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What Is Psychological Criticism?

An example of psychological criticism would be contemplating a fictional character's past in order to understand why he killed his mother.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, is influential in the field of psychological criticism.
Psychological criticism is a form of literary criticism that focuses on the analysis of literature from a psychological standpoint.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 28 June 2014
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Psychological criticism is an approach to literary criticism that interprets writings, authors, and readers through a psychological lens. The works of noted practitioners Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are particularly influential in this field, but other approaches to psychology may be integrated as well. Often, the focus is on the expression of the unconscious in the work, looking at psychology in the narrative itself as well as in the author. Reader responses can also be evaluated from this standpoint to learn more about how people respond to works of literature.

In this form of literary criticism, critics think about the symbols in the work and what they might mean. They also evaluate the psychological state of the characters, and examine their motivations and actions with an understanding of psychology in mind. Taking an example like a horror story where the narrator kills his mother, the critic might look to the character’s past to understand why he committed matricide. At the same time, this criticism can explore matricide as a literary theme and may explore the author’s own history to determine why he or she chose to tell that particular story.

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Analysts have to be careful with psychological criticism because it can become reductive in nature. It is also important to avoid projecting personal psychological issues onto works in analysis. When considering the history of the author, critics must be careful to avoid attributing incorrect motivations to authors, and they may also want to consider how knowing about an author’s past might affect the reading of a story. Being aware that an author had survived a violent crime, for example, might cause someone to read a story about vengeance or violence very differently.

Guidebooks to this type of criticism are available, along with compilations of work in the genre. Noted literary critics who use this approach may publish research papers and essays discussing various works and potential psychological interpretations. They can also debate various theories and their merits with each other to come to a deeper understanding of specific works with complex psychological themes.

Reader responses can also be a subject of interest and, in some cases, psychological criticism may even play a role in psychotherapy. Patients can be presented with reading material for discussion, and their responses can be integrated into a course of therapy. Sometimes, stories provide an outlet for emotions or help patients process their feelings, and responses can also provide insights into topics that might bear fruit if subjected to psychoanalysis.

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