Theoretical Analysis at Work

deadline for submissions: 
January 12, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Laura Tilton
contact email: 

Laura Tilton

Prof. Greg Salyer

LIT-500-Q1414 Literary Theory


Theoretical Analysis at Work

            Literary theory consists of vast theoretical lenses to interpret or analyze literature through the theorist perceptive. The reason to choose a literary theory to analyze literature is to help the reader see a story in a different way, and perhaps discover new or hidden meanings within the works. Having multiple perspectives on one piece of literature can provide deeper insight and evaluations within the story and the world around them. Psychoanalysis theory can give insightful evaluations from an internal perspective. Sigmund Freud, who has been referred to as the father of psychoanalysis, often talks about looking at the conscious and subconscious desires of the individual. Historicism is another literary theory. This theory focuses on the literal historical context in the time of the story and forges a connection to the literary work. By combining these two theories, you can create a new analysis on what the main concept of the story can truly be about. The theoretical concepts of psychoanalysis and historical theory generates unique perceptions of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, when properly understood, compared, and contrasted to each other, to show a new perspective the reader may have otherwise not noticed.

            To be precise, psychoanalytic theory is born from Sigmund Freud’s work, where according to Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, “his discovery was that the human mind contains a dimension that is only partially accessible to consciousness and then only through indirect means such as dreams or neurotic symptoms” (389). Having the ability to understand a general conscious thought, while understanding there is an unconscious thought as well while identifying them both, guides the reader through the world of psychoanalysis. The strengths of psychoanalysis theory are in the depth of understanding the human mind and desire of the character, and knowing what is driving the character helps us understand the character better in the story. However, that leads us to the weakness of psychoanalysis theory where because the theory centers in on one character, we could be missing out on an overall bigger picture within the text. Psychoanalytic perspectives can change the way we view the characters because of the in-depth evaluation of them and considering their emotional perspective of conscious and subconscious desires.

Sigmund Freud says, “It thus seems plausible to suppose that in the dream-work a psychical force is operating which on the one hand strips the elements which have a high psychical value of their intensity, and on the other hand by means of overdetermination, creates from elements of low psychical value new values, which afterwards find their way into the dream-content” (412). We can see this theory in motion in As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner when Cash comes in to see Addie lying dead, when Faulkner writes, “Cash is not listening. After a while, he turns without looking at pa and leaves the room. Then the saw begins to snore again” (50). On the one hand, the fact he is not listening pauses as he looks at Addie, and without even looking at his father he goes back to work. This shows the reader the high value of intensity here. Cash is dealing with the death of Addie. We see his pause, we see his reservations, yet on the other hand, the overdetermination kicks in and he goes back to his chores and the descriptive word to describe the saw is a snore. The entire chapter goes on about the sound of his saw, “steady, competent, unhurried, stirring the dying light” (Faulkner, 50). However, this internal war is an example of his part in the story. He grieves for Addie, yet he is torn because he must get back to work. His desires are at conflict.

William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying, which is a story about the death of Addie from multiple perspectives. Each character in the book describes or experiences her death, or the aftermath of her death, in a different way. Psychoanalysis helps us to see the conflicting struggles in the characters. In The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud, he stated, “we are tempted to conclude that what is “uncanny” is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar” (418). When the death of a loved one occurs, life becomes unfamiliar and uncomfortable, or in Freud’s words, uncanny. This is the entire premise of the novel. An example of this can be seen in many places. One example, Faulkner writes, “He touches the quilt as he saw Dewey Dell do, trying to smoothe it up to the chin, but disarranging it instead. He tries to smoothe it again, clumsily, his hand awkward as a claw, smoothing at the wrinkles which he made and continue to emerge beneath his hand” (52). This awkward feeling of new territory he experiences as he tries to smooth out the blankets covering Addie can show the reader the nervous, awkward feeling of the uncanny, which drives the characters in the book.

There is a balance here between Freud’s theory on the uncanny elements that drive William Faulkner’s character’s behaviors in As I Lay Dying. Faulkner expresses the uncanny and anxiety feelings through their actions in the characters around Addie, as Freud’s theory responds by explaining the causes of the feelings hidden in their conscious and subconscious desires. Freud can also add to Faulkner’s work by discussing the id, ego, and super-ego within the characters of the story. Faulkner describes his characters in similar ways to how Freud discussed his patients. Each character, or Freud’s patient, would show the id, which is their selfish or immediate desires, and the ego, which was trying to keep composure and balancing the situation, and the super-ego, which is their morals and high standards pulling at them. Seeing this perspective can show the characters on a deeper, almost subconscious and personal level. Freud said, “where the unconscious was, consciousness shall go (460). This is evident throughout the story as the character’s wrestle with their thoughts, desires, and emotions. Having read William Faulkner’s tale, as well as the works of Sigmund Freud, it can be seen that the story was not about Addie’s death at all. The story could be viewed as a story about the individual character’s life and the differences in other people’s actions and reactions to life in their society. This story shows how different people are on a deep and personal level based on their desires and egos of a common experience, such as a death in a common world around them, which was their society.

The historical theory is based on the premise of the historical events and tying them to the book. Stephen Greenblatt created New Historicism by comparing the works to historical surroundings. This theory “might represent or refer to the historical context; the critic would make sense of the literary work by researching the history to which it referred” (Rivkin and Ryan, 505). The strengths of historical theory could be found in the historical meaning. For example, in As I Lay Dying, their society dictates much of the actions of the characters because of the historical way of life during that era. By linking the history of the time to the events in the story, you could find a message or point the story expresses. One weakness of historical theory is it doesn’t consider the emotional and individual person or character in the story. Instead, it blankets the overall historical theme or facts of the time for the society as a whole. This can neglect the individual aspects on an emotional or relatable connection.

One of his Stephen Greenblatt’s writings was Shakespeare and the Exorcist, where he provided an explanation of the theory at play. Stephen Greenblatt stated, “The relation between these two texts enables us to glimpse with unusual clarity and precision the institutional negotiation and exchange of social energy” (592). If you take a glimpse of the unusual clarity and precision and exchange of social energy in the book, you can see the connection. For example, After the death of Addie, the character Pa expresses plan’s to continue on with work. Faulkner writes, “There is Christians enough to help you,’ pa says” where Faulkner continues to write, “They will help us in our sorrow” (50). During this time in history, towns worked together and religions thrived. You can see this is a time where Christians had the reputation of pulling together to help the town folks. By peeking into the historical time of the book written in 1930, you can see some connections to the Great Depression era. Addie’s son sold his horse because money was so tight, and that kind of living and way of life are a strong influence in the novel. By making that connection, it can be concluded, the characters were struggling with more than Addie’s death, but the social and economic historical elements as well. Cash having to go back to work, pa stressing over the hope of the Christians coming to help, and so many other factors are at work in this novel will show the reader a new perspective of what the characters are indeed living through and facing. This historical lens gives the story of As I Lay Dying a realistic and more relatable experience through the use of historical elements surrounding the characters.

Stephen Greenblatt approaches each text with a thought of the history and society of the world around the book. For example, in As I Lay Dying, it was mentioned before how pa believed the Christians would come to help. Stephen Greenblatt then would ask about William Faulkner’s story, what was the attitude or relationship to the Christians in this society at this time? What is going on in the society as a whole, which pushes the character’s social status in their town? As a reader, we already know the Great Depression plays a factor, but the answers come in historical facts that go hand-in-hand to William Faulkner’s story. Faulkner wrote. “But those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks can’t” (7). William Faulkner goes on to say, “Riches is nothing in the face of the Lord, for He can see into the heart” (7). In this chapter, early in the book, we see a separation of social status between the rich and the poor leading two very different lives. It can also be seen the influence of religion. This conversation gives us a window into the historical setting. During this time in history, by following Greenblatt's theoretical lens, we can see this era had a strong separation of wealth among the people, just as William Faulkner pointed out. Faulkner points out the social and historical context through the characters, as Stephen Greenblatt responds by pointing out why the society and characters in the story would think and respond as they do because of the history of that time. This lens shows us a new perspective and a different story about life in a town with these social and historical boundaries.

Psychoanalysis and historical theory can compare to each other in a few ways. Some of these ways include looking at the elements the character is faced with. For example, Freud suggests looking at the character’s desires. However, Greenblatt could suggest what is the historical element influencing or creating that desire? While the thought of looking at each character is similar, they do have some contrasts as well. Contrasts to the literary theories include Freud focusing on deeper hidden or subconscious desires driving the character in the story, while historicism is focused on a blanket of the characters surrounding or the influence of the outside world upon the character. When you study Freud’s readings of subconscious and conscious desires in the human mind, and compare that to the understanding of the historical perspective of the people at that time, you can see a new light of struggles and depth the characters are experiencing in the story, which shows the reader a deeper understanding of their grief and position in the story.

By understanding the best and worst of both psychoanalysis theory and historicism theory, you can see how the story of As I Lay Dying can jump off the page into new lights by comparing and contrasting them. With Freud, we can see the inner desires and grief over Addie, while feeling conflicted about how to move on and channel that grief. With Greenblatt, you can see how the historical influences of the Great Depression and society have influenced these characters lives, and provide answers to questions about their way of life, and finding ways to make things work during a hard time in society, mirrored to a hard time in a personal life.  This brings a new question about, is this actually a story about the death of Addie, or, is this a story about the death of the roaring 20s and high-life society? The emotional grief and torment, from so many people in so many perspectives all centered around one historical time, could be a new insight and story the two theories created.

These two theories, when combined, can provide an insightful statement of how the two unique insights work together to show us a tale of the internal struggle Freud talks about, and the external struggle of the historical perspective Greenblatt’s theory points out, which could not be discovered with only one theory, but both theoretical lenses working together. However, the power of these two theories is found in the ability to interpret As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner from both sides of the coin. When these theories are properly understood, compared, and contrasted to each other, a new perspective appears in the novel offering intriguing insight on what the story is truly about.




Works Cited

Faulkner, William. “As I Lay Dying.” New York: First Vintage International, Oct. 1990. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “On Narcissism” Blackwell Publishing. (1914). “Literary Theory: An Anthology.” 2nd edition. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell Publishing. (1998). Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny”.  Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 418-431. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Shakespeare and the Exorcists.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. Print.