Dog Writes Man: Lacanian Psychoanalysis of Stickeen the Dog

by Matt Goldberg


“A creature needs some reference to the beyond of Language, to a pact, to a commitment which constitutes him, strictly speaking, as an other, a reference included in the general or, to be more exact, universal system of interhuman symbols. No love can be functionally realisable in the human community, save by means of a specific pact, which, whatever the form it takes, always tends to become isolated off into a specific function, at one and the same time within language and outside of it” (Freud Papers 174).

“Stickeen” by John Muir recounts the author’s compelling experience treading through the icy Alaskan wilderness in 1880. The short story further addresses the narrator’s fascination with his four-legged canine companion, Stickeen, who serves as a guide and a source of motivation for the narrator derived from the dog’s tenacity to continue on despite all obstacles of emanate danger.  During the climax of the story, the narrator and Stickeen are forced to cross an inevitable glacial pass in order to avoid impending doom and return to camp alive.  When Stickeen loses his courage, surprisingly enough it is the narrator with enough encouragement for both who wills the dog to cross the path and to eventual safety.  However, it’s the pact that arises, the bond that is formed within the two characters after their near-death experience that gives this short story its life. Similar to the relationship between a father and his child, the characters bind their trust in one another through their life or death experiences, but also through Language.  This essay seeks to psychoanalyze the character Stickeen while further exploring the similarities between Stickeen’s immersions into Language to that of a human child. By applying Jacques Lacan’s theories of The Real, The Symbolic and Imaginary Orders, we’ll be able to effectively compare Stickeen’s developing psyche with that of a child’s.

What is so fascinating about this kind of exploration is that the character Stickeen is, in fact, a dog.  Not a human—a dog.  Yet, the mere fact that Stickeen is a canine, instead of another type of animal, for instance, makes Lacanian psychoanalysis on the character applicable. This is due to the kind of mutual-exclusion that’s developed between dog and man that both made these furry creatures “man’s best friend” and makes resilient efforts to keep it that way.   

Despite this work being literature, and like all literature—the piece aims to invest its subjects with a human interest—Stickeen’s ability to comprehend his human masters words isn’t far from the truth. For example, “As dog owners, we take for granted that we can point to a ball or toy and our dog will bound off to get it. But the ability of dogs to read human gestures is remarkable. This ability accounts for the extraordinary communication we have with our dogs. Dogs are remarkably similar to human infants in the way they pay attention to us” (Woods). Whether it’s our dependency on our canine’s ability to follow directions (i.e. “Roll over” or “play dead”) it can be suggested that a dog’s involvement with language, and therefore the dog’s psyche, isn’t far from our very own.

 For Lacan, the human psyche is divided into three major concepts that control our lives and desires that correlate roughly to the three main moments in a subject’s development.  In broadest terms, they are: The Real, The Imaginary Order and The Symbolic Order (or the “big other”) and since a child begins with The Real, we’ll start there as well. As Dino Felluga of Purdue University describes it, The Real corresponds to our neo-natal state of nature from which our entrance into language, a state where there is nothing but need, has forever served us. However, a baby seeks to satisfy those needs with no sense for any separation between itself and the external world or the world of others.  For this reason, Lacan sometimes represents this state of nature as a time of fullness or completeness that is subsequently lost through the entrance into language. In a sense, The Real is the time in our lives when we are our primordial selves—our real, animalistic beings—the time when we are no different than any other mammal. Essentially, “The Real is impossible,” as Lacan was fond of saying, because we cannot express it in language—our very involvement or entrance into language marks our irrevocable separation from the Real.

             For Stickeen, the only difference between his entrance into the Real and our own is that, as an animal, the dog is inseparable from the Real because he cannot speak—he has no verbal language and therefore, no comprehension of culture and society. However, this does not remove the fact that Stickeen does comprehend the narrator’s commands. For example, during the climax of the story, when Stickeen and the narrator are forced to cross the glacier or they will surely die, the narrator exclaims, “I warned him that if he went back to the woods the wolves would kill him, and finished by urging him once more by words and gestures to come on, come on. . . He knew very well what I meant.”1

