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American Imago 62.1 (2005) 75-99

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Bruno Bettelheim and the Psychoanalytic Feral Tale

Department of English
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611

In my book Making American Boys (2004), I propose that Sigmund Freud wrote two sophisticated variants of what I call the "feral tale"—a narrative of animal-human encounter, exchange, or overlap—in his case histories of the Rat Man (1909) and the Wolf Man (1918). I suggest that Freud, drawing from mythology and folklore, adapted the feral tale to dramatize his psychosexual theories, just as he had adapted the tale of Oedipus.1 By the early twentieth century, the rat and the wolf were animal figures used to designate certain kinds of people. The talking wolf was a major character in European fairy tales, usually a stand-in for a predatory man, while the anthropomorphized rat was a staple of Anglo-European forensic writing on the urban poor. The rat signified squalor and dirtiness—thus the term "street rat" for an underclass and usually immigrant urban child—whereas the wolf was a more ambivalent figure of savagery or wildness, at once feared and respected. Similarly, "wolf children," long the stuff of mythology and science alike, were at once pitied and admired, depending on the context.

Freud's appropriation of the wolf-human figure coincides historically with Lord Baden-Powell's "Wolf Cub" or Cub Scouting program, begun in 1915. This heroic articulation of the topos drew upon the Jungle Books (1894–95) of Rudyard Kipling, who had in turn found inspiration in nineteenth-century reports of wolf-boys in colonial India, transforming them into his tales of the wolf-boy Mowgli. Baden-Powell turned literature back into life, organizing scouting around a kind of animal totemism in which Cubs eventually become men. Cub Scouts are initially organized into packs with a "den mother," then as Scouts proper they become more adventure-seeking troops presided over by a male Scoutmaster. [End Page 75]

Psychoanalysis, like scouting, was forged in part from the folkloric materials of adventure, exploration, and conquest. We know that Freud (1907) admired Kipling's Mowgli stories; when asked by Hugo Heller to recommend ten books to Austrian readers, he listed the Jungle Books second. Freud believed identification with animals to be normal in childhood, while the persistence of such identifications into adulthood was dysfunctional. Even so, he treated the Rat Man and the Wolf Man with respect so that, though haunted by their primitive cathexes, they emerge from his texts as heroic characters, akin to the hardy Mowgli.

The Jungle Books belong to the long history of scientific experimentation with, and writing about, "feral children" who either literally or (far more commonly) metaphorically experienced an upbringing by animals. The nineteenth-century cases of Victor of Aveyron and Kaspar Hauser were celebrated internationally. Adding to the European dissemination of feral tales was the popularity of the Brothers Grimm, whose Children's and Household Tales (1812) was translated into English in 1823. First-generation psychoanalysts grew up in a culture saturated with their stories. Freud tells us that the Wolf Man's association with wolves began with childhood readings of William Caxton's Reynard the Fox and the Grimm variants of "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Seven Little Goats," in which devouring wolves take center stage.

The psychoanalytic literature on wolf-people begins with Freud, but the field of child analysis is especially marked by lupine motifs. In her first paper on child analysis, Melanie Klein's (1921) patient "Fritz" (in fact, her son Erich) is preoccupied with wolves in fairy tales and picture books and, like his adult Freudian prototype, even dreams of them: "Here is another dream," writes Klein, "that was not, however, associated with feelings of fear. Everywhere, behind mirrors, doors, etc., were wolves with long tongues hanging out. He shot them all down so that they died. He was not afraid because he was stronger than them" (40–41). More recently, musing on a wolf-boy case reported by his pupil Rosine Lefort, Jacques Lacan (1954) notes...


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