Incest in Victorian Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Incest in Victorian Literature


Incest in Victorian Literature

The complex human reaction to incest and its prohibition have taken a central position in psychological and sociological scholarship from these disciplines' early twentieth-century beginnings up through today. The taboo of incest in the physical, emotional, and moral senses, especially in father-daughter and brother-sister relationships, was a familiar and persistent theme in literature during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth centuries, and consequently has been a popular focus of modern critical discussion.

Anthropologists and psychologists focused heavily on the study of incest in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Considered a universally prohibited act by most Victorians, it took center-stage when Sigmund Freud gave the wish for incest and its repression or sublimation a central role in human psychological growth and development. In contrast to this fairly recent anthropological and psychological interest, the significance of incest has long been acknowledged in literature; the theme gained special treatment in Jacobean Drama, the eighteenth-century novel, the novels of the American South, and in Romantic Poetry. Literary critics contend that, especially for the Romantic Poets, the incest theme is at the heart of writing about sibling relationships. The Romantics emphasized shared childhood experiences between brothers and sisters, basing the perfection of their union upon the mutual associations built during an idyllic childhood. Critics view this interpretation and representation of brother-sister relationships as being closely related to the Romantic valorization of childhood, where the familial bond is so strong that it survives and is more powerful than anything either adult sibling can feel for someone else. In the eighteenth-century novel, by contrast, brothers and sisters are usually separated at birth and form an attraction to each other during the course of the story. This mutual appeal is a result of the nature versus nurture conflict and is used to illustrate the intuitive attraction of a blood tie.

Most incestuous relationships, including those idealized by the Romantic poets, end in tragedy. Freud saw this tragic culmination as equivalent to the standard punishment for incest in primitive times—death. He interpreted the relationships featured even in such works as The White Doe of Rylstone (1815), where the brother and sister do not share a sexual relationship but are remarkably close and share a common fate, as implicitly incestuous. But there were numerous other overtly incestuous relationships depicted in Romantic poetry and writing, including Lord Byron's Manfred (1817) and Shelley's Laon and Cythna (1818), all of which culminate in tragedy. For the Romantic poets in particular, incest represented a facet of extreme self-love, in addition to the potentially purest form of love. Although it was incorrect in society's eyes, this very mixture of social defiance and self-degradation made the theme of incest attractive to many writers. Variations on the sibling relationship theme as developed by the Romantics exist in Victorian literature as well, although not as explicitly. Two compelling examples of the Victorian manifestation of incest in literature that are often cited by critics are The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Wuthering Heights (1847).

While the incest theme dates back to classical literature, there is a lack of agreement among sociologists and anthropologists regarding the incest taboo and its origins. This inconsistency, in fact, has led many scholars to believe that the taboo derives not from some inherent moral code, but from our self-imposed need to separate ourselves from the animal world where all sexual activity is indeterminate. The derivation of the word “incest”, which means incestum or “unchaste” in Latin, supports this interpretation. Incest has been treated as both a taboo and a special privilege in different eras. The Adam and Eve story, say some critics, posits incest as the very foundation of humankind. Many scholars contend that the controversy regarding the “incest taboo as a result of innate revulsion” has been effectively refuted, especially since there is a long history of stringent laws and punishments against incest. For many of these scholars, the incest taboo is a representation of our most fundamental attempt at social order. According to this theory, the family unit is the most basic representation of social order. Incest represents a serious violation of that order and is therefore disruptive and animalistic.

By 1490 B.C.E. restrictions against incest were firmly established. Sociologists theorize that the world population had increased to the point where the introduction of restrictions on sexual mating was in fact necessary. From this point on, the punishment for incest was consistent throughout differing cultures and ages, though definitions of incest vary according to time and place. Significant legal measures against incest in England coincided with two major literary periods—the Elizabethan and the Victorian. In 1583 Queen Elizabeth I began penalizing incest and created a court of high commission to address crimes associated with it. The next major legal act regarding incest did not become reality until 1908, when the Punishment of Incest Act was passed. Although there were concerns that legal strictures would call attention to the offense and lead to increased frequencies of occurrence, the act simply resulted in more cases being brought to court. And while sociological data provides a valuable context for the recurrence of the incest theme at various times in literature, most critics acknowledge the lack of correspondence between life and literature.

What is consistent between life and literature, however, is that the most common incestuous relationship occurs between fathers and daughters. Precipitating causes for these relationships in real life mirror those represented in literature—an absent mother, a nubile daughter, and/or a radical polarization in the family. Critics also agree that most literature of incest presents a paternalistic culture, where feminine desire for masculine approval is cultivated. By the nineteenth century, the growing cultural repression of purely incestuous impulses made it increasingly difficult to detect acts of incest in literature as they began to be more symptomatically expressed. With the development of Freudian analysis in the early twentieth-century, discussion of incest and its emotional, moral impetus was brought out in the open. The fundamental components of psychoanalytic literary criticism were in place and all literature could now be analyzed in light of incestuous relationships, real or inferred, in search of a deeper understanding of both the work and ourselves.

