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Samantha Weber
Dr. Dixon
English 450
December 12, 2012
Psychoanalytic Theory: Charlies Unconscious Mind
Since ancient times, literary theorists have been in search of the truth. Many literary
works, however, seem to focus on the symbolic rather than the realistic. As a result, when one
stumbles upon a novel rooted in truth, it often leaves a mark. Stephen Chboskys The Perks of
Being a Wallflower is a story that hurts. It hurts because the psychological realism of Charlies
story is so personal that it becomes abrasive. Psychoanalytic theory is personal too and is
founded on Sigmund Freuds lifelong struggle to help the individual to understand himself. This
process of self-discovery is typically painful; and often scary, as one frequently uncovers a
traumatic life event that has been repressed for years. Charlies journey through his unconscious
mind is quite consistent with the psychoanalytic notion of uncovering unconscious memories to
reveal past causes of current psychological disturbances.
Like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis,
has also left a mark. Freuds work in psychoanalytic theory has profoundly changed the way the
world thinks about the human mind by theorizing that individuals are all susceptible to childhood
memories and desires, unknown even to themselves, to which many of their actions can be
attributed (Criticism 394). The study of memories is located at the epistemological center of
Psychoanalytic literary theory. Freud discusses childhood memories in depth in his writings in
The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Freud observed that a persons earliest childhood
memories usually seem to preserve indifferent and insignificant events from that time period, and
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that as adults, individuals cannot typically recall the significant events they often want to
remember from their childhood. Freud theorizes that these seemingly insignificant memories are
really substitutes for other childhood events that really are important. Freud says, As the
indifferent memories owe their preservation not to their own content but to an associative
relation between their content and another which is repressed, they have some claim to be called
screen memories (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life 63). Thus, particular attention
should be paid to childhood memories when attempting to reconstruct the past in order to
understand the present state of an individuals mind.
The significant events Freud was looking for in screen memories were often deeply
rooted within the unconscious mind of an individual. According to scholar Reuben Fine, the
unconscious was always for Freud one of the major pillars of psychoanalytic psychology (35).
In the majority of his presentations, Freud would spend a considerable amount of time discussing
the unconscious since he found it particularly enlightening. By arguing that the unconscious
reveals a whole other world inside the human psyche, Freud met opposition from those who
wished to continue their narcissistic belief that man is in complete control of himself (Fine 35).
According to scholar Bruno Bettelhem, Freudian theory challenges mans ingrained narcissism
with its origins in infantile self-centeredness, as he shows us its destructive nature (15).
Inherently, the study of the unconscious can be a frightening thought. To know oneself
completely means that one could potentially uncover some undesirable aspect of ones
unconscious that one may wish to keep hidden.
From a critical perspective, Dr. Fine argues that Freuds theory of the unconscious is
relatively simple: It examines both the conscious and the unconscious, and considers the
shifting balance between two types of mental processes (37). Fine goes on to argue that one
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must take on the metapsychological point of view in order to understand these mental processes
which embodies typographic, dynamic, and economic aspects (37). Out of these three aspects,
the economic aspect is particularly striking. According to Fine, the economic aspect leads to
the attempt to ascertain the fate of given volumes of excitation (37). Similar to the Greek term
catharsis, the Freudian term Cathexis is an emotional charge that results when excitement is
concentrated either positively or negatively (Fine 38). Freud argues that the unconscious mind is
constantly searching for an opportunity for this release of energy. This discharge often takes the
form of a dream or a memory, and when Cathexis happens, that is the moment when the
unconscious becomes the conscious. The well-known phenomenon of the Freudian slip
when an individual accidentally misspeaks in a way that may reveal unconscious desires or
motivations is also a form of Cathexis (Booker 30). The positive or negative energies
associated with Cathexis are often related to the concept of repression.
The typographic aspect distinguishes between the unconscious, the preconscious, and the
conscious. In The Interpretations of Dreams, Freud discusses these three components. According
to scholar Bartlett H. Stoodley, the preconscious may have wishes that are unfulfilled in the
conscious but may manifest themselves within a dream setting (39). For example, suppose a
young boy does not particularly enjoy spending time with a family friends daughter, and when
asked if he enjoys the girls company by the girls mother, he politely nods and recites a few
kind words about her. The following night, however, he goes to sleep and dreams about
throwing rocks at the girl with his other friends. Thus, although the wish to say that he does not
enjoy playing with the girl was rejected during the day, it found symbolic expression in his
dream (Stoodley 39). Through his work, Freud discovered that dreams can reveal an incredible
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amount about a person and often can be used to unlock the hidden compartments of the
unconscious mind.
In A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, Freud discusses childrens dreams. While
adult dreams are more ambiguous and potentially have multiple interpretations, childhood
dreams are much simpler. These dreams, Freud argues, are usually short, clear, coherent, and
easy to understand, free from ambiguity and yet are unmistakable dreams (113). Freud says:
The childs dream is a reaction to an experience of the previous day, which has left behind a
regret, a longing, or an unsatisfied wish (A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis 115).
While childrens dreams are typically less complex, adult dreams are much more complicated.
Adult dreams can be symbolic expressions of a repressed memory or an aspect of the
unconscious mind.
The study of repression is another key component of psychoanalytic theory. According
to Fine: Repression is a protective process that wards off unpleasant experiences for the
individual (39). The concept of repression serves as a balance between ones pleasurable and
unpleasurable desires. Freudian thought recognizes repression as a defense against unbearable
ideas or experiences and allows man to be able to function despite his excruciating thoughts. As
discussed earlier, the buildup of energy (Cathexis) must be released in some way. When this
energy builds up enough, psychoanalysts often seek to detect the return of the repressed in the
language, behavior, or dreams of an individual (Booker 29-30). If a detection of the repressed is
made, and a behavior or dream is interpreted correctly, an individual may experience a sudden
breakthrough as he uncovers a past event that is causing current psychological disturbances.
In general, Freudian thought has several applications relevant to literary criticism. While
psychoanalysis is considered to be a medical technique, there are many reasons why Freuds
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methods of psychoanalysis are of interest to literary critics. Particularly, Freud emphasizes the
discovery of the source of symptoms which causes psychoanalysis to be a method of
interpretation (Booker 27). Psychoanalytic theory can be applied not only to authors and
particular time periods but also can be applied to characters (Criticism 394). In respect to
characters, psychoanalytic theory can be used to understand the character of Charlie in Stephen
Chboskys The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Charlies journey through his unconscious mind lends itself to the psychoanalytic notion
of uncovering memories to reveal past events that cause present-day psychological disturbances.
Charlie is a student who takes the reader on a journey through the uncharted territory of high
school through a series of letters addressed to an anonymous friend who listens and
understands and didnt try to sleep with that person at that party even though he could have (2).
According to Bruno Bettelhem, the purpose of Freuds lifelong struggle was to help man to
understand himself, so that he would no longer be propelled by forces unknown to himself, to
live a life of discontentment or to make others miserable without knowing why (15). Charlie
also longed to understand himself and often became scared when he would cry uncontrollably or
when everything kept spinning without any reason (Chbosky 94). He even comments, I dont
know whats wrong with me, making it apparent that he wishes to understand himself more
clearly (Chbosky 205). As Charlie writes his letters, his unconscious is made clear to the reader
and his actions begin to make more sense.
As Freud theorized, many of Charlies actions (unbeknownst to himself) can be attributed
to several childhood memories. Throughout his letters, Charlie flashes back to a series of
childhood memories describing his relationship with his aunt Helen. At first, the reader may
believe these memories are indifferent and insignificant, but later it is revealed that these
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seemingly trivial memories are really substitutes for other childhood events that are extremely
important (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life 63). As Charlies story unfolds, it becomes
obvious that these screen memories are tied to one particular memory that was so unbearable that
it became repressed, showing that unconscious memories of the past can cause current
psychological disturbances.
Charlies screen memories take on a variety of forms. In his first letter, he describes the
members of his family, including his aunt Helen who is his favorite person in the whole world
(Chbosky 5). When he begins to describe his role in the family, he tells his friend that he gets
straight As like his sister. As he writes, he remembers that his aunt Helen got straight As
when she was a teenager too (Chbosky 5). Throughout the novel as Charlie talks about his aunt
Helen, it seems strange that he has such a fondness for her as he rifles off odd memory after
memory of their time together when he was a child. He remembers how she loved that he
[Charlie] would keep asking her questions and how aunt Helen would let us kids stay up and
watch Saturday Night Live when she was baby-sitting (Chbosky 16, 92). Charlie remembers
Aunt Helen living with his family for the last few years of her life before sh e unexpectedly died
and how something very bad happened to her (Chbosky 5). He recalls asking what happened
to aunt Helen and no one telling him. When he asks her what happened, she begins to cry
uncontrollably -- just like Charlie often cries too.
As discussed earlier, the economic aspect of the metapsychological point of view leads to
the attempt to ascertain the fate of given volumes of excitation (Fine 37). This excitation leads
to a concentration of positive or negative energy or an emotional charge referred to as
Cathexis (Fine 38). Charlies Cathexis occurs after a discharge of negative energy that takes
the form of a dream. His negative energy gathers throughout the novel, but reaches a climax
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when his high school love touches his leg, causing Charlie to lose control of his thoughts and
emotions. Charlie says I was starting to get really upset (Chbosky 202). As Charlie continues
to get more and more upset, his friend tries to calm him down. Eventually, she is able to get him
to lie down on the couch where he falls asleep. As he sleeps, Charlie has a dream: My brother
and my sister and I were watching television with my Aunt Helen. Everything was in slow
motion. The sound was thick. And she was doing what Sam was doing (Chbosky 204). A few
hours after waking up, Charlie begins to feel like his dream wasnt just a dream, but a memory of
his aunt Helen sexually abusing him.
Freud studied dreams throughout his career and found that they gave him access to
memories and other buried thoughts within the unconscious. In his study of childrens dreams,
Freud found that these dreams are typically in response to an experience of the previous day (A
General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis 115). As a teenager, interpreting Charlies dreams is
difficult because his age thrusts him between childhood and adulthood. His revealing dream
about his aunt Helen seems to be in response to his experience with Sam the previous day,
categorically making it a childrens dream. At the same time, however, his dream also appears
to have adult dream qualities. While just a dream, it causes him to uncover his repressed
memory of being abused by his aunt.
