Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

On the Freudian Motifs in Beckett's "First Love"

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

On the Freudian Motifs in Beckett's "First Love"

Article excerpt


A reader of Beckett's "First Love" who is somewhat familiar with the Freudian oeuvre will note immediately that the story plays with or deploys a number of Freudian psychoanalytic motifs, either borrowed from Freud's general studies or imported directly from specific case histories. In what follows, we wish to set out some of those motifs, and discuss, on the one hand, the character of Beckett's deployment of them, which seems playful or parodic, and on the other, the problems this playful or parodic use of the motifs raises for the interpretation of the work--particularly for any interpretation which fails to recognise them, and so take them into account. (1)

"First Love" is in part a literary experiment. Its French original, "Premier Amour", is one of the first original texts of length Beckett composed after his decision to shift language, a decision prompted by his desire to write, as he famously put it, "without style" (Knowlson 1997: 357). Writing in a non-native language, so we may conjecture from this comment, would effectively foreclose his inclinations toward excessively clever prose. Without passing judgement or reproach on his early output, one can well understand this; the stories of More Pricks than Kicks, for example, or the belatedly published template novel for some of its yarns, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, are for the most part sub-Joycean efforts, with only brief indications of the individual voice that would evolve in Beckett's fiction once he retranslated his "styleless" French into highly stylised English--culminating in short, abstruse compositions like Mal Vu Mal Dit. Beckett's shift to French takes him away from a writing that is not without awkwardness, occasionally prone to bad puns or verbosity, and above all yoked to Joyce, indeed the most difficult prick against which to kick. Knowlson recognises this obvious debt and summarises: "[Beckett's] work in English throughout the 1930s bristled with erudite and literary allusions and what he called 'Anglo-Irish exuberance and automatisms'" (1997: 357).

Given this experimental status, it is not unreasonable to assume that not only the form or style but also the content of the story might have represented an effort on Beckett's part to develop his fiction beyond certain themes or features which he felt had exhausted themselves. The presence of psychoanalytic motifs in Beckett's work--perhaps most prominent in Murphy--does not disappear after "Premier Amour", resurfacing particularly in Molloy and the later "From an Abandoned Work", but it does decline. What we suggest here is that Beckett had begun to recognise the limitations of this engagement with psychoanalysis for his fiction (it may have offered far less fertile opportunities than it seemed to promise), and his treatment of the Freudian motifs in the story reflects that recognition. In offering the motifs to the reader in a rather obvious, even unwieldy fashion, their deployment becomes essentially parodic. The story effectively plays a game of artificial psychodrama. It imports into the narrative various Freudian commonplaces, a ploy we might reasonably expect to offer keys or at least clues to the narrator's psychic condition, and the grounds for his behaviour or compulsions. Elaborating such an interpretation, however, somehow feels unsatisfactory; in fact, deeply so. The blatant motifs, and the fact that Beckett makes no effort to hide some of his sources in the Freudian corpus, suggest that he himself was beginning to find this engagement with psychoanalysis, which was a feature not only of Watt and especially Murphy but also earlier, uncollected short stories, an unsatisfactory road. If Beckett in choosing French might be said to be writing against himself and his own worse inclinations as a writer of English, in parodying psychoanalytic ideas in the story he likewise works beyond another aspect or phase of his literary apprenticeship.


Let us examine some of the motifs (there are many, and we may not have identified them all), and their sources in Freud. …

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