When I first came across the works by Edgar Allan Poe truly, I was confused. It was during my first year at university through the first semester. I had come across ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ previously for my A-Level as it was used to compare Gothic aspects within ‘Jane Eyre’ however I never paid much attention to the deeper meaning behind his texts. So when asked to read ‘The Purloined Letter’ and secondary reading on Poe and his works to prepare for a seminar, I didn't think much of it.
That all changed when I started to learn about his abnormal life and that’s putting it as politely as possible. His mother died when he was three years old, he married his first cousin who hadn't even reached the age of fourteen and he was twenty-seven. His wife also contracted TB – the same disease that killed his mother, foster-mother and brother.
You may be wondering what this has to do with his writing. Well, Poe’s work is packed with reference to his life which he may not have intended to include himself. The death of female characters, the sexualisation of woman all represent Poe’s inner consciousness.
The definition for psychoanalysis within the Oxford dictionary provides a brief yet informative summary of psychoanalysis. “Psychoanalysis: a system of psychological theory and therapy which aims to treat mental disorders by investigating the interaction of conscious and unconscious elements in the mind and bringing repressed fears and conflicts into the conscious mind by techniques such as dream interpretation and free association.”
Psychoanalysis is a form of literary criticism that focuses on the minds associated with a certain piece of literary work. This could be the mind of the author or the mind of a character within the text. Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis as a literary critique and believed the text is not written out of mere coincidence but like dreams it is the unconsciousness and repressed memories within that of the author that is escaping through the text.
Psychoanalytic critics affirm that a text’s true meaning lies with the author’s unconscious desires and issues. To completely understand a text, we must focus on a particular character within the literary work; however it is to be presumed that all of the characters represent the author’s unconscious thoughts in one way or another. A psychoanalyst’s interpretation is that everyone’s actions are driven by sexual and/or pleasure seeking intentions, so nothing is really how it appears. We can use ‘The Purloined Letter’ as an example of psychoanalysis within Poe’s works.
A ‘classical’ psychoanalytical approach to 'The Purloined Letter' such as Marie Bonaparte, believed that the true meaning in Poe's work is hidden and needs to be found. In 'The Purloined Letter' a letter is stolen from the Queen by the Minister, when she tries to conceal it in plain sight. When the police cannot find the letter, they approach Dupin, thus leading to him finding the letter at the Minister's, hanging over the fireplace in plain sight and they bring it back to the Queen.
Bonaparte believed that the fireplace is a symbolisation of the female genitalia and the letter symbolises regret for a missing maternal penis and reproach for its loss. The letter, according to Bonaparte is the, "...symbol of the maternal penis, also 'hangs' over the fireplace, in the same manner as the female penis, if it existed, would be hung over the cloaca which is here represented... by the general symbol of fireplace..." (Muller, J. P., & Richardson, W. J.: The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading).
Therefore, the story of the missing letter and finding it displayed over the fireplace on the mantelpiece is all truly, according to Bonaparte, Poe's unconscious wishes of finding his mother's maternal penis. As classical psychoanalysts would argue, literature is the fundamental outlet that reveals the psychology and personality of the author. Bonaparte goes on to state that Dupin is actually Poe himself on this pursuit and Poe is also the narrator who is observing his own triumph.
From Bonaparte’s viewpoint, we can see that although the author controls language, the unconscious comes through, so what is read is not literal, but the unconscious thoughts of the author which are hidden throughout the text and need to be found.
Jacques Lacan, a ‘structuralist’ psychoanalyst, however, “does not talk about the psychology of the individual author, but sees the text as a metaphor which throws light upon aspects of the unconscious, on the nature of psychoanalysis, and on aspects of language.” (Peter Barry: Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory).
Lacan’s seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’ in 1954 itself was a critique of Marie Bonaparte's interpretation of 'The Purloined Letter' and mocked the idea of taking Freudian concepts and finding them in any text, in whatever way possible.
Although Lacan also considers the maternal penis, not as an anatomical object but an apparatus which enables the first meeting with absence when the child senses that he or she is not the mother’s world and that the mother wants more than the child. The child wishes to be the phallus for the mother, according to Lacan. So although this correlates with the Freudian concept of psychoanalysis, Lacan goes on to further this and uses it as his starting point.
Lacan stated that language positions you and it’s through the structure of language that we get to see the unconscious. Lacan uses literature because he believed that it can tell us something about the unconscious as a whole, and believed the unconscious was structured like language, unlike Bonaparte who used it to analyse the author.
So what do you think? Do you agree with Lacan’s viewpoint that language merely tells us about the unconscious as a whole rather than an analysis for the author like Bonaparte believed? Can you think of other examples that suit a classical or a structuralist’s psychoanalytic theory? What do you think of Poe’s work in general? I personally find that he is like marmite, you either love him or hate him. I have yet to make up my mind about which category I fall into, however.