22 May 2013

Freud for Gothic Novels The Id, the Ego and the Superego from 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle'


Sigmund Freud 1856-1939, was one of the first psychologists - writing about how we think, and why. His ideas give us an interesting way of understanding literature. His theory of the Id, the Ego and the Superego, from his essay,  'Beyond the Pleasure Principle', (1922), is particularly interesting when studying the Gothic.

In Gothic novels like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Wuthering Heights, Macbeth, and The Bloody Chamber, authors show the tensions between our animalistic nature and civilization. In other words - the moment where you're alone with a huge cake meant for the family, and part of you wants to eat the whole thing.
This internal conflict of desire vs duty is what Freud describes in 'The Pleasure Principle'.*

*Please avoid the anachronism of suggesting that Freud inspired the writings of Shakespeare (1500s), or even Stevenson (1900s)!

The Id - this is the part of the mind that contains basic, instinctive drives, like lust, greed, envy and hate. This is present from birth. If you're Catholic, you might call this 'Original Sin'. If you don't believe me, leave a two-year old alone with a cake meant for the family and see what happens - and how fast. Freud called this 'the Unconscious'. Please note: this is not the type of 'unconscious' when you're out for the count - it's the part of us we don't have rational control over. Sometimes, the Id is called 'the libido'.

In Freud's own words:
'It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality' 'most of that is of a negative character' and 'a contrast to the ego' The Id can be described as: 'chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations' It strives to bring about 'the pleasure principle'


The Ego - the sensible, realistic bit that tries to achieve what the Id wants, but in a sensible way. This is reason and common sense. Think of Nelly in Wuthering Heights, or Dr Jekyll's rational attempts to bring Hyde to life without personal cost to himself - or Lady Macbeth's clever counsel on how to take the crown.

In Freud's own words:
'Its task is to find a balance between primitive drives and reality while satisfying the id and super-ego.'


The Superego - this is ritual, law, the rules of society, taboo, polite behaviour. In other words, it's the part of your nature that makes you feel ashamed of your bad deeds. This could be linked to Utterson, who as a lawyer, represents the law and sums up the 'Strange Case'.

In Freud's own words:
"what we call our 'conscience'."


In Mr Hyde, we see the primitive, animalistic self let loose, drawn out of Dr Jekyll's civilized, respectable self. This separation dramatises our two 'selves' - which are in fact, inseparable and must always be at war within us. In Cathy and Heathcliff's romance, we see wild, primitive emotion at war with the requirements of 'society' - represented by the Lintons.
Some people would argue that this ‘veneer [a thin layer] of civilization’ is not as strong as the basic urges that rage underneath. Compare this to your text. Which side wins, and what are the consequences (usually total destruction).

Get more on Jekyll and Hyde Social and Historical Context (notes for GCSE) here.