Psychological Theories of Identity and Literature The Issue

The Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

For psychologists, identity is a set of behaviors, emotions, and thought patterns that are unique to an individual. Identity is usually established by late adolescence or early adulthood. Dramatic changes are rare after this time. Identity is shaped by sexual preferences, religious beliefs, childhood experience, ethnicity, culture, and biology. Research shows that people prefer to label themselves, resisting those labels (such as lesbian, Catholic, or African American) that they have not chosen. Both positive and negative labels are crucial in the development of personal identity.

In literature, identity is important in two ways. First, writers have a personal identity, which influences the worldview from which they write. For example, Margaret Atwood is Canadian; Alice Walker is African American. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) have similarities because their authors share a gender, and differences because they do not share ethnic or national roots. Second, writers develop characters who may or may not express their creator’s worldview. In James Sallis’ novels featuring Lew Griffin, writer and character have different identities. Sallis is white, Griffin black.

Writers have always expressed their identities in their work, but the development of psychological theories of personality in the twentieth century provided authors with new concepts about how identities are shaped. Psychiatrists and psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Erik Erikson, and Abraham Maslow created concepts that altered how modern literature is written and judged.

Whether knowingly or unknowingly, most modern writers use psychological concepts, or popular interpretations of such concepts, in developing a character’s motivations and behaviors. Similarly, critics and biographers often judge a writer’s motivations and behaviors the same way. Anyone trying to understand twentieth century literature must also understand the major personality theorists.