The Male and the Female in Tennessee Williams's Plays

Thesis (M.A.) 2006 68 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. The male and the female in psychoanalytic theory
2.1. A psychoanalytical approach to the development of the individual
2.1.1. Sigmund Freud’s Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie
2.1.2. The three stages of psychosexual development of the individual
2.1.3. Lacan’s contribution to psychosexual development
2.2. A psychoanalytical approach to the development of culture
2.2.1. C.R. Badcock’s theory on social development
2.2.2. Modern Western society and American culture
2.2.3. Tennessee Williams’s plays and American society

3. Tennessee Williams's Heterosexual characters
3.1. The Southern Gentlewoman
3.1.1. Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie
3.1.2. Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire
3.2. The beautiful male or the sacrificial stud
3.2.1. Val Xavier in Orpheus Descending
3.2.2. Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth
3.3. Family and Procreation
3.3.1 . Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

4. Tennessee Williams's homosexual characters
4.1. Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
4.2. Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In this paper, I will attempt a psychoanalytic reading of the male and the female in a selection of Tennessee Williams’s plays. In my opinion, a psychoanalytic approach is the best way to do justice to Williams’s disturbed characters and to explain the concepts of sex, gender, and culture that are inherent in each of his plays. The interrelation of these concepts will be of the utmost importance in the analysis of The Glass Menagerie (1945), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Orpheus Des-cending (1957), Suddenly Last Summer (1957), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959). How-ever, before turning to the analysis of Tennessee Williams’s plays, I will first delineate the concept of psychoanalysis as such. Since Sigmund Freud, who is conceived of as the father of psychoanalysis, psychoanalysis has come a long way, and even though it is today regarded as a somewhat conservative discipline, it still retains a disruptive attitude towards the conventional discourse of gender and sexuality. It furthermore has the capacity to undermine notions of fixed identity, including sexual identity, and al-though psychoanalysis may not be used as a method of treatment in clinical psychiatry anymore, it still proves successful when it comes to analysing the notion of sex, gender, and culture in literary texts, for instance. I will begin the paper with an outline of Sigmund Freud’s essays on the three stages of psychosexual development of the child and give a brief account on the general workings of human sexuality. Via Freud’s essays, I will show that sexuality is inextricably linked with modern Western society, and that sexual drives are repressed in order to guarantee the individual’s entrance into society and culture. “Seit Freud wird die […] Entstehung und Funktion moralischer Motive im Individuum und in der Gesellschaft unter Berücksichtigung psychosexueller Entwicklungsphasen aus der Dialektik zwischen der Triebnatur des Menschen und seiner Gebundenheit an kulturelle und soziale Wert und Normsetzungen abgeleitet.”[1] Human sexuality then turns out to be a cultural product that is based on heterosexual behavior and procreation. Via these aspects, I will forge a link to Williams’s disturbed characters, who fail to associate with normative sexuality. In order to further explore the connection of sex, gender, and culture, I will also take Jacques Lacan’s contribution to psychoanalysis into consideration. In contrast to Freud’s biological reading of psy-chosexual development, Lacan stresses the ideological aspects of psychosexual de-velopment. As far as psychoanalytic theory is concerned, the feminist author Judith Butler and the poststructuralist writer David Savran center on the contribution of Lacanian thinking and question if his work offers a more rigorous alternative to gender identity and sexual difference. Since culture proves to have a massive impact on human sexuality, I will in a next step relate the psychosexual development of the individual to the development of culture as such, and show that, on the basis of psychoanalysis, individual ontogeny is the re-capitulation of cultural phylogeny on a smaller scale. This shows that normative sexuality is not only based on environmental influences, but also on evolutionary processes. I will then give a brief account of the sexual politics of a twentieth century America, which posted a high level of surveillance on sexuality, and which gave birth to a rigid gender formation. It turns out that Williams’s protagonists find it very difficult to live in a thoroughly masculine society which, perceiving masculinity as a cultural ideal, prefers the male over the female and rigorously prosecutes any kind of sexual deviance. The misrecognition of the realities of the world directly affects their psyche and eventually leads to their tragic fall. But Williams, who never fails to show his contempt for mid-century America, always also turns his tragic characters into heroic figures and thus invites his readers to sympathize with them. After having explored the notion of sex, gender and culture in psychoanalytical theory and sexuality in mid-century America, I will turn to the main part of this paper, which is a psychoanalytic reading of the male and the female in Tennessee Williams’s plays. The first part of my analysis focuses on culture’s impact on female sexuality and deals with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. Amanda Wingfield and Blanche Dubois, Williams’s two famous Southern Gentlewomen, cling to the myths of the old South in order to cope with the harsh realities of the present. Through neurotic Amanda and hysterical Blanche, Williams not only deconstructs the myth of the chaste Southern Lady as a cultural ideal, but also challenges the contemporary notions of sex and gender. The second part also questions the sex and gender system of mid-century America. This time, however, I will concentrate on the male protagonists in Orpheus Descending and Sweet Bird of Youth, Val Xavier and Chance Wayne, who are sacrificed by the town’s patriarchs for violating their prescribed roles in the traditional sex and gender system. The patriarchs do not allow the subversion of masculinity and restore the sex and gender system, which again shows that Western society is a repressive system that prosecutes deviant behavior. The third part examines the domestication of sexuality and procreation in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In this play, Williams strikes at the traditional family, deconstructs the myth of patriarchy, and boldly subverts both the traditional family and American heterosexual society. After having dealt with heterosexual transgression, the fourth and last part focuses on the notion of homosexuality in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer. In both plays, the death of a homosexual is like a guilty secret that is buried in the past and that still affects the present. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick Pollitt recoils from the world: He has failed a homosexual because he has internalized society’s attitude towards homosexuality. In Williams’s world, the betrayal of a homosexual is the supreme sin. In Suddenly Last Summer, the action of the play entirely revolves around a homosexual character. Through Sebastian, who represents a new type of homosexual, (homo)sexual desire is placed in a cosmic frame where the sating of desire is not without its consequences. Even though Suddenly Last Summer is said to be Williams’s darkest play, it is closely related to his previous plays. Sebastian is sacrificed like Val and Chance, and he is, like Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Allan in A Streetcar Named Desire, a dead homosexual who stands for a guilty secret that is buried in the past. All of Williams’s protagonists are fugitives who are trapped in the harsh realities of the modern world, and they all fail to develop what Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, would consider as “normal” sexual development. Even though psycho-analysis as a theory mostly revolves around the male and neglects the female, a psychoanalytic reading of the male and the female in Williams’s plays provides us with an illuminating theory and helps us to analyze how sex, gender, and culture is subverted in the plays.