Representative Works

Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility (novel) 1811
Mansfield Park (novel) 1814
Emma (novel) 1816

Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre; an Autobiography [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1847

Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights. A Novel [as Ellis Bell] (novel) 1847

Lord Byron
Manfred, A Dramatic Poem (verse) 1817

Charles Dickens
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Edited by “Boz” (novel) 1836-1838
Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (novel) 1847
The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850

George Eliot
The Mill on the Floss (novel) 1860

Mary Shelley
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (novel) 1818
Mathilda (novella) 1959

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century [revised as The Revolt of Islam; A Poem of Twelve Cantos] (poem) 1818 [i.e., 1817]
The Cenci. A Tragedy, in Five Acts (verse drama) 1819

William M. Thackeray
The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne, Written by Himself (novel) 1852

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend: Fundamentals of a Psychology of Literary Criticism, by Otto Rank, Johns Hopkins University, 1992, pp. xi-xxv.

[In the following essay, Rudnytsky traces the evolution of psychoanalysis and literary criticism in the early twentieth century, focusing on the work of Sigmund Freud and Otto Frank.]

The first three meetings of the Psychological Wednesday Society for which minutes are extant took place on October 10, October 17, and October 24, 1906. Viennese physicians and other intellectuals interested in Freud's ideas had begun gathering for weekly discussions in his apartment at Berggasse 19 as early as 1902, but not until 1906, with Otto Rank's appointment as salaried secretary to the group—an appointment that lasted until 1915, when World War I intervened—were the proceedings recorded in writing.

Rank's function at these October 1906 meetings was pivotal in two respects, for he not only transcribed them but also read the paper that was discussed. His three-part presentation, “The Incest Drama and Its Complications,” outlined the ideas that he fully elaborated in his 1912 magnum opus, Das Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage: Grundzüge einer Psychologie des dichterischen Schaffens [The incest theme in literature and legend: Fundamentals of a psychology of literary creation], which appears here for the first time in an English translation.

Beyond Rank's double function as speaker and reporter, it is symbolically appropriate that the minutes of the Psychological Wednesday Society should begin with a sketch of The Incest Theme. During 1906-12 the psychoanalytic movement grew to maturity. The group to which Rank delivered his ideas was renamed in 1908 the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society; in 1910 it ceased meeting in Freud's apartment. Also in 1910, in the aftermath of the Nuremberg Congress, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded, with Jung as president. After the Nuremberg Congress adjourned, Freud wrote to Ferenczi: “With the Nuremberg Reichstag closes the childhood of our movement; that is my impression. I hope now for a rich and fair time of youth” (Jones 1955, 70-71).

By existing in preliminary and final form at either end of the period 1906-12, Rank's work frames the years in question. The historical significance of The Incest Theme is inseparable from its theoretical concern with incest. As Rank summarizes his main thesis, “The incest fantasy is not simply the ‘nuclear complex of neurosis’” that “dominates the unconscious psychic life of normals, determining their social and erotic orientation in life,” but is also “of primary importance in the psychic life of the author” (1912b, 12). During 1906 to 1912 the Oedipus complex emerged as the touchstone of psychoanalytic truth.

The story of Freud's discovery of the Oedipus complex has often been told; here only one point solicits attention. In a valuable study, John Forrester (1980, 84-96) has documented how Freud gradually consolidated the concept of the Oedipus complex, which integrated such disparate themes as infantile sexuality, children's sexual researches, generational conflict, the family romance, Jung's idea of a “complex” derived from word association experiments, and the triangular relation between a child and its parents into a single theoretical whole. The term itself first surfaced in Freud's paper, “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men” (1910). Challenging traditional accounts of Freud's career, Forrester argues that “Freud did not discover the Oedipus complex as such during his self-analysis. … Rather, he discovered Oedipal impulses. If we mean by the Oedipus complex the nucleus or core of a neurosis, then it seems clear that Freud did not establish this until the period 1908-10” (1980, 232 n. 19).

Building on Forrester's work, John Kerr (1988, 25-30) has charted the evolution of Freud's belief in a “nuclear complex” (Kernkomplex) of the neuroses. As Kerr shows, it was again only gradually that the “nuclear complex” became synonymous with the Oedipus complex, so that Freud could declare in Totem and Taboo, “We have arrived at the point of regarding a child's relation to his parents, dominated as it is by incestuous longings, as the nuclear complex of neurosis” (1912-13, 17). Kerr points out that the first reference to the term “nuclear complex” in the Freud-Jung correspondence, in Freud's letter of December 11, 1908, occurs in connection not with Oedipus, but with an altogether different notion of a “poisoning complex”: “I am so obsessed by the idea of a nuclear complex in neuroses such as is at the heart of the case of Little Herbert [Hans] that I cannot make any headway. A recent observation tempted me to trace the poisoning complex, when it is present, back to the infant's interpretation of the mother's morning sickness” (McGuire 1974, 186). Kerr links Freud's interest in this developmental aspect of the poisoning complex—the bewildered child's inference that sexual intercourse makes people sick—to his deeply held belief that libido would prove to be a toxic chemical process in the brain.

The inquiries of Forrester and Kerr usefully complicate oedipal-centered narratives of Freud's intellectual development—such as my own in Freud and Oedipus (Rudnytsky 1987)—but they do not undermine them. In his Autobiographical Study, Freud states that “the ubiquity of [the Oedipus complex] gradually dawned on me” (1925, 63), and the labors of the revisionist historians simply substantiate this retrospective realization.

Moreover, although Freud's arrival at his 1910 formulation of the Oedipus complex was indeed gradual, a chain of references to Oedipus in his writings beginning with the section “Typical Dreams” in The Interpretation of Dreams—itself a recasting of the insight expressed in his October 15, 1897, letter to Fliess—shows that a conjunction between the ideas of Oedipus and incest was well established in his mind. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud affirms: “Among these [infantile] tendencies the first place is taken with uniform frequency by the child's sexual impulses towards his parents, which are as a rule already differentiated owing to the attraction of the opposite sex—the son being drawn towards his mother and the daughter towards her father.” A footnote directs the reader “to my remarks in The Interpretation of Dreams on the inevitability of fate in the fable of Oedipus” (1905, 227). Alluding to the foregoing passage, Freud writes in the case of Little Hans: “In his attitude toward his father and mother Hans confirms in the most concrete and uncompromising manner what I have said in my Interpretation of Dreams and my Three Essays with regard to the sexual relations of a child to his parents. Hans really was a little Oedipus who wanted to have his father ‘out of the way,’ to get rid of him, so that he might be alone with his beautiful mother and sleep with her” (1909a, 111). In the case of the Rat Man, although he does not mention Oedipus, Freud defines “the nuclear complex of the neuroses” as “the complex which comprises the child's earliest impulses, alike tender and hostile, towards its parents and brothers and sisters” (1909b, 208). He remarks of his obsessive patient: “There can be no question that there was something in the sphere of sexuality that stood between the father and son, and that the father had come into some sort of opposition to the son's prematurely developed erotic life. Several years after his father's death, the first time he experienced the pleasurable sensations of copulation, an idea sprang into his mind: ‘This is glorious! One might murder one's father for this!’” (1909b, 201).

When one reads these excerpts from Freud's writings between 1905 and 1909, it becomes evident that the Oedipus myth never had a serious rival as an explanatory paradigm. The passages from the two case histories directly refute Forrester's contention that in 1909 “Freud and his co-workers were not particularly concerned with the triadic relation of father, mother, and child” (1980, 89). With commendable honesty, Kerr concedes that the poisoning complex “was not destined for great things in the evolution of psychoanalysis” and that it “was one of the few ideas that Freud seems simply to have discarded altogether” (1988, 28-29).

As Freud's letter to Fliess of October 15, 1897, attests, Oedipus inheres in the very origins of psychoanalysis: “A single idea of general value dawned on me. I have found, in my own case too, being in love with my mother and jealousy of my father, and I now consider it a universal event in early childhood. … If this is so, we can understand the gripping power of Oedipus Rex” (Masson 1985, 272). He rephrases the same idea less personally in The Interpretation of Dreams: “It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father” (Freud 1900, 262). In both the letter to Fliess and The Interpretation of Dreams, his exegeses of Oedipus the King and Hamlet follow. Already in the letter to Fliess, Freud asserts the oedipal paradigm to be his “single idea of general value” and a “universal event.” Thus, when in 1910 he formulates the Oedipus complex and in 1912 equates it with the nuclear complex, Freud is simply restating at higher levels of theoretical abstraction the basic contention he had proposed to Fliess in the wake of his abandonment of the seduction theory and then advanced publicly in The Interpretation of Dreams. In psychoanalytic terms, Freud's progression from the letter to Fliess to Totem and Taboo is one of deferred action, in which the later moment completes the meaning of the earlier moment but the two cannot be understood independently of one another.

