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Authenticity, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking are three skills Keya Shirali strives for when it comes to shaping herself as a writer. She is currently pursuing a Combined Honours Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Media Studies (BCoMS) and Film Studies from Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada). She is President of the Carleton Film Society (CFS) presently and has been published regularly in the Charlatan, Carleton University’s official newspaper.


Trigger Warning

The discipline of psychoanalysis pioneered by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud took the West by storm in the early decades of the 20th century. Psychoanalytic discourse permeated all aspects of culture, and as a result, Freudian terminology was widely used by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and artists. However, the popularity of Freud’s theories did not always compensate for the lack of credibility. There were several writers who were not convinced of Freud’s legitimacy and expressed this through their works. Such is the case for two works of contrasting intellectual material – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, a novel published in 1934, and To the Dogs, a play conceived by Djuna Barnes in 1982. What binds these works together is a comparative quality in their treatment and reflection of Sigmund Freud’s pioneering theories in the field of psychology. While the theories that Fitzgerald and Barnes choose to treat do not essentially overlap, nevertheless, both commonly point to severe inevitable flaws in Freud’s approaches. Barnes’ argument is gender-centric and a riposte to Freud’s concept of the “phallus” and the theory of “penis envy,” both of which are underpinnings for societal male dominance. On the other hand, Freud’s “psychoanalysis” forms the basis of Tender Is the Night’s narrative and dabbles in notions of incest and trauma. However, the ultimate inference is that while psychoanalytic treatment appears plausible in theory, it inevitably leads to failure in practice.

The characterization in Djuna Barnes’ To the Dogs plays an instrumental role in invalidating the theory of “penis envy,” a concept that Freud endorsed through his research. Essentially, penis envy implies that “girls at a certain stage of their development experience envy of men possessing a penis as they realize that they lack this organ.” The envy for the penis is not merely biological; its basis lies in the idea of the “phallus,” which is a cultural construct. According to A Dictionary of Gender Studies, in “subsequent psychoanalytic work, this envy has been refigured as women’s envy of the phallus or symbolic power that men possess.” Barnes provides an oppositional view to these notions by way of the relationship between Helena Hucksteppe and Gheid Storm. In the beginning of the play, Helena is described as follows: “she is rather under medium in height. Her hair, which is dark and curling, is done carefully about a small fine head. She is dressed in a dark, long gown, a gown almost too faithful to the singular sadness of her body.” With these descriptions one is lead to believe that she is a frail, fragile and delicate little woman, at least by appearance. On the other hand, Gheid Storm’s physical portrayal is as such – he is described as “tall, but much too honourable to be jaunty, he is decidedly masculine.” Given this account, the understanding is that he encompasses a macho, manly, powerful persona, aligning with the interpretation of the phallus. However, upon further reading and observation of their discourse, one notices that this is true for neither of their personalities, that looks have been deceptive and that Barnes has carefully set the stage for an opposition to what penis envy stands for.

The penis and the phallus are not identical but are rather coextensive, with the latter drawing symbolic value from the former. The phallus is a symbol of the power, authority and agency that is typically associated with being male or having a biological penis. Hence, the respective descriptions were laying groundwork for Storm as being the man, owning the penis, displaying hypermasculinity and therefore symbolically having the upper hand in his relationship with Helena. However, Storm’s unsolicited attempts at seduction, his consecutive failures and Helena’s sharp wit turn the tables in this power dynamic. Helena is unresponsive and unwelcoming to his seductions whilst he attempts various strategies – firstly, to shame her. His threat fails to faze her when he suggests that women are gossiping about her and she responds with a line of uncaring, cool sarcasm – “the starved women of the town are finding something to eat.” This implies a greater sense of independence on her part, since it is not only him that she does not care for, it is also the gossip of the women, an attitude that contrasts with the demure depiction in the beginning. He makes other attempts, including a call for pity by bringing up the subject of his son. While he believes this will wake some kind of maternal instinct in her, it reveals a sense of vulnerability and weakness in him, both situationally and in character. This is another instance where their discourse conveys a flip of traditional gender role behaviours.

Storm by this moment becomes uncomfortable. He asks her “who are you?” and she responds “I am a woman, Gheid Storm, who is not in need.” This conveys a lack of penis envy on her part by indicating that she does not long for what women long for according to the psychoanalytical theory, consequently placing her in a superior position. The showcase of Storm’s final emasculation by Helena is when in the end, he decides to leave by way of the door instead of the brash manner by which he had initially leapt in through the window. This is evidenced in the following lines:

Storm—[At the door.] Good night—

Helena—[Smiling.] There is the window.

