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  • Reading Between the Lines
  • Mark I. West (bio)
Joseph H. Smith and Martin Williams , eds., Opening Texts: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of the Child, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.

Although psychoanalytic criticism once enjoyed a large following, it has been out of favor for so many years that today many mainstream literary critics have only a vague idea about what psychoanalytic critics actually do. Once, for example, after I told a colleague about my interest in this type of criticism, he disdainfully replied, "Oh, isn't that based on the idea of penis envy?" He looked a bit incredulous when I said that what most psychoanalytic critics are primarily interested in are the workings of the unconscious mind. It soon became apparent that my colleague based his prejudice against psychoanalytic criticism on a superficial reading of a few passages from Freud. In this regard, however, he is certainly not alone. Despite the fact that psychoanalytic criticism has been around for over three-quarters of a century, it is as unfamiliar to many contemporary literary critics as the most recent ideas on deconstructionism. This situation helps explain why Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan decided to call their book Opening Texts: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of the Child. It would be more accurate, though, to use the word "reopening" in the title.

The seven contributors to this book all engage in psychoanalytically informed criticism, but make diverse use of psychoanalytic theory. Some essays have psychoanalytic implications but contain no direct references to psychoanalysis per se. Others draw on the work of contemporary theorists such as Erik Erikson, Bruno Bettelheim, Alice Miller, and Jessica Benjamin. The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, is hardly mentioned by any of the contributors. Taken as a group, the essays provide ample evidence that psychoanalytic criticism need not be narrowly dogmatic. Diverse in approach and content as they are, a unifying theme runs through all of them. In one way or another, all deal with the underlying and generally unstated generational tensions between children and adults.

"Some Representations of Childhood in Wordsworth's Poetry" by Steven Marcus, for example, focuses on three of Wordsworth's poems: [End Page 150] "We Are Seven," "Anecdote for Fathers," and "Nutting." As Marcus points out, the first two poems involve generational conflict. Often read as nostalgic glimpses at innocent children, they also deal with adult hostility toward children or at least toward the ways in which children tend to think. According to Marcus, "Nutting" has a similar theme, but in this case the hostility is internalized. Standing on the threshold of adulthood, the poem's young protagonist experiences intimations of guilt and anger over the kind of person he is becoming. Marcus's explications are fully developed and well-grounded in psychoanalytic theory.

In "Lullabies and Child Care: A Historical Perspective," Nicholas Tucker examines traditional European lullabies in an attempt to gain insights into the attitudes of mothers from earlier times toward their infants. A number of the lullabies cited by Tucker have a resentful tone that suggests that the mothers who sang them may well have felt a certain anger toward their infants. But other lullabies, Tucker notes, emphasize tender and loving sentiments. He argues that the existence of the latter group runs counter to psychohistorian Lloyd de Mause's theory that maternal affection was uncommon prior to the seventeenth century. Other historians have criticized de Mause's tendency to overgeneralize, but Tucker is the first, as far as I know, to cite the traditional lullaby as evidence that maternal love is not unique to modern times.

Parent-child relationships are also the focus of Maria Tatar's "From Nags to Witches: Stepmothers in Grimms' Fairy Tales." Tatar contrasts the tales' portrayal of biological mothers, who usually are kind and loving, and that of stepmothers, who almost always mistreat their stepchildren. Her most intriguing comments, however, concern the place of fathers in the tales. She notes that while we are familiar with many evil (step)mother figures in fairy tales, the fathers in the most famous tales generally seem fairly benign. But these stock characterizations are, Tatar says, far from universal. She cites a number of tales, all of which...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6563
Print ISSN
0147-2593
Pages
pp. 150-153
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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