Although it is true that Muir makes his dog act like a human being under the press of great danger, the action is not the kind that involves reason; it only implies sense perception, and the instinct of self-preservation (Burroughs). Stickeen is therefore only presented as human through language, obviously, but only on the foundation of one central emotion: fear. For instance, the narrator reveals, “his [Stickeen’s] looks and tones of voice when he began to complain and speak his fears were so human that I unconsciously talked to him in sympathy as I would to a frightened boy.”1 The narrator’s instigation of Stickeen’s entrance into language correlates to Lacan’s theory of the Name-of-the-Father, or simply, the laws and restrictions that control both ones desires and the rules of communication. Through recognition of the Name-of-the-Father the subject is able to enter into a community of others. In this case, the narrator would, of course, be seen as “the Father.” Although there isn’t a naming occurrence here, (the narrator does not begin his relationship with Stickeen by giving him a name the way a father begins his relationship with his child through language in the naming process) the narrator begins his relationship with Stickeen through language by talking to the dog as if he were a child and accepting (in himself) that Stickeen can, not only comprehend the narrator, but speak back to him. Despite this fact, the dog’s emotions quickly advance from fear to need. Yet, this isn’t quite different from a child’s instinctual need for individuality. A child does not depart from the Real to the Imaginary systematically. A child does not develop its own psyche purposefully; it does so instinctually in order to survive. Similarly, Stickeen accepts language as an instinctual means to satisfy his own need of survival. Nevertheless, it is at the next stage, what Lacan calls the Imaginary Order, when a subject departs from primal need to instinctual demand.

Whereas need can be fulfilled, “demand” is, by definition, unsatisfiable. The Imaginary Order in a human psyche, for example, is when a child begins to recognize that its body is separate from the world and its mother and therefore, begins to feel anxiety that is caused by a sense of loss (Felluga). The child realizes it is different than everyone else and therefore dependent on its mother for survival. Stickeen realizes he is dependent on the narrator when the two continue to struggle to find a place to cross the deathly glacier. The narrator does his best to forge paw-holds for the dog to help him, but ultimately knows that only Stickeen can make himself cross. For example, the narrator says:

I called again and again in a reassuring tone to come on and fear nothing; that he could come if he would only try. He would hush for a moment, look down again at the bridge, and shout his unshakable conviction that he could never, never come that way: then lie back in despair, as if howling, “O-o-oh! What a place! No-o-o, I can never go-o-o down there!”1

Now fully involved with language, through fear, Stickeen demands to place himself back into the Real, re-enter himself to the stage where primal needs are at the forefront and therefore become the primordial being that is now lost with the entrance of language. The dog is willing to enter language in order to survive, but once he realizes that he is not as capable of survival as the narrator, the dog demands to somehow revoke his new understanding of language and go back to being, well, just a dog. As Lacan denotes, “the difference between “demand” and “desire”, which is the function of [the next stage] the symbolic order, is simply the acknowledgement of language, law, and community in the latter; the demand of the imaginary does not proceed beyond a dyadic relation between the self and the object one wants to make a part of oneself” (Purdue). With this being said, it is important to denote that, according to Lacan, the imaginary and symbolic are intertwined and work in tension with the Real.

Whereas the Real concerns need and the Imaginary concerns demand, the Symbolic most definitely concerns desire. “The fact that our fantasies always fail before the Real, for example, ensures that we continue to desire; desire in the symbolic order could, in fact, be said to be our way to avoid coming into full contact with the Real, so that desire is ultimately most interested not in obtaining the object of desire, but, rather, in reproducing itself” (Felluga). Stickeen’s desire is ultimately to survive, despite how reluctant the dog is to actually attempt to cross the glacier. No matter how much the dog desires to reenter the Real at an attempt to somehow neglect the idea of having to cross the glacier, as Felluga says, desire is not interested in actually obtaining such desire, but creating it itself. This is the point when Stickeen realizes that he must cross the glacier. For example, the narrator reveals:

 His natural composure and courage had vanished utterly in a tumultuous storm of fear… But in this dismal, merciless abyss lay the shadow of death, and his heart-rending cries might well have called Heaven to his help. Perhaps they did. So hidden before, he was now transparent, and one could see the workings of his heart and mind like the movements of a clock out of its case. His voice and gestures, hopes and fears, were so perfectly human that none could mistake them; while he seemed to understand every word of mine. . . It seemed impossible to get him to venture.1

Despite his reluctancy and self-proclaimed inefficiency to actually cross, Stickeen, with help from the narrator’s commands, shifts his desire from surviving (by help from some supernatural entity like “heaven”) to surviving on his own accord by crossing the glacier himself. Similarly, by entering the Symbolic Order (with it’s laws and images for self perfection), a child effectively separates itself from the materiality of its own bodily desires; the human effectively choses culture over nature. That law, for Lacan, is “identical to an order of Language,” specifically, what he terms the Symbolic Order with its support from the conjured symbol: “Name-of-the-Father.”

In Stickeen’s case, the dog choses culture over nature, in that, he knows that without the motivating words of the narrator, the dog would never be able to cross (without physical help from the narrator or something else). Like a human child, Stickeen ultimately decides that the Real is not obtainable for survival and thus, has to accept language in order to survive. Both Stickeen’s entrance into language and his desires to, at first revoke language, and then ultimately accept it is done completely unconsciously and instinctually. However, Lacan would denote that even our unconscious desires are organized by a linguistic system. Therefore, in a sense, our desires are never properly our own. Instead, our desires are created through fantasies that are caught up in cultural ideologies. As Slavojik Zizek puts it, “through fantasy, we learn how to desire” (Felluga). Since fantasy is, by definition, un-real, our desires rely more on a lack of desire, rather than a determination to fulfill such desire.

