Psychological Theories of Identity and Literature Analysis

The Issue

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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.

Freud’s Theory

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Sigmund Freudwas born in 1856 and died in 1939, having been shaped by the nineteenth century and helping to shape the twentieth. He was Jewish, from a middle-class family, and was his mother’s favorite. She was twenty years younger than his father. His family moved to Vienna, Austria, when Freud was four. Freud eventually obtained a medical degree but had little interest in practicing medicine. He wanted to probe the workings of the human mind.

Freud’s influence on psychology—and on literature and culture—was twofold. First, Freud proposed a theory of how human personality develops. Second, Freud created techniques for treating mental illnesses, which, he believed, resulted from difficulties in normal personality formation. Freud’s theory was psychoanalytic theory; his therapy was psychoanalysis. For Freud, human character was determined by complex genetic and environmental forces, the strongest of which exist in the unconscious, a place in the mind seething with biological instincts and physical drives. The unconscious, as its names suggests, is that part of the mind that contains all (memories, desires, thoughts) of which one is not aware. The energy that powers behavior is the libido, which is inborn and is primarily sexual and aggressive in nature. Society limits how the libido is expressed. Normal human personality is composed of three systems: the id, ego, and superego. These are often called parts, though Freud did not consider them separate or physical entities.

The id is the animalistic part of the personality, governed by a need to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. It does not consider reality; that is, if, for example, one is at the dentist, the id cries for escape, without regard to the fact that the pain one may be undergoing there...

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Jung’s Theory

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Carl Jungwas born in 1875 and died in 1961. He was Swiss, and had a lonely childhood. His father was a pastor but Jung did not share his father’s religious views, which led to conflicts. Like Freud, Jung obtained a medical degree but concentrated on mental rather than physical illness. After reading Freud’s book Die Traumdeutung (1899; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913), Jung wrote Freud and the two became friends. Freud even considered Jung his successor in psychoanalysis. They later quarreled, however, over contrasting aspects of their theories, and their friendship ended bitterly. Illustrative of Jung’s career is the fact that he entered medicine because of a dream. Like Freud, Jung believed that much of human behavior was controlled by the unconscious, and that dreams offered important clues to the unconscious. Jung differed from Freud in critical ways. First, he defined “libido” more broadly, making it more creative and positive. Second, he talked more about the power of social roles in human identity. He used the term “persona” to label the public self that people show the world. The real self is often hidden.

Two Jungian concepts that have influenced literature are the collective unconscious and archetypes. The collective unconscious is the repository of memories of the race’s evolutionary past, memories of emotions or attitudes important and common to primitive human ancestors, and even to animals from which humans evolved. All people have the same collective unconscious, and although they cannot recall these memories directly their behavior is still influenced by the collective unconscious. An example would be the common human fear of snakes. Within the collective unconscious are the archetypes, which are symbols that all humans recognize. Archetypes are found throughout literature. The Wizard of Oz (1900), by L. Frank Baum, illustrates two mother archetypes. Glinda, the good witch, represents the loving mother. The wicked Witch of the West is an evil mother archetype. Another archetype often seen in literature is the shadow, the opposite reflection of a person’s conscious desires. An example is Mr. Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Jung proposed hundreds of archetypes, such as the “eternal youth,” the “wise old man,” and the “anima” and “animus.” The last two represent the feminine side of males and the masculine side of females, respectively.

Erikson’s Theory

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Erik Eriksonwas born in 1902 and died in 1994. He studied with Freud and later developed a stage theory that owed much to Freudian concepts. Erikson proposed eight stages, however. Unlike Freud, Erikson argued that significant personality changes could occur in adulthood, when intimate relationships are first established, when middle age offers continued change or complacency, and when death nears. Two of Erikson’s fruitful concepts for writers are the “identity crisis” and “midlife crisis.” The identity crisis occurs in adolescence and is correlated with people’s search for “who they are” and “how they fit in the world.” It appears to occur only in countries such as the United States, where people do not move directly from childhood into adult roles. American literature, however, has produced many novels using the identity crisis concept. Two examples are J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). A particularly apt evocation occurs in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye (1969), about an eleven-year-old African American girl who wants blue eyes because she thinks only blue eyes are beautiful.

The midlife crisis also appears in literature. This crisis occurs when people in midlife, usually men, become dissatisfied with their current jobs and relationships and undertake dramatic changes such as a divorce or switching careers. Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925) illustrates a midlife crisis.

Maslow’s Theory

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Abraham Maslowwas born in New York in 1908 and died in 1970. He developed an eclectic approach to psychology that combined laboratory work with a theory of basic human needs. While Freud, Jung, and Erikson were psychoanalytic theorists, Maslow became a leader in humanistic psychology. The major concept in Maslow’s theory of personality was his hierarchy of needs. The most basic need is for such biological requirements as food and water. Next come safety needs (protection against the elements, predators, aggressors) which an individual does not worry about until biological needs are met. These are lower-order needs.

After lower-order needs are met people become concerned with higher-order needs, the need for belongingness and love, for self-esteem, and for self-actualization. Self-actualized people are creative, happy, and democratic. Although Maslow did not invent the term “self-actualization,” he expanded and popularized it. Maslow considered self-actualization the highest human goal, which could not be achieved until all other needs were satisfied. Humankind’s search for self-actualization has often been treated in literature, in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922; English translation, 1951), for example, or in Peter Matthiessen’s nonfiction odyssey The Snow Leopard (1978).


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Within psychology, Freud, Jung, Erikson, and Maslow have lost much of their early influence. Yet, while psychology has moved away from these theorists, culture has embraced them. For example, in 1993, David Levering Lewis’ book, W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race, takes a Freudian approach to Du Bois’ life, indicating that psychological concepts of identity remain entrenched in American literature.


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Suggested Readings

Erikson, Erik. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1958. Shows psychoanalysis being applied to a historical figure. Focuses on the identity crisis.

Freud, Sigmund. An Autobiographical Study. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1952. Freud’s concepts in his own words. Remarkably readable.

Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. A detailed biography, including a bibliographical essay discussing Freud’s impact on modern literature and culture.

Jung, Carl. The Portable Jung. Translated by R. F. C. Hull and edited by Joseph Campbell. New York: The Viking Press, 1971. Readings from Jung’s works. Discusses all major tenants of his theory but is difficult to read.

Kunkel, John. Encounters with Great Psychologists: Twelve Dramatic Portraits. Toronto: Wall & Thompson, 1989. An easy-to-read introduction to twelve major psychological theorists, including Freud, Jung, and Maslow.

Maslow, Abraham. Toward a Psychology of Being. 2d ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1968. Completely describes Maslow’s theory. Very readable.