The four literary lenses applied throughout this course—feminism, Marxism, psychoanalytic, and deconstructionism—offer distinctive perspectives for analyzing literature and language. Feminist theory focuses on the understanding that gender constructs shape society, politics, and culture. Marxist theory centers on questions of classist structures, hegemony, socioeconomics, and in what way(s) literature reflects this collective class consciousness. Psychoanalytic theory deals primarily with the unconscious mind and how instincts affect thoughts, behaviors, and characteristics. Deconstructionist theory emphasizes language’s inherent semantic discrepancy. Considering the failures present within language, its arbitrary and unstable nature, and unpredictable audience, deconstructionists attempt to prove inconsistencies the author may or may not have intended.
In this proposal, I will focus on the psychoanalytic and deconstructionist lenses as insightful strategies for breaking down Beloved by Toni Morrison.
The psychoanalytic lens suggests that past desires are planted, unbeknownst in the unconscious, and guide later decision making. A recurring theme in Beloved is Freud’s notion of the uncanny: suppressed trauma, memories long-embedded into the unconscious, and/or unfulfilled yearnings account for seemingly strange coincidences; situations that are tricked into feeling like choices, while in fact are a manifestation of unconscious forces out of one’s control.
For Sethe, slavery was known and familiar, whereas freedom was unknown, unfamiliar, a conceptualized ideal that trumped all cost. Sethe makes her choices as a self-defined free woman; choices that make her feel in control while in reality equate to being housebound, just as before at Sweet Home. Additional psychoanalytic insight comes from FitzGerald’s paper “Selfhood and Community: Psychoanalysis and Discourse in Beloved.
” FitzGerald notes on the potentiality for comparison of Paul D. and Freud himself. Often, Paul D. assumes the role of psychotherapist when he asks Sethe to look inward at her past traumas and deal with the emotions they present so the past can be left where it belongs.
Psychoanalysis gains insight into characters’ unconscious desires that unpredictably drive their actions; a piece of literature can be understood better if the reader is aware of all pieces of the mind(s). However, psychoanalysis is limited in that it does not account for economic, political, or social conditions that may also have a role in how a character thinks; rather it isolates itself inside the unconscious only. There must be an understanding that while instinctual drives do play a role in decision-making processes, conscious choices may have equal impact.
Switching gears to deconstructionism, the argument that language holds infinite meaning leaves ample room for semantic debate. Redefining her concept of freedom throughout the novel, Sethe runs from Sweet Home, kills her crawling already? daughter to avoid capture, and confines herself at 124, all in the name of self-identified: freedom. In “The Will to Power” by Nietzsche, he describes the human need to fix identities to words, rather than accepting their inherently non-identical and meaningless nature. Much like Sethe wishes to be her own master by choosing, compared to forcibly given, a life of confinement inside 124, humans prefer the mastery of fixed identification over more abstract possibilities. Furthermore, Nietzsche argues that there is no origin or conclusion of history, the world merely exists in a temporally fluid fashion. In Beloved, a pre-Civil War mentality exists throughout, despite the end of the war, which accounts for a few mental and behavioral discrepancies in Sethe’s choices. A further deconstructionist argument, presented in Rimmon-Kenan’s “Narration, Doubt, Retrieval: Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” is that the novel’s narration plays a role in the destabilization and retrieval of history and the self. In her essay, she describes Sethe’s voice as the first-degree narrator; she seems to allocate voice for all others. This is true with the exception of the three interior monologues following the reveal of Beloved’s identity, where a choral quality comes to mind, combining Sethe’s, Denver’s, and Beloved’s voices. These monologues both unify and deny the idea of self. In one aspect, it seems that the discovery of the other and the ability to love the other grants each character a voice, a self, and an “I.” In the other aspect, Beloved’s inability to dissociate herself from Sethe and her constant need for closeness has the potential to negate the argument.
Deconstructionism rips apart a novel and finds inconsistencies within the text itself. This is useful if attempting to ascertain the limitless qualities of a piece, as the author’s intentionality is not considered. Downfalls occur when the lens takes things too far, largely in presenting an analysis that undermines humanity’s ability to properly communicate with one another.
Though I did not originally intend to choose Beloved for this assignment, I found it vastly amenable to interpretation through the psychoanalytic and deconstructionist lenses. This novel offers a historical glimpse of the Civil War era, the lengths humans will go to survive, and redefines what it means to be free; free from Sweet Home, from a life of slavery, from ghosts of the past, both figuratively and physically. After examining this novel from my chosen lenses, researching some of theories’ existing applications from recognized scholars on JSTOR and applying them to Beloved, and weighing the pros and cons, I believe I would continue in my endeavor to analyze literature using the psychoanalytic and deconstructionist lenses.