Stickeen’s desire is to survive, of course, but it is his lack of desire to cross the glacier (survive) that ultimately allows him to cross. For example, we see Stickeen wrestling within himself while looking down at the gulf and moaning his fears aloud to the narrator, “he only lay down and moaned ill utter hopeless misery.”1 However, it is that lack of the heart of desire that ensures we continue to desire. When we realize our desires, we then come to understand the falsity of such desires and therefore feel that reaching those desires is a must. “To come too close to our object of desire threatens to uncover the lack that is, in fact, necessary for our desire to persist, so that, ultimately, desire is most interested not in fully attaining the object of desire but in keeping our distance, thus allowing desire to persist” (Felluga). Because desire is articulated through fantasy, it is driven by its own impossibility. Since Stickeen feels that crossing the glacier is impossible, the impossibilities of the act create a much stronger desire to actually survive. Furthermore, now that Stickeen has accepted language as being more important (to survival) than nature, the dog once again choses language when he wills himself to cross:

[A]s if counting and measuring one-two-three , holding himself steady against the gusty wind, and giving separate attention to each little step, he gained the foot of the cliff. . . Here he halted in dead silence. . . Then suddenly up he came in a springy rush, hooking his paws into the steps and notches so quickly that I could not see how it was done, and whizzed past my head, safe at last!1

Whether it was intentional or not, John Muir seems to have an eerie ability in this story to personify Stickeen’s psyche so well that it actually follows the same structure of a human child. It remains unknown whether or not the author was well familiar with the theories of Freud, the similarities between the structure of the human psyche and Stickeen’s psyche is striking. It is also interesting to realize that Lacan was born just eight years prior to the publication of “Stickeen.” If anything, “Stickeen” is a commentary on collaboration. A child cannot survive without its parents, the way a Stickeen could not survive without the narrator. A child cannot live (in society) without its relationship to language. Despite this being a piece reflected on the psyche of one subject, the pact that is formed between the narrator and Stickeen is what most significantly comments on the strength of many over the strength of one. The narrator leaves us with one more reiteration on what can be done if we only stick together when he says,  “Thereafter Stickeen was a changed dog. During the rest of the trip, instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side. . . And often as he caught my eye he seemed to be trying to say, “Wasn't that an awful time we had together on the glacier?”1 However, it seems pertinent to comment on the irony of a writer who built his entire career on the notion of preservation to compose a story in which the hero is language (rather than nature). Then again, where would John Muir be without words?

Works Cited

Burroughs, John. "Ways of Nature." Gutenberg, October 13, 2009.

Web. 6 Apr. 2013.

Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Lacan: On the Structure of the Psyche.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Jan 31, 2011. Purdue U. April 4, 2013. <>.

Lacan, Jacques. Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 1. Trans. John Forrester. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1991.

Muir, John. Stickeen: The Story of a Dog. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909. Web. <>

Verhaeghe, P. (1998). Causation and Destitution of a Pre-ontological Non-entity: On the Lacanian Subject, in: Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, London, Rebus press, pp. 164-189 (New York: State University of New York Press).

Woods, Brian Hare and Vanessa. "Opinion: We Didn't Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 03 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.













{C}{C}{C}{C}[1]{C}{C}{C}{C}  Identifies a quote from the short story analyzed in this essay, “Stickeen: The Story of a Dog” by John Muir


3.14 Ways to Stylistically Analyze The Life of Pi

by Matt Goldberg


A certain emptiness made itself felt. I touched my belly. It was a hard and hollow cavity. Food would be nice now. A masala dosai with a coconut chutney—hmmmmm! Even better: oothappam! HMM-MMM! Oh! I brought my hands to my mouth—IDLI! The mere thought of the word provoked a shot of pain behind my jaw and a deluge of saliva in my mouth. My right hand started twitching. It reached and nearly touched the delicious flattened balls of parboiled rice in my imagination. It sank its fingers into their steaming hot flesh… It formed a ball soaked with sauce… It brought it to my mouth… I chewed… Oh, it was exquisitely painful!          (words: 114)    


                                                    Martel, Yann. (2001). The Life of Pi. Novel.

                                         Pg. 143-144. Middle-end of chapter 51.


The passage above is presented halfway through The Life of Pi, a fictional novel by Yann Martel about the son of a zookeeper who, after being shipwrecked, finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. After the tiger eliminates all but our hero, Pi, we follow the unlikely pair as they drift through the Pacific Ocean, struggling to maintain sanity, avoid starvation and survive. A careful analysis of the linguistic techniques composed throughout the passage provided exemplifies aspects such as: brief sentences containing powerful word choice, meticulous use of the obstruent phonetics stops and affricates, as well as unconventional grammar and punctuation to exemplify an urgent tone and a theme of delusion in order to unite the reader and speaker as one.

