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What Is Psychological Criticism?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

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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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By literally45 — On Oct 20, 2014

@ysmina-- Often times, the writer himself or herself is not a psychologist. I don't think it's necessary to be an expert in this field to criticize a piece of work that has elements of psychology in it. I think a brief research on various disorders could be enough.

Fiction isn't written for experts. It's written for the regular people who want to read something stimulating, that gets them to think. We're all free to develop our own theories about why a character in a story did something. As long as we're not talking about a real person, why does it matter? And there is usually no way of confirming our theories anyway, unless the writer comes out and says that he didn't write it with that intention.

We can't limit psychological criticism to expert opinions. Where is the fun in that?

By ysmina — On Oct 20, 2014

@SeamLouis-- I'm sure people will disagree with me when I say this, but I really don't think that people who haven't studied psychology or psychiatry should try to analyze and label psychological or psychiatric disorders in a story.

It's very easy to jump to conclusions in psychological criticism but the conclusions may be wrong.

By SteamLouis — On Oct 19, 2014

When we read a story or watch a film, we all become critics. That's part of why we enjoy works that have a psychological angle. Something we thought of as mundane or ordinary, may carry a significant meaning. It could be a symbol for something else. It's exciting to think about it and to try to figure it out.

I always enjoy psychological thrillers for this reason. Even after I'm finished reading, I continue to think about it. I try to understand it more deeply. I try to figure out the psychological issues and motives behind a character's actions. It's much more engaging than a story without much depth.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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