As I have shown elsewhere, the chain of “supplements” in Freud's identification with Oedipus begins before the letter to Fliess and continues after Totem and Taboo; its origins lie in his family constellation, in which his father was a generation older than his mother (Rudnytsky 1987, 3-17). Nonetheless, these are the two decisive moments. Consequently, Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory in September 1897, which led immediately to his reorientation toward infantile sexual fantasy and invocation of Oedipus, retains its standing as a turning point of his thought, and no account of his career can be accepted that loses sight of this benchmark.

Freud's engagement with the Oedipus myth forms the backdrop to Rank's achievement in The Incest Theme. Rank's progression from his 1906 presentations to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society to his 1912 publication of the completed work parallels Freud's intellectual development and forms an integral subplot to the history of psychoanalysis during this period. In his comments on Rank's first talk, Freud criticized the lack of clarity in his organization and proposed: “Oedipus should be presented as the core [Kern] and model; then the one tried and tested method of presentation would be on the one hand to group the material around this core, and on the other hand, by developing a series, to follow the theme from its core to its furthest ramifications” (Nunberg and Federn 1962, 10). In the first recorded meeting of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, Freud heralds his search for a nuclear complex, and he does so in connection with Oedipus.1 That Rank took Freud's strictures to heart is clear from The Incest Theme, not only in the passage I have already quoted but also in the conclusion, where he reaffirms that “the incest complex with all its diversity, opposing aspects, and derivatives represents the nuclear complex of neuroses and of the literary creative drive as well” (Rank 1912b, 570).

Rank's relationship to Freud is triangulated by Jung, who in 1912 published Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (Transformations and symbols of the libido), translated into English in 1916 as Psychology of the Unconscious. Not only were Transformations and Symbols and The Incest Theme published in the same year, but the two works mirror one another in that they approach the problems of incest and libido from antithetical vantage points. Jung's work announces his dissatisfaction with Freud's system; Rank's champions Freudian orthodoxy. As Jung wrote to Freud on August 2, 1912, upon receiving Rank's book: “It is a very distinguished piece of work and will make a big impression. But, as you know, I am not in agreement with his theoretical position on the incest problem. The salient fact is simply the regressive movement of the libido and not the mother” (McGuire 1974, 512).

The doubling between Jung and Rank is redoubled, since both published revised editions of their landmark books. The second edition of The Incest Theme appeared in 1926; the second edition of Jung's treatise, retitled Symbols of Transformation, appeared in 1952. Both later editions reflect changes in their authors' relationship to Freud.2 A distillation of Jung's mature thought, Symbols of Transformation is implacably antipsychoanalytic. By contrast, the second edition of The Incest Theme stems from the period between 1924 and 1927, when Rank had broken personally with Freud over the crisis precipitated by The Trauma of Birth (1924) but still continued to regard himself as a psychoanalyst.3 Thus, whereas in Jung's case the first edition is transitional and the second definitive, for Rank the reverse is true. Still, the appearance of revised editions testifies to the importance both authors attached to the works in question, and a properly historical reading would require a scrutiny of the disparities between the two versions.

Jung's modifications cannot be considered here, and even Rank's can be only cursorily assessed. But it surely bears mentioning that both occurrences of the phrase “nuclear complex” I have cited from the 1912 edition of The Incest Theme (13, 681) are eliminated in the 1926 edition (19, 623). In The Trauma of Birth, by contrast, Rank speaks of the disturbance of the “blessed peace” the fetus enjoys in its mother's womb by the paternal phallus during intercourse as the “nuclear complex of the neuroses,” of which the later Oedipus complex is merely the “psychosexual elaboration” (1924, 194). He thereby displaces Freud's oedipal paradigm from its place of theoretical primacy in favor of the prenatal period. The notion of the birth trauma receives only two passing glances in the 1926 Incest Theme. First, Rank claims to have shown by it that the child's “original bodily relationship to the mother” is the “deepest biological source” of its love for its parents (1926, 35; cf. 1912a, 27; 1912b, 23). Second, Rank writes of Cronus's castration of his father Uranus during intercourse that “besides the sexual rivalry over the mother, we must discern as well its previous infantile stage, namely separation, or, if one may so call it, ‘castration’ from the mother, whose root I have shown to be the actual separation from the mother in birth” (1926, 277-78; cf. 1912a, 287; 1912b, 231-32). By treating castration as a form of separation, the second passage makes clear the radical shift from oedipal to preoedipal levels of analysis that characterizes Rank's 1924-27 period.

The intertwining of the fates of Rank and Jung culminates in their roles as psychoanalytic apostates. In the New Introductory Lectures Freud contemplates the schisms that have taken place in psychoanalysis: “Suppose, for instance, that an analyst attaches little value to the influence of the patient's personal past and looks for the causation of neuroses exclusively in present-day motives and in expectations of the future. … We for our part will then say: ‘This may be a school of wisdom; but it is no longer analysis.’ Or someone else may arrive at the view that the experience of anxiety at birth sows the seed of all later neurotic disturbances” (1933, 143). These unnamed heresies are transparently those of Jung and Rank. Although they “start from diametrically opposed premisses,” Freud adds, they share the characteristic that “each of them takes hold of one fragment out of the wealth of themes in psycho-analysis and makes itself independent on the basis of this seizure” (143-44).

Freud seeks to exonerate himself of responsibility for the ruptures in the psychoanalytic movement by claiming that they were simply a series of partings that became inevitable when theoretical differences exceeded tolerable limits. To the extent that “strong emotional factors” were involved, Freud imputes them exclusively to his opponents, who (apart from Wilhelm Stekel) “excluded themselves” because they found it difficult “to fit themselves in with others or to subordinate themselves” (1933, 143-44). Freud's polemic is a rhetorical tour de force, but it serves a defensive function, and his anonymous portraits of Jung and Rank show for whom he reserved his greatest scorn.

Freud's assimilation of Jung and Rank as dissidents was taken over by Ernest Jones in his biography of Freud. Indeed, Jones maintains that this parallel is in one important respect unfair to Jung: “The outstanding difference between the two cases is of course that Jung was not afflicted by any of the mental trouble that wrecked Rank and so was able to pursue an unusually productive and fruitful life” (1955, 77). Jones's depiction of Rank is prejudiced in the extreme, for there is no evidence that he suffered from any serious mental illness, and he retained the productivity of genius until his death in 1939 at age fifty-five.

Despite Jones's animus, however, his assimilation of Rank to Jung ironically finds vindication in the intellectual realm. As I have contended elsewhere, although Rank's early thought was antithetical to Jung's, by the end of his career Rank espoused Jungian views (Rudnytsky 1991, 48-50). As late as The Trauma of Birth, Rank attacked Jung for slighting sexuality (1924, 27), citing the passage in Transformations and Symbols where Jung asserts of the longing to return to the mother's womb: “It is not incestuous cohabitation which is desired, but the rebirth. … Thus the libido becomes spiritualized in an imperceptible manner” (1912, 251). Six years later, however, Rank affirms in Psychology and the Soul: “Symbolic and anxiety dreams … can be understood only in relation to that ‘unconscious’ which never becomes conscious, and which Jung has properly called ‘collective’ because of its identity with the spiritual. The typical sexual symbols of serpent, mouse, and bird originally had spiritual meanings” (1930, 126). In keeping with his conversion to a “collective” unconscious with “spiritual” meanings, Rank in Art and Artist scores Freud's “concrete” view of the mother and the birth trauma, which he now disdains “only as typical and ideological,” and approvingly quotes Transformations and Symbols on “the symbolic significance of the mother” (1932, 378). Thus, in his final phase, Rank repudiates psychoanalysis and his own earlier work in The Incest Theme and endorses Jung's critique that “the salient fact is simply the regressive movement of the libido and not the mother.”

Like Jung, Adler mediated between Rank and Freud. But unlike Jung, who lived in Zurich, Adler was part of Freud's circle in Vienna, to which Rank also belonged. In an excellent study, Paul E. Stepansky has warned against reading Adler's place in the early history of psychoanalysis from the retrospective standpoint of his 1911 break with Freud. Rather, during 1906 to 1910 Adler was a leading member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, whose “emphasis on the psychological repercussions of organ inferiority was neither exceptional nor controversial” and whose contributions “were generally welcomed for the clarifying connections they provided between clinical medicine and psychoanalysis” (Stepansky 1983, 104). Since Adler's views remained largely unchanged during the years of his association with Freud, Stepansky persuasively suggests that the reasons for his ouster in 1911 were not intellectual but political. After the Nuremberg Congress and the founding of the International Psychoanalytic Association, Freud's heightened emphasis on ideological purity in the psychoanalytic movement and his confidence that its future rested with Jung caused him to become intolerant of diversity among his Viennese followers and to “reinterpret the status of his own prior reservations about Adler's theories with a view to ending Adler's active collaboration” (136).

Stepansky (1983, 91-92) adduces as the best example of Adler's respected position during the earlier, open-ended years of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society Rank's attempt on March 4, 1908, to prove that “the inferiority of Schiller's eyes” was “one of the roots of his Tell figure by referring to the myth of the blind archer and to some characteristic passages in the Wilhelm Tell drama” (Nunberg and Federn 1962, 341). Strikingly, several members of the group who later sided with Adler against Freud found the greatest fault with Rank's presentation. Stekel complained that “the continuous recourse to the doctrine of inferiority has by now become painful”; Eduard Hitschmann concurred that Rank's explanation was “paradoxical and forced,” with inferiority “dragged in by the hair.” Freud, in contrast, came to Rank's defense and pronounced his exegesis “a particularly beautiful mythological confirmation of Adler's principle and secure as are few interpretations” (341-43).

Like Rank's three-part 1906 paper, his presentation in 1908 shows The Incest Theme in the making. His Adlerian reading of Wilhelm Tell was incorporated into the published text (Rank 1912b, 88-91). Rank adroitly argues that the theme of blindness is displaced from the shooter Tell to his son Walter, who refuses to be blindfolded, although Tell himself is overcome with dizziness at the moment of shooting. He augments biographical evidence of defects in Schiller's eyesight with the etymological detail that the name Schiller, given to the poet's ancestors, is derived from the verb schielen (“to squint”). Here Rank's 1912 edition reflects the ecumenical spirit that prevailed through 1910 in the discussions of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Elsewhere, however, Rank shows his Freudian colors by discounting an Adlerian explanation of sibling love in Shelley and Byron in terms of “male protest” (1912b, 447). This polemic was deleted from the 1926 edition of The Incest Theme (514), when Rank no longer had reason to cast himself as Freud's disciple.

Stepansky's analysis reveals that the politicization of the international psychoanalytic movement “provided a structural foundation for the crystallization of rival ‘Freudian’ and ‘Adlerian’ conflict groups within the Viennese psychoanalytic community” and that Adler's ensuing departure from the group “was the product of a premeditated assault engineered entirely by Freud” (1983, 144, 146). Its upshot is to expose as disingenuous Freud's intertwined claims in the New Introductory Lectures that the rifts in the psychoanalytic movement were intellectual in origin, that his opponents' decisions to depart were voluntary, and that he himself had no responsibility for what occurred. On the contrary, as Stepansky points out, the pattern detectable in Freud's dealings with Adler emerges even more distinctly in his relationship with Jung. From his first letters, Jung openly acknowledged his reservations about Freud's theory of sexuality. Freud, keen to secure Jung as a convert and then to anoint him as his heir apparent, did not accept these qualms at face value, but rather “resorted to the wish-fulfilling prophecy that Jung's theoretical timidity would inevitably yield to the input of additional clinical experience” (Stepansky 1983, 177). Only after the rift between the two men became irrevocable did Jung's expanded definition of libido as general psychic energy, which followed consistently from his original premises and appealed to Freud's own analysis of paranoia in the Schreber case, retroactively receive its “deviant” stamp (177-78).

The same pattern of emotional reversal surfaces for a final time in Freud's rupture with Rank. As I have documented elsewhere, to grasp the crisis surrounding The Trauma of Birth it is necessary to realize that Rank, like Jung a decade earlier, had reason to regard himself as Freud's probable heir (Rudnytsky 1991, 37-39). In a letter of August 4, 1922, Freud regrets that he has not encouraged Rank to study medicine, for he then would not “be in doubt as to whom I would leave the leading role in the psychoanalytic movement. As it now stands I cannot help but wish that Abraham's clarity and accuracy could be merged with Ferenczi's endowments and to it be given Jones's untiring pen” (Taft 1958, 77-78). Although Freud's tone is rueful, such praise sparked Rank's ambition, which burst into flame at the news of Freud's cancer in spring 1923. Rank initially regarded The Trauma of Birth as a capstone to the psychoanalytic edifice, with which he simultaneously consummated Freud's ideas and established his own claim to the throne. Only when Freud, heeding the warnings of Abraham and Jones—the conservative members of his inner circle—refused to bestow his unqualified approbation did Rank manifest the negative side of his ambivalence and construe his innovation as a birth trauma heralding his own intellectual independence.

Like his predecessors in Freud's disfavor, Rank doubtless had his personal failings and must be apportioned some of the blame for the painful quarrels that took place. As in the cases of Adler and Jung, moreover, Rank's secession from Freud was in part a political drama in which many of the elements were beyond Freud's control. But the litany of defections and broken friendships—including that with Fliess in the 1890s—mandates the conclusion that their ultimate cause lies in Freud's...

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Criticism: Novels

David Smith (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “Incest Patterns in Two Victorian Novels,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XV, No. 3, Summer, 1965, pp. 135-62.

[In the following essay, Smith argues that incest is a central theme in both Jane Eyre, where Jane struggles against her incestuous feelings for father figure Rochester, and Mill on the Floss, where the controversial flood-death scene and the passionate embrace between brother and sister illuminate the incestuous undercurrent of the novel.]


Even the initial reading of Jane Eyre1 will reveal that the central organizing element is...

(The entire section is 12400 words.)

Giles Mitchell (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Incest, Demonism, and Death in Wuthering Heights,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1973, pp. 27-36.

[In the following essay, Mitchell theorizes that there is no compelling moral or social reason for Heathcliff and Cathy not to marry each other, but they abstain from a sexual or marital relationship because they are already tightly bound by other ties, including a brother-sister relationship.]

It is clear to most readers of Wuthering Heights, and it is equally clear to Catherine Earnshaw, that she is betraying herself when she decides to marry Edgar Linton.1 She says that she loves Edgar “entirely and altogether”...

(The entire section is 5621 words.)

Sylvia Manning (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Incest and the Structure of Henry Esmond,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 34, No. 2, September, 1979, pp. 194-213.

[In the following essay, Manning contends that the incest motif permeates Henry Esmond beyond the commonly acknowledged feature of Henry and Rachel's marriage; Manning also theorizes that the author's own subconscious incest fantasy underlies the conflict between desire and social convention in the novel.]

The broader incestuous features of Henry Esmond are commonly acknowledged. Henry marries Rachel, who not only has served him as foster mother and called him her son, but who is the biological mother of the younger...

(The entire section is 8544 words.)

William R. Goetz (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Genealogy and Incest in Wuthering Heights,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 359-76.

[In the following essay, Goetz examines two interpretation problems in Wuthering Heights: first he examines Catherine's choice to marry Edgar Linton instead of Heathcliff, and then he discusses the second half of the novel's complex kinship relationships.]

In arguing for the basic equivalence between language and systems of kinship, Claude Lévi-Strauss has pointed out that the situations of the two, in one important respect, are symmetrical but inverse. In the case of language, we know what the function or meaning of the phenomenon...

(The entire section is 8829 words.)

Anca Vlasopolos (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Frankenstein's Hidden Skeleton: The Psycho-Politics of Oppression,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 10, No. 30, July, 1983, pp. 125-35.

[In the following essay, Vlasopolos suggests that despite some awkwardness of style and plot improbabilities Frankenstein is a coherent novel because of the conflict it presents between accepted socio-political forces and the private struggle of a man who views himself as driven to incest.]

Renewed interest in Frankenstein suggests that the novel possesses a covert structure which, despite some critics' charges of awkwardness of style and improbabilities of plot, gives the novel a coherence that has...

(The entire section is 6810 words.)

Johanna M. Smith (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “‘My Only Sister Now’: Incest in Mansfield Park,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Smith regards the happy ending of Mansfield Park to be a dismal failure and contends that the incestuous overtones of Fanny and Edmund's relationship reveal the crippling effects of sister-brother relationships within a constricted, hierarchical family structure.]

Regarded as a happy ending to Mansfield Park, the marriage of Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram is a dismal failure. Jane Austen, I believe, intends this failure: as Fanny settles into smug seclusion at Mansfield, “the daughter that he...

(The entire section is 6664 words.)

Kathryn B. McGuire (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Incest Taboo in Wuthering Heights: A Modern Appraisal,” in American IMAGO, Vol. 45, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 217-24.

[In the following essay, McGuire explores the incest theme in Wuthering Heights in the context of modern psychological breakthroughs in the study of incest; the critic draws on Ernest Jones' thesis of the relationship between incest, Satanism, vampirism, lycanthropy, and necrophilia, stating that Heathcliff demonstrates all these traits.]

Wuthering Heights has long been admired as a unique and powerful novel. The brooding atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, the intense characters, and the disturbing theme lure the...

(The entire section is 2744 words.)

Glenda A. Hudson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Incestuous Sibling Relationships: Mansfield Park, Emma and Sense and Sensibility,” in Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen's Fiction, Macmillan, 1992, pp. 33-60.

[In the following excerpt, Hudson proposes that far from being elegiac and nostalgic, most of Austen's novels conclude with an optimistic expulsion of menacing intruders from the home and family. Hudson maintains that, in Austen's works, incest creates a loving family circle where familial bonds are tightened and strengthened.]

Jane Austen's sister Cassandra attempted to persuade her to change the dénouement of Mansfield Park. According to Cassandra, Austen's failure...

(The entire section is 12096 words.)

Audra Dibert Himes (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “‘Knew shame, and knew desire’: Ambivalence as Structure in Mary Shelley's Mathilda,” in Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley after Frankenstein, edited by Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O'Dea, Associated University Presses, 1997, pp. 115-29.