Since The Life of Pi deals with the wrath of surviving the elements, the tone of the novel is quite urgent. Throughout this passage, short sentences carry a hurried quality in order to exemplify agitated hunger. For instance, as the Visual Layout Appendix provided exemplifies, the first four sentences of the passage are short statements, less than a line in length and contain no internal punctuation. The absent punctuation within the sentences reflects an absence of food within the character’s stomach, while the short sentences reflect the urgent tone connected to starvation. The opening lines of the passage are presented abruptly, virtually staccato in nature, in order to exemplify the rapid change of thought affixed to life or death situations, where living moment to moment is pertinent to survival. Martel uses short sentences in order to fully encapsulate the reader and build tension as brevity complements urgency; the passage’s conciseness reflects the character’s exigency for survival.

Along with short sentences, the graphology of capitalization in the passage also develops tone in showing insistence and importance for certain words and interjections. For example, the interjection, “HMMMMM!” comes up twice in the passage, but is only capitalized on the second use. Subsequently, the word “IDLI!” is the only food pronoun capitalized, but is also the last food mentioned in the list of meals Pi imagines eating. The placement and use of capitalization in the passage illustrates a sense of rising excitement and desperation felt by the speaker as he imagines devouring meals like, “oothapam” or “parboiled rice”. The rising excitement is delivered even further with the author’s fastidious use of end punctuation. Sentences 5, 6, 8 and 13, along with the two capitalized interjections in sentences 7 and 9, end in exclamation points. The exclamation marks are placed in nearly half of the sentences in the passage in order to emphasize the strong emotional and physical reaction Pi holds in his yearning to eat a hot plate of food. However, Martel also uses incomplete sentences to further exemplify urgency. Sentences 6 through 8 are all fragments which help the fluidity of the passage, allowing the rhythm of the words to mirror the quick-paced rhythm of the topic of starvation. Undoubtedly a conscious decision by the author, the use of incomplete sentences also reflects the fact that the passage is told from the narrator’s inner voice and not spoken aloud. The short, fragmented lines help to exemplify the disjointedness of the character’s thoughts and reflect the way the human mind jumps from one idea to the next, with no time to pause for conventions of grammar or syntax.

Similarly to the ways in which the author illustrates an urgent tone through words that encompass and envelope its readers, the theme of delusion is also presented through Martel’s scrupulous word choice and description. For instance, in sentence 10, the word “thought” helps determine the fictitious qualities of the passage by suggesting that the food only exists in Pi’s mind, while the phrase “a deluge of saliva” helps determine the factitious qualities of the passage by suggesting that Pi’s mouth is full of nothing but his own saliva. As Pi imagines eating “masala” and “dosai” the dynamic imagery is written so fluidly that the reader envisions the plates of food in the same manner as the speaker; a figment of imagination. However, Martel goes one step further in showing delusion through contradictory lexical sets. The collocation of words like, “exquisitely painful” suggests that, since the food only exists in the narrator’s imagination, the thought of food is exquisite, but the fact that he cannot consume it makes it painful. The narrator’s mind consumes him, as he spends the entirety of the passage only finding pleasure in what is not there, in order to avoid the pain consumed by what actually exists, the miserable reality of impending fate. The allusion of yearning for the desirable, yet unattainable food, bonds the reader and speaker together as one, both enacting in delusion and experiencing a mirage—a common occurrence for those starving and stranded. However, the elements of the passage blending speaker and reader together cannot merely be attributed to word choice or phonetics; much of the amalgamation is accredited to the fact that the passage is written in past tense. For example, in the final sentence of the excerpt, the words, “sank”, “formed”, “brought”, “chewed” and “was” determine tense and allow the passage to be read factually and literally. Regardless of the fact that the passage is describing something as fictitious as eating made-up meals, the theme of delusion reoccurs as the reader is once again united with the speaker in their attempts to distinguish fantasy from reality. 

It would be a travesty if the author’s use of phonetics in this passage were not paid attention to. In its accomplishments in demonstrating the tone and theme of the passage, urgency is exemplified with the prominent use of stops. Since stop consonants prohibit airflow through the vocal tract, words containing the stops,  /t/, /p/ or /d/ result in words, and ultimately sentences, that are difficult to get through for readers. The physical or oral involvedness needed for reading words like “emptiness” or “parboiled”, that contain multiple stops, is reflected with Pi’s difficulty in surviving the elements and avoiding starvation. The reader is placed alongside the protagonist, each attempting to overcome the obstacles of advancement.

While stops help determine the urgent tone, affricates help establish the theme of delusion. The author uses the affricates /ch/ and /j/ in order to conjure up the imagery of eating. The author chose the affricate consonants consciously because their sound is representative of the meaning or message of the passage. For example, words like, “jaw”, “chutney” or “chewed” are provided because their consonant sounds are reminiscent of the physical sounds of chewing—the character’s action. In addition, if the sound of the word is not reflective of the words meaning, but is placed in the text for the purpose of employing imagery or emotion, the reader absorbs such imagery unconsciously. The additional words containing affricates supply the reader with the same audible connection to the character’s action of eating that previous affricate consonants provided, but their imagery also offers a connection to the narrator’s delusion. For example, words like “touched”, “reached” and “twitching”, like all affricates, contain a very physical and natural timbre. These words are made up of sounds that are reminiscent of crunching leaves, broken twigs and sounds not typically associated with the ocean (the setting of the passage). However, their purpose in the text is not to place the reader in the setting, but take the reader out: diverging from the ocean the way Pi’s delusional mind, consumed with mirage, departs from thoughts of dreary fate to lavish gorging.

For a compelling novel about personal strength and overcoming adversity, this middle passage from The Life of Pi offers the reader a connection to the narrator, each swiftly wadding through interspace in hopes of finding solitude, even for a moment, despite how dismal or dreary the reality outside their minds can be. Readers will experience a break; a moment of pleasure by reading the playful imagery and word choice betwixt an otherwise bleak juncture in the novel the way Pi finds a moment of pleasure in his own thoughts and imagination. 







The Grapes of Wrath: A Novel as Collective as Music

by Matt Goldberg

 “And now the group was welded to one thing, one unit, so that in the dark the eyes of people were inward, and their minds played in other times, and their sadness was like rest, like sleep” (Steinbeck 199).  If John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath contains one lasting theme, it’s one that stresses the importance of unity over individuality.  The novel begins with the Joad family seeing the world with the opposite approach.  Before the family gets to California, they view their condition as one of self-concern before progressing, with the novel, to a condition in which the family recognizes their spiritual bond with the rest of the human race. (Tear Guts)  When examining the bond the Joads ultimately share with the human race, it becomes clear that this bond is a dramatized version of any bond that occurs among humans, namely, the sense of community and collectivity that arises when people listen to and experience music.  This essay will examine the collective aspects of The Grapes of Wrath compared to those of the communal aspects that arise from listening to music.

Before beginning with the collectivity of music, it is imperative that this essay begins examining the collectivity of The Grapes of Wrath.  Given the novel’s major theme of community over individuality, it is obvious that Steinbeck wanted to express this theme in a way that made his main audience, American working class readers, feel like they could change the world if they gathered together.  In order to do so, Steinbeck went searching for a new genre inside of the preexisting, Proletarian Fiction, to find one that could combine the working class revolutionary aspects of Proletarian Fiction with aspects of affinity and community prevalent among popular music at the time.  What he found was the self-proclaimed, Collective Novel.  Although Proletarian Fiction already contains the unity and collectivity Steinbeck was going for “The Grapes of Wrath, however, differs from other collective novels because Steinbeck rejects the international focus of the proletarian works in order to develop his own distinct national critique of the United States” (Dyen 6).  This is done through the interchapters of The Grapes of Wrath where Steinbeck supplies the reader with fictions examples of very real situations occurring in America during the Great Depression.  During the interchapters the reader compares his or her own life experiences with those of the dramatized characters in the novel.  “The novel addresses the reader as citizens rather than international workers or regional citizens. (Dyen 6).  This is precisely what makes The Grapes of Wrath so interesting. Because of the cultural relevance of the time, the story reads more like historical or creative non-fiction rather than fiction; the reader forgets the work is fictitious and participates in an astounding process known as, the “imagined community.”

The Symbolic Construction of Community is defined as, “a matter of feeling, a matter in which resides in the minds of the members themselves and is based on sharing of particular symbols, such as ritual orders or musical performance” (SYCC).  What differs here between the Symbolic Construction of Community and an imagined community is that, a community is “imagined” because a member of a certain nation will never fully come to know every member of such nation, so the sense of community is created or imagined by the subject who assumes everyone in the nation is sharing the same experience as the subject.  What made The Grapes of Wrath such an inaugural novel was that it combined members of a community that didn’t know they were supposed to be combined; it taught the American working class migrant workers to diverge from self-concern to the concern of America, something that, during the time of the Great Depression turned out to be of crucial importance in regards to getting out of the economic crisis of the time.  The way the reader learns to understand the importance of community is precisely how the Joad family shifts perspectives of self-concern to communal-concern. For example, the most famous passage from the novel sees Tom Joad’s understanding and telling of this importance:

I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look.  Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there (Steinbeck 419).

In Tom Joad’s final speech, Tom describes a powerful durability; he describes hope for the future and symbolically offers himself to the people, the collective “we” (Tear Guts).  Tom’s presence in the novel is merely to be a provider or protector for the people, to (in the novel) carry out the preacher Casy’s ideals about the importance of we and to ultimately become a catalyst for Steinbeck to teach America about unity over individuality.  It is Tom’s final speech when Steinbeck and Tom, ironically, become one in the same as they argue for “collective responsibility rather than individual isolation.” 

But Steinbeck wasn’t the only artist at the time stressing the importance of collectivity.  In fact, the horrible economic state of the nation at the time turned out to be a major impulse for change.  Nowhere are the messages of collectivity more present than in the works of folk legend Woodie Guthrie.  Like Stienbeck, Guthrie specified his work around the state of the world around him—America during the nineteen thirties.  Guthrie wrote proletarian folk songs about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl migration and commented on any and every aspect of prejudice during this time.  “Just like Tom Joad’s impassioned vow at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, as long as there is injustice and inequality, Woody Guthrie will be there” (Aloi 1).  Much like The Grapes of Wrath, Guthrie’s music remains culturally relevant nearly seventy years later and helped change diverge the American consciousness from bleak and despairing to one of social change and hope.  Steinbeck witnessed the change Guthrie’s music was causing on America during the time and that is why he chose adhere The Grapes of Wrath in a similar fashion, in hopes that his words could form a collectivity as powerful as the one created by music.

Before beginning with how music is a communal entity, it may help to understand and possibly rethink the idea of a community. Oxford English Dictionary defines community as, “a group of people who share the same interests, pursuits, or occupations, especially when distinct from those of the society in which they live.”  If this is the case, then music is only a community if those who experience it do so in a way that bonds them to the society in which they live.  And that music can only be communal for the listeners involved in the society in which the music was made.  This of course, is untrue.  With the advent of the Internet music of all cultures and areas is now widely accessible to any and everyone inclined to listen.  This sense of community is known as affinity.  An affinity community “actively seeks its own dispersal across boundaries as well as engagement by large groups” (Shelemay 356).  Almost all music is viewed as an affinity community because it (now) has the capability of achieving the so-called dispersal across boundaries.  The community in The Grapes of Wrath can be view as affinity because it too has the ability to reach and be comprehended across boundaries.  Although someone who is not a United States native may not fully understand the historical context in which the novel was written, any reader has the ability to recognize the important themes and compare them to a context that the reader does understand.  Much like in the way someone from say, the American northwest listening to music from South Africa would not fully be able to understand all the concepts or contexts behind the artwork, but the listener would be able to compare what he or she hears with a context that they are familiar with.  For example, a person from the American northwest might not understand the concept of isicathamiya singing, but they would be able to compare it to a concept they do understand, for instance a’capella, and then ultimately be able to understand the concept of isicathamiya, even if they haven’t been previously exposed to it. 

The aim of The Grapes of Wrath is similar to that of music, in that, “music can generate a sense of shared identity that may be transitory or that may be part of a process that reinforces belonging to a collectivity of longer duration” (Shelemay 358).  This is done simply by music’s ability to communicate to listeners.  It carries emotional meaning, imaginations of longing, belonging and exclusion, and establishes what have been termed “audible entanglements.” The term was coined by Jocelyn Guilbault in order to “highlight the multiple musical practices and surroundings assembled in a music such as calypso and the affective resonances these create for individuals and communities” (Guilbault 285).  The so-called “affective resonances” that these audible entanglements create for a community lies is the ideological affects of music—its ability to catalyze musical groups (genres, subcultures etc.) and to redraw social boundaries.  For instance, “music and its performance serve to catalyze and subsequently define groups of people in different ways, whether to bring groups together or to reaffirm the boundaries that divide them” (Shelemay 355).  Nowhere is this idea more prevalent than in the live aspect of music—live performance.  People attend concerts for two reasons.  One, to see a specific musical act that they enjoy and possibly see how the music they’ve heard prior in a song or album is made, and two, to be involved in a shared experience.  Whether that shared experience is just enjoying music with another or witnessing something spectacular with several other people or to meet people with similar interests, the reality is, people attend concerts to be a part of something. Whatever that “something” may be, “music, dance, festivals and other public expressive cultural practices are a primary way that people articulate the collective identities that are fundamental to forming and sustaining social groups, which are, in turn, basic to survival” (Shelemay 356).

It’s this collective identity that made The Grapes of Wrath such an important novel for the time.  Not only because the novel puts the reader right into the back of the Joad truck and along with the ride, but it aloud readers who were sharing the imagined community of Steinbeck’s America to come together and form a collectivity of their own. One that saw a collectivity of people whom now knew and understood the importance of survival in hardship—the importance of “we”. As Thomas Carlyle once said, “a mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one.”



Works Cited

Aloi, Dan. "Woody Guthrie, Contemporary Songwriter." The Grapes of Wrath: Music. Cornell University, 25 Aug. 2009. Web. 05 May 2012. <>.

Guilbault, Jocelyne. Governing Sound: The Cultural Politics of Trinidad's Carnival Musics. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007. PDF.

Guthrie, Woodie. "Do Re Mi." Dust Bowl Ballads. Woodie Guthrie. RCA Victor, 1940. MP3.

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. "Musical Communities: Rethinking the Collective in Music." Journal of the American Musicological Society 1.1 (1948). Print.

Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. "Community." The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989. Oxford University Press. Web. 4 May 2012. <>.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939. Print.



Mrs. Rochester: Jane Eyre’s Fulfillment of Oedipal Desire

by Matt Goldberg

“I suppose I should now entertain none but fatherly feelings for you: do you think so? Come, tell me” (502). It seems only natural that Charlotte Brönte would save this dialogue between Mr. Rochester and Jane for the last chapter of Jane Eyre. It is the first and only point when Brönte notifies the reader flat out, in case they hadn’t figured it out beforehand from the countless allusions of this theme throughout the novel, that the last five hundred or so pages is and was about Jane Eyre’s Oedipal relationship with Mr. Rochester.

The term “Oedipal” is of course taken from Freud’s Oedipus Complex which refers to, in this case, a girl’s psychosexual competition with the mother for possession of the father; desire to sleep with the father and kill the mother. For Jacques Lacan, the Oedipus Complex equates more to a child’s introduction into language and law. In the process of moving through the Oedipus Complex, the child learns the need to obey law and follow a closed differential system of language in which the child understands “self” in relation to “others” or simply, “me” versus “not me” (Felluga).

This essay will examine the Oedipal relationship between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester based on the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan. Such as, his mold on Freud’s Oedipus Complex which Lacan calls the “Name of the Father”, that occurs in the final stage of Lacan’s structure of the psyche known as the Symbolic Order. Furthermore, this essay will look at Jane Eyre’s psychosexual development, especially focusing on her entry into the Symbolic. Since the relationship between Jane and Rochester endures a majority of the novel, this essay will not focus on a particular passage of the novel, but rather, pay close attention to the areas throughout Jane Eyre when the relationship between the two characters is most relevant.

In order to fully capsulate Jane Eyre’s relationship with Rochester, and Jane’s “psychosexual competition”, it is crucial to focus on the character’s upbringing. First and foremost, Jane Eyre is an orphan. After her parents died of typhus shortly after Jane was born, she was sent to live with her aunt Reed at Gateshead. It is important to note that Jane’s uncle died also shortly after she arrived.“ – my mother’s brother – that he had taken me when a parentless infant to his house; and that in his last dying moments he had a promise of Mrs. Reed that she would rear and maintain me as one of her own children” (20). And Mrs. Reed obliged, begrudgingly, as she raised Jane with miserable cruelty as a single mother (with help of her servant staff) for the first ten years of Jane’s life. This is critical in assessing Jane Eyre’s psychosexual development and later her relationship with Rochester because of Jane’s absence of parental figures. Especially, her absence of a “father figure.” And for much of the novel, this absence remains prevalent.

Although, that is not to say that there are no adult males in Jane’s life, there’s Mr. Lloyd, the apothecary at Gateshead and Mr. Brocklehurst, the Master of the Lowood School, but these characters don’t lend themselves to Jane the way a father figure would. Just as Jane doesn’t turn to them the way a child would to a parent. It isn’t until Jane arrives at Thornfield and meets Mr. Rochester that she is actually presented with a suitable, although problematic, father figure.

In Lacan’s “Name of the Father” the father is a metaphor for the powers that control our life and over see our actions. But the “Name of the Father” isn’t just as easily described as the powers that control our lives; the meaning also relies a great deal on its definition in comparison to language. For example, if the mother represents the material or the physical relationship (breast feeding, child birth etc.) than the father undoubtedly represents the linguistic or legal relationship with the child. In fact, paternity in itself is established through language. There is no denying that a mother knows when she is a mother, it is inescapable. But for a father the notion is much harder to perceive, even impossible to prove, especially in the Victorian era. So the way a father learns that he is a father is based on a verbal identification from the mother; she tells the father that he is so, and the father must take the mother’s word. Since a father’s relationship towards his child begins with language it seems only natural that the child’s relationship towards her father would work in the same way. A father is told that he is a father just as a child is told who her father is.

The father continues the linguistic tradition when he presents ownership by giving the child her name. Rochester grants ownership over Jane in an identical fashion. He is the only character in the novel that calls Jane by her extended name, “Janet”, and also more literally, when he gives her a new name on the luggage, “Mr Rochester had himself written the direction, Mrs Rochester” (234). Although Jane is uncomfortable with the identity Rochester gives her on the luggage, she makes no effort to avoid being called Janet. The latter is Jane’s unconscious taking over. Since her extended name is Janet, she has a connection to that name and therefore takes no notice to it, even though she has never, as far as we know, been called Janet. However, when Rochester tries to change the name on the luggage to one that Jane has never associated with, her conscious mind becomes aware as she takes disliking to being called Mrs. Rochester and therefore rejects it. When a child is told who her father is it is precisely when the child enters the Symbolic. And precisely how Jane Eyre enters the Symbolic.

