Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Family Systems Theory as Literary Analysis: The Case of Philip Roth

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Family Systems Theory as Literary Analysis: The Case of Philip Roth

Article excerpt

Psychoanalytic theory has been more influential in literary studies than any other model of psychological inquiry. Although psychoanalysis' is by far the most prevalent school of psychology-both theoretical and clinical-in the West, there are perhaps additional reasons as to why it has retained such a monopoly in American English departments. Dedicated to the liberal arts, literary scholars understandably identify with Freud's appeal to literature and Lacans semiotic formulation diat the unconscious is structured like a language. Psychoanalysis, which Mark Poster deems "a theory of the individual" (34), is expressly subjective in its reliance on free association, transference between the analyst and the analysand, and an implicit understanding of the patient's victimization by his or her innate desires or deficiencies. It therefore seems more akin to the theoretical teachings of postmodernism and poststructuralism, which stress the significance of the individual experience and are resistant to generalization, categorization, and universalism. Despite these apparent mutual pursuits, psychoanalysis is not die only available and viable psychological approach to literature. In this essay, I propose an additional, but not necessarily alternate, psychological discourse by which to analyze literary texts, using the early fiction of Philip Roth as a test case.

Family systems theory, while relatively new and unfamiliar to most humanities scholars, offers great potential for performing psychological literary criticism outside the psychoanalytic framework. Its goal is to demonstrate that the study of the human can be objective, or, in other words, a science.2 To formulate his theoretical claims about the psychological identity of the family, Murray Bowen and his colleagues relied on an extensive collection of data about both human and animal families. Bowen's assertion that the "family is a system in that a change in one part of the system is followed by compensatory change in other parts of the system" (155) makes a universal claim that seems, at least on the surface, antihumanities. In our postmodern age of Foucauldian subjectivity and Derridian deconstruction, the universality of a systemic science of humanity seems suspect. Yet it cannot be denied that, as humans, we maintain a common experience of existence. What family systems theory attempts to do is provide a comprehensive model that recognizes the common origin of our species: the mammalian organization of the family. C. Margaret Hall summarizes it as "a general theory of emotional processes in human relationship systems, with an emphasis on biological rather than cultural variables" (2). Viewing the family as an organic unit, the theory recognizes governing patterns by which a family manages its anxiety. These patterns are not grounded in myth or literature but in biology and sociology.

Although systems theory may be a more conventionally scientific understanding of the human psyche, this does not discount its potential as a theoretical construct for literary analysis. Because it is a theory arguably more grounded in a lived, universal human experience, it may offer a more convincing psychological paradigm for literature written across boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, race, and gender. This essay, therefore, seeks to illustrate how family systems theory can function as a critical framework by focusing on two of Philip Roth's early novels, When She Was Good (1967) and Portnoy's Complaint (1969). Roth's fiction is an especially productive case to consider, given his lifelong personal and professional interest in Freud's work, his disappointment with the practice of psychoanalysis, and his exploration of the self within the context of the family. Given that Roth himself admits that a major recurrent subject of his novels is "family and religion as coercive forces" ("Writing" 8), his fiction invites a theoretical reading that acknowledges the family as a unit of psychological activity. …

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