Literary Shelf

Psychological Tools & Understanding Literature

Psychology and literature have always been considered quite intimate and neighboring to each other. But the aspect to underline is that the word "Psychology" has often been used in a very negligent manner. Common sentences like 'his psychology is not good' or, 'he is crack' or 'he is mental' show how ignorantly people refer to the complex, well knit branch of science and medicine namely Psychology. Psychology as an objective science of human behavior is based on critical observation, experimentation, surveys and research.

McNeil and Rubin explain -

"Human behavior is nothing less than the substance of our lives - our actions, our thoughts, our attitudes, our moods, even our hopes and dreams...The purpose of Psychology as a science and profession is two fold ; first, to provide better answers to psychological questions than the "everyday psychologist" faces; and second to help people make use of these answers in shaping their own lives"(l)

Psychology quenches our curiosity regarding the puzzles of human behavior and helps in improving human lives.

Literature on the other hand is the written word which supplies delight, diversion and a kind of mental solace. Literature reflects human conduct, human habits, aspirations, deficiencies and prospects in an aesthetic and emphatic fashion. The connoisseurs of literature estimate and interpret the subject matter of novels, poems, dramas and explain them for us. Traditionally these critics depend on their own insight and the insight of other experts. But since 1980s we have seen the growth of a fascinating trend where to analyze a fictional theme or figure, the critic takes help directly from the textbook of Psychology. Psychology now solves the puzzles of human behavior depicted in literature. Northrop Frye took a confident step when he brought Carl Jung directly to the classes of literature by applying his concept of "racial memory" on literature. Myth Criticism is a gift of Psychology. Psychologists researched and surveyed and discovered 'racial memory' imprinted on our genes. They explained the relevance of this 'unconscious memory' in our day to day behavior.(2) This discovery led to a new school of literary criticism known as the school of myth criticism.

I wish to apply certain established psychological precepts taken from the textbooks of General Psychology, Child Psychology, Social-Psychology and Organizational Psychology on literary figures. I find it extremely gratifying to study these literary characters as though they are living beings. The endeavor is to review their actions just as psychologists observe and understand living people.

Loneliness, isolation, alienation, and lack of communication are common symptoms of major literary figures and these symptoms often aggravate into further psychopathic disorders like silence and depression. Right from Prince Hamlet to Arundhati Roy's Estha, the inability to cope with stress has always plagued literary characters. These protagonists shell and imprison themselves tightly and tend to lose communication and contact with the world and other people. They feel lonely ever when surrounded by others. "One can be alone without being lonely as well as lonely without being alone"(3) Shaver and Pubenstein (1980) found that the loneliest people were those, whose one parent is unhelpful, hostile and shows disregard for the other parent. Hamlet's case is not that of Oedipus complex (as is often held) but just a case of his mother's disregard for his father. Gertude's actions establish her insulting attitude towards Hamlet's father and this behavior of the mother results in patterns of depression in Hamlet. His uttering where he finds himself and the world worthless clearly decide that the Prince is severely depressed.

The case of King Lear is that of an authoritarian personality. He has deep rooted prejudices. Psychologists hold that just as an attitude gives birth to an action, discrimination is followed by prejudice. The cycle of King Lear's life is his prejudice against self respecting people, then his glaring discrimination against Cordelia and finally the doom of his authoritarian self. Such people are "skilled at perceiving only those events that are consistent with their prejudices... Highly prejudiced people are likely to have authoritarian personalities."(4) These lines from the chapter on the psychology of authoritarian personalities perfectly qualify for King Lear - "They tend to be power oriented in their personal relationships."(5) These people only know one thing and that is to order. And this is the weakness of King Lear.

Lessons on Child Psychology unravel the child portrayal of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, R.K. Narain, Mulkraj Anand etc. The psychology of aggression in children, their isolation and unsocial instincts can be fruitfully applied to Nathaniel Hawthorn's Pearl and Anita Desai's Raka. These girls are not obedient. The grip and influence of society is almost negligible on them. They are not affected by social stereotypes.

In the light of psychological theories the mentality of Raka and Pearl can be explained. Normal development of a child demands active involvement of both parents. Girls have a very unique and special relationship with their fathers (6).  These girls are defiant and hostile perhaps mainly due to lack of fatherly affection. "What is the effect on a child of living without a father?" - Freud thought that the impact could be substantial, even devastating. Mavis Hetherngton and her colleagues (1979) have found that children become less tractable as a result of not receiving due affection from father. In a survey by John Kelly (1980) the most depressed children tended to be those who no longer saw their father or saw them infrequently. (7)

Aggression in children has also been discussed in detail by the psychologists. Out of the two types of aggression, instrumental and hostile, Raka and Pearl show the signs of hostile aggression. Studies by Doolard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer and Sears (1989) show that when rejected, children feel frustrated. Frustration results in aggression. (8) Hostile aggression in aimed at hurting the other person.

