Psychoanalytic Versus Feminist Literary Theory

A phrase uttered by feminist critic Maggie Humm serves as an excellent explanation as to the influence that literary criticism can have, as she states that “English…will always be about power, and criticism, its weapon, will always be about the power to name, what to choose, and who to exclude” (5). The power of the English language lies within the fact that it can be both the basis from which viewpoints are formed, as well the medium with which these viewpoints are expressed. This is what makes language so influential. However, the influence of the language depends on the way it is interpreted. Therefore, several schools of literary theory and criticism have emerged to assist in this interpretation process. Unsurprisingly, some schools of criticism apply more to certain works than others. With this in mind, Robert Hill Long’s flash fiction piece, “The Restraints,” can be interpreted through both a psychoanalytic lens, as well as a feminist lens. Naturally, these two methods of interpretation work both with and against each other. The two are similar in the way they work to put a piece of literature into a larger context by uncovering hidden agendas and meanings in the text. However, they go about doing this in different manners, which, in the end, will cause them to arrive at different conclusions about a single text.

One of the main focuses of psychoanalytic criticism and feminist criticism is to take the particular details of a work, and apply them to more general concepts. In the case of “The Restraints,” a psychoanalytic would try to see how the actions of the characters followed or fit into Freud’s stages of sexuality or other natural workings of the human nature and development. A psychoanalytic may look at this piece of flash fiction and assert that the little girl’s irrepressible urge to dance is actually a placeholder for her suppressed sexual energy, or “libido.” Per Freud, and other psychoanalysts, the girl’s sexual desire is replaced externally with a desire to dance in an effort to “render them [sexual thoughts] more acceptable to the conscious mind” (Parkin-Gounelas 20). To psychonalysists, this idea of substituting an unconscious desire or thought with something more presentable, is common among society, and occurs in every individual. Another example of this, as offered by English Professor and writer Ruth Parkin-Gounelas, would be Freud’s analysis of the psycho-sexual characteristics of Leonardo da Vinci. In this particular case, Freud argues that Leonardo is forced to suppress his unconscious sexual desire for his mother, so that it may instead be substituted consciously as a harmless desire to identify with and model her (32). Naturally, the latter desire appears much less benign to the conscious mind than the former. And Freud and other psychonanalysists would argue that this “repression” to make a desire appear less benign is common throughout society.

A feminist, on the other hand, may use the specific detail of the girl dancing as a way to generalize about the role of women in society, therefore focusing more on sociological aspects than psychonalysists would. According to feminist critic Maggie Humm, the main focus of this school is to determine “what features of culture represent the subordination of women” and in regards to literary criticism, “what literary techniques perpetuate this pattern” (17). Feminists could claim that a “feature of culture” that has been present in the United States for a long time is the objectification of women. In regards to “The Restraints,” the dancing girl is essentially objectified as a means of pleasure to the men that are observing her, offering a concrete example as to how this idea is perpetuated through literature.

Along with the idea of moving from general to specific within a work of literature, the two schools of criticism also work to uncover concealed meanings or ideas within a text. On the psychoanalytic side, one might focus on the hidden motives behind the actions of the characters, which are often believed to be a depiction of the unconscious of the author himself. In regards to “The Restraints,” one might try to identify the unconscious psychological motives of the actions of the father and the girl. One might also search for the way that the author implements language in a way that might reveal some hidden truth about him or her. A critic might begin by linking the girl’s apparent “hunger” to dance as a symbol for her sexual hunger, both of which are very difficult to repress. In this manner, the girl is apparently “unstoppable.” Along with the author’s use of the word “hunger,” the author’s use of the word “bread” could also be used to further evoke sexual images. Bread, in its phallic shape, is given to the girl by the father in an effort to console her, which she then eats before allowing him to kiss her (132). Naturally, the girl wants to please her father and she sees the acceptance of this “bread” as the way to do so. This idea could be seen as a link to the very own subconscious of the author. The author could be using the words “hunger” and “bread” unknowingly to represent his very own, never satisfied, desire for his parent as a child, as described by Freud’s Oedipus Complex. Per Psychoanalytic writer Ruth Parkin-Gounelas, young boys develop a “love of the mother” and therefore a “jealousy of the father” as they mature (84). The author of “The Restraints” demonstrates this idea through his inclusion of the female Oedipal within his story, in which case the roles above are essentially reversed, with the girl exhibiting a love of her father and a jealousy of her mother. Therefore, the mother’s apparent lack of appearance within the story could represent both the girl’s secret desire to eliminate her to pursue her father, or the author’s repression of his memory of his mother as he could never act on his sexual fantasies directed towards her.

As mentioned previously, the main focus of the feminist school of criticism is to use the text to determine what we can about society as a whole, instead of just focusing on the psyche of a single person. Therefore, when feminist critics strive to find hidden meanings of the text, they also work to apply them to society as a whole. As said by critic Maggie Humm, “literature is analyzed to confirm each writer’s general account of myths of the feminine” (22). With this view, literature can essentially be used to identify the underlying ideals and viewpoints of our culture.

