Dickens and Psychoanalysis

, Allie Winegar Duzett, Leave a comment


At the Modern Language Association (MLA) Annual Conference earlier this year, the Dickens Society partnered with the American Psychoanalytic Association to put on a panel entitled “Dickens and Psychoanalysis.”  The two listed panelists who were able to make it to the event had interesting insights regarding the connection between Dickens and modern psychoanalysis.

The first panelist, Peter L. Rudnytsky of University of Florida, gave a lecture entitled “The First Gift: Freud, David Copperfield, and the Sisters Bernays,” about the unlikely connection between Freud and David Copperfield.

Freud, Rudnytsky pointed out, “had a sexual affair with the sisters Bernays.” While Freud originally married Martha Bernays, eventually he began an affair with her sister, Minna.  In the book David Copperfield, the eponymous David originally married Dora Spenlow, only to find his true love in Agnes Wickfield.  Rudnytsky explained that this was hardly the only similarity Freud had with David Copperfield.

Both Freud and David Copperfield gave books as their first gifts to their future wives.  In Freud’s case, the book he gave to Martha was, interestingly, David Copperfield. Rudnytsky pointed out that Freud and David Copperfield were both born in cauls, and that each had a dead brother they were deeply affected by.  Freud was “caught in reenactment syndrome,” Rudnytsky argued, concluding that David Copperfield was an “analogy of Freud’s affairs with the Sisters Bernays.”

Kay R. Young of UC-Santa Barbara also spoke at the panel on Dickens and Psychoanalysis.  Young argued that Dickens “writes about the psychic experience of unattached identity—what it feels like to be an orphan.”  She went on to argue that “Dickens explores the part of self-identity linked to the beloved need for mothers.”

Young mentioned scientific evidence that little children experience the loss of a mother the same way that adults experience the loss of loved ones, going through the same psychological processing.  She tied this to the emotional themes present in Dickens’ works, and emphasized the importance of “attending to those at hand” and providing children with loving attachment.

During the Q+A, someone asked about why Young hadn’t talked about more traditional psychoanalysis of the mother-child bond. Young said that it was because other analysts focused wholly on the breast as being the main part of the relationship, and she thought that the more valid approach was to take the physical in tandem with the emotional side of parental bonding

Allie Duzett is the Director of Strategic Operations for Accuracy in Media.

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