There seems to be a broad consensus among the psychologists regarding the moral development of children. Children learn moral behavior through a role model and secondly through explaining. Studies show that lack of communication, reasoning and explaining results in irresponsible behavior.

Overall it can be safely stated that Pearl and Raka are first rejected or ignored by the world. Later they reject and ignore it. First isolation is brought on them. Later they embrace isolation with full force.

Modern drama is all a matter psychological intricacies. The theme of communication gap has infected the modem theatre like a virus. The study of the psychology of communication, correspondence, and obstructions serves a lot in explaining modern plays. For instance, the case of Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's ‘Look Back in Anger’ is that of destruction through excess of emotions. Psychologists discuss situations when emotions destroy. Harold Pinter has poignantly touched problems of social psychology such as barriers in the path of intellectual exchange. Samual Beckett deals with personality confusion and identity mess of his characters. T.S. Eliot cannot be understood wholly unless perceived through the precepts of attitudes, beliefs, identification and self esteem.

Many writers like D.H. Lawrence have written consciously adhering to one school of psychology. But even those authors who do not deliberately  justify books of Psychology, echo standard psychological rules. Saru, the heroine in ‘The Dark Holds No Terror’ by Shashi Deshpande carries within her the sad effects of gender discrimination. Social psychology deals with the stereotypes about the two genders. Secondly she has the deep rooted mentality of an unwanted child. Psychologists have dealt in detail with the mental makeup of an unwanted child. Thirdly and most tragically Saru suffers the bruises of physical trauma on her psyche.

Arun Joshi's novel ‘The Last Labyrinth’ is unique in the sense that it demonstrates very clearly inherent patterns of "collective consciousness" and "racial memory" as discussed by Jung and Frazer among psychologists and Northorp Frye, Leslie Fiedler, Miss Bodkin among modern myth critics. India with all her mysticism, ancient religious wisdom, concepts of eternal cycle, sacrifice, caste structure, Krishna and Brahma is strewn all over the novel. Bhaskar claims to be an atheist, but his thinking, voice and mind are full of racial memory. The way Bhaskar talks and dreams and the way his mind works shows the dark layers of ages of experience over which he has little control. The character of Bhaskar is a living stock of collective consciousness of the human race.

Similarly Estha in Arundhati Roy's ‘God of Small Things’ gradually grows silent. He does not speak. Silence grabs him most silently and decisively. Estha's silence is the question of the novel. Why did he grow silent? The question can only be solved in psychological terms. The traumas that the boy goes through - strict treatment from his mother, separation from his twin sister, rejection and neglect from his father result in silence. He is an extreme case of introversion. The sensitive child's development of personality is blocked "by other people's rejection, low self regard, anxiety and conflict."(9) "Future experience become threatening rather than growth inducing" for him.

Thus, realizing these literary figures as breathing and living and then analyzing them psychologically is a challenging and satisfying task. It helps in looking at literature from an entirely different point of view. It helps the reader in developing an unbiased and objective outlook towards the written word. Analysis of literature becomes more factual, convincing and involving.  If we study literature through psychological lenses, criticism becomes an artistic science.


  1. Mc Neil and Rubin. 1994.  ‘The Psychology of Being Human’, Canfield press, New York page -4.
  2. Jung Carl, ‘Psychology and Religion’. 2000 Ed. New Haven,  Page 45 - "The unconscious mind is capable at times of assuming an intelligence and purposive-ness which are superior to actual conscious insight."

    Jung Carl, ‘Modern Man In Search of a Soul’, 2000 Ed. Harcourt, Brace and Company Inc. Page 182 - "Looking at a good work of art we are reminded in nothing of everyday, human life but rather of dreams, night time fears and the dark recesses of mind that we sometimes sense with misgiving,"
  3. Roven and Bertram. 1990.  ‘Social Psychology’, Page 59.
  4. McNeil and Rubin - 556. 
  5. Levinson and Sanford, 1950.
  6. Bee Helen. 1939. ‘The Developing Child’, Harper International. Page 375.
  7. Ibid - 312. 
  8. Ibid - 351.
  9. McNeil and Rubin - 445.


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 3330      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.