Along with identifying the idea of objectification of women within “The Restraints,” a feminist might also look at this work as a depiction of the roles or status of women within our society as a whole. One of the very first things a critic might notice about the work is that it was written by a male. Therefore, as the ideas about the roles of women are usually procured by males, the author would provide the reader with a realistic view as to how he, and many others, view women within society. As the author is frequently exposed to a “patriarchal caste system,” he is unlikely to question these views as they seem normal and common to him (Humm 20). Whether or not this was the meaning the author intended to put across, as a male author, it is only natural to assume that he has included the stereotypes and assumptions about women that he has seen enacted as accepted throughout his society. A specific example of this from the text could be when the girl is physically “restrained” by her father by a rope that has tied their angles together. A feminist may interpret this as a representation of figurative “restraints” that are imposed within women in society, due numerous societal factors and assumptions.

Another instance of apparent “bondage” and stereotypical assumptions of the author within the text could be seen as the girl is forced to choose between the new polka-dotted dress and her father (132). In this instance, the dress could be seen as a symbol of the girl’s sexual freedom (or essentially the ability to express herself and do as she pleases). On the other hand, choosing her father could be a clear symbol of her heading back into repression, as she is from then on physically chained to him. Regardless, a feminist would view this scene as an illustration as to how all women are viewed as inferior and therefore repressed within a patriarchal society.

Clearly, the two schools of psychoanalytic criticism and feminine criticism lead a reader to two very different analyses and conclusions about a work, in this case “The Restraints.” However, as different as these two methodologies may be, combining them into a single methodology of analysis can offer a fresh outlook on a work. Naturally, the pieces of the story might not fit perfectly within both sets of criticisms, but using them together offers up a more comprehensive, complete, and interesting conclusion than either criticism offers when used on its own.

As with all schools of criticism, the most obvious place to start an analysis is at the beginning of the work. Starting at the beginning of “The Restraints” brings the reader upon the word “hunger” once again. As mentioned previously, a psychoanalysist would argue that this is representation of the girl’s repressed sexual appetite. However, in regards to the feminists, this could also be seen as the girl’s consistent eagerness to please the men surrounding her, especially her father (and not only in the manner of sex, as claimed by the psychonalysists). In this way, this could continue to reinforce the idea of a woman’s role to “serve” (or in this case, provide pleasure and entertainment) to the men surrounding her.

Continuing on in the work brings the reader to a description of a nightly dream by the girl, in which she is forever dancing in a polka dress. To the psychoanalysist, the dream is an “attempt [by the subconscious] to fulfill its deepest wishes” (Parkin-Gounelas 19). Therefore, they might argue that the girl’s constant dream about dancing (which is a way for the girl to cope with her secret sexual desire) is merely a continuation of the aforementioned thought about her constant, insatiable (because she can never act on it) libido. In a way, this desire keeps her bound, figuratively, to her father as she desires and therefore wants to stay with him. In a way, this also links back to the feminist side of the analysis, which might argue that the girl’s dress is a symbol for her unachievable “freedom,” as she is inhibited figuratively by societal factors, as well as literally by a rope tied to her father’s ankle. These two ideas are connected in the fact that they both leave the little girl with little independence or choice, as she is bound both by her desire as well as the views of her pre-determined societal role as a woman.

A final, important aspect of the “The Restraints” that should be looked at is near the end of the work, when the girl is now old and in the hospital, and is therefore no longer capable of dancing. However, the author explains that “some nights her feet [would] drum against the footboard…weakly” (Long 132). This description merely reinforces the ideas above. The girl’s “drumming,” could be seen by psychonalysists as her unconscious sexual desire struggling to dominate her apparent conscious desire to dance. As the girl’s covert sexual desire has yet to be satisfied, it will continue trying to fight with and overpower her overt desire to dance. A feminist, on the other hand, might also view this seen as a fight of some kind, but a different one than that between the covert and overt workings of the mind. She might view it as a symbol for how ingrained within society the idea of inferiority of women actually is. Therefore, the girl in “The Restraints” may be attempting to ward off or change these viewpoints (via “drumming”), but as society holds so strongly onto these viewpoints, she can only “drum…weakly.” Therefore, both the psychoanalyst and feminist criticism sides offer up the idea of the girls “drumming” as a fight of some kind, although both against different things.

Overall, literary works can be powerful indicators of both an individual’s psyche (per the psychonalysists) or the widespread opinion of society about a particular group, in this case women (per the feminists). These two schools of thought both work by taking specific details from a literary work and putting them into a broader concept or generalized idea, as well as determining how best to do this by uncovering hidden meanings that may lie within the text. Although these two methods work on achieving these tasks through different focuses and techniques, they can still be combined together to more thoroughly analyze a single text. Clearly, as mentioned per Maggie Humm above, English in itself is very commanding, but applying the proper literary criticism to it is what gives us meaning and useful application to our own society.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. New York:

Manchester University Press, 2009. Print

Fiorini, Leticia Glocer and Graciela Abelin-Sas Rose. On Freud’s “Feminity.” London: Karnac

Books, 2010. Print.

Humm, Maggie. Feminist Criticism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Print.

Parkin-Gounelas, Ruth. Literature and Psychoanalysis Intertextual Readings. New York:

PALGRAVE, 2001. Print.

Robert, Long Hill. “The Restraints.” Flash Fiction 72 Very Short Stories. Ed. James Thomas,

Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazuka. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. 131-3.


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