Peter Barry (Beginning Theory, fourth edition. Manchester University Press, 2017, p. 97):
Psychoanalytic criticism is a form of literary criticism which uses some of the techniques of psychoanalysis in the interpretation of literature.
Psychoanalysis investigates the connection between the conscious and the unconscious with the aim to cure mental disorders. In addition to methods, the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, developed a number of theories and concepts, such as the Oedipus complex; id, ego and super-ego; libido; castration anxiety; death drive; repression; sublimation; the Freudian slip; and dream work. (Freud did not discover all of these concepts, but he combined them into a theory that was his own and that evolved over several decades.) Psychoanalytic critism does not only use the techniques mentioned in Peter Barry's brief definition but can also use the concepts Freud developed.
Jonathan Culler describes psychoanalytic criticism (next to Marxist criticism) as one of the most powerful modern "hermeneutics", by which he means that it is a theory that is applied to help understand what is going on in a literary work (as opposed to "poetics", which attempts to uncover how literary works achieve their effects). (See Jonathan Culler: Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 1997, pages 128-129.) But how can the methods of psychoanalysis be applied to literary works? Do works of fiction have mental disorders? Can you invite them to lie down on a couch and talk freely using free associations?
One of the reasons why literary critics are interested in psychoanalysis is that literary works have something in common with emanations from the unconscious such as dreams: they do not speak directly and explicitly but through the use metaphors, symbols, imagery etcetera. Hence, what psychoanalytic literary critics do is the following:
- They associate the conscious mind with a text's "overt" content, and the unconscious with what the text is "really" about. The goal is than to disentangle these two levels in the text.
- They look for unconscious motives and feelings, not only in what characters say and do, but also by looking at the author's biography.
- They point out the presence of psychoanalytic symptoms or conditions such as those listed above (Oedipus complex, repression etcetera) or psychosexual development phases (anal stage, genital stage, oral stage, ...).
- The hidden meaning they uncover is privileged over other aspects such as class conflict (see e.g. Marxist literary criticism) or specific types of relationships between literature and society (see e.g. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism).
The above list is (mainly) paraphrased from Peter Barry's Beginning Criticism (4th edition, page 107), so I will briefly discuss an example of psychoanalytic criticism from a different source. Bernard Pingaud's study of The Stranger: L’Étranger d’Albert Camus (Gallimard, 1992). Meursault's narration in The Stranger can be read as one that hides a different, latent narration. The first thing we learn at the beginning of the novel is that the narrator's mother has died "today", or perhaps "yesterday", but the exact day does not seem to matter much. Later on, Meursault does not weep at the funeral, he admits he does not know his mother's age, he goes to the cinema to watch a comedy film the day after the funeral, all as if his mother's death had not affected him at all. This is later held against him at the trial in the second part of the book: the public prosecutor accuses him of having "morally killed his mother" and in one fell swoop also declares him guilty of the murder of his father. In reality, Meursault's crime is killing "an Arab", his mother died of natural causes, his father died when he was still a small child, and the accusation of parricide is inspired by a parricide trial that was scheduled to begin after Meursault's trial. (So far, this is all in the "overt" text, not "latent".)
Meursault never talks about his mother, but he does not talk very much in general. However, his mother is mentioned again at several stages in the book. For example, the dog of Salamano, his neighbour across the landing, has gone missing. Meursault hears Salamano weep over the loss of his dog and this suddenly makes him think of his mother, without knowing why (end of Part One, Chapter IV). This is something that can be interpreted as a symptom of repression: Meursault's grief for his mother is only felt in his unconscious, where he is not aware of it and cannot process it.
The only moment when Meursault thinks of his father is when he is thinking of his own execution. His mother had once told him that his father had wanted to witness an execution and that he had returned feeling so ill that it made him throw up. Meursalt adds that watching an execution (for which the French still used the guillotine at the time) was "the only really interesting thing for man" (Part Two, Chapter V). From a Freudian point of view, the execution can refer to castration and the reason why Meursault's father was so ill after the execution was that it was really the punishment of his son for sleeping with his own mother. To support the latter claim, critics point out that Camus's mother had been attacked and beaten by an unknown man. At the request of the doctor, Camus had returned to his mother's house to support her; he had lied down on the bed next to her and fallen asleep there, thereby, in truly Oedipal fashion, taking the place of his father.
The above paragraphs give only an incomplete, shortened and simplified version of what may be found in psychoanalytic interpretations of The Stranger, but it gives an idea of what this type of criticism may be looking for. For another example of Freudian interpretation, see Freud's own comments on Hamlet in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and Ernest Jones's study Hamlet and Oedipus (1949).
The above is based on Freudian concepts, whereas the most important influence of psychoanalysis on literary theory does probably not come from Freud but from Jacques Lacan. Where the validity of Freud's theories has been questioned, both from a scientific and a feminist point of view, this is even more the case for Lacan, who was expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1959. (Noam Chomsky, for example, considered Lacan a "total charlatan".)
Peter Barry warns readers that
Lacan's own explication of his ideas is often intimidatingly obscure. I would suggest that in reading him you should devote some study time to reading the same piece several times, rather than reading through a great deal of his work once only.
According to Lacan, Barry explains, psychoanalytical investigation of the unconscious examines language and uses language to perform the analysis, which makes psychoanalysis a verbal science. Lacan claims that "what the psychoanalytic experience discovers in the unconscious is the whole structure of language" (Barry, Beginning Theory, page 113). He claims that Freud's concept of displacement (the unconscious mind subsitutes one object or person for another that seems too dangerous or unacceptable to mention or reveal) corresponds with the figure of speech known as metonymy. He also sees a correspondence between Freud's concept of condensation (a single object or idea stands for several other ones) and the concept of metaphor. For Lacan, the unconscious is the location of true selfhood but also a linguistic effect. However, language as a system is already in place before we make our appearance, and if our unconscious is merely a linguistic effect, it follows that our notions of "self" and "unique character" become untenable. As a consequence, literary critics can no longer hold on to the traditional view of characterisation in literary works.
The above is only an incomplete and shortened introduction to some of Lacan's ideas that are relevant to literature. The best known example of Lacanian literary criticism is Lacan's own seminar on Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter".