Unconscious Themes
by André Breton

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The main theme of “Unconscious” is the awakening of one’s sexuality as a vehicle for exploration of the unconscious mind. In approaching the place where the world of dreams and reality meet, the poem reflects the process as well. This overriding quest of Surrealism reveals a debt to Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who defines the characteristics of unconscious processes to include timelessness, an exemption from mutual contradiction, and the replacement of external reality by psychical reality; all these elements are present in the poem.

Read carefully, this is not a poem about a young girl’s sexual awakening but of a man’s fantasy of awakening a young girl’s sexuality. The girl is an object. Stranded in the elevator, dangling between floors, she is a helpless little bird, a “feathered jack-in-the-box.” When the two finally join, line 29 explains the experience as something not only natural and exotic but also deriving from a primal collective unconscious. The experience is surreal not because it takes place outside what is rational but because it does not take place at all. Against a backdrop of rationality, from the “abduction” to the man’s getaway, the poem shocks the reader with a rape fantasy. However, the scene occurs in that part of the mind where rationality is displaced by the dream, a key to understanding the process.

One of the most telling references in the poem occurs when the narrator calls the girl Euphorbia. At one time, several species of Euphorbia had medicinal value as a laxative or a vomit-inducing agent. The automatic processes such as free association employed by the Surrealists in an effort to unlock the unconscious mind are akin to a mental regurgitation. Normal poetic conventions such as meter and rhyme only constrain the poet to rational modes; the Surrealist forsakes such conventions to allow what lies deeper in the mind to flow unfettered, just as the presence of the girl, Euphorbia, induces the overflow of primal sexuality. Thus the opening line, “One has not forgotten,” refers not to something real that has happened but to what, for the poet, continues to happen in the unconscious mind. What this means is not clear. For the Surrealist, says one critic, there is no message, only an invitation to explore the possibilities. Enigmatic as this is, it assists the reader in understanding the distance between normal poetic conventions and Breton’s poem, in which contradiction and the absurd stand on equal ground with reality.