Literature for…Psychology

The community of famous literary characters (here’s one designation of the top 10 – incidentally written by a psychologist specializing in the arts) includes suicidal introverts, individuals disassociated from reality, incestuous fathers, and drug addicts. Most of them seem like prime candidates for the oft-stereotyped psychiatrist’s couch.

Psychology Today

The gap between literary studies and psychology should be thin. And yet  in psychology, the study of books may be entertaining, but it does not begin to approach the utility of psychological studies and research papers. So how can the literati emphasize the crossover skills literature has to offer?

HamletThe simplest route is for students to anyalyze literary characters as if they were real people. Hamlet has been used (and, some could say, abused) in this role for decades: this page offers a good overview. But I think another route exists, a subtler and more realistic meeting point of the two disciplines. 

One of the most basic premises of a book report is that the student (a reader, an individual) will like or dislike the assigned book. What makes writing the judgment element of the paper so difficult is the need to give a reason.

  • “Why did you hate reading Moby Dick and love reading Harry Potter? – they’re almost the same length!” 
  • “Why did you sympathize with Hester Prynne and not with Roger Chillingworth?”
  • “I thought you hated Brothers Karamazov!” … “I did – at first.”

In psychology (and communication studies), students learn to look beyond instinctive reactions to the triggers that cause or invite them.

A new way to approach literature would be to evaluate the motivators that inspire like or dislike on the part of readers.  One method would be to establish a scale for like/dislike (say 1-10, with one being strong dislike, 5 being apathy, and 10 being strong enjoyment).  At the end of each chapter, students would rate their impression of the book, without looking back to see previous rankings.

After finishing the book, students would look for chapters that marked turning points in their attitude toward the book, return to those chapters, and look for variables that changed – a new character, a shift in style, or the onset of action, for example. 

To make it more interesting, students could compare notes to see if any parts of the book inspired universal distaste or admiration among their classmates. Those sections would be excellent fodder for a discussion on shared preferences among people in the students’ demographics, or even on Jungian archetypes

As I have said in previous posts, if this topic swerves from traditional literary criticism, bear in mind that the skills or principles are the same, just framed in different vocabulary.  In order to learn the skills, the student may need to complete more traditional analysis of literature.  In order to instill the drive and enthusiasm, the teacher may need to be willing to speak in terms the student can appreciate.


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