Psychoanalytical criticism

Persuasion and the ideas of Freud

The development of psychoanalytic theory (deriving from the work of Sigmund Freud) has had a major influence on literary criticism in a wide variety of ways. The following are particularly relevant to Persuasion.

The relationship between writer and text   

This approach would concentrate on Jane Austen's own experience, such as:   

  • Her reputedly hypochondriac mother
  • The time she spent at boarding schools in Oxford, Southampton and Reading
  • Her supposed isolation as a single woman and country clergyman's daughter and ignorance of sexual love
  • Her relative poverty and dependence on the generosity of her brother for housing
  • Her connection with - and knowledge of - the navy through her brothers, who were naval officers
  • Her family's brushes with the effects of the Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars, such as her sister's loss of her fiancée in the West Indies and the beheading of her cousin's French husband.

These can be seen to result in a romantic plot that operates as a kind of wish-fulfilment. Such interpretations are not always based on reliable biographical knowledge.

Analysis of character in psychological terms

Here, critics might concentrate on how characters behave, treating them as psychological cases. For example:

Anne Elliot herself would be a suitable character for study, particularly in relation to her relative isolation and somewhat melancholy disposition. She has a deep interior life in which she dwells frequently on the past. She is almost compulsively motivated by duty and the desire to be useful

Lady Russell is a complex character psychologically. She is Anne's only close friend and loves her dearly, yet she goes against her wishes on several occasions. She aligns herself with Sir Walter in her attitudes to social propriety, yet she accompanies Anne to Westgate buildings to visit Anne's impoverished friend. Our conflicting impressions of her throughout the novel make it hard to label her as being wholly good or bad

Mr. William Elliot has a very convoluted psyche. He has an almost pathological drive to dissemble, not only to the outside world, but to himself as well. He has a remarkably tight control on his presentation of himself, in order to conceal his past and true motives. Anne senses this, but Mrs. Smith has to unveil it for her.

Family and parent-child relationships

Psychoanalytic critics might also concentrate on the varieties of family relationships to be found in the novel:

  • Anne's lack of a mother is significant, and Lady Russell is a very fallible stand-in
  • Sir Walter does not have healthy relationships with any of his daughters, and they are very clearly ranked in his affections
  • Mary and Charles Musgrove are inadequate as parents
  • The Musgroves are praised for their parenting and the Crofts are clearly good with children, even though they have none of their own.

Relationship between the reader and the text

This approach would concentrate on the reader's response to the novel and how readers in some way collude with the author in the act of reading. As a result the reader constructs meanings or satisfies unconscious wishes by their response to characters and events. This is a theoretical way of stating that readers usually have empathy or sympathy with one or more of the novel's characters and may, therefore, identify psychologically with the fortunes of that character:

  • In the case of Persuasion, a good deal of the reader's understanding of the novel depends on the degree of his or her sympathy with Anne Elliot
  • Readers will also bring to their reading their own expectations, often derived from their previous reading of novels and how they are resolved. For example, in relation to the relationship between Anne and Captain Wentworth, do novels always end in marriage?

Construction of identity in relation to the social order

Throughout the novel, we see Anne engaged in the construction of her own identity in relation to her family, to her changing environment and to the rules of the social order:

  • This is particularly true in relation to the construction of Anne's individual identity, as separate from her family and their social expectations of whom she should marry
  • At the beginning of Chapter 6, Anne contemplates her sense of self in relationship to Uppercross society. She adapts her interests and ideas to those of the Musgroves
  • Anne is attracted to the dynamic openness of the naval officers as opposed to the stasis of the society of her own family. She is drawn to the warmth of their company. Her interactions with them and their families strengthen her ability to leave her family behind to marry Wentworth.
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