Psychoanalytic Criticism: The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams

The Use of Force

When it comes to literature, there are many critical theories we can use to gain an understanding of the texts we read. It also depends on what perspective we would like to glean that understanding. Applying Psychoanalytic Criticism to a text is one way of understanding the psyche of the author and the psychology behind the text’s meaning and the text’s purpose. Psychoanalytic criticism “argues that literary texts, like dreams, express the secret unconscious desires and anxieties of the author” (Delahoyde). This is where the Id, Ego, and Superego come in. Freud’s model of the psyche consists of the id which is the “instinctive, unconscious part of the personality” (McLeod). The id is impulsive and often aggressive in its approach to getting its way. The id is often repressed by the Ego which is the conscious “mediator” between the “unrealistic id and the external real world” (McLeod). Then, of course, we have the superego whose function is to control the impulsive behavior of the id and also provides persuasion of the ego to strive for perfection.

If we also consider the psychology of archetypes we can see that each archetype can have a dominant part of the psyche that drives behavior. Carl Jung had an interesting take on the archetype. He proposed that there were four archetypes that we all experience within us. The “persona” or mask “which conceals our real self” (McLeod, Carl Jung). The anima/animus archetype is the mirror image of the biological sex. Next is the shadow. This is the animal side of our personality (like the id in Freud). Then there is the self which provides a sense of unity in experience.

How does all of this psychology play into literature? Taking a close look at The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams, we can see the id and ego tug of war in the Doctor as he struggles to remain professional while secretly wishing to take control and have his way. We see Mathilda, the little girl, show her animus or “mirror” her biological sex with her aggression toward the doctor; perhaps she is also allowing her id to take control. Throughout this story, we can see the actions of the characters as symbols pointing toward the psyche of the author and overall human nature. By using psychoanalytic criticism, we can effectively show two sides of the human experience; the “mask” or “ego” we show society and the “id” or “shadow.”

When we look at the instinctual id or shadow of the human psyche, we can see this signified, albeit very subtle, when the doctor, the protagonist, tries a second time to coax the little girl, the antagonist, to open her mouth. “I did not allow myself to be hurried or disturbed but speaking quietly and slowly I approached the child again” (Williams). The irony of this particular statement is apparent as he is acting as though he is nervously approaching a wild animal that may pounce at any moment. The instinctual id is quite apparent in the next instant when Mathilda “suddenly with one catlike movement both her hands clawed instinctively for” the doctor’s eyes (Williams). While Mathilda is probably quite proper in other circumstances, she has become the personification of aggression. Any normal doctor/patient relationship would be a display of politeness and accommodating behavior, but here we see a dance of id and ego; mask and shadow.

The father of the child seems to be overcome with guilt with his involvement with the attempts to hold down his daughter to examine her throat for Diphtheria. His ego has forced him to behave as the doting father rather than the disciplinarian. Fathers are seen as the protectors of their children. Perhaps the father is also experiencing the superego manipulating him into feelings of guilt. We see his reluctance when he “tried his best, and he was a big man, but the fact that she was his daughter, his shame at her behavior and his dread of hurting her made him release her just at the critical times” (Williams). There is an obvious inner struggle within the doctor when he mentions “Perhaps I should have desisted and come back in an hour or more. No doubt it would have been better” proving further that his mental state was in turmoil. The doctor was battling with professionalism and aggression.

The sexual undertones of this story also make a sneaky appearance in the form of the id. The doctor readily states that Mathilda was a “quiet; an unusually attractive little thing…She had magnificent blonde hair, in profusion” (Williams). However, as feminine as this little girl seems, she also shows her animus (or male side) of her sexuality when she shows such strength and aggression toward everyone in the room.

The doctor can no longer contain his id, and the ego and superego give way. The survival instinct in the doctor manifests, and he finally gets his chance to force the little girl’s mouth open. He does so for both the protection of herself and society. This id or “instinctual” survivor skills are symbolic to what the doctor stands for in his life. As a doctor, he is sworn to do what it takes for the good of life itself. In the end, the “id” signifies the “preservation of life” and using force is acceptable even necessary.


Works Cited

Delahoyde, Michael. Psychoanalytic Criticism. January 2011. 3 December 2017.

McLeod, Saul. “Carl Jung.” 2014. Simply Psychology. 3 December 2017.

—. “Id, Ego, and Superego.” 2016. Simply Psychology. 3 December 2017.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Use of Force.” 2017. Classic Short Stories. Web. 12 November 2017.




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