Home on the Range with Freud or How I’m Learning to Love Literary Theory

freud and bb mountain

Freud and cowboys aren’t concepts one intuitively links together; not like say fish and chips or (to be Freudian about it) boys and girls.  They weren’t to me, at least not until I read Clare Connors’ book “Literary Theory:  A Beginner’s Guide.”  (I’ve read several of these beginner’s guides to literary theory in these first weeks of my indoctrination into the subject and all I can say is I’d hate to read an advanced guide).

However that’s immaterial to my point (as indeed much of literary theory is to life as we know it).  But I digress again (it’s becoming a habit thanks to Freud and his mates). 

Connors’ book is in fact praiseworthy.  She makes a valiant attempt to relate literary theory to (dare I say it) actual literature.  I’m one of those people who can grasp most concepts eventually, even if in a rudimentary fashion, but find the going far, far easier with examples.  In fact, bogged down in abstruse, convoluted theorizing I find myself mentally shouting “give me an example for God’s sake… please … an e.g. ….even just a tiny i.e. will do.”  Many writers consider this unnecessary.  Perhaps they think the clarity and brilliance of their reasoning is such that examples would be patronizing.  Not to me, I want to tell them.

As I understand it, literary theory is a methodology used to criticize literature.  Theory being the slippery fish that it is, there are of course more schools than you’d ever find beneath the sea, but the purpose common to them all is to get to the bottom of someone’s literary creation.  At the outset, Connors asserts that to consider literary theory as “something purely and abstractly conceptual” can make it as dull as ditch water.  I immediately recognize her as a girl after my own heart when she goes on to say that the best way to understand something is to do it:  the “have a go” principle if you like.  How this happens in her book is that she creates a process rather similar to a degustation menu; first serving up a tasty morsel of theory, then bringing out with a flourish a dish of well seasoned actual writing, to which she skillfully adds explanation, clarification and generous examples to show us how the one works with and on the other in complementary and entirely comprehensible fashion.  I feel like cheering.  It would seem axiomatic that if you’re going to teach someone the rules of dissection, you should provide a body as well as a scalpel, but it’s obviously something that hasn’t occurred to many authors of works on literary theory.

And now we turn to Freud.  To throw some light on how his psychoanalytic theories can be applied to literature, Connors takes the Annie Proulx story “Brokeback Mountain“, which thanks to the movie of the same name shouldn’t need too lengthy an explanation.  In summary, the story begins with two cowboys who initially meet rustling cattle and soon discover more satisfying things to do around the campfire than swapping yarns.  It then follows their on-again off-again encounters over many years until one of them dies.

In superimposing a Freudian interpretation on the story, Connors provides a sterling, if perhaps overly enthusiastic rendering.  To begin with, it all seems logical.  The two men are, like all of us, driven by their baser instincts, or the “pleasure principle”, but because of the need to be civilized, or adapt to the “reality principle”, they are fated to be thwarted in their desires, hunger after what they can never attain and be forever engaged in misguided attempts at sublimation.  According to Freud, this is all a result of the dastardly Oedipus complex, whereby little boys want to marry their mothers and kill their fathers and little girls want to have babies with their Daddies and get rid of their Mummies.  This happy dream of course can’t be allowed to come to pass, and fears of castration among other things quickly quench all these rampant desires, for the boys at least.  For the girls it’s a much more murky proposition, because as soon as they realize they’ll never get castrated because they already are, the rest of their lives are spent wondering not so much where it went, but why they didn’t deserve to have one in the first place, as well as why, despite their best intentions, they’ve turned into their mothers.  Well that’s roughly how it goes.

Grasping the implications of this for Proulx’s two characters, Ennis and Jack, Connors proceeds to probe their psyches with almost as much alacrity as they probe each other.  The key, it is suggested, to figuring out how these guys tick, is to analyse their respective relationships with their fathers.  Ennis as a boy had a rough time with his, being forced to witness the castration and murder of a man suspected of being homosexual.  This nasty episode only reinforced Ennis’s original “castration anxiety” (as it would) and, according to Connors, propelled him into an overtly aggressive but taciturn masculinity, a sort of “silent stoicism”.  Indeed, she goes further, suggesting that he takes on the attributes of the phallus he fears losing by assuming a character that is upright, firm and erect.  This makes even more sense, she says, when you take note of his name, “Ennis”, not very different from that much revered male organ and potentially a deliberate ploy by Proulx.  What all of this embodies (other than a preoccupation with phallic symbols) is “the displaced fulfillment of desire and the fantasised embodiment of a presence”.

Jack, whose surname, in perhaps another cleverly constructed piece of authorial irony, is “Twist”, follows a different road to masculinity.  He has been circumcised (not castrated but close according to both Freud and Connors).  Perhaps catching sight of Dad in the shower one day, he noticed that the older man had not been similarly “dick-clipped” and felt confused as to why he had been singled out for a treatment that Dad hadn’t been prepared to undergo.  This anatomical identity crisis, it is suggested, provokes a kind of modified penis envy in Jack.  Coupled with the fact that he is described as having a bit of womanly “weight in the haunch”, Connors leads us ever so gently into the idea that Jack, despite his swaggering ways, is a bit of a girl at heart.  Reinforcing this theory even more solidly is the fact that in the sexual act with Ennis, Jack takes the passive role.  Jack, it seems, on this reading, was destined to be gay, and he was a Mummy’s boy to boot, never hitting it off with his “stud-duck” Dad.

Contrary to the tone of this, I don’t think Connor’s interpretation is deserving of derision.  For all I know, it may be spot on.  Home on the range with Jack and Ennis may well be a microcosm of life seen through an Oedipal lens.  Freud’s theories about castration, desire, penis envy and the like may indeed be a way of understanding why some boys will be boys, some will just act like boys and some will be girls.  Human sexuality is a rich and unfathomable field of fascination and intrigue, as is the human psyche generally.

What I like about literary theory is that it acknowledges the impossibility of resolution.  However controversial, outlandish or provocative your ideas may be, no-one, not even it seems the author of the work, can ever prove you’re right or wrong.  Proulx may rise up in affront and claim she had no intention of suggesting Ennis was a Penis, but how do we know?  Her subconscious is presumably a mystery even to herself and if one night a ghostly phallus emerged from the primeval depths of her dreams with a cowboy’s face, some part of her brain may well have translated him into Ennis.  We just don’t know.

About annegreen2013

I'm a freelance writer passionate about all things culinary and literary, especially South Australian food and wine, food writing, ethical eating, animal welfare, healthy eating, nutrition and food sustainability
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4 Responses to Home on the Range with Freud or How I’m Learning to Love Literary Theory

  1. rowena says:

    Great post, thanks Anne. It seems to me that undertaking such an analysis must wring all joy from reading, although presumably the reading is enjoyed before the analysis. Does the
    ability to dissect a story to such abstraction make one a better writer, or for that matter, a reader?

    • Hi Rowie,
      I’ve got similar doubts about to what extent the pulling apart, especially psychologically adds to the enjoyment, or the skill of either writer or reader. But I suspect that’s not the point … it’s an academic exercise, and it seems to give the theorists plenty of kicks!

  2. Great writing Anne – I laughed out loud several times. This kind of piece really suits your style. I like the sound of Conners’s approach; I wish she’d been around when I did literary theory! An interesting question from Rowie. I think understanding this kind of dissection happens can help with your writing, in that in encourages you to build in complexity. Mind you, it shouldn’t get in the way of telling a good story. BTW, was that a sentence starting with ‘What I like about literary theory is …’ ; )

    • Hi Angie … thanks. Yes I found Connors’approach really refreshing, even if a bit amusing at times. And despite my moanings, I am finding a lot to like about literary theory, even if just fodder for poking fun at it!

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