Freud was both a medical doctor and a philosopher. As a doctor, he was interested in charting how the human mind affected the body, particularly in forms of mental illness, such as neurosis and hysteria, and in finding ways to cure those mental illnesses. As a philosopher, Freud was interested in looking at the relationship between mental functioning and certain basic structures of civilization, such as religious beliefs. Freud believed, and many people after him believe, that his theories about how the mind worked uncovered some basic truths about how an individual self is formed, and how culture and civilization operate.
When Freud looks at civilization (which he does in Civilization and its Discontents), he sees two fundamental principles at work, which he calls the "pleasure principle" and the "reality principle." The pleasure principle tells us to do whatever feels good; the reality principle tells us to subordinate pleasure to what needs to be done, to work. Subordinating the pleasure principle to the reality principle is done through a psychological process Freud calls SUBLIMATION, where you take desires that can't be fulfilled, or shouldn't be fulfilled, and turn their energy into something useful and productive. A typical Freudian example of this would focus on sex. Sex is pleasurable; the desire for sexual pleasure, according to Freud, is one of the oldest and most basic urges that all humans feel. (The desire for sexual pleasure begins in early infancy, according to Freud. We'll get to that in a bit). But humans can't just have sex all the time. If we did, we'd never get any work done. So we have to sublimate most of our desires for sexual pleasure, and turn that sexual energy into something else--into writing a paper, for example, or into playing sports. Freud says that, without the sublimation of our sexual desires into more productive realms, there would be no civilization.
The pleasure principle makes us want things that feel good, while the reality principle tells us to channel the energy elsewhere. But the desire for pleasure doesn't disappear, even when it's sublimated to work. The desires that can't be fulfilled are packed, or REPRESSED, into a particular place in the mind, which Freud labels the UNCONSCIOUS.
Because it contains repressed desires, things that our conscious mind isn't supposed to want, and isn't supposed to know about, the unconscious is by definition inaccessible to the conscious mind--you can't know what's in your unconscious by thinking about it directly. However, there are some indirect routes into the contents of the unconscious.
The first, and perhaps most familiar, is dreams. According to Freud (in his book The Interpretation of Dreams), dreams are symbolic fulfillments of wishes that can't be fulfilled because they've been repressed. Often these wishes can't even be expressed directly in consciousness, because they are forbidden, so they come out in dreams--but in strange ways, in ways that often hide or disguise the true wish behind the dream.
Dreams use two main mechanisms to disguise forbidden wishes: CONDENSATION and DISPLACEMENT. Condensation is when a whole set of images is packed into a single image or statement, when a complex meaning is condensed into a simpler one. Condensation corresponds to METAPHOR in language, where one thing is condensed into another ("love is a rose, and you'd better not pick it"--this metaphor condenses all the qualities of a rose, including smell and thorns, into a single image). Displacement is where the meaning of one image or symbol gets pushed onto something associated with it, which then displaces the original image. Displacement corresponds to the mechanism of METONYMY in language, where one thing is replaced by something corresponding to it. (An example of metonymy is when you evoke an image of a whole thing by naming a part of it--when you say "the crown" when you mean the king or royalty, for example, or you say "twenty sails" when you mean twenty ships. You displace the idea of the whole thing onto a part associated with that thing). You might think of condensation and metaphor as being like Saussure's syntagmatic relations, which happen in a chain (x is y is z), and displacement and metonymy being like Saussure's associative relations.
Another way into the unconscious besides dreams is what Freud calls PARAPRAXES, or slips of the tongue; he discusses these in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Such mistakes, including errors in speech, reading, and writing, are not coincidences or accidents, Freud says. Rather, they reveal something that has been repressed into the unconscious. A third way into the unconscious is jokes, which Freud says are always indicative of repressed wishes. He discusses this route to the unconscious in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.
You can probably tell from these three routes into the unconscious--dreams, parapraxes, and jokes--that psychoanalysis asks us to pay a lot of attention to LANGUAGE, in puns, slips of the tongue, displacements and condensations, etc. This suggests how psychoanalysis is directly related to literary criticism, since both kinds of analysis focus on close readings of language. Psychoanalytic literary criticism--or at least the kind that's based on Freud's ideas--often fits better with the humanist models of literary production than with the structuralist and post-structuralist models. You can see examples of this in Barry's chapter on psychoanalysis.
Whatever route is taken into the unconscious, what you find there, according to Freud, is almost always about sex. The contents of the unconscious consist primarily of sexual desires which have been repressed. Freud says that sexual desires are instinctual, and that they appear in the most fundamental acts in the process of nurturing, like in a mother nursing an infant. The instincts for food, warmth, and comfort, which have survival value for an infant, also produce pleasure, which Freud defines specifically as sexual pleasure. He says our first experiences of our bodies are organized through how we experience sexual pleasure; he divides the infant's experience of its body into certain EROTOGENIC ZONES. The first erotogenic zone is the mouth, as the baby feels sexual pleasure in its mouth while nursing. Because the act of sucking is pleasurable (and, for Freud, ALL pleasure is sexual pleasure), the baby forms a bond with the mother that goes beyond the satisfaction of the baby's hunger. That bond Freud calls LIBIDINAL, since it involves the baby's LIBIDO, the drive for sexual pleasure. Freud describes the various erotogenic zones in the second of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
These zones are the ORAL, the ANAL, and the PHALLIC, and they correspond to three major stages of childhood development. They take place roughly between the ages of 2 to 5, though Freud was often revising his estimate of the ages when these stages occurred; later psychoanalysts argue that the oral stage begins soon after birth, with the first experience of nursing, and that the phallic stage ends somewhere between ages 3 to 5. The exact ages at which an infant goes through these stages are less important, in understanding psychoanalysis as theory, than what those stages represent. The oral stage is associated with incorporation, with taking things in, with knowing no boundaries between self and other, inside and outside. The anal stage (which Freud says has a lot to do with toilet training) is associated with expelling things, with learning boundaries between inside and outside, and with aggression and anger. The phallic stage--and Freud argues that "phallic" refers to both penis and clitoris, and is common to both boys and girls--leads a child toward genital masturbation, and hence to the gateway of adult sexuality.
It's important to note that the child Freud is describing in these essays is POLYMORPHOUSLY PERVERSE, a term Freud uses to describe a being whose sexual or libidinal drives are relatively unorganized, and are directed at every object that might provide pleasure. The child experiences an erotic, or erotogenic, pleasure any time one of the erotogenic zones--oral, anal, or phallic--is stimulated; these pleasures persist into adult life.
In the polymorphously perverse phase of development (which includes the oral, anal, and phallic stages), the infant or child is not a stable or unified subject confronting and desiring a particular object, but a complex shifting field of force, of desire, in which the subject, or child, is caught up. In other words, the child doesn't yet have a central identity or self, no sense of "I"; rather, the child is a mass of seething uncontrolled desires, which pull and push him or her in any direction, toward any object that might provide sexual pleasure.
The polymorphously perverse child is pleasure seeking. It is not yet under the sway of the reality principle, and because it doesn't have to repress any of its desires, it has no unconscious. Without an unconscious, or repression, or the reality principle (which is associated with what Freud calls the SUPEREGO), the child has no GENDER. (Freud defines all libidinal drives as masculine, however. More on that later).
Because this desiring child will go after anything that might provide pleasure, and because its first experiences of pleasure have come through its contact with its mother, the child is INCESTUOUS, desiring the pleasure that comes from contact with its mother's body. The mother's body becomes pleasurable through oral contact, in nursing, through the mother's making the child aware of its anal region, in toilet training, and through the mother's making the child aware of the pleasure in its genitals, usually through bathing.
Polymorphous perversity is the earliest stage of child sexual development, according to Freud; it may last till age 5 or 6. Then the child enters into the LATENCY period, where the instinctual drives and libidinal explorations of the polymorphously perverse phase are put on hold; the child doesn't think about, or go after, sexual pleasure any more. The search for sexual pleasure is revived at PUBERTY, the third--and final--stage in sexual development, according to Freud. At puberty, the instinctual urges from infancy take on "adult" characteristics, and get directed toward "normal" aims. At puberty, sexual drives turn from being AUTOEROTIC (i.e. masturbatory, or directed at one's own body as source of pleasure) to being directed at a new OBJECT, another person; these sexual drives also acquire a new AIM, which is not just stimulation but orgasm. If all works well, at puberty all the polymorphously perverse drives of infancy get channeled into reproductive heterosexual intercourse, and all the erotic feeling generated in the erotogenic zones gets subordinated to the genital zone alone. (The old erotogenic zones become places to provide fore-pleasure, which leads up to reproductive heterosexual intercourse--which Freud identifies as the only normal adult form of sexual pleasure).
The project of psychoanalysis in general is to chart how this polymorphously perverse incestuous desiring animal turns into a self, or subject, with a firm sense of differentiated gender (masculine or feminine), with sexual or libidinal desires channeled into proper forms (defined as non-incestuous reproductive heterosexuality), and subordinated to the reality principle so that this being can get some work done and not just have sex all the time.
The project of psychoanalytic theory is to describe how the gendered and sexual subject is formed. The project of Freud's psychoanalytic practice (and those who followed him) was to cure those who had gone astray in this process, those who had not correctly developed this firm sense of gender, sexuality, and repression of libidinal drives.
It is worth noting, however, that Freud wasn't particularly interested in curing what he called "perversions," i.e. sexual behaviors that don't fit into the non-incestuous reproductive heterosexual model. He addresses the question of where "perversions" come from in the first essay in Three Essays. Freud is more interested in the problem of NEUROSIS, which he defines as the negative version of perversion. Perversions might be thought of as libidinal drives that may be socially inappropriate (or even illegal), but which get expressed and acted on; neuroses, by contrast, are libidinal drives that get repressed into the unconscious, but which are so powerful that the unconscious has to spend a lot of energy to keep these drives from coming back into consciousness. The effort required to keep such ideas or drives repressed can cause HYSTERIA, PARANOIA, OBSESSION-COMPULSION, and other neurotic disorders.
The main vehicle for the construction of properly gendered and sexual subjects is the OEDIPUS COMPLEX. Freud doesn't discuss the Oedipus Complex in his Three Essays; he does lay out in these essays some of the basic ideas that would eventually be explained through the Oedipus Complex. The Oedipus Complex is what ends the phallic phase, and the polymorphous perverse phase in general, and forces the child into the latency phase. Freud hints at the foundations of the Oedipus Complex when he talks about castration and penis envy, and about the infantile idea that both males and females have penises.
As Freud describes it, going through the Oedipus Complex as a developmental stage in childhood turns us from incestuous sexual desire to exogamous (outside the family) sexual desire, hence from a state of nature to one of culture or civilization. The Oedipus complex explains how desires get repressed, how these repressed desires form the unconscious, how girls and boys learn to desire objects outside of their families, how each sex learns to desire someone of the opposite sex, and how the SUPEREGO--the reality principle, or what we call "conscience"--gets formed.
To understand the operations of the Oedipus Complex, we have to backtrack a bit, and look more closely at what Freud says in "The Differentiation Between Men and Women," which is Section Four of Essay III, "Transformations of Puberty," in Three Essays
In this section, Freud defines what is "masculine" as what is active; what is passive is likewise defined as "feminine." Both sexes are "masculine" in regards to infantile sexuality, especially masturbation.
"So far as the autoerotic and masturbatory manifestations of sexuality are concerned, we might lay it down that the sexuality of little girls is of a wholly masculine character. Indeed, if we were able to give a more definite connotation to the concepts of 'masculine' and 'feminine,' it would even be possible to maintain that libido is invariably and necessarily of a masculine nature, whether it occurs in men or in women, and irrespective of whether its object is a man or a woman." (p.85)
According to Freud, the masculine part of girl is the clitoris, which corresponds to the penis in boys. (In fact, Freud calls the clitoris a miniature penis). With puberty, girls experience a great wave of repression of clitoridal sexuality (masturbation), accompanied by feelings of disgust and shame at the idea of masturbation, and sex in general. This repression of what Freud calls a "masculine" sexuality is necessary for girls to become feminine (i.e. passive). Boys, meanwhile, at puberty experience a great increase in masculine libido, rather than a repression of it. Freud also says that the more girls repress their clitoral feelings, the more excited boys get, as they desire more and more the girls who offer less and less sexual access. In adult sexuality, clitoridal stimulation is part of forepleasure, leading to correct vaginal stimulation/excitation. As an end in itself, clitoridal stimulation is considered infantile and neurotic, in Freudian theory.
