtime.