Analysis of ‘The Shining’

The Shining is a supernatural horror novel written by Stephen King and published in 1977. It was his third published novel, after Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot. It was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1980; and while the initial critical response to the film was mixed (with King especially disliking how Kubrick changed huge portions of the story), it is now considered one of the best horror movies ever made. King had a well-received made-for-TV miniseries version done in 1997, one that, naturally, was much more faithful to his novel.

His novel is a classic in the horror genre, and while his and Kubrick’s visions of the story differ so vastly, I find enough thematic material common to both that I will cite both versions in my analysis to make my point. These themes include the self-destructiveness of alcoholism, family abuse, the return of repressed bad internal object relations, repetition compulsion, and the death drive.

Though analyses of the themes in Kubrick’s film (the white man’s oppression of Native Americans, etc.) are well worth exploring, since they have already been looked into, I won’t be exploring them.

Jack Torrance has accepted a job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel; and just as the hotel has a dark history, so does Jack. A former drinker and teacher, he has been on the wagon for fourteen months (in Kubrick’s film, five months) after having not only hit a student, George Hatfield (and lost his teaching job for it, ‘Up On the Roof’, pages 162-170), but also injured his own son, Danny (pages 23-25, ‘Watson’).

Ghosts inhabit the Overlook, which not only overlooks a beautiful mountain view in the Colorado Rockies, but also ‘overlooks’ (ignores, or doesn’t take responsibility for) the crimes that have been committed there. Jack’s connection with the Overlook–more and more complete as he goes mad in his attachment to the place, trying to ensure that he and his family never leave–shows how he is at one with the hotel. He has “always been the caretaker” (page 532, ‘Conversations At the Party’). The physical building represents his mind, with the boiler in the basement needing to be checked (to relieve the pressure) twice a day and once at night, for it symbolizes the death drive of his unconscious. There’s an interesting juxtaposition of ideas at the beginning of chapter 3, ‘Watson’, on page 22:

You lost your temper, Ullman had said.

‘”OK, here’s your furnace,” Watson said, turning on a light in the dark, musty-smelling room…Boiler’s on the other side of the wall. I’ll take you around.”‘

Jack’s anger and the furnace are mentioned side by side because they, and the boiler, are all one and the same thing. On the next few pages, Jack remembers injuring Danny for messing up his writing papers.

We learn through the course of the novel that Jack’s father had been abusive to him and his mother (‘Dreamland’, pages 335-338). Being abusive to Danny would be ‘normal’ to Jack, since his own dad’s abuse of him seemed normal: “In those days it had not seemed strange to Jack that the father won all his arguments with his children by use of his fists, and it had not seemed strange that his own love should go hand-in-hand with his fear…” (page 335). Similarly, his wife, Wendy, had a bad relationship with her mother. These bad object relations would haunt Jack and Wendy like ghosts…just as the ghosts of the Overlook will.

Wendy herself contemplates how the ghosts of her mother and Jack’s father could be among those in the hotel, when she thinks of Danny’s trauma: “(Oh we are wrecking this boy. It’s not just Jack, it’s me too, and maybe it’s not even just us, Jack’s father, my mother, are they here too? Sure, why not? The place is lousy with ghosts anyway, why not a couple more?…Oh Danny I’m so sorry).” (‘On the Stairs’, pages 491-492)

The isolation of the hotel, on a snowy mountain during a bitter winter, symbolizes the kind of social disconnect that often leads to problems like alcoholism and family abuse. In direct contrast, Danny’s psychic gift, the “shining”, as fellow shiner Dick Hallorann and his grandmother call it (‘The Shining’, page 117), connects him with people, and with the future, in an enhanced way. Jack and Wendy cannot contact the outside world (because Jack has destroyed the CB radio [‘Dreamland’, page 342], just as he’s ensured they can’t ride away in the snowmobile–‘The Snowmobile’, page 426), but Danny can “shine” all the way from Colorado to Florida to tell Hallorann of the threat to his family’s life.

The ghosts of the Overlook represent the ghosts of Jack’s past (and Wendy’s, to a lesser extent); but Danny, explicitly as such in Stephen King’s miniseries, points to the future, since “Tony” is actually Danny as a young adult (“Daniel Anthony Torrance”, page 639), advising his younger self to beware the dangers of the hotel (‘Shadowland’, pages 37-50). Thus, Tony is really Danny being a friend to himself, a form of self-compassion that can help victims of abuse to heal.

Redrum, or murder spelled backwards, represents not only the destructiveness of alcoholism–red rum, as red as blood–but also the destructiveness of looking backwards into the past, and letting internalized bad objects continue to dominate you, or letting bad old habits resurface and be compulsively repeated.

This brings me to my next point, what Freud called “the compulsion to repeat” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Up until the horrors of World War I, he saw instinctual drives as geared exclusively towards pleasure, libido. The destruction of that war (Freud, page 281) compelled him to revise his theories and acknowledge a death instinct, what his followers would call Thanatos, which is opposed to Eros, the will to live. He now admitted that dreams aren’t always the fulfillment of wishes (Freud, page 304).

Sometimes his patients would compulsively repeat actions that seemed meaningless or without a clearly pleasurable aim, such a when an infant boy threw out a toy and reeled it back, perhaps to master the sensation of loss, as when his mother wasn’t with him (Freud, pages 284-285). Similarly, Freud treated traumatized veterans who repeated irrational acts in the form of flashbacks, traumatic dreams (Freud, page 282), and the reliving of battlefield events.

Jack’s inability to control his anger and compulsive drinking are manifestations of this death instinct and its compulsion to repeat. He was destructive and drinking before, and he will be destructive and drinking again.

The topiary animals make for interesting symbolism. Normally, the presence of plants gives us a feeling of peace, of pleasure, especially when they have been shaped into aesthetically pleasing forms, like animals–how charming. Yet the Overlook’s topiary is of animals that move when you aren’t looking (‘In the Playground’, pages 311-314). By the time Hallorann returns to help Danny, the topiary lion attacks him (‘Hallorann Arrives’, pages 617-618). So what we have are plants that are superficially charming, yet bestial and frightening when one knows them better. And since they are the Overlook’s topiary, they are an extension of Jack’s personality: charming and sweet on the surface, his ego ideal, but inside…

Then there’s Danny’s frightening experience with the fire extinguisher hose, which seems to unravel all by itself (‘Outside 217’, pages 258-262). Again, seen in light of the idea that the hotel represents Jack’s mind, we see something that, on the surface, is meant to protect and ensure safety, as a father is supposed to do. Instead, the hose, a near phallic symbol, moves surreptitiously, slithering, suggestive of a snake.

Because the hotel represents Jack’s mind, the ghosts in turn represent his internal object relations. Delbert Grady could be seen to represent Jack’s internalized abusive father, since grey-haired Grady eggs Jack on to kill his own family, just as the voice of Jack’s father, heard on the CB radio, urges him to kill them (‘Dreamland’, page 341).

The ghosts want Danny for all his psychic powers, that ability to connect with others that Jack lacks. When Danny rejects the ghosts, they go after Jack. Thus the ghosts initially represent, in WRD Fairbairn‘s revising of Freud’s id, the libidinal ego in its relationship with the exciting object; then, when Danny has rejected the ghosts, they represent Fairbairn’s revising of the superego, the internal saboteur or anti-libidinal ego, with its turbulent relationship with the rejecting object (both objects being symbolized by Danny).

Since I assume, Dear Reader, that you aren’t familiar with Fairbairn’s revision of Freud’s id/ego/superego conception of the mind, and since I further assume you haven’t read my analysis of The Exorcist, in which I discuss this revision, I’ll present the relevant quotes again here:

“…the intolerably depriving, rejecting aspect of the other person is internalized as the ‘rejecting object’, attached to the ‘anti-libidinal ego’…[,] the split-off ego fragment that is bonded to the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez, pages 63-64)

Fairbairn’s revising of Freud’s drive theory replaces the drive to pleasure/destruction with an object-seeking purpose, for which instinctual drives are mere avenues to seeking or dealing with objects. Fairbairn may have rejected Freud’s drive theory, including the death instinct and the compulsion to repeat, as superfluous (Fairbairn, pages 78-79), but I find both useful in explaining the symbolism of the Overlook, two ways of looking at King’s novel from different angles. Grady, the symbolic ghost of Jack’s abusive father, is pushing Jack to kill because Jack needs his father-object, regardless of whether it is good or bad for him.

Let’s consider what Fairbairn had to say about needing bad objects. “…it is worth considering whence bad objects derive their power over the individual. If the child’s objects are bad, how does he ever come to internalize them? Why does he not simply reject them…?…However much he may want to reject them, he cannot get away from them. They force themselves upon him; and he cannot resist them because they have power over him. He is accordingly compelled to internalize them in an effort to control them. But, in attempting to control them in this way, he is internalizing objects which have wielded power over him in the external world; and these objects retain their prestige for power over him in the inner world. In a word, he is ‘possessed’ by them, as if by evil spirits. This is not all, however. The child not only internalizes his bad objects because they force themselves upon him and he seeks to control them, but also, and above all, because he needs them. If a child’s parents are bad objects, he cannot reject them, even if they do not force themselves upon him; for he cannot do without them. Even if they neglect him, he cannot reject them; for, if they neglect him, his need for them is increased.” (Fairbairn, page 67)

Going back to drinking represents finding a pleasurable thing as an object to replace the meaningful objects, Wendy and Danny, that Jack needs. As Fairbairn explains, “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140) In the Overlook, Jack is isolated in his own mind, driving him to self-destruction and other-destruction.

Jack uses a bug bomb to kill a nest of wasps found on the roof of the Overlook, where he’s been doing repairs and been stung by one of them (‘Up On the Roof’, page 153). Danny is fascinated with the wasp nest, and wants to keep it. Wendy is unsure if it’s safe, but Jack insists all the wasps have been killed (‘Down In the Front Yard’, pages 177-178). The ghosts of the hotel reanimate the wasps that night, though, and Danny is stung (‘Danny’, pages 195-203). Since the ghosts and hotel represent Jack’s mind, the stings represent a return to Jack’s abusiveness (and self-destructiveness, since he’s the first one to get stung); and his assuring that the wasps are dead and harmless represents his denial of abusive intent, gaslighting, and his empty promise that he’ll never repeat injuring Danny.

The Overlook, Jack’s symbolic mind, full of the ghosts of bad internal objects, and with a boiler of anger that Jack must regularly “dump…off a little” (‘Watson’, page 28) to relieve the pressure, always repeats its aggressions. Kubrick’s adaptation brilliantly brings out this repetition compulsion in such symbols as rug patterns, the phrase “forever, and ever, and ever”, and Jack’s “writing project”, an endless repetition of the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Similarly, we see repetitive columns, doors, wallpaper patterns, and the sound of Danny driving his little three-wheeled bike on and off rugs and the hardwood floor, over and over again…sound-silence-sound-silence-sound-silence.

Danny refuses to believe that Jack, swinging the roque mallet, is his real father (page 639); it’s just the ghosts controlling him. But the ghosts, the hotel, and the roque-mallet-swinging madman are all Jack. Typical with abuse victims, they can’t bring themselves to admit their abusers really are abusers–it’s Stockholm Syndrome, or traumatic bonding.

Jack is supposed to be writing a play, a goal pointing to the future; but instead, he finds a scrapbook of old newspaper clippings related to the history of the Overlook (‘The Scrapbook’, pages 227-249). Now he decides, instead of writing the play, to write about the hotel: a project pointing into the future is replaced with one pointing back into the past. (In the miniseries, the scrapbook is titled My Memory Book, implying a symbolic connection with Jack’s past.)

Jack phones Mr. Ullman–the stern owner of the hotel and Jack’s symbolic superego (“Officious little prick“, ‘Job Interview’, page 3), a man who has hired him with the utmost reluctance (‘Job Interview’, page 7)–to talk to him about writing a book about The Overlook (‘Talking to Mr. Ullman’, pages 269-274). Ullman is furious with Jack for wanting to do such a thing, as he is with Jack’s impertinent attitude…just as the superego will be resistant to any surfacing of repressed, unacceptable desires.

Ullman has good reason to oppose Jack’s plan to publicize The Overlook’s shady past. It is a past filled with violence–mafia killings, a woman having committed suicide in a bathtub (“Inside 217′, pages 326-327), and Grady’s violence against his family. The scrapbook is found in the basement, Jack’s symbolic unconscious, and the violent contents represent his repressed bad internal objects (i.e., his father). The old parties represent his past of alcoholism. (“Unmask! Unmask!“) [‘The Ballroom’, page 464], Show your real self, Jack.

The ghosts of the Overlook want Danny, which means Jack needs a good internal object to replace his intolerably bad objects, a notion in Fairbairn’s therapeutic methods. Since Danny resists the ghosts, they want Jack, meaning the repressed bad objects resurface, causing mayhem. Having Danny, a good boy whose “shining” represents strong empathy and an urge to connect with others, would redeem Jack’s bad objects and help him to be a good man again, looking ahead to a future free of the past; but their evil is too great, so Jack instead spirals downward and backward into his violent, alcoholic past.

Dick Hallorann goes to great lengths to help a boy and a family he barely knows, because like Danny, his “shining” abilities give him strong empathy and an urge to connect, unlike the isolated, freezing cold world surrounding Jack’s mind, the Overlook. After Dick, Wendy, and Danny escape, we find them all together in Maine the following summer, Dick being almost like a new father to the boy. Danny and Wendy have escaped the dark, abusive past that Jack couldn’t escape, because ‘the shining’ is a light leading to a future of freedom and love.

Stephen King, The Shining, Pocket Books, New York, 1977

WRD Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, New York, 1952

Lavinia Gomez, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, London, 1997

Sigmund Freud, 11. On Metapsychology, the Theory of Psychoanalysis: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id and Other Works, Pelican Books, Middlesex, England, 1984

Freud and Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was the father of psychoanalysis.  He was born in the Moravian town of Pribor, then part of the Austrian Empire, now part of the Czech Republic.  While he certainly didn’t invent the idea of the unconscious mind, he created a kind of road map, as it were, for navigating the unconscious; and the resulting insights have made him one of the most important psychiatric thinkers of the twentieth century, influencing art, literature, and film.

Here are some famous quotes of his:

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”  —The Interpretation of Dreams

“A person who feels pleasure in producing pain in someone else in a sexual relationship is also capable of enjoying as pleasure any pain which he may himself derive from sexual relations. A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.”  —Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

“Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness.”  –Letter to an American mother’s plea to cure her son’s homosexuality (1935)

‘The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is “What does a woman want?” –said once to Marie Bonaparte; Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (Hogarth Press, 1953) by Ernest Jones, Vol. 2, Pt. 3, Ch. 16. In a footnote Jones gives the original German, “Was will das Weib?

“It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.”  —The Ego and the Id

“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”  –Letter to Ernest Jones (1933), as quoted in The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (1993) by Robert Andrews, p. 779

I: Early Years

Freud was immensely learned, being proficient in many languages, including German, Hebrew, classical Greek and Latin, English, Italian, Spanish, and French.  He could actually read Shakespeare in the original English…from a young age!  Indeed, Shakespeare’s insight into human nature influenced Freud, who interpreted much in Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and other plays.  Other writers to have a strong influence on Freud were Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche.

He graduated with a medical degree, but never practiced internal medicine.  Instead, he studied cerebral anatomy, neurology, neuropathology (on which he was a lecturer from 1885 to the beginning years of the 20th century), cerebral palsy, and he even did investigations to find the location of the sexual organs of eels (!).

His research into neuropathology led to him trying to help patients with ‘nervous illness’ (neurosis).  He went to Paris to study and attend demonstrations of hypnosis by Jean-Martin Charcot.  Impressed by its apparent effectiveness in treating hysterical patients, Freud tried hypnosis on several hysterical patients of his during the 1880s, the most famous of whom was “Anna O,” who called Freud’s particular application of hypnosis, involving her speaking while hypnotized, the “talking cure.”  He published his Studies on Hysteria with his colleague of the time, Josef Breuer.

II: Free Association

He found, however, that hypnosis didn’t seem to effect a lasting cure for hysteria or neurosis, so he began to devise his own method called free association.  He could have the patient lie supine on a couch, thus relaxing the patient to the point of being in a state comparable to hypnosis, which would allow the patient’s unconscious mind to be open and accessible to the therapist.  Freud would then tell the patient to speak of anything on his or her mind.  There would be no rules at all: the patient just had to talk and talk.  There was no need to censor subject matter considered rude, sexually inappropriate, or in any way ‘irrelevant’; in fact, it would be necessary to include such talk, for this would give the therapist free flowing access to the patient’s unconscious mind.

As the patient continued talking and talking, however, he or she would sooner or later hit a wall, as it were, and stop talking.  Sometimes this was because the patient knew an anxiety-causing subject was coming dangerously close to being discussed; at other times, the patient simply didn’t know why no more subject matter could be thought of, to continue the chain of associations the therapist was writing down and linking together by way of recurring themes spotted.  In the latter case, Freud would assume that anxiety-producing subject matter was being repressed, deep down in the unconscious, so while the patient didn’t know why he or she couldn’t continue, Freud could link together the recurring themes of everything talked about, then speculate on what the cause of repression might be.

One early theory Freud had was called the seduction theory.  He found that a lot of his patients were describing sexual relationships with their parents, so he assumed they’d been sexually abused as children, and that this had caused their psychological problems.  As it turned out, the sheer proliferation of so many cases of apparent child sexual abuse, as well as his own self-analysis, caused Freud to change this theory into that of the Oedipus complex. Some think he fabricated this new theory to save his career and avoid dealing with the wrath of a mass of parents implicated as child molesters, but such speculations are far from proven.

III: Dreams

Another method Freud used in mapping out the unconscious mind was dream analysis.  Fortunately for the sake of his research, he had made a habit of recording his dreams in journals from childhood, so when he began analyzing himself, he had lots of dreams for material to work with.  From his research of his own dreams as well as those of his patients, he produced his first great work, The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899, but with the year 1900 printed on the title page, to usher in the twentieth century.  In this seminal book, he theorized that all dreams, without exception, even nightmares, were forms of wish-fulfillment.

Now, it is easy to see how having a dream about making love with an attractive partner, or about winning millions of dollars in the lottery, can be wish-fulfillment, but how can anxiety-causing dreams be?  Here, we must take into account conflict in Freudian psychology.  In our minds, part of us wants to do or have one thing, another part of us wants something contradictory to the first, and we mentally battle it out to see which instinctual drive wins out.  When these conflicts become too difficult to reconcile, anxiety results, and this unease can be reflected in the dream content.  Hence, nightmares can be an attempt at the fulfillment of contradictory–and anxiety-producing–wishes; they can thus simply be a failure of the dream to sustain sleep.

Let us imagine, for example, a young man who–though he sees himself as heterosexual, nonetheless has repressed homosexual feelings for his handsome male doctor.  His urges are so repressed that he isn’t even consciously aware of them, so shocking would they be if ever revealed.  Still, he has an odd habit of feeling so chronically ill that he must see his doctor for regular checkups.  Now, in his dreams, he probably wouldn’t see himself in bed with the doctor, for this would make him wake up bathed in sweat; for after all, the purpose of dreams is to ensure restful, uninterrupted sleep.

If, on the other hand, the young man dreamed of getting naked for his doctor in a physical examination, his wish fulfillment could thus be indirectly realized, by way of associative compromise; or he could symbolically fulfill his unconscious wish by dreaming of his handsome doctor putting a phallic tongue depressor in his mouth, or a shot from a needle in his behind.  There is much distortion of conflicting wishes in dreams, hence their strangeness; and the distortion can reconcile the conflict in a way that facilitates sleep.

But guilt and anxiety from such wishes, especially guilt imposed by an intolerant society, may require a ‘wish’ to be somehow punished or shamed for having these taboo desires.  Hence, in his dream, the naked young man, during his examination, may see the door to the examination room suddenly swing open, and all his family and friends outside see him.  Or the tongue depressor may be put too deep inside his mouth, causing him to gag or choke; or the shot from the needle may be especially painful.  Thus, an anxiety-causing dream fulfills taboo wishes–if only indirectly and symbolically–and also satisfies the wish to alleviate guilt by providing some form of punishment.  And the anxiety-causing nature of the ‘punishment’ results in a failure to sustain sleep–the dreamer wakes up from a nightmare.

Apart from Freud’s ideas about dreams as wish fulfillment, and the distortion of dreams, he also touched on such ideas as penis envy and the Oedipus complex.  This latter idea is dealt with in a special way, through his analysis of perhaps the two greatest tragedies in Western literature, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Why is any work of art considered great?  Because it communicates ideas we can all relate to in some way, and Freud believed these plays to fulfill a man’s deepest unconscious fantasy: to be rid of his father and to have his mother.

In Oedipus Rex, the title character has directly, if unwittingly, fulfilled this wish, and the tragedy of the play comes from his horror and shame in realizing he has murdered his father and married his mother.  In the case of Hamlet, the fantasy is fulfilled vicariously by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, and Hamlet delays his revenge because he unconsciously understands that he is no better than Claudius.  So he can’t bring himself to kill his uncle.  Productions of Hamlet throughout the twentieth century portrayed the Danish prince as having a thing for his mother.

IV: Errors and Humour

Freud’s next book was The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.  In this book, he theorized about the psychology of errors.  Slips of the tongue or of the pen, or mistakes of any kind were, in Freud’s opinion, not mere accidents: they expressed unconscious wishes.  Again, conflicting instincts in the mind–part of us wants to do something, another part of us doesn’t want to do this thing–cause us to resolve them by ‘half doing’ things, or doing them incorrectly.  Particularly amusing slips of the tongue, ones whose unconscious meanings are obvious, and often sexual, are called “Freudian slips.”

Let me tell you an amusing story.

Back in about 1997, at the English cram school where I was teaching Taiwanese kids, I had a habit, well known among my coworkers, of eating late lunches at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) before teaching my later afternoon and evening classes.  One afternoon, I was outside the school, about to get something to eat, and I was chatting with an attractive young female Taiwanese teaching assistant.  Her English was reasonably good, but she made errors in grammar here and there.  During our brief chat, we were being flirtatious.  Our chat ended, and I was about to leave.  She said, “So, are you going to FCK now?”

Speaking of humour, another book Freud wrote around this time (early 1900s) was Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.  In this book, he wrote of how all the jokes we tell reflect unconscious desires.

V: Stages of Psychosexual Development

Now, one of Freud’s most controversial ideas, particularly shocking during the prudish Victorian era, were his theories about childhood sexuality.  These ideas were dealt with in such writings as the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex,” among others.

The stages of psychosexual development have a child going through polymorphous perversity, when a child can be aroused by virtually anything, or have anything be an object to satisfy his libido, no matter how bizarre, since so young a person hasn’t yet been taught by society to focus his or her sexual energies on ‘acceptable’ objects.

The first of these psychosexual stages is the oral stage, during which an infant or child gains pleasure from sucking or biting on things.  Obviously, it is connected with the years when a baby is breast-fed.  If a person, however, is fixated on the oral stage later in life, he or she may express this fixation through such habits as smoking.  In light of Freud’s insight into such matters, it is astonishing how he, a lifelong smoker of cigars (which eventually gave him cancer of the jaw), wouldn’t give up his habit.

The next stage is the anal stage, when a child derives pleasure from defecating.  This is linked to a child’s potty training.  If one is fixated at this stage, and becomes anal retentive, one might develop the following personality traits: excessive cleanliness, parsimony, fastidiousness, stubbornness, and a need to be in control.  As Freud theorized in his paper, “Character and Anal Erotism,” one opposite may shift to the other (i.e., from filthy defecation to neat and tidy cleanliness and fastidiousness, through reaction formation); or preoccupation with this unclean state may be expressed associatively (i.e., filthy feces symbolized by a love for filthy lucre, hence, parsimony).

Next comes the particularly controversial phallic stage, when little boys and girls discover a certain anatomical difference between them, resulting in the castration complex.  Imagine, for example, a five-year-old boy and his four-year-old sister taking a bath together for the first time.  Their mother is getting the bath ready, and the boy and girl, naked, are facing each other, noting the difference between them.

Now imagine the boy’s reaction when he sees his sister, without a penis, but a slit in that place instead.  The slit seems to be a wound: has she been castrated?  Since the boy, with his Oedipal longing for Mommy and wish to dispose of Daddy, the young lad imagines his sister’s ‘castration’ has been her punishment for trying to take Mom away from jealous Dad.  Now, the boy realizes Dad may want to castrate him, too, for having the same Oedipal urges.  The fear that the boy has is called castration anxiety.

Castration anxiety has a profound effect on a boy’s psychological development, according to Freud.  It finds symbolic expression in a man’s fear of being humiliated, especially if this involves, for example, losing an argument with a woman.  After all, if women are just ‘castrated men’ in his eyes, then he will often have “an enduringly low opinion of the other sex [i.e., women],” as Freud said in a footnote, added in 1920, to the second of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.  Here, Freud is merely commenting on the reality of sexism: for what seems to be his agreement with sexism, read on…

For the girl’s version of the castration complex, the idea especially detested by feminists, Freud called it penis envy.  Imagine again the naked boy and girl in the bathroom.  When she sees the dangling members on him that she lacks, she feels “unfairly treated,” as Freud argued in his essay, “On the Sexual Theories of Children” (1908).  Why is she deprived of what he has?

Her resulting resentment–coming after a period of denial during which she, for example, attempts urinating while standing (her brother, too, at first denies her ‘castration,’ imagining her ‘penis’ is just really small, and will grow larger later)–causes her to feel a generalized jealousy, which he, in his 1925 essay “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” called a “displaced penis-envy.”  Some of this, Freud believed, resulted in feminism.  It also results, apparently, in women having, on average, relatively weak superegos.

Here, Freud’s sexism reached a particularly low point, since even though, in the aforementioned 1925 essay, he would “willingly agree” that most men fall far short of the masculine ideal, and that there is much psychic bisexuality in the personality traits of both sexes, and thus pure maleness and femaleness are socially constructed ideas “of uncertain content,” the historical, worldwide male denunciations of women’s inferior moral sense are, it seems, justified (!).

For feminist defenses of Freud, one can look to the writings of Juliet Mitchell (in particular, her 1974 book Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing, and Women) and Camille Paglia (she brings up Freud, the unconscious, and the danger of ignoring these ideas about 15 minutes into this video.  Here’s another, around 6:30 into it.)

Now, with the bringing on of the castration complex, another difference between the sexes arises: the boy’s Oedipus complex ends–or is, at least, repressed–out of the fear of the father’s retribution, replaced by identification with him; and the girl’s original Oedipal love for her mother, out of a belief that Mom castrated her, switches to a new Oedipus complex, hers being a love for her father and a hatred for her mother. Carl Gustav Jung called this the Electra complex (a term Freud scoffed at), also based on Greek myth; for Electra hated her mother, Clytemnestra, for plotting with her lover, Aegisthus, to murder Agamemmnon, Electra’s beloved father.

With this new Oedipal attachment, girls apparently long to possess their father’s penis, and as they grow up, this desire to have that “little one” gets displaced, and the desire to have another “little one,” a baby, is supposed to come about in womanhood.  This verbal relationship between penis and baby, both called “das Kleine,” or “little one,” is described in Freud’s 1917 essay “On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism.”

When the phallic stage is over, a period of lack of interest in sexual matters, the latency period, occurs from roughly the age of five or six until the onset of adolescence.  Then the sexual instincts reawaken, and if no fixation during any of the earlier stages has occurred, teenagers should have attained the genital stage, in which they derive pleasure from the genitals, a state of affairs considered normal and mature.  Along with this notion of sexual maturity, Freud insisted that a woman’s orgasms should be vaginally based; orgasms based on the clitoris, apparently, are sexually immature (!).

VI: The Theory of the Personality

According to Freud, we all begin with the id (Das Es, ‘It’).  This ‘thing,’ this primitive, selfish, savage animal inside us is on an endless quest for gratification.  It operates on the pleasure principle, which, put bluntly, says, “If it makes you feel good, do it.”  It is like a naughty, bratty, spoiled child, constantly demanding the satisfaction of its urges.

Imagine a little boy who hasn’t developed a sense of restraint yet.  The cookie jar in the kitchen is within his reach.  Without even a second’s consideration of the consequences, he impulsively grabs all the cookies he can eat and munches away.  Then Mom catches him, and he gets a spanking.

Having learned his lesson, the boy begins to develop an ego (Das Ich, “I”).  His id is pushed somewhat into his unconscious, and his ego operates on the reality principle, which is a modification of the pleasure principle, saying, “If it makes you feel good, do it, but only if it’s safe.”  Now if he wants to steal from the cookie jar, he must make sure neither Mom nor Dad catches him; if both are totally distracted by the TV in the living room, and if he doesn’t eat so many cookies that his parents know some are missing, he should get away with his act of petty larceny.  If his parents suspect that some cookies are unaccountably missing, perhaps he can blame the theft on a younger sibling!

So far, our boy still hasn’t learned about morality, but he will, from all the authority figures in his life: his parents, teachers, religious leaders, etc.  When he has learned about right and wrong, he has a superego (Das Uberich, “Over-I”), which demands that all his thoughts and behaviour conform to an ego ideal, or perfect standard of morality.  Now, whenever he is tempted to take a cookie or two from the cookie jar, not only does he have to avoid being caught, he has to wrestle with the guilt of knowing he is selfish and inconsiderate to his family.  Perhaps he is fearful of God watching down from heaven with a disapproving frown!

His id has now been repressed deep down into his unconscious; parts of his ego and superego, like an iceberg, are submerged down there, too; part of those two are also in the preconscious, which is just under the surface, and whose thoughts are accessible to the conscious mind.  And now the ego must act as mediator, managing the conflicting demands of libido, reality, and morality.  How can the ego do this?

VII: Ego Defence Mechanisms

Fortunately, the ego has a number of defence mechanisms, which aim to reduce anxiety and guilt.  We have already encountered a few of these, including these two: repression, which pushes unacceptable urges deep into the unconscious, so one doesn’t even know one has such feelings; and displacement, which moves one’s instincts from an unacceptable object to an acceptable one.

Imagine a man being yelled at by his boss in a manner that’s left him feeling humiliated.  He cannot direct his rage at his boss, of course; so when he goes home, fuming inside, he looks for an excuse to blow up at his wife (bad cooking, nagging at him, etc.) or at his kids (playing too loudly, not doing their homework, etc.).

A special kind of displacement is called transference, which involves, for example, displacement of a patient’s feelings (romantic love, hostility, etc.) onto his or her therapist.  When some of Freud’s female patients began falling in love with him, at first he found the transference a discomfiting distraction from the psychoanalytic task at hand; later, he found it useful to work with the transference as part of the journey to find a cure for the patient’s neuroses.

Along with transference comes countertransference, when the therapist develops feelings for the patient.  Freud recoiled at this returning of feelings, fearing that an emotional involvement with the patient was unprofessional and damaging to the cool, scientific rigour of psychoanalytic investigation; but later analysts, such as those involved in object relations theory, found good uses for countertransference, feeling that it could simulate, and thus regenerate, relationships stifled in their patients’ childhood, a stifling caused by bad parenting.

Other ego defence mechanisms include suppression, a restraining of instincts, but allowing them to remain conscious.  Also, there is denial, whose guilt-relieving mechanism is self-explanatory; and projection, where one throws one’s anxiety-causing instincts onto others, blaming them instead of oneself for the fault.  For example, I could accuse others of being rejecting of me, when actually it is I who am being rejecting of them.  Rationalization, using excuses to justify unacceptable acts or desires, is another defence mechanism.

Yet another ego defence mechanism is reaction formation, where one creates a contrived reaction that represents the opposite attitude to one’s real, and guilt-causing instinct.  A perfect example is in the movie American Beauty, in which a retired marine (played by Chris Cooper) expresses the most hateful bigotry against homosexuals throughout the film; but near the end, he reveals that he himself has suppressed homosexual feelings when he kisses the protagonist (played by Kevin Spacey) on the lips.

One particularly interesting ego defence mechanism is sublimation.  Instead of the more usual, hypocritical defences, this one is actually quite positive in nature, for it redirects unacceptable impulses into creative outlets.  Homosexual Michelangelo’s paintings and sculptures of muscular naked men are a case in point.

Freud’s daughter Anna would develop and see more importance in ego defence mechanisms in her work, especially in her classic work, Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936).  The significance of the unconscious portion of the ego means that in therapy much ego defence is unconscious, so the analyst mustn’t focus only on bringing out id impulses.  Hence, the origin of ego psychology.

VIII: Life and Death Instincts

For much of Freud’s career, he felt that the instinctual drives were all pleasure-based (libido), and sexual in nature.  This life instinct is called Eros.

After the horrors of the First World War, however, his thinking about human nature took a darker turn, and would remain essentially thus for the rest of his life (the excruciating pain of his cancer wouldn’t help lighten things up much).  In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud discussed the more destructive side of human nature, and postulated a death instinct (Thanatos would be the word used, though not by him).  This would explain our aggressive and self-destructive sides, as well as our tendency to do the same irrational things over and over again (“the compulsion to repeat“).

All forms of pleasure, whether sexual or death-oriented, involve putting the body into a state of rest.  The cliche of a man and woman in bed after great sex, with him rolled over and fast asleep, and her smoking a cigarette, show how Eros leads to a restful state.  As for Thanatos, there is no more absolute a state of rest than death.  As Hamlet said, “To die, to sleep–/No more; and by a sleep, to say we end/The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to, –’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished.  To die, to sleep…”  So here, the achievement of self-destruction in a nightmare can be seen as an exception to the idea of all dreams as pleasure-causing wish-fulfillment.

IX: Religion

Freud was born a Jew, but was also an atheist.  He believed that God represents the psychological need many of us have for a father figure.  His two major writings on religion, generally discredited since anthropology was not a field he specialized in, were Totem and Taboo, and Moses and Monotheism.  The former dealt with primitive taboos against incest, as well as with Freud’s belief that the killing and ritual eating of the primal father was common in primitive tribes; and in the latter, Freud theorized that Moses was an Egyptian adopted by the ancient Hebrews, who later killed him (this being a reiteration of his theories in Totem and Taboo), then by way of reaction formation assuaged their guilt by revering him as the founding father of their religion.

X: Post-Freud

As previously mentioned, his daughter Anna carried on the torch, with her focus on ego defence mechanisms.  Along with her among the Ego Psychologists was Heinz Hartmann, who focused on how the mind adapts in an evolutionary sense, rather than merely from psychic conflict and frustration.  Given the right environment, a child’s intrinsic potential for adaptation will help it adjust to the demands of the real world, an adaptive development that needn’t be conflictual.

Then there was object relations theory, which explains how problems in adult relationships can be traced to problems in the parent/child relationship.  Famous thinkers in this school include D.W. Winnicott, W.R.D. Fairbairn, and Melanie Klein, with her concepts of the good breast, which nourishes and brings out love, and the bad breast, which doesn’t feed or do any good for the infant, causing it to feel hostility instead.  Her ideas about projective identification expand on Freudian projection to show how a patient can make his projections become real in other people.  Her ideas were quite a break from Freud, though she considered them perfectly consistent with him.

Heinz Kohut, with his conceiving and development of self psychology, did much research and gained much insight into narcissism and NPD.

Jacques Lacan also saw himself at one with, even returning to, Freud, though his postmodernist notions, such as how the subconscious is like a language, seem quite different.  His ideas have greatly influenced postmodernism, poststructuralism, critical theory, feminist theory, and such contemporary thinkers as Slavoj Zizek.