2. The Male and the Female in Psychoanalytic Theory

2.1. A Psychoanalytical Approach to the Development of the Individual

2.1.1. Sigmund Freud’s Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie

When Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) published his Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie in 1905, psychoanalysis was neither acknowledged as an own scientific discipline nor accepted as a new and revolutionary method of treatment of patients in the field of clinical psychiatry. Freud’s psychoanalysis quickly fell into disrepute and was labelled as some kind of a pansexual theory reducing anything human to mere sexuality. At first sight, Freud’s essays seem to be rather conventional, though. Freud compares hetero-sexuality with homosexuality as did his colleagues Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1939) in his Psychopathia Sexualis, and Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Both drew on Carl Westphal’s study of homosexuality, who called this phenomenon konträre Sexualempfindung.[2] This term was translated into English as contrary sexual feeling or sexual inversion. Homosexuality was soon labelled as sexual degeneracy and as a threat to society and culture. “Degeneracy was believed to be a defect in the individual’s heredity, often equated with atavism, i.e. the sudden reappearance of primitive tendencies in civilized human beings.”[3] Freud no longer put up with this atmosphere of intolerance and promoted that – even though feeling that homosexual energy should be redirected – homosexuality in fact was a normal part in the process of growing up. His notion of sexuality furthermore no longer suggests that the male and the female are automatically and exclusively attracted to each other: “Im Sinne der Psychoanalyse ist also auch das ausschließliche sexuelle Interesse des Mannes für das Weib ein der Aufklärung bedürftiges Problem und keine Selbstverständlichkeit.”[4] This is a rather spectacular point of view, since in the nineteenth century, science rated any deviation from “normal” sexual behavior as something abnormal and frightening or tried to pretend that such tendencies did not exist. Freud then proceeds to more complex and daring matters in his essays and states on a factual level that homosexuality is a kind of perversion (in Freud’s work, the term perversion does not have the negative connotation it has today) and that both perversion and neurosis have the very same origins: infantile sexuality: “[S]o wird sich unser Interesse dem Sexualleben des Kindes zuwenden, und wir werden das Spiel der Einflüsse verfolgen wollen, die den Entwicklungsprozess der kindlichen Sexualität bis zum Ausgang in Perversion, Neurose oder normales Geschlechtsleben beherrschen.”[5] The notion of infantile sexuality is crucial to Freud’s essays. He eloquently illustrates that perversion is by no means abnormal, but rather congenital, and that the child first has to go through different psychosexual development stages which are of perverse character before he or she can finally turn to normal heterosexual behavior during puberty. If the child does not successfully surmount these three stages, however, he or she will eventually redevelop perverse or neurotic features that replace an otherwise healthy sexuality. This brief outline of Freud’s Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie already contains all aspects that will be important in this paper. Male and female sexuality can no longer be as easily worked into a heterosexual matrix as it was possible until the beginning of the twentieth century, which means that both the notion of gender as well as the prescription of male and female roles has to be taken into account.

The institution of a compulsory and naturalized heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from a feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practices of heterosexual desire. The act of differentiating the two oppositional moments of the binary results in a consolidation of each term, the respective internal coherence of sex, gender, and desire.[6]

The binary relation thus regulates sexuality and suppresses sexual diversity. Second, the obvious fear of homosexuality and of all other kinds of sexual deviance implies that society must be a decisive factor when it comes to judging what is normal and ab-normal, natural and unnatural, and, of course, what should be promoted and what should not. Third, perversion, i.e. sexual deviance of any kind, and neurosis are at the core of human sexuality. People who do not turn out in a socially acceptable way are in conflict with themselves and the world. They are conceived of as a threat to the social order. Tennessee Williams’s sexually deviant characters clearly are of that type. They cannot accept the realities of the world and therefore feel the urge to escape the pressures of reality. They are mentally unstable and their sexuality “has a dangerous and even subversive quality”[7]. Savran points out that “Williams’s enunciation of a decentered and fragmented subject […] vividly illuminates the pressures and anxieties circulating around the normative constructions of masculinity and femininity.”[8] Freud’s essays on sexuality provide a basis for a more thorough exploration of Williams’s characters. A psychoanalytic reading of the plays reveals that traumatic memories always determine the present and that Williams’s characters suffer from a traumatic past from which they find it difficult to recover – a past which will not cease to affect their spiritual and sexual life. As a result, it is necessary to understanding the general workings of human sexuality in order to both gain access to Williams’s dysfunctional and sexually deviant characters and to the shattered world they are living in.

2.1.2. The Three Stages of Psychosexual Development of the Individual

In his summary of Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie, Freud states that the infant is born with seeds of sexual activity, “Keime von Sexualtätigkeit”[9]. These innate seeds are gradually activated during the three development stages of the child. The child’s sexual desire is some kind of formative drive or instinct that comes naturally and that determines his or her sexual behavior. However, the outside world or the parents and the environment in general will constantly repress the child’s sexual instincts or drives as the very nature of sexual drives is perceived as being extremely barbaric, shameful and counterproductive to the social order: “[D]ie Menschen stehen unter dem Banne jener Vereinigung von Prüderie und Lüsternheit, welche das Verhalten der meisten ‘Kulturmenschen’ in Sachen der Lüsternheit beherrscht”[10]. After the first two develop-ment stages, the child enters the latency period, which is not considered an individual stage but a period that more or less lies between the second and third stage of psycho-sexual development. During this period, psychosexual development is more or less sus-pended. The child, whose sexual drives have been repressed due to educational pur-poses, now gradually learns to sacrifice his or her pleasure for the common good and enters civilized society:

[D]ie sogenannte Latenzperiode […] liefere einen Vorrat von Energie, der größtenteils zu anderen als sexuellen Zwecken verwendet werde, nämlich einerseits zur Abgabe der sexuellen Komponenten für soziale Gefühle, andererseits (vermittels Verdrängung und Reaktionsbildung) zum Aufbau der späteren Sexualschranken.[11]

After the latency period, the child enters the third and final stage of sexual devel-opment, puberty, and internalizes heteronormative[12] behavior. However, this sketch of the sexual development of the child needs to be further elaborated. The first two stages of sexual development are called pregenital stages as they do not yet involve the genitals of the child. The first stage is the oral or cannibal stage. Due to the hunger drive, the infant’s desire is oriented both towards the own lips/mouth and towards the mother’s breast. The mother thus becomes the first love object of the infant. “Die Sexualtätigkeit ist hier von der Nahrungsaufnahme noch nicht gesondert, […] das Sex-ualziel besteht in der Einverleibung des Objektes, dem Vorbild dessen, was späterhin als Identifizierung eine so bedeutsame psychische Rolle spielen wird.”[13] The satis-faction of breastfeeding, however, ends with weaning. The infant is repressed for the first time and has to cope with the loss of the first love-object: the mother’s breast. Eventually, the infant transfers his or her love to auto-erotic objects like the thumb. The process of thumbsucking is a satisfactory substitute for the lost love-object and already hints at the auto-erotic tendencies the child will now develop. Following the oral stage, the child enters the second development stage, the anal or sadistic-anal stage. The child explores his or her body and discovers various sources of pleasure. An auto-erotic ex-ploration of the own body is considered a preliminary step to masturbation, which is why Freud also coined the three development stages “Phasen der kindlichen Mastur-bation”[14]. During the anal stage, the child realizes that bowel movements can be a source of pleasure, as well, and that repressing defecation may have stimulating effects. Expelling waste may then very well be considered a first step to orgasm. During this period, the child is repressed by the environment and is told when it is appropriate to expel waste and when it is not. Toilet training is one method of translating the child’s sexual energy into culturally acceptable modes of behavior. The anal furthermore splits into active and passive impulses; the impulse to master another human being and the impulse to being mastered. Freud considers this second phase decisive in a child’s psychosexual development:

[A]lle Einzelheiten dieser zweiten infantilen Sexualbetätigung hinterlassen die tiefsten (unbewussten) Eindrucksspuren im Gedächtnis der Person, bestimmen die Entwicklung ihres Charakters, wenn sie gesund bleibt, und die Symptomatik der Neurose, wenn sie nach der Pubertät erkrankt.[15]

As discussed above, the child is more and more involved in the workings of civilized society during the latency period and finally reaches the third and final stage, the phallic or genital stage. The child is now traumatized by what Freud calls the Oedipus complex, a trauma that has already started before the latency period and that needs to be resolved so that the child may finally enter civilized society and adopt normative heterosexual behavior. The Oedipus complex or oedipal triangle is of the utmost importance in infantile sexuality. Before turning to the oedipal triangle though, it is important to mention that both boys and girls share the same sexual desires during infancy, and that their inherent bisexuality, the capacity of forming attachments to both sexes, has led Freud to the assumption that childhood sexuality is in fact “polymorph pervers”[16]. A linear transition from inherent childhood bisexuality to adult heterosexual identity through the Oedipus complex, however, is by no means guaranteed.[17] The oedi-pal triangle involves, as the term already suggests, three people: the child, the mother, and the father. From the beginning, the child feels strongly attached to the mother and desires to receive her exclusive love. Even though this desire has to be considered a displacement from the original object of desire, the breast, the mother remains the first object choice of the child. But the child soon loses this love object through weaning and, for the time being, redirects its sexual energy towards its own body. The mother as the sole object of desire then is reinstated during the phallic stage. The wish to be in turn the mother’s love object leads to a competition with the father. The boy perceives the father as a rival and as a prohibiting force. He wants to express his desire, but he fears, as Freud maintains, castration from the father. Discovering that the mother and women in general lack a penis makes him “renounce his desire for a sexual tie with the mother [and choose] the father and hence phallic strength and power in relation to other men, over the strength of the maternal bond”[18]. The girl as well redirects her desire from the mother to the father because lacking the penis makes her feel inferior. The theory of penis envy, however, is a rather dubious one and has been severely attacked in feminist literature.[19] In short, resolving the Oedipus complex essentially means that the child first identifies with the mother and later with the father in order to determine the future path of his or her (hetero)sexual orientation. Freud coined the heteronorma-tive resolution of the Oedipus “normal” sexual development or libido development.