Being that Jane never knew her father, Jane’s relationship towards her father figure, Mr. Rochester, is presented in a very similar fashion. For example, Mr. Rochester says to Jane in chapter fourteen, “…Do you agree with me that I have a right to be a little masterful, abrupt, perhaps exacting, sometimes, on the grounds I stated, namely, that I am old enough to be your father” (157). This is the first point when Jane is delivered (verbally) the idea of Rochester as her father. However, Rochester doesn’t provide Jane with a definite point of view in a Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker sort of way, but for an orphan like Jane, even hearing the word “father” is destined to conjure up some perplexing associations.

Now with the idea of Rochester as her father, Jane shows her entry into the Symbolic as their Oedipal relationship begins. In fact, Jane doesn’t even consider Rochester as a possible candidate for a love affair until he brings up the notion of fatherhood to her. But this idea by no means fades away with the progress of their relationship and the novel. In fact, the idea of Rochester being Jane’s father is heightened as their relationship blossoms.

After Rochester purposes to Jane and upon hearing the news, Ms. Fairfax expresses, “No doubt is it true since you say so […] there are twenty years of difference in your ages. He might also be your father” (305). Although Ms. Fairfax is being facetious towards Jane, notifying Jane of the consequences of her actions and telling Jane to keep her distance, Jane perceives the statement in a different light. To Jane, being told Rochester is her father makes the idea, unconsciously, true and thus making Rochester even more desirable to Jane. Just as in the Oedipus Complex, a girl wishes to sleep with the father, ultimately completing her Oedipal dreams and desires.

The previously stated examples of Rochester as a father figure to Jane are very obvious suggestions but the theme is reoccurring throughout the novel, especially within the character of Mr. Rochester and his representation of male force and absolute power. Just as Lacan suggests that the “Name of the Father” is a metaphor for the powers that control our lives. Rochester becomes the “name of the father” as his power is presented through Rochester’s temper and his cruelty, particularly during the mind games he plays with Jane; his deception, his disguises and his lies are all a source of his power over Jane.

Rochester gains amusement out of tormenting Jane, as he never reveals his feelings as long as Jane does not reveal hers. This shows Rochester’s desire for dominance. He calls upon Jane frequently to sit with him and answer his questions, much like a father would, “Is there not one face you study? One figure whose movements you follow with at least curiosity? (230)”, “You have seen love: have you not?” (231), “Jane, tell me if you don’t think it [the carriage] will suit Mrs Rochester exactly […] can’t you give me a charm, a philter, or something of that sort, to make me a handsome man?” (283). To which Jane replies, “your sternness has a power beyond beauty […] I am strangely glad to get back again to you; and wherever you are is my home – my only home” (283). At this point, Jane falls in love with Rochester because he is the only male figure in her life with any sort of power over her. And since her entrance into the Symbolic has been interrupted by her oppressive childhood, Jane has lost the conscious ability to recognize a marriage with Rochester as unmoral.  However, Jane’s unconscious mind takes every precaution necessary in preventing the Oedipal accomplishment and making sure the wedding does not take place. This is done in several ways.

The first comes to Jane in the form of an emergency. In chapter fifteen, Bertha puts fire to Rochester’s bed while he is asleep. In a sense, Bertha can be characterized as Jane’s evil twin; going forth with the actions that Jane intimately feels but ultimately cannot endure. This idea continues when Jane’s unconscious mind once again tries to disrupt the marriage, this time in a dream, or what Rochester assures her is a dream (much like a father would comfort his child after a nightmare and reassure them of the state of reality). As the wedding day approaches, Jane’s anxiety of losing her identity and becoming Mrs. Rochester reflect the internal discomfort she gains from marrying her father (figure). The night before the wedding takes place Jane’s anxieties become realties as Bertha comes into Jane’s room and tears up the wedding veil. Bertha once again appears as Jane’s alter ego or unconscious mind as the most crucial reason why Jane should not marry Rochester. In fact, Bertha’s mere existence in the novel can be construed as metaphor for the unethical union between Jane and Rochester – between father and daughter.

Even after the wedding takes place and the story is resolved, Jane still feels bothersome by the unconventionality of her new relationship. The final chapter sees Jane Eyre as an independent, wealthy and powerful woman who has still not graduated from the Symbolic as she retires married to Mr. Rochester in a secluded far off woodland dwelling to escape both the way society views the unethical relationship and so Jane may run away from her unconscious mind and ultimately fulfill her all encompassing desire of Oedipal accomplishment without the judgment of others.