[In the following essay, Himes explains that while incest was a conventional theme of nineteeth-century literature, Mary Shelley treats this theme very differently in Mathilda by presenting Mathilda's desire as especially transgressive.]

“Such is my name, and such my tale,
                    Confessor—to thy secret ear,
          I breathe the sorrows I bewail,
And thank thee for...

(The entire section is 6208 words.)

Susan Anne Carlson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Incest and Rage in Charlotte Brontë's Novelettes,” in Creating Safe Space: Violence and Women's Writing, edited by Tomoko Kuribayashi and Julie Tharp, State University of New York Press, 1998, pp. 61-77.

[In the following essay, Carlson offers a close reading of Brontë's novelettes written between 1836 and 1839 and theorizes that the secret of Angria that Brontë created for her works allowed her to create a safe space and outlet for her forbidden fantasies of father-daughter seduction and female masochism.]

Charlotte Brontë, between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three, created a secret fantasy world called Angria, a world that she constructed in...

(The entire section is 8135 words.)

Jane M. Ford (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “The Triangle in Charles Dickens,” in Patriarchy and Incest from Shakespeare to Joyce, University Press of Florida, 1998, pp. 54-79.

[In the following excerpt, Ford traces events in Dickens' life that parallel a search for first love depicted in many of his works. She explains that Dickens' lifelong fascination with father/daughter relationships was explored in most of his novels, and that Dombey and Son is an especially significant work on this theme.]

The relationship between psychobiographical data and the recurrent father/daughter theme is particularly explicit for Charles Dickens (1812-70). The early trauma of his relegation to the blacking...

(The entire section is 11762 words.)

Criticism: Plays

SOURCE: “The Incest Motif in Shelley's The Cenci,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 222-39.

[In the following essay, Groseclose contends that the rape/incest between Beatrice and Count Cenci is the event that controls the The Cenci structurally and histrionically. Groseclose also feels that the incestuous act is Shelley's way of symbolically denouncing the destructiveness of tyranny, and proposing violent insurrection as a means to eliminating it.]

Mary Shelley admired her husband's 1819 play, The Cenci, because it was, she felt, the most direct of his works.1 The author himself, apparently both pleased and...

(The entire section is 6996 words.)

Criticism: Poetry

John Donovan (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Incest in Laon and Cythna: Nature, Custom, Desire,” in The Keats-Shelley Review, No. 2, 1987, pp. 49-90.

[In the following essay, Donovan traces the publishing history of Laon and Cythna, from its inception to its reprinting as The Revolt of Islam,and argues that the changes between the two versions make it difficult to understand Shelley's intent.]

The printing history of Laon and Cythna; or, the Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century includes a notorious peculiarity. Shelley's grand attempt at a narrative romance on the epic scale, and his longest poem, was composed in draft at Marlow during the...

(The entire section is 19340 words.)

D. L. Macdonald (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Incest, Narcissism and Demonality in Byron's Manfred,” in Mosaic, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 25-38.

[In the following essay, Macdonald theorizes that Manfred is a powerful revision of Goethe's Faust and of the tradition behind it. Macdonald explains that the central act of the poem, the pact with the devil, can be traced to the psychodynamics of incest.]

In 1816, Byron left England forever, his reputation ruined by the collapse of his marriage and the rumors of his affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. He went first to Switzerland, where he met the Shelleys and suggested that they all pass the time by writing ghost...

(The entire section is 6327 words.)

Richard Cronin (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Shelleyan Incest and the Romantic Legacy,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XLV, 1996, pp. 61-76.

[In the following essay, Cronin explores the evolution and significance of the themes of love and incest in Shelley's poetry. The critic contends that Romantic poetry in general and Shelley's work in particular left a difficult legacy for the Victorians, challenging them to accommodate these themes in an acceptable manner for the reading public.]

I begin with a particular legacy, with the copy of The Revolt of Islam owned by Arthur Hallam and bequeathed, after his early death, to his friend and fellow-Apostle, Henry Alford. Like Hallam, Alford was a minor...

(The entire section is 7132 words.)

Further Reading


Brophy, Robert J. “Tamar, The Cenci, and Incest.” In American Literature XLII, No. 2 (May 1970): 241-44.

A brief comparison of the treatment of the incest theme in Tamar and The Cenci.

Durbach, Errol. “The Geschwister-Komplex: Romantic Attitudes to Brother-Sister Incest in Ibsen, Byron, and Emily Brontë.” In Mosaic (Summer 1979): 61-73.

Examines an understanding of incest behavior as it relates to the nineteenth-century crisis of existence following the age of Enlightenment.

Garrett, Margaret Davenport. “Writing and Re-writing Incest in Mary Shelley's...

(The entire section is 378 words.)