As a reader, one might think it would be difficult to forget being sexually abused by a
family member, but according to Freud, this makes perfect sense. Under psychoanalytic theory,
repression is a protective process that allows individuals to forget unbearable experiences
(Fine 39). While it may be difficult to understand how one could forget such a traumatic
event, it is also not hard to see how such an event could be so unbearable to a child that it would
need to be repressed to shield the child from the pain of dealing with this kind of abuse. As
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mentioned before, repression balances the pleasurable from the unpleasurable and allows
someone like Charlie to be able to function despite such an excruciating experience. Throughout
his letters, however, the reader can see the return of the repressed in Charlies uncontrollable
crying, spinning thoughts, and feeling that something was wrong with him. The return of the
repressed, however, is most obvious in Charlies revealing dream.
Charlies dream reveals not only his sexual abuse but also his true feelings about his aunt
Helen. According to Freud, the typological aspect of the metapsychological point of view
describes the preconscious (Fine 37). The preconscious may cause a person to cover up how
they really feel while they are conscious, but expose ones true feelings in a dream. While
Charlie claims that his aunt is his favorite person in the whole world, his dream shows the
reader that Charlie has been so hurt by his aunt Helen that he cannot possibly love her in the way
that he claims while he is conscious (Chbosky 5). In accordance with Freudian theory, Charlies
dream reveals a considerable amount about him and is the key to unlocking a repressed memory
from his unconscious mind.
Finally, psychoanalysis is most often applied as a medical technique to patients and is
used as a tool to interpret the minds, thoughts, dreams, and memories of individuals. At the
beginning of the work, one of the first memories Charlie discusses is the death of his friend
Michael. Charlie remembers Mrs. Vaughns voice on the loudspeaker at school: Boys and girls,
I regret to inform you that one of our students has passed on. We will hold a memorial service
for Michael Dobson during assembly on Friday (Chbosky 3). His memory of Michaels death
becomes fragmented as he struggles to recall the guidance counselors sessions after his friend
died. While this appears to be the first time Charlie interacts with some kind of counselor, it is
not the last. Charlie later begins seeing a psychiatrist while in high school who frequently asks
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him about his childhood. It is not until after his dream that Charlie begins to think that maybe
his psychiatrists questions werent weird after all (Chbosky 205). His psychiatrists questions
about his childhood highlight Freudian techniques being used in modern medical practices.
Following his Cathexis, Charlie writes about being checked in to a mental hospital by his
parents to receive treatment. His memory is fragmented as he recalls his doctor telling him that
his mother and father found him sitting on the couch in the family room completely naked
(Chbosky 208). While Charlie does not go into detail about his recovery in the hospital, it is
clear that the concentration of negative energy that led to his Cathexis caused his unconscious to
become conscious leading to a mental breakthrough of sorts. For Freud, Charlies screen
memories and dream that lead to his breakthrough would be considered a success by
psychoanalytical standards.
Like Freud, The Perks of Being a Wallflower has left a mark in the literary world.
Freuds work in psychoanalysis has profoundly changed the way the world thinks about the
human mind and how an individual functions. By theorizing and proving that an individuals
actions can often be attributed to childhood memories or desires, Freud has taken literary
criticism to a whole new level. His techniques of interpretation can be applied not only to
authors and time periods but also to individual characters within a literary work. When applied
to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, psychoanalytic theory helps the reader to understand Charlie
and all of his strange behaviors and thoughts. While many of Charlies childhood memories
seem to be insignificant, psychoanalysis reveals that these seemingly unimportant memories are
really screen memories covering up a repressed memory. As Charlies story unfolds, a
concentration of negative energies builds up to a climax when he experiences what Freud refers
to as Cathexis. His Cathexis takes the form of a dream that uncovers his repressed memory and
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allows him to experience an emotional breakthrough. Charlies letters are usually very
introspective as he tries to understand himself. As he journeys through his unconscious mind, he
is able to uncover unconscious memories that help him to see the causes of his current
psychological disturbances.

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Works Cited
Bettelhem, Bruno. Freud and Mans Soul. New York, NY: Vintage Book, Inc., 1984. Print.
Booker, M. Keith. A Practical Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism. White Plains, NY:
Longman Publishers USA, 1996. Print.
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.,
1999. Print.
Fine, Reuben. The Development of Freuds Thought. New York, NY: Jason Aronson, Inc.,
1973. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Garden City, NY: Garden City
Publishing Company, Inc., 1943. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company
Inc., 1949. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. Introduction. The Theme of the Three Caskets. Criticism Major Statements.
ED. Charles Kaplan. New York: Bedford, 2000. (394-403). Print.
Freud, Sigmund. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. New York, NY: W.W. Norton &
Company Inc., 1965. Print.
Stoodley, Bartlett. The Concepts of Sigmund Freud. Illinois: The Free Press, Inc., 1959. Print.