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Do Literary Works Have an ‘unconscious’? Discuss with Reference to Any Two Works Studied This Past Semester

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Do Literary Works Have an ‘Unconscious’? Discuss With Reference to Any Two Works Studied this Past Semester.

Although the notion of a human unconscious preceded Freud, his work is certainly most useful for explaining what it actually is. With an understanding of a human unconscious we can apply some of its characteristics to the literature studied thus far. Much of Freud’s work on the unconscious is contained within his book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ but a concise definition is hard to come by. Essentially Freud believes that the unconscious is the ‘part of the mind that is beyond consciousness which nevertheless has a strong influence on our actions’ . Dreams are, for Freud, a very important tool in studying the unconscious; he believes that they are one of the very few times when ‘repressed’ material can move from the unconscious into the conscious mind. However, these thoughts have been repressed for a reason and therefore they must be disguised through, what Freud calls, displacement and condensation. Freud describes displacement using the example of ‘the Sappho- dream of my patient, ascending and descending, being upstairs and down, is made the central point; the dream, however, is concerned with the danger of sexual relations with persons of low degree.’ Condensation is seen because ‘the dream is meagre, paltry and laconic in comparison with the range and copiousness of the dream-thoughts.’ Nevertheless, dreams are not the only way repressed material finds an outlet; Freud refers to the ‘parapraxis’ or ‘slips of the tongue, pen or unintended actions’ (Beginning Theory 97) as another way for repressed material to seep out into the conscious mind.

Therefore, when discussing the question of an existence of a literary unconscious we must regard it as a kind of dream. Some will argue that literature is not similar to dreams, such as David M. Rein. Rein who believes that ‘the creator of a dream performs spontaneously… The author of a story plans deliberately’. However, the similarities between dreams and literature seem to be evidence enough for us to analyse them as such.

James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ and Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ can be argued to have an unconscious in that there is similarities between Freud’s view of the unconscious and the text itself. Certainly the individual stories of ‘Dubliners’ seem to greatly resemble dreams; the stories, much like dreams occasionally seem unsystematic and puzzling. For instance in the very first story of the book ‘The Sisters’, many events go unexplained. The relationship between the young boy and Father Flynn is never clarified, Old Cotter refers to Flynn as a ‘man like that’ and it is hinted that he is mentally unstable as Father O’Rourke says he found Flynn ‘wide-awake and laughing-like, softly to himself’ . However, Joyce never reveals the truth about the whole situation, much like dreams often seem cryptic. Similarly, ‘Jane Eyre’ contains some fantastical elements that sometimes blur the reality of the novel. For example, Jane seeing a ‘streak of light’ in the red room and the revelation of Bertha Mason; both these events seem to be dream-like in their implausibility.

Perhaps then it is events like these that will reveal the unconscious of these novels. For example, Susan L. Meyer, believes that ‘an interpretation of the significance of the British Empire in Jane Eyre must begin by making sense of Bertha Mason Rochester’ . Meyer’s suggestion here is that Bertha acts to symbolise a something which cannot be directly said. In this way the similarities to dreams begin to become clearer; through displacement Bertha comes to symbolise the fear of the British Empire and how they locked away all that was different to them. Furthermore, many things have been condensed into this one image, Bertha can be seen to represent the trapped Victorian wife, similar to the narrator in Charlotte Perkins’ ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ who is locked in an ‘atrocious nursery’ by her husband after being deemed unfit. Then again, others have seen Bertha as Jane’s doppelganger; Bertha tears up the ‘bridal veil’ and seems to represent Jane’s anger at the oppressive Victorian society.

So much like the example Peter Barry uses of a Roman Soldier in a dream coming to represent ‘strictness, authority and power’ which can then be applied to the dreamer’s father being a strict authoritarian; we have Bertha Mason coming to represent things other than simply madness. However, the things that Bertha represents cannot be merely said by Bronte for fear of a backlash for views that were abnormal for the time. Instead Bronte must disguise her views, in the same way as dreams she must ‘show things’, not ‘say things’ , to allow them to escape into the conscious

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