·         Offers a theory of human behavior

·         Runs counter to Descartes’ belief that human behavior is conscious and knowable

·         Acknowledges that much of what is mental is “hidden”

·         Offers a “scientific” explanation of the unknown (i.e.: the hidden motivations come from what Freud called das Unbewusste, which means literally “the unknown” but is usually translated into English as  “the unconscious,” that part or activity of one’s mind that is unknown even to its possessor). Contrast this view, for example, with theological explanations of the “unknown”: Paul explains irrational human behavior as rooted in sin in Romans 7.


·         Significant contribution: awareness of the human unconscious and its complex subterranean mechanisms of repression and desire. Freud did not develop the notion of the unconscious: “Freud took a popular idea and declared it to be an inherently sexual one” (Meltzer 149).

Key Concepts

o        Stages of psycho-sexual development:

  1. As an infant, one does not differentiate him/herself from the outside world. The child-infant is driven by pleasure-principle (gratification of desire and pleasure).

  2. In the pre-Oedipal stages, the child’s object of desire is located in the parent of the opposite sex. The parent of the same sex is seen as a rival.

  3. Entrance into sexual differentiation occurs when the male child learns to repress incestuous desire for his mother in favor of more socially acceptable means of gratification (the reality principle). The father comes to stand for the restraints of authority, religion, and social law and enforces it with the perceived threat of castration. The child copes with his loss by identifying with the father, learning to assume his “appropriate” masculine role in society.

  4. Incestuous desires for the mother are driven into the unconscious, and the boy begins the process of transferring his desires elsewhere, accepting substitutes for the mother-as-desired object.

  5. The female, who passes through the Electra complex, comes to terms with the fact that she is already “castrated.” Disillusioned by her “lack” of a phallus, she identifies with the mother.

Freud’s topographical model of the mind:

Superego: the part of the mind that “retains the character of the father”:                          Ego                                                                         Id:

internalized by social law, authority, religious and secular teaching                                                                               largely the territory of the unconscious, the repository of basic instincts and desires


                                                                               Mostly conscious


Note: Today, little of Freud’s work is accepted without substantial modification or challenge. For instance, Freud’s interpretation of the female as a symbol of “lack,” of negation and absence, is inherently misogynist; thus, many feminists question the “universality” of penis envy, for it “imposes male paradigms on female psychic life” (Meltzer 153).

The decisive moment in a child’s psycho-sexual development is thus marked by movement into the reality principle (awareness of societal restrictions on desire; the censoring faculty but necessary to function in a civilized society). Here the individual enters into a sexually differentiated notion of selfhood, which is the result of psychological repression.

o        Differentiation and selfhood happen in the context of repression

We come to who we are as adults by means of massive repression of early very intense libidinal (sexual) desires. The unconscious is produced by repression.

o        Self, or psyche, as “split”

For Freud, the individual (or subject) who emerges from this process is irrevocably split between two levels of being. As Meltzer puts it: Freudian psychoanalysis takes the Cartesian dualism of mind/body “to posit a dual model of the mind: the part which is known, and the part which is not” (148).

o       Repression  is always only incomplete (the border between the rational conscious mind and the irrational workings of the unconscious are not seal-tight; the latent contents of the unconscious “manifest” in various ways). Thus repression speaks to how unconscious desires are first covered up or denied and then expressed in a disguised way.

Ř      Language always bears traces and echoes of the unconscious: puns, compulsions to repeat, excessive denials, slips of the tongue (“Freudian slips”—Freud would make much of the preacher who prefaces his discussion of the parable of the ten lepers by accidentally referring to the “ten virgins” parable!), lapses in memory, etc.

Ř      Irrational human behavior: unexplainable fears and paranoia (i.e., Poe’s narrator in “Tell-Tale Heart”) or fetishes (i.e., Our cultural fetishish with high-heels … In psychoanalytic terms, it is a phallic stand-in for the woman’s “lack” – The House on Mango Street)

Ř      Dreams are the manifest content of the unconscious, a symbolic text which can reveal “subterranean” fears, desires, anger, etc, etc.