Thus the girl, or woman, at puberty has the task of switching primary erotogenic zones, from the clitoris which was the focus of her pleasure in the phallic stage, to the vagina, which is to become the focus of her pleasure in adult heterosexual reproductive intercourse, in order to become a "normal" adult. The boy, or man, meanwhile, gets to stick with his phallic zone, and focus his adult sexuality, like his infantile sexuality, on the penis.
"The fact that women change their leading erotogenic zone in this way, together with the wave of repression in puberty, which, as it were, puts aside their childish masculinity, are the chief determinants of the greater proneness of women to neurosis and especially to hysteria. These determinants, therefore, are intimately related to the essence of femininity." (p. 87).
In addition to having to shift erotogenic zones in order to reach the proper adult form of sexuality, Freud says, women also have to shift objects. Both the boy and the girl take their mother as their first love object (because their experience of the mother's body is associated for them with the first experiences of pleasure); in the transformation from polymorphously perverse infant to sexually proper adult, the boy keeps the female body as his love object--he just switches from mother's body to the bodies of other women, those unrelated to him. The girl, however, whose primary erotic attachment was also to the mother's body, has to shift her erotic feelings to a male body, in order to achieve normal adult non-incestuous heterosexuality. This double-shifting required of girls--from clitoris to vagina, and from a female body as erotic object to a male body--creates the potential for a lot of neurosis. And that's part of Freud's overall view of femininity--that women (those who are "properly" women, i.e. adult non-incestuous reproductive heterosexual women) are pretty neurotic.
The way that girls and boys make these shifts in erotogenic zones and erotic objects is through the OEDIPUS COMPLEX. Freud doesn't describe that complex in his Three Essays; there is a footnote, on pp. 92-93, that was added in 1920 that brings up the idea of the Oedipus Complex in both sexes. The place where Freud really spells out the details of the Oedipus Complex, however, is in an essay entitled "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes" (1925).
At some point when the infant is negotiating the three erotogenic zones, usually in the phallic phase (a phase that both girls and boys are in, since girls' focus on the clitoris is defined by Freud as "phallic"), children notice the anatomical distinction between the sexes, or, in Freud's terms, that boys have penises and girls do not. (Previously, according to Freud, each sex thought that the other had the same equipment it did).
The boy's reaction to seeing the girl's lack of a penis is first to disavow this new knowledge, and insist that she has one. Eventually, however, he comes to realize that the girl hasn't got one; he sees this as a lack or absence, and decides that her penis had been cut off.
At this point, in the phallic phase, the boy has discovered phallic masturbation, and according to Freud, he wants to direct his phallic activity toward his mother, whom he desires/loves, with "libidinal cathexis." Because of this sexual love for his mother, the boy wants to get rid of his father as his rival for his mother's love--more specifically, he wants to kill his father so he can "marry," i.e. have sole sexual possession, of his mother. This is the Oedipus Complex in boys--the desire to kill the father so that he can fulfill his libidinal desire for the mother.
Having developed these feelings of sexual desire for his mother and anger/aggression towards his father, the boy perceives the "fact" of the girl's castration, and he develops CASTRATION ANXIETY--the fear that his father, angry at the boy's desire to kill him, will cut off his penis in revenge. He enters into the CASTRATION COMPLEX, which forces him, in fear of his father and in fear of losing his penis, to repress his libidinal desire for his mother. This ends the Oedipus Complex, and creates the unconscious. The first form of repressed desire which makes this space/place where unfulfillable and inexpressible wishes go is the repressed desire for the mother.
The desire for the mother goes into the unconscious (often abbreviated as UCS); the fear of the father creates the SUPEREGO, which will be the place where the voices of authority and conscience reside. All subsequent prohibitions on behavior (whether from parents, teachers, laws, police, religious authorities, etc.) will join this initial prohibition in the superego--that's where the boy's sense of morality will come from. Hence the abandonment of incestuous desires (under threat of castration) form the basis of instilling the Reality principle and subduing the pleasure principle. At the instigation of the superego, inexpressible desires/pleasures will be repressed into the unconscious, and emerge in other forms--as sublimations, as neuroses, as "reaction formations," etc. Freud thus charts the human mind as containing three basic areas, or functions, which emerge as a result of the Oedipus Complex: the unconscious, the conscious, and the superego.
After this, the path is pretty clear for the boy. He identifies with his father, and with his father's prohibition about his mother, and understands that if he's good, he'll get a woman of his own someday; hence he only has to wait to fulfill his libidinal (heterosexual) urges.
For the girl, the trajectory is much more complicated, and involves a lot of double shifting, as we've noted--from clitoris to vagina, from mother's body to a male body. And here Freud ties himself up in knots trying to explain how girls do this. (The difficulties Freud had in explaining the female route to adult non-incestuous reproductive heterosexuality should have told him that his model, based on what boys experience, was flawed but it didn't. Psychoanalysis as both theory and method has suffered ever since from these sexist roots).
First of all, the girl notices that boys have penises and that girls don't. Freud says that girls instantly recognize penises as the superior counterpart of the clitoris, and fall victim to PENIS ENVY. "She has seen it and knows that she is without it and wants to have it."
From that point, the girl can go in a couple of directions. She can deny that she has no penis, and persist in thinking she does--this can lead to psychosis in adult life. She may fixate on the idea of someday getting a penis, by whatever means possible. Or she can take the "normal" route, which is to accept "the fact of her castration." If she accepts this "fact," she develops a sense of inferiority to the male; she decides her lack of a penis is punishment for some wrongdoing (probably masturbation); she gets furious with her mother for not giving her a penis, and for not having one herself; she feels contempt for the entire female sex which is without such an important organ. Also, she feels the clitoris to be so inferior that she gives up masturbation entirely; F. says clitoridal masturbation is entirely masculine and her recognition of her lack of a penis makes her repudiate all her masculine activities (and to feel greater disgust at idea of masturbation).
An important consequence of her penis envy, and consequent acceptance of the "fact" of her castration (aside from the internalized inferiority Freud insists on) is a loosening of the bond with her mother. On discovering that her mother doesn't have a penis, and didn't give her one, the girl takes the libidinal desire she (like the boy) felt for her mother and turns it into anger and hatred for not giving her a penis. This moves her toward the necessary shift to taking her father as libidinal object.
The girl then decides that, if she can't have a penis, she'll have a baby instead, and takes her father as her love object with the express purpose of having a child by him; her mother then becomes solely the object of jealousy and rivalry.
At this point, Freud announces, "The girl has turned into a little woman". This is the Oedipus Complex for girls (in Freud's early works, called the Electra Complex; in later works, called the feminine or negative Oedipus Complex). It starts when the girl begins to desire her father.
Hence in girls the castration complex comes first--they first realize they ARE castrated, then they enter into an oedipal relation, desiring to kill the mother and marry the father and have his baby. (For boys, remember, it was the other way around--the castration complex ENDS the Oedipus Complex). With the girl, castration has been carried out, according to Freud, whereas with the boy, it was only threatened.
So. If for boys the castration complex ends the Oedipus Complex, and creates the unconscious and the superego, what happens with girls, whose castration complex starts the oedipal relation?
Freud is fuzzy on this; he says that oedipal cathexis in girls may be repressed (but he doesn't say how) or abandoned (ditto) or just fade away--or it may persist. The result is that women never really form a strong superego, because they don't have a strong motive to do so. They've already been castrated, so what have they got to lose? The consequence of having a weaker or less-formed superego, according to Freud, is that women are not as moral or just as men (they go by their feelings and not their sense of justice). Freud is also not quite sure how women form their unconscious, since they don't have the castration anxiety as the motive to repress their incestuous wishes; some sort of repression happens, but Freud isn't entirely clear on how it happens. This means that women's unconscious may be less well anchored than men's, that their unconscious wishes are less firmly repressed, and more likely to rise up into consciousness. For Freud, this too explains why women aren't as suitable as men are to be the rulers and shapers of civilization.
Freud tries, in subsequent essays, such as "Femininity" and "Female Sexuality," to explain further the female movement through the Oedipus Complex. He never gets very far. He ends up saying that women stay in the Oedipus Complex forever (since nothing ends it for them), and that they always pretty much desire their fathers; somehow they learn, however, to become non-incestuous, and they usually marry men who are like their fathers. Feminist critics, as you might imagine, have a lot to say about Freud's ideas of gender. To him, women were always kind of incomprehensible; he referred to women, finally, as "the dark continent."