The hero and the witch: the psychodynamics of fairy tales

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim belongs to a diverse group of Freudians who sought to apply psychodynamic theory to the study of literature. In his 1975 book The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim not only narrates traditional fairy tales through the lens of psychoanalysis, but — consistent with his position as director of Chicago’s Orthogenic School for Disturbed Children — emphasizes the positive role that these stories can play in the early development of the child. In this sense, the contributions of his book can be distinguished as either theoretical, speaking to the general function of fairy tales on the child’s psyche, or practical, speaking to the specific psychological impacts that a certain story imparts. Here, my interests will be in his theoretical remarks.

Symbols behind the curtains

The key function of a fairy tale, Bettelheim maintains, is the child’s identification with its characters, a process which develops almost inevitably. When narrative elements come to signify personal aspects of the child’s life, unconscious pressures can be externalized and situated within the teleology afforded by the story’s plot. In this way, characters can come to symbolize different parts of the child’s psyche: their interaction and development subsequently impart a certain wisdom or central message that becomes the moral of the tale.

One particularly memorable example that is outlined in the book is the narrative motif of the Two Brothers. In these stories, dual brothers come to symbolize opposite but simultaneous impulses on the part of the child: the desire to separate completely from his parents, and the desire to remain within the blissful and impervious safeguard of the parental home. Accordingly, the dark and mysterious groves of the forest signify the radically unexplored territory that lies beyond the child’s knowledge:

This description of a fairy tale comprising separate psychic elements leads, I think, to a comparison with structuralism. Here, it is important to make a distinction between a structuralist approach to psychology and structural psychology per se. Wilhelm Wundt, widely considered the father of modern psychology, is also the founder of this latter school — making it among the earliest. According to structural psychologists, our conscious experience is the product of separate conscious elements which join together to comprise a given concept. Structuralists would describe the experience of holding an orange, for example, in terms of multiple raw inputs relating to the object’s color, smell, and texture. This view is practically extinct in modern psychology, due largely to the introspective nature of Wundt’s approach; his findings were considered too subjective to be accepted scientifically.

Alternatively, a structural approach to psychology proceeds from the tradition of such thinkers as Claude Levi-Strauss, who held that myths are distillable into separate narrative units called mythemes. These mythemes have no positive content of their own; rather, their position in relation to a structural web of other mythemes is what signifies their meaning. Keeping this in mind, a structuralist might analyze one of Bettelheim’s stories as a composition of structural elements which has become analogous to the mental elements of the child’s mind through his/her process of identification. However, as the next section will demonstrate, this characterization of the story as merely ‘reflective’ of the child’s psyche may not be entirely correct.

Chaos, order, and deferred-action

The child’s preverbal experience of the world is no doubt a hectic and turbulent one. At a certain age, in fact, it’s unclear whether he experiences himself as a physically integrated whole. Instead, touch sensations appear fragmented, movements are sporadic, and even the mother’s breast is indiscernible as a separate object. At some point, the child comes to understand itself as a whole body, and a coherent ‘I’ is precipitated out of the primordial state.

But there is also a psychical proprioception which has yet to be achieved. The mental processes of a young child can be turbulent and distorted, full of antinomies whose resolution is outside his grasp. The solution, then, lies precisely in this operation of ‘casting out’ the contradictory thoughts onto an external place: the narrative structure of a fairy tale. Here, the formless discord of the child’s mind becomes tethered by identification, and by following the course of the story, his psyche can begin to take an ordered form.

It’s significant that here, order takes the form of integration into a symbolic network (namely, that of the story). There’s certainly something intuitive about the idea that unarticulated potential exists as a kind of undifferentiated chaos. The process of bringing order into our lives, then, seems to be a symbolic function: speech is certainly one example, but custom and ritual may be another.

But there is something else to be said about this process. Let’s imagine a particularly reflective child who, years later, casts his vigilant eye back to the state of his childhood ‘pre-fairy tale’. To be sure, he would recognize that certain psychic elements were present, albeit in a disorganized fashion, still undeciphered by the symbolic process which the story afforded him. But of course, it is only by virtue of the symbolic process itself that he can understand the pre-story state as such. This says something profound about the nature of the Symbolic order. Symbolization has the seemingly para-causal ability to make something what it always was: to constitute it retroactively. Relating this back to the dichotomy between order and chaos, it seems that the process of articulation cannot simply be understood as a linear progression from disorder to order, but rather an act which establishes this dichotomy in the first place. The ‘pre-order’ state is not simply chaos, but the potential for order, which assumes the form of chaos only following, and via the framework established by, the symbolic act of articulation.

The nature of this retroactive transcription will be familiar to students of Freudian psychoanalysis as Nachträglichkeit, a word often translated as deferred-action or afterwardness. Specifically, Freud utilized this concept in his analysis of the Wolf Man, whose dream at the age of 4 only acquired a traumatic status once it was transcribed though the discourse of therapy. But it was the French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan who should be credited with reintroducing and emphasizing the importance of what he called après-coup; he was also right to localize its peculiar quality to the symbolic process of language. For it is the act of signification itself which is the unit of deferred-action: a signifier contains no positive content on its own, but through its position in the structural, dynamic net of signifiers, its meaning is produced retrospectively.

And so it should be no surprise that the fairy-tale, being for the child an early venture into the Symbolic order, should carry with it this quality of retroactive constitution, which transforms the child into who he always was, and fosters his development into who he already is.

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