Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Totem and Taboo is a formal intellectual essay which elaborates on ideas fundamental to Sigmund Freud’s theories of the developmental structure of the personality and its relation to the nature of human society. Specifically, it examines the origins of modern social institutions (such as the family), religion, law, myth and totemism, the incest taboo, and exogamy. The essay is divided into four major sections which deal with various aspects of primitive society. In order to understand how Freud derived the themes contained in Totem and Taboo, a word concerning his overall theories of the psyche should be said first.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Freud, a Viennese neurologist, began to explore the phenomenon of the unconscious through techniques of hypnosis, free verbal association, and the analysis of his patients’ dreams. The unconscious is the repository of strong elemental desires which influence much of the individual’s behavior. The conscious, rational self is much like the tip of an iceberg; below the surface irrational urges dictate, he suggested, a large proportion of the choices a human being makes. In his Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913), he theorized that certain elemental wishes and desires were unacceptable and were subsequently repressed or sublimated through the symbolism of the dream process.

Freud came to posit in his subsequent writings a genetic structure for the personality. The newborn infant is an organism dominated by the Id, a center of...

(The entire section is 645 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Benjamin, Nelson, ed. Freud and the Twentieth Century, 1957.

Brown, J.A.C. “Psychoanalysis and Society,” in Freud and the Post-Freudians, 1961.

Huxley, Francis. “Psychoanalysis and Anthropology,” in Freud and the Humanities, 1985.

Levin, Gerald. “Neurosis and Culture,” in Sigmund Freud, 1975.

Roheim, Geza. Psychoanalysis and Anthropology, 1950.