Before the phallic stage, the child’s sexual drives have worked independently from each other. This indicates that there is “no single, unified sexual instinct in humans, […] but only partial drives, component instincts”[20]. Separate drives or instincts stimulate the body and give satisfaction to the child. When the child enters the phallic stage, though, the object choice is redirected:

Der Sexualtrieb war bisher vorwiegend autoerotisch, er findet nun das Sexualobjekt. Er betätigte sich bisher von einzelnen Trieben und erogenen Zonen aus, die unab-hängig voneinander eine gewisse Lust als einziges Sexualziel suchten. Nun wird ein neues Sexualziel gegeben, zu dessen Erreichung alle Partialtriebe zusammenwirken, während die erogenen Zonen sich dem Primat der Genitalzone unterordnen.[21]

As already discussed above, the latency period is the period which interconnects human sexuality with civilization. The phallus as a symbol of this interconnection is an im-portant factor in the channelling of sexual drives and in turning the narcissistic child towards altruism and procreation. The term phallus should not merely be conceived of as a synonym for the penis of the father but also as a symbol of power and strength. Sexual identification via the Oedipus complex thus always reveals itself as a social construct and not as a biological constant. As a result, human sexuality is culturally determined and regulated. A critical reading of psychosexual development thus discloses that human sexuality is based on a patriarchal system that centers on the male and on masculinity as such. The symbolic phallus and the notion of masculinity will however be further examined when discussing Jacques Lacan’s influence on psycho-analysis.

2.1.3. Lacan’s Contribution to Psychosexual Development

Jacques Lacan (1901-1985) is considered to be the most important theoretician of psychoanalysis after Sigmund Freud. Even though he perceives his own work as a commentary on Freud’s oeuvre and himself as a strict Freudian, his approach to the psychosexual development of the child is a somewhat different one. Whereas Freud tried to find the biological and “natural” causes of sexual development, Lacan offers a linguistic model in order to explain how the human subject enters the world of social order. Lacan’s reading of Freud can be considered an intellectual or philosophical approach that tries to avoid “reductive scientism or medical normativization”[22]. Even though Stephen Frosh, for instance, reproaches Lacan for laying too much weight on the authoritative, phallocentric and patriarchal structures of sexuality and for – just as Freud – constantly favouring the man over the woman,[23] Lacan elaborated Freud’s theories on the psychosexual development of the human subject, and influenced dis-parate approaches such as feminism, film-theory, poststructuralism and Marxism. His approach to human sexuality is based on linguistic and ideological concepts which structure both the individual’s conscious and unconscious life. According to Lacan, the unconscious is to be separated from the conscious and is “characterized precisely by what is not identical with itself, with what cannot be totalized”[24]. He claims that the “unconscious is structured like a language”[25] and that both structures are based on a system of differences that cannot be represented. Language then is by implication analogous with the unconscious:

Through slips of the tongue, jokes – especially puns – the poetic dimension of language (to the extent that it is full of ambiguity, and therefore full of meaning), the dream as a rebus, and forms of nonsense, we glimpse the unconscious. More succinctly: the unconscious both calls for interpretation and cannot be exhausted by interpretation.[26]

In order to better understand the concept of the unconscious, it would be interesting to take the psychoanalyst’s stand into account again. The aim of a psychoanalyst is to illustrate “that some – probably the most important part – of our mental functioning occurs outside of conscious awareness”[27]. The unconscious is the “Other within us”[28], the voice that actually speaks for us, and is, for instance, rooted in childhood memories. However, these memories are lost to amnesia. Freud speaks of “infantile Amnesie”[29] here. The desiring child is by implication unconscious of what he or she does in order to find satisfaction and will therefore not be able to express his or her desire in an intelligible way. Human sexuality thus not only depends on partial drives, as mentioned before, but also on the ideological concepts of the unconscious and language. Freud did stress the significance of the unconscious, as well. Desire as such is “conceptualized as an effect of language, this is as unconscious”[30]. The function of language is to define in what ways the human subject relates him- or herself to other people. In order to do so, Lacan believes that one must always differentiate between the terms reality (the fantasy world we construct through language) and the real (the material world we have no access to and which is beyond language). Based on Freud’s subdivision, Lacan’s understanding of psychosexual development relies on a series of misrecognitions or mé-connaissances [31] of the real. This happens because the human subject desperately calls for concepts to make sense of the world. Through language, human subjects thus create a reality which is in constant conflict with the real. The real cannot be named and is in tension with our artificial reality of the world, e.g. with social constructs and with everything that determines our psychosexual life. Lacan subdivides the psychosexual development of the child as Freud did, acknowledges that the development stages may vary between individuals, and states that they may even exist simultaneously within an individual. Before the age of six months, the child cannot distinguish between him- or herself, the parents, and the world. He or she perceives everything as pleasurable and is completely unaware of any kind of boundaries. During that time, the child is the closest to the real or to the pure materiality of the world he or she can ever be. This rather chaotic view of the world changes when the child realizes that the mother pays special attention to certain parts of his or her body, such as the lips, the anus, the penis or the vagina. The body is fragmented into erogenous zones and is thus being territorialized. The fragmentation of the body is the first step away from the real. The process of weaning then creates both the first lack and first fantasy: the baby has lost a precious object, the mother’s breast, and wants it back. During the age of six to eighteen months, the infant enters the mirror stage. This stage “discloses a libidinal dynamism”[32] caused by the child’s identification with the own reflection when gazing into the mirror, and installs in the child the first notion of self and of an Ideal-I. The mirror stage is at the core of the formation of the ego. Note, however, that any given human being may serve as a mirror to the child.

This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nurseling dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and be-fore language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject.[33]

Later on, the appropriation of language will help the child to relate the image of the self to other people. But understanding that the person in the mirror is in fact me is also disturbing: the subject is caught between hate and love. He or she has to cope with the realities of the own body: on the one hand the child wishes to be like the idealized image in the mirror and therefore loves it, and on the other, the child hates this image because it seems to be too remote for identification. This “primordial discord”[34] will influence the subject’s way of perceiving the world.

The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation – and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality […] – and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development.[35]

This first méconnaissance of the fragmented body as an ideal body “characterizes the ego in all its structures”[36]. The notion of the ideal self installs primary narcissism in the subject and is the basis for Lacan’s understanding of the Imaginary Order.[37] The human subject is constantly looking for an imaginary wholeness and unity, but the identification through other people never leads to a true self but to an “inevitably alien and constraining ego”[38]. This false identification is the first step to an imaginary bodily union which is as illusionary as the ego’s attempt to master the environment. Ego’s demand for unity can thus never be satisfactory. From the age of eighteen months to four years, the child acquires language and learns that language is based on a system of differences. Language has its own internal logic, words only make sense in relation to other words, and so do concepts. The signifier “father”, for instance, does not only stand for the individual father but also for what “father” signifies. The term, for instance, is related to “mother”, “me”, “social order” and “phallus”. The phallus again does not only stand for the penis but also for an abstract concept of power that will be more thoroughly examined when discussing Lacan’s interpretation of the Oedipus complex. Via the appropriation of language, the child enters what Lacan calls the Symbolic Order.[39] Language determines how the child will perceive the world. Before acquiring language, the child as an empty signifier I is surrounded by the Other, the mother and the father, and by language. In Lacan’s world, any human being always actively desires the Other. The very notion of desire implies that he or she is missing or, as Lacan would say, lacking something: the object of desire. During the psychosexual development of the child, he or she always first desires the mOther, and then the father. The resolution of the Oedipus complex then translates the child’s desire into heterosexual desire, as already mentioned above.[40] As soon as the Other and language take hold of the child, the child loses its connection to the real and develops an imaginary reality that is characterized by the Other and by language. In this context, the social order is characterized, as Lacan maintains, by gender difference and by how the concepts of “male” and “female” are related to each other through language. The real sexual needs or, as Freud puts it, the partial drives or instincts, are sacrificed for the social order. Both Freud and Lacan agree that moving through the Oedipus complex is crucial for the psychosexual development of the child. Lacan, however, maintains that the Oedipus complex also is a ruse. According to him, gender formation never fully solves sexual difference, because on an unconscious level, the desire of the Other continues to circulate. “Gender and its cultural expectations, obligations, and rituals are therefore one of the outcomes of the Oedipal dynamics.”[41] The child further has to accept that the differential system of language necessarily relates him- or herself to other human subjects, and that he or she needs to enter social structures in order to be positioned within society. The phallus is the motor of identification within this system of language and society. It is the most powerful signifier and stands for the symbolic father, or the Name-of-the-Father, an instance that regulates our life and that is based on a system of prohibitions. Much more than the actual father, the Name-of-the-Father is a law that dictates our behavior and tells us what to do and not to do. This law is, so to speak, our supreme law. The castration complex has a massive impact on both boys and girls. The boy, who submits to the Law-of-the-Father and to symbolic order, has to deny his incestuous desire for the mother and therefore his actual penis. He fears, as Freud maintains, castration from the father and has to learn that he is only a small unit in a larger system of rules and regulations. The girl has to resolve the castration complex differently in order to gain access to the symbolic order. She is lacking the penis and at the same time is not: on the one hand she will never quite come to terms with the full signification of the symbolic phallus, and on the other hand, she will never have to go through the trauma of losing the penis. Lacan differentiates between being and having the phallus. The paradox is that even though men have or possess the phallus, they need the Other, the woman, who is the phallus, in order to establish their identity through reflection.[42] Resolving the Oedipus complex also means that the boy as the desiring subject not only has to realize that the mother also is a desiring subject, and that she desires the penis of the father, but also that he cannot fulfil his mother’s desire. The boy thus learns to identify with the father through the mother’s desire. Female desire thus gives rise to the symbolic system in the child. The visibility of the phallus makes it the signifier in the symbolic world and is associated with male power: “The visibility of the phallus predominates over the black hole of the female genitals.”[43] Since this is crucial to Lacan, he provocatively assumes that there is only one sex, the one and its Other: “La femme n’existe pas.”[44] The woman does not exist.

