Psychoanalytic Theory In Herman Melville's Billy Budd

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Psychoanalytic theory, popularized by Sigmund Freud allows for a deep understanding of human behavior on the psychological level. In terms of literary criticism, psychoanalysis provides a way to see how a character’s actions reflects on their psychological state. It allows the reader to see where their actions stem from. Applying Freud’s psychoanalytic to an analysis of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, will shed light on certain aspects of the story. In particular, looking closely at the three main characters in the novella, John Claggart, Billy Budd, and Captain Vere provides a deeper understanding of the overall story, and provide insight to why they act the way they do. I argue that Claggart is representative of Freud’s id, Billy is representative …show more content…
The id is the impulsive part of one’s psyche and it responds to one’s instincts. It operates under the pleasure principle, which is the idea that every impulse should be immediately satisfied. On the other hand, the ego is the balanced decision making component of the psyche. It works out realistic ways to satisfy the id’s demands. The ego considers social realities and norms and decides how to properly behave. Finally, the superego works to control the id’s impulses and to persuade the ego to operate under the guide of morals. An important factor of the superego is that it can punish the ego through feelings of guilt. If the ego gives into the id’s demands, the superego can make the psyche feel guilt. The superego is working with the idea that there is an ideal self or the perfect and imaginary picture of how one ought to be. When it comes to Billy Budd, the concepts of the makeup of the psyche represent each principle character in the …show more content…
Billy as the ego within the context of the story is under the influence of the reality principle. In other words, he is able to delay immediate gratification in recognition of societal rules and norms. He knows what is right and accepted and models his actions in that way. However, Billy is young and somewhat underdeveloped. Melville describes him as being childishly pure stating, “He was young, and, despite his all but fully developed frame, in aspect looked even younger than he really was, owing to a lingering adolescent expression” (12). His youth and innocence reflects his inexperience with the world around him. Before his time on the Indomitable, it is presented as though Billy has yet to face anything that has challenged his innocent demeanor. His ego then is weak and so it has the potential to be influenced. Although Billy proves to be a representation of innocence within the story, he is shown to give into his impulses. Melville writes, “As it was, innocence was his blinder” (57). A strong ego is aware of the existence of the drives, but controls them and channels them in socially acceptable ways. It can resist pressures, social or otherwise. The weaker the Ego is, the more infantile and impulsive its owner, the more distorted his or her perception of self and reality. Billy falls somewhere in the middle of this. When Billy gets

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