Storm—I could not lift my legs now.

Helena—That’s a memory you may keep.

The attributes that were supposed to deem Storm superior to Helena by way of their genders have now dissolved. Not only does the concept of penis envy fail to succeed here, even the phallus does not retain its characteristics of endowing the male with a sense of power and influence.

Aside from dispelling the notions of the phallus and penis envy, Barnes also proceeds to mock certain aspects of Freud’s psychoanalysis. For example, instead of assuming the role of the analysand, or the one who must be helped and asked questions to, Helena mimics the role of the psychoanalyst, or the one who asks questions. In the instance where he informs her about his son, she responds with a blunt question – “and that’s not over. Do you resent that?” This mirrors the common talking-out-cure phenomenon where the psychoanalyst would ask the typical question – “how does that make you feel?” There are various moments in the play whereupon she asks him questions and in doing so, usurps the role of the psychoanalyst and dismisses the idea that it is the male who has control and agency in this situation. Barnes, by way of Helena’s characterization has managed to transform the imprisoning patient-psychoanalyst power struggle.

Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night dwells upon Freud’s ideas of the “unconscious,” thereby exploiting notions of incest and trauma in mental illness and psychoanalysis. Nicole and Dick Diver’s patient-psychoanalyst relationship dynamic mirrors the rise and fall of the seduction theory of neurosis by Freud’s own suggestion and later rejection of it. As a child, Nicole suffers several traumas – her mother dies and her father rapes her, leading to a mental collapse and a persistent fear of males. While this memory is repressed in Nicole’s psyche, she is enrolled in a sanitorium under Dick Diver’s guidance. Dick Diver is a reputable psychiatrist and becomes a devoted husband to Nicole, leading her to the road to recovery. Nicole’s trauma is evident through the fact that her suspicion of men and the resulting inexplicable behavior derives from her childhood rape. Before dismissing his own theory, Freud stated that “incest is not a rare occurrence even in our society.” This notion formed the basis behind Dick’s treatment of Nicole. As Susan Cokal states “Caught in the Wrong Story: Psychoanalysis and Narrative Structure in Tender Is the Night”: “the event (incestual rape) that therapists expect to hear about perhaps more than any other; it is a crucial plot point in their master-narratives of human life.” Nicole begins to recover through Dick’s methods over the years, and even ventures to use humor in reference to her past traumas, indicating that she is finally at peace with it. However, this comes at a cost because Dick has exhausted himself over Nicole’s recovery and this transformation displays a case of transference. For her traumas to emerge from the unconscious to the conscious, Nicole projects her repressed emotions onto Dick, thereby working through and transferring dark and horrendous emotions onto him. While Dick’s method of treatment is a nod to Freud’s theories of the correlation between incestual rape and trauma, Dick’s inexplicable deterioration symbolizes the ambiguity and impossibility of unravelling the complex human mind. One is unable to interpret the true cause of Dick’s mental decline as either Nicole’s transference or a case of self-loathing and disappointment due to ruined expectations of his career. Similarly, while Freud’s theory of the linkage between incestual rape and trauma gained traction culturally, his own denial and misunderstanding in its research is what lead to its ultimate downfall. Freud, after years of self-analysis revealed that he had “renounced his earlier theory, because he had never managed to carry an analysis to its ‘real conclusion’, i.e. to patients’ memories of an actual seduction, he realized the impossibility of there being so many perverse fathers (including his own), and because he believed that the unconscious contained no way to of distinguishing between truth and fiction. By paralleling Freud’s acclaimed but failed theory to the deterioration of Dick’s brilliant mind; perhaps Fitzgerald’s point was to convey that beyond all forms of research, the nature of the human mind is truly enigmatic. Freud’s theory is stillborn in Tender Is the Night; while Nicole’s recovery may be attributed to Dick’s application of Freudian psychoanalysis, one may never understand the roots of the transference of illness to Dick. Hence, Fitzgerald conveys that while with a certain degree of confirmation bias, Freud’s theories may seem tempting to apply, they lack the complexity to explain several nuances of the unfathomable human mind.

While Sigmund Freud’s pioneering theories and methods of treatment were much popularized throughout the 20th century, numerous writers did not shy away from acknowledging his work’s flaws and limitations. Djuna Barnes maintained a feminist attitude throughout To the Dogs and dismissed the sexist implications of the phallus and penis envy through the characterization in the play. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night was a reflection of the promises and misgivings of Freud’s psychoanalytic method and the seduction theory of neurosis. Both of these authors maintained unfavourable and critical attitudes towards Freudian theories respectively as a response to their rise in the last century.

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