“The Cask of Amontillado” and its author Edgar Allan Poe are excellent references for applying psychoanalytic interpretations to an author and his work. Psychoanalytic criticism uses a Freudian theory of a three level psyche, the ego, the super-ego, and the id to gain a better understanding of the deeper or hidden meaning within literature and an understanding of the psychological identity of the author, the characters or the reader. Freud theorized that our psyche has three levels.
The ego is the rational part of our psyche known as the consciousness. The super-ego is the part of our psyche that is dictated by the values of first our parents and then later society known as the conscience. The id is the part of our psyche that contains all of our desires and proclivities. The id motivates our actions in an instinctive manner known as the unconscious. Poe illustrates the levels of the psyche metaphorically through the character narrator Montresor of “The Cask of Amontillado”.
An example of the ego is shown through Montresors ability to act rationally while planning his revenge, “I continued as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation” (Poe 56). In the streets of the city Montresor is the portrait of a caring friend to Fortunato. As they make their journey down from the city deep into the catacombs Montresor becomes more taunting and sinister.
This is a metaphor that a psychoanalytic critic could interpret as the character traveling through his psyche from the ego to the id, where Freud believed all our unresolved conflicts, unadmitted desires, or past traumatic events lay hidden or repressed (Barry 92). According to Barry psychoanalytic critics try to find the unconscious motives of the characters and of the author using classic Freudian conditions such as the Oedipus complex, whereby Feud says the male infant wishes to eliminate the father and become the sexual partner of the mother (93).
Critics analyzing this short story might say it has Oedipal overtones if they are cross referencing Poe’s identity to the story. Poe lost his mother at a young age and then was abandoned by his father. He then was adopted by a wealthy merchant with an iron fist. Taking this into account critics might theorize that his inner competition to please his father but also be a writer was repressed and then manifested itself in this short story, where his father is Fortunato, walled away leaving him free to pursue his literary career.
This could also be a metaphor for when he broke all ties to his adopted father. Freudian theory deals with the premise that some of our desires, wishes, fears and memories may be hard to cope with and so we eliminate it from our conscious mind through repression. “But this doesn’t make it go away: it remains alive in the unconscious, like radioactive matter buried beneath the ocean” (Barry 96). Fortunato is buried alive deep in the catacombs beneath the river where poisonous nitre grows.
This is a clever use of symbolism and metaphors to demonstrate the burying of our darkest human motives, walling them up to hide from our ego or conscious being, hence repression is born. “My heart grew sick-on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I reerected the old ramport of bones.
For half a century no mortal has disturbed them” (Poe 62) Infantile sexuality is a Freudian concept in which the sexuality does not begin at puberty but begins as an infant and is directly related to the child’s relationship to the mother. Psychoanalytic critics might theorize that Poe was morbidly captivated with the theme of “death of a beautiful women”, because of the loss of his mother at only a year old and then the loss of his wife at such an early age.
Poe’s tragic loss is transcended from reality to his works of fiction through the Freudian concept of dream work, where real events or desires are transformed into dream images. According to Barry there are two important facets of this concept, displacement; where one person or event is represented by another which is associated by the later and condensation, where a number of people, events or meanings are combined and represented by a single image in a dream. Barry 94) Psychoanalytic critics can apply this concept to literature because similar to a dream, literature does not express absolute ideas and themes. Literature communicates to its readers through symbolism and abstract meanings that have concrete images. Applying psychoanalytic criticism using Freudian concepts can often be very helpful in solving debates in literature. Barry describes a debate among critics not being able to agree on why Hamlet has trouble killing his uncle when he was able to kill other people in the play.
Psychoanalytic criticism offers a neat and simple solution: Hamlet cannot avenge this crime because he is guilty of wanting to commit the same crime himself. He has an Oedipus complex” (Barry 101). I think this school of criticism is fun and intriguing but I also think it has its weakness in the fact that Freud had such a negative view on women and their sexuality. Some of his case studies have shown him to have perverse ideas of women and his thoughts of men’s superiority shines through, as in the case given by Barry loosely called “Dora”.
Many of his ideas make incredible sense to me but because many of his concepts deal with the unconscious mind it can be very abstract and hard to determine when to apply these concepts in a more concrete manner to texts that do not have any obvious Freudian or psychoanalytic overtones. “because `the statements` made are not explicit there is an inevitable `judge-mental` element involved, and in consequence psychoanalytic interpretations of literature are often controversial” (Barry 98). Psychoanalytic criticism has proven to be useful but must also be used with care.