Why We Read—
Generally speaking, a structuralist reads to identify and understand fundamental
structures in absolutely anything by seeing a text (object, event, document, action,
etc.) as part of an even larger system. Of course, a literary structuralist focuses on
structures in "literary" texts (and a structuralist would help define "literary" by
studying the deep structure in texts we label "literary"). The project is pseudoscientific because a structuralist supposedly only maps what is there. She does not
evaluate; she only charts and compares or links one structure with another. A
grammarian is a perfect example of a structuralist because she doesn’t care about
the content of the sentences she maps. She cares about how certain words function
within a sentence. A structuralist does the exact same thing with literary texts; she
wants to map the "grammar" of the text she studies.
How We Read—
You may want to consider these questions. While the questions here will help you,
my writing hints also provide a kind of step-by-step methodology.
1. Look for repetitions, patterns, echoes, and oppositions in people, places, language,
objects, movement, and decisions.
2. Uncover the implications of the repetitions and oppositions by exploring the
relationships of similarity and difference that link the story’s events and actions.
This is where you look for the metaphorical content in the people, places, language,
objects, movement, and decisions. This is where you try to identify the allusions, the
"subtexts," the connections between other texts.
3. Use your observations to come up with your claims as to the text’s function, not
meaning. Or put another way, the text's function is its meaning.
Interpretation depends heavily on your ability to make connections, and this ability
will improve as you read, study, and observe. One could argue that education is the
process of learning to make connections. More connections become possible as you
Glossary of Structuralist Terms
Internal Text Analysis
repetition- what words, ideas, images repeat?
rhyme-Are there rhyming words? Are there patterns of rhyming words?
stanza structure- What is the structure of the stanzas (only relevant when analyzing
poetry or songs)
Whole Text Analysis—
fragmented—going back and forth in time with combinations of chronologies
in media res—beginning more or less in the middle of events projections
chronological—linear telling of events
backward—starting at the end and working toward the beginning
forward—starting at the beginning and working toward the end
circular—a reflection that begins anywhere, goes to the end, works its way to the
beginning, and eventually gets back to where it started
flashbacks—looking back into time
What patterns or repetition do you see within the text?
What is the structure of the text?
Is the structure of the text similar to other texts you can think of?
Analyze the text's narrative operations...can you speculate about the
relationship between the...[text]... and the culture from which the text
emerged? In other words, what patterns exist within the text that make it a
product of a larger culture?
What patterns exist within the text that connect it to the larger "human"
experience? In other words, can we connect patterns and elements within
the text to other texts from other cultures to map similarities that tell us
more about the common human experience? This is a liberal humanist move
that assumes that since we are all human, we all share basic human
Adapted from http://mural.uv.es/crises/Structuralism.html
Psychoanalytic Criticism (1930s-present)
Psychoanalytic criticism adopts the methods of "reading" employed by Freud and later
theorists to interpret texts. It argues that literary texts, like dreams, express the secret
unconscious desires and anxieties of the author, that a literary work is a manifestation of
the author's own neuroses. One may psychoanalyze a particular character within a literary
work, but it is usually assumed that all such characters are projections of the author's
One interesting facet of this approach is that it validates the importance of literature, as it is
built on a literary key for the decoding. Freud himself wrote, "The dream-thoughts which
we first come across as we proceed with our analysis often strike us by the unusual form in
which they are expressed; they are not clothed in the prosaic language usually employed by
our thoughts, but are on the contrary represented symbolically by means of similes and
metaphors, in images resembling those of poetic speech" (26).
Like psychoanalysis itself, this critical endeavor seeks evidence of unresolved emotions,
psychological conflicts, guilts, ambivalences, and so forth within what may well be a
disunified literary work. The author's own childhood traumas, family life, sexual conflicts,
fixations, and such will be traceable within the behavior of the characters in the literary
work. But psychological material will be expressed indirectly, disguised, or encoded (as in
dreams) through principles such as "symbolism" (the repressed object represented in
disguise), "condensation" (several thoughts or persons represented in a single image), and
"displacement" (anxiety located onto another image by means of association).
Despite the importance of the author here, psychoanalytic criticism is similar to New
Criticism in not concerning itself with "what the author intended." But what the
author never intended (that is, repressed) is sought. The unconscious material has been
distorted by the censoring conscious mind.
Psychoanalytic criticism builds on Freudian theories of psychology. While we don't have
the room here to discuss all of Freud's work, a general overview is necessary to explain
psychoanalytic literary criticism.
The Unconscious, the Desires, and the Defenses
Freud began his psychoanalytic work in the 1880s while attempting to treat behavioral
disorders in his Viennese patients. He dubbed the disorders 'hysteria' and began treating
them by listening to his patients talk through their problems. Based on this work, Freud
asserted that people's behavior is affected by their unconscious: "...the notion that human
beings are motivated, even driven, by desires, fears, needs, and conflicts of which they are
unaware..." (Tyson 14-15).
Freud believed that our unconscious was influenced by childhood events. Freud organized
these events into developmental stages involving relationships with parents and drives of
desire and pleasure where children focus "...on different parts of the body...starting with the
mouth...shifting to the oral, anal, and phallic phases..." (Richter 1015). These stages reflect
base levels of desire, but they also involve fear of loss (loss of genitals, loss of affection from
parents, loss of life) and repression: "...the expunging from consciousness of these unhappy
psychological events" (Tyson 15).To keep all of this conflict buried in our unconscious,
Freud argued that we develop defenses: selective perception, selective memory, denial,
displacement, projection, regression, fear of intimacy, and fear of death, among others.
Id, Ego, and Superego
Freud maintained that our desires and our unconscious conflicts give rise to three areas of
the mind that wrestle for dominance as we grow from infancy, to childhood, to adulthood:
id - "...the location of the drives" or libido
ego - "...one of the major defenses against the power of the drives..." and home of the
defenses listed above
superego - the area of the unconscious that houses Judgment (of self and others)
and "...which begins to form during childhood as a result of the Oedipus complex"
Freud believed that the Oedipus complex was "...one of the most powerfully determinative
elements in the growth of the child" (Richter 1016). Essentially, the Oedipus complex
involves children's need for their parents and the conflict that arises as children mature
and realize they are not the absolute focus of their mother's attention: "the Oedipus
complex begins in a late phase of infantile sexuality, between the child's third and sixth
year, and it takes a different form in males than it does in females" (Richter 1016).
Freud argued that both boys and girls wish to possess their mothers, but as they grow
older "...they begin to sense that their claim to exclusive attention is thwarted by the
mother's attention to the father..." (1016). Children, Freud maintained, connect this conflict
of attention to the intimate relations between mother and father, relations from which the
children are excluded. Freud believed that "the result is a murderous rage against the
father...and a desire to possess the mother" (1016).
Freud pointed out, however, that "...the Oedipus complex differs in boys and girls...the
functioning of the related castration complex" (1016). In short, Freud thought that
"...during the Oedipal rivalry [between boys and their fathers], boys fantasized that
punishment for their rage will take the form of..." castration (1016). When boys effectively
work through this anxiety, Freud argued, "...the boy learns to identify with the father in the
hope of someday possessing a woman like his mother. In girls, the castration complex does
not take the form of anxiety...the result is a frustrated rage in which the girl shifts her
sexual desire from the mother to the father" (1016).
Freud believed that eventually, the girl's spurned advances toward the father give way to a
desire to possess a man like her father later in life. Freud believed that the impact of the
unconscious, id, ego, superego, the defenses, and the Oedipus complexes was inescapable
and that these elements of the mind influence all our behavior (and even our dreams) as
adults - of course this behavior involves what we write.
Typical questions in doing psychoanalytic criticism:
How do the operations of repression structure or inform the work? What is
repressed? Why? How does it impact the characters?
Are there any oedipal dynamics - or any other family dynamics - are work here?
How can characters' behavior, narrative events, and/or images be explained in
terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind (for example...fear or fascination with
death, sexuality - which includes love and romance as well as sexual behavior - as a
primary indicator of psychological identity or the operations of ego-id-superego)?
What does the work suggest about the psychological being of its author?
What might a given interpretation of a literary work suggest about the psychological
motives of the reader?
Are there prominent words in the piece that could have different or hidden
meanings? Could there be a subconscious reason for the author using these
Adapted from https://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/psycho.crit.html and
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