Ř      Literature, like dreams and fantasy, is an imaginary production which finds its origins in sources of unconscious desire (of the author and/or the culture that produced the text); symbols, similies, analogies, metaphors, etymological play reveal inner trappings of the psyche

Ř      Hidden desires, fantasies, unresolved conflicts, fears, etc underlie even the most innocent activities (i.e., jokes, puns, etc)

Psychological Repression: Terms to Know

a)       Projection: ascribing a trait you don’t like in yourself to another person

b)      Condensation: whole range of associations are represented by a single image.

c)       Displacement: the redirection of an impulse onto a substitute target. If the impulse, the desire, is okay with you, but the person you direct that desire towards is too threatening, you can displace to someone or something that can serve as a symbolic substitute. Someone who has not had the chance to love someone may substitute cats or dogs for human beings. Someone who is frustrated by his or her superiors may go home and kick the dog, beat up a family member, or engage in cross-burnings.

d)      Sublimation: the transforming of an unacceptable impulse, whether it be sex, anger, fear, or whatever, into a socially acceptable, even productive form. Someone with powerful sexual desires may become an artist, a photographer, or a novelist, and so on. For Freud, in fact, all positive, creative activities were sublimations, and predominantly of the sex drive.

e)       Fetishism: the male, when confronted with his mother’s lack of a phallus and subsequent fear of castration, finds an object or body part as a symbolic substitute (i.e., a foot or shoe fetish).

“This fact implies that there can never be a one-to-one relationship between language and the world: meaning always exceeds the surface, and things do not always mean what they appear to.” ~ Sandy Flitterman-Lewis


Modifies Freud’s Oedipus complex: eruption of imaginary pre-Oedipal unity with the mother is dispelled not only by the fear of castration but through acquisition of language. Acquisition of language marks one’s movement into the social realm; the self becomes a differentiated “I.”

According to Lacan, language and culture “speak” us: we are socially-constituted subjects, “scripted” by the discursive practices and customs of our particular culture. Our sense of self is mediated by the discourses that shape our sense of reality, of what is normal and natural.

o        Imaginary /Mirror Phase:

Between the ages of six and eighteen months: the infant is uncoordinated and sees its body as fragmented, a disconnected array of images and body parts.

It identifies imaginary wholeness in its image (vis-á-vis a mirror or in its mother’s face which acts like a “mirror”). The child identifies with this image, for it finds in it a kind of satisfying unity that it does not experience in its own body. The mother is identified as a symbol of wholeness and unity, both of which a mere illusions.

The infant internalizes this image as an “ideal ego” and this process forms the basis for all later identifications, which are imaginary in principle. Everyone is looking for imaginary wholeness.

o        Symbolic (roughly equivalent to Oedipal process, but marked by entry into the discursive terrain of language):

The father signifies a larger socio-linguistic network; he represents rules, cultural norms, and regulations (maintained by the symbolic threat of castration). In this context the child must find a “place”—he must learn cultural expectations of gender; he learns what he is by what he is not (differentiation rather than dual identification and unity).  At this stage, the father separates the fusion between mother and child, causing desire to be repressed and stored in the unconscious. The self becomes split as one enters into the Symbolic Order dominated by the symbolic order of the “phallus,” the power symbol, the transcendental signified.

o        Psychic Fragmentation:

Lacan rejected ego-psychology (the direction taken by American psychologists that psychic unity can be restored through therapy). For Lacan, the Subject is always split, always longing for a return to the maternal wholeness found in the imaginary order. Desire is thus experienced by the Subject as a lack—we try to fill the “void” with stand-ins., always deferring original desire.

o        Dialectical Model of Psyche: Conscious /Unconscious, Subject / Other, Master/Slave

But because repression is always only incomplete, sometimes the conscious becomes the “slave.” The Other finds its expression in the Subject: “the unconscious is that which the Subject does not recognize to be himself, and which he experiences as other from himself. The way the Subject views, and projects upon, an Other will yield a clue concerning the Subject’s relationship to his unconscious wishes and desires” (Meltzer 158).



Concepts in Application: The 25th Hour

The unconscious and conscious meet at the level of language, and for Lacan,

“The unconscious is structured like language


Lacan takes Freud’s topographic model and puts it in structural-linguistic terms


Signifier                        Conscious 

__________  =            ___________


  Signified            Unconscious


The conscious always displaces desire, substituting its lack with chains-of-signifiers that bear traces or echoes of the latent content of the unconscious. We cannot understand the meaning of these “signifiers” apart from the deep psychic structures that inform them.


Literature, then, is a concrete manifestation of latent desire.




Conscious: Chain-of-Signifiers

o        Mary’s tattooed bellybutton (Jacob fetishizes it, seems obsessively preoccupied with it)

o        The name “Mary”

o        Repetition of circle imagery



Unconscious: Signified: Meaning? Interpretations?

What desires,


“And so the dream is born: a repressed desire is coded in the language of the unconscious and sent through the censor to the ego, expressing the desire, even if indirectly.” ~ Daniel Kluge, “Psychoanalysis and Film”




[1]  Notes derived in part from Francoise Meltzer’s article “Unconscious” in  Critical Terms for Literary Study and online notes, “Psychoanalysis, Film, and Television,” by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis