Get help from the best in academic writing.

A Psychoanalytic Reading of Hedda Gabler

A Psychoanalytic Reading of Hedda Gabler

Attempting a psychoanalytic reading of a given text is a bit like attempting to understand a city by examining its sewer system: helpful, yet limited.

There are several reasons for using psychoanalysis as a critical literary theory; the critic might be interested in gleaning some sort of subconscious authorial intent, approaching the text as a “cathartic documentation” (my own term) of the author’s psyche; the method might be useful in judging whether characters are well-rendered, whether they are truly three-dimensional and, therefore, worth our while as readers (thus satisfying the pleasure principle); finally, in a larger sense, the psychoanalytic approach can be employed to actually tell us something about our own humanity, by examining the relative continuity (or lack thereof) of basic Freudian theories exemplified in written works over the course of centuries.

If we are indeed scouring the text for what I call “cathartic documentation,” we must, at the outset, look at the period in which the work was written. Pre-Freudian works, that is to say those poems, plays, short stories, and novels written before the late 19th century, are the major candidates for success with this approach. However, 20th century works, beginning with the modernist authors, pose a problem. How are we to be sure that the writer is not consciously playing with Freud’s theories, perhaps even deliberately expanding and distorting them for additional effect? Herein lies the problem with Hedda Gabler: The play was written at roughly the same time that Freud was just beginning to publish his theories. The question is “who influenced whom?” Obviously Freud was taken with Ibsen’s realizations of certain fundamental ideas which were to be the foundation of his (Freud’s) work: repression, neurosis, paranoia, Oedipal complex, phallic symbols, and so on; all of these factors are present in Hedda Gabler. The question remains, however, whether Ibsen had caught wind of Freud’s work and decided to utilize it in the play. Perhaps I am wrong, but having read A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People, both earlier works by some ten years, Hedda Gabler seems to embody Freudian concepts to so much farther an extent that the possibility of a conscious effort to create Freudian neurotic types and set them loose on one another does not seem altogether outside the realm of possibility.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, however, Ibsen has created extremely well-developed characters.

Reception Theory and Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons)

Reception Theory and Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons)

Of all the literary critical theories yet discussed, I find reception theory by far the most intelligent and rewarding. After all, where does literature become literature, where does it “happen” so to speak, if not in the mind of the reader? Without the reader, literature is inky blobs on paper. This correlates to Berkeley’s solipsistic analogy of a tree falling in the woods. Without a listener does it make a sound? Well, technically, it emanates vibrations, but only an ear will interpret those vibrations as sound. Thus with literature. The mind of the reader, operating on the text with it’s various literary and extra-textual codes, makes it literature.

In the case of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, reception theory is not only helpful, it is positively essential to any sort of literary discussion of the novel. Considerations of authorial intent are clearly to no avail, in that, due to the epistolary format, no such intent can be gleaned from the text. Try as we might to construct some sort of original meaning in the mind of the author, we find at last that the meanings we come up with have been supplied by ourselves. Laclos is like the hand of the puppeteer: we never see it, although we know that it is controlling the whole show. All we see are the ornate, 18th century marionettes as they dance through each dastardly deception, each “dangerous liaison.”

Even more maddening than trying to find authorial intent in the pages of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the (one would think) comparatively simple task of ascertaining the moods and motivations of the characters themselves. Since we know that the majority of the characters are moderate to full-blown liars, writing one thing to one person and quite another to another, who do we believe? When seeming to bear one’s soul is just one more weapon in the arsenal, how are we supposed to determine when actual soul-bearing is taking place?

Here, again, reception theory comes to our rescue. By looking at our own literary and non-literary conventions, we begin to feel more confident about the proposition that Valmont really is in love with the Presidente and that the Marquise really is in love with Valmont. After all, that’s what makes it good, isn’t it? Without having love rear it’s ugly head at some point, the book would be a monotone, an unrewarding and depressing look at people at once glamourous and depraved.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.