According to Judith Butler, the phallus is, as women are lacking it and men are afraid of lacking it, no more then a phantasmagorical possession of something that has always been illusory in the first place: “For the phallus is not the penis, but its representation as a symbol of power and desire – less a product of biological possession, than of patriarchal discourse”[45]. Butler furthermore states that “the very notion of ‘patriarchy’ has threatened to become a universalizing concept that overrides or reduces distinct articulations of gender asymmetry in different cultural contexts”[46]. The phallus as the symbol of masculine identity thus stands for the general regulation of human sexuality and for the production of normative heterosexuality. Both Butler and Frosh argue that Freud and Lacan think in too masculine and patriarchal terms, but apart from its patriarchal structures, psychoanalysis is a very illuminating discipline when it comes to analysing the psychosexual development of the human being or how instinct and desire are modified by the environment. Lorenzer and Görlich’s introduction to Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur reveals how important it is not to sweep the connection between psychoanalysis and culture under the carpet:

Psychoanalyse ist stets – wenn auch oft uneingestandenermaßen – Kulturbetrachtung. Und sie ist, indem sie die sozialen Konflikte der einzelnen in den Tiefen der Trieb-schicksale aufsucht und an den vermeidbaren und unvermeidbaren Zumutungen der gesellschaftlichen Ordnung mißt, immer auch, ja eigentlich vor allem: “Kultur-Kritik”.[47]

2.2. A Psychoanalytical Approach to the Development of Culture

2.2.1. C.R. Badcock’s Theory on Social Development

The previous sections on the psychosexual development of the individual revealed that it is impossible to explain human sexuality without referring to the social order or to the impact culture has on the individual. In Das Unbehagen der Kultur (1930), Freud already maintains: “Die Kulturentwicklung ist ein eigenartiger Prozess, der über die Menschheit abläuft, an dem uns manches wie vertraut vorkommt”[48]. Humanity’s movement into civilized society and the child’s introduction to that very society then seems to be based on analogous principles. In Madness and Modernity, C.R. Badcock attempts to explain how civilized culture as a whole has come into being and relates this back to individual behavior. According to him, social psychoanalysis is analogous with the psychosexual development of the child and with childhood traumata. This then implies that the development of the individual is a recapitulation of the life of his or her ancestors: “Thus cultural and psychological phylogeny complement, and are reca-pitulated in, individual ontogeny, just as, in the past, the crucial stages in individual ontogeny became fixed as the phylogenetic heritage of subsequent generations.”[49] In this context, the Freudian concept of the id, the ego and the superego [50] is very im-portant. The controlling agency of the superego, for instance, is a rigorous system that urges the individual to suppress his instinctive or sexual drives in order to enter civilization. Freud also refers to the innate or hereditary character of the superego. “Die Erfahrung […] lehrt, daß die Strenge des Über-Ichs, das ein Kind entwickelt, keines-wegs die Strenge der Behandlung, die es selbst erfahren hat, wiedergibt”[51]. This illustrates quite well that the child must be born with seeds of culture which will eventually be activated when he or she enters civilization. The concept of the superego, the ego and the id thus tells us much about the analogous structure of social and individual development. The id, for instance, contains “a set of basically egoistic and anti-social sexual and aggressive drives which cause all men to see each other as rivals and which makes sons desire the death of their fathers for possession of the mothers and sisters”[52]. This very Freudian theory is based on the Oedipus complex which is based on the myth of Oedipus who, out of ignorance, killed his father and married his mother. According to Freud, this primal trauma of parricide and incest is at the core of human culture. It is important, though, not to take the myth of Oedipus and especially incest literally or as a social fact, but rather as “a pervasive cultural fantasy”[53] – a fantasy based on the Lacanian concept of the symbolic order. To come back to the con-cept of the id, the ego and the superego, the ego is considered the mediating agency which checks on both the superego and the instinctual drives of the id before taking a decision. The superego is “that part of the ego which presents a critical self awareness which is both censorious and exhortatory, being the representative of standards, ideals, commands and prohibitions”[54]. The ego then mediates between the unconscious drives or instincts of the id and the conscious rules and regulations of the superego. The ego thus is equivalent to our notion of the common sense. In Madness and Modernity, Badcock claims that the foundation of human sociability is based on the repression of man’s instinctual drives, and develops a polytraumatic theory as an extension of what could be termed a monotraumatic theory in Freud’s Totem & Taboo [55] in order to illustrate how culture has developed from its origins to modern civilization. He also argues that civilization is not based on one specific event or on a single primal trauma, but on the repetition of that primal trauma – which is why he considers individual ontogeny the recapitulation of cultural phylogeny on a smaller scale. Phylogeny, however, starts with the Oedipus complex as primal trauma while ontogeny ends with it.


[1] Goeppert 1976: 175

[2] Cf. Bullough 1979: 7-16. These pages focus on Westphal, Krafft-Ebing, and Ellis in a more detailed way.

[3] Ibid. 9

[4] Freud 2004a: 70. This quote is from a footnote that Freud applied later on to the text. It illus-trates how important this piece of information was to him.

[5] Freud 2004a: 74

[6] Butler 1990: 22f.

[7] Bigsby 1984: 16

[8] Savran 1992: 9

[9] Freud 2004a: 131

[10] Freud 1979: 85

[11] Freud 2004a: 131

[12] Cf. Dean 2003: 238. The term “heteronormativity” was created by queer theorists who are opposed to the belief that only the complementary relation between the male and the female makes sense and that only this relation could be a natural arrangement and a cultural ideal.

[13] Freud 2004a: 99

[14] Ibid. 90

[15] Ibid. 91

[16] Freud 2004a: 93

[17] Cf. Ibid. 73

[18] Segal 1990: 71

[19] Cf. ibid. 71

[20] Dean 2003: 245

[21] Freud 2004a: 108

[22] Rabaté 1997: XIII

[23] Frosh 1997: 34

[24] Lechte 1990: 34

[25] Lacan 1977: 203

[26] Lechte 1990: 34

[27] Frosh 1997: 32

[28] Lacan 2001: 190

[29] Freud 2004a: 77

[30] Dean 2003: 243

[31] Lacan 2001: 7

[32] Lacan 2001: 2

[33] Ibid. 2

[34] Ibid. 4

[35] Lacan 2001: 5

[36] Ibid. 7

[37] Cf. Grosz 1990: 31-43

[38] Butler 1990: 86

[39] Cf. Grosz 1990: 59-74

[40] Cf. Feher-Gurewich 1997: 197f.

[41] Feher-Gurewich 1997: 198

[42] Cf. Butler 1990: 44

[43] Benvenuto and Kenney 1986: 186

[44] Lacan 1998: 7

[45] Butler 1990: 87

[46] Ibid. 35

[47] Lorenzer and Görlich 2004: 28

[48] Freud 2004c: 62

[49] Badcock 1983: 72

[50] Cf. Freud 204c: 86-96/105-107

[51] Freud 2004c: 93

[52] Badcock 1983: 11

[53] Butler 1990: 42

[54] Badcock 1983: 17

[55] Cf. Freud 2005: 186


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Male Female Tennessee Williams Plays



Title: The Male and the Female in Tennessee Williams's Plays