The subject of incest in literature elicits complex reactions among readers due to cultural and religious prohibitions against incestuous relationships. Given the sacrosanct nature of the family in most societies, incest represents the greatest violation of the safety and security of family. Any deviation from this norm is both legally and morally reprehensible.
Yet this topic has evoked scholarly research, both from a psychological and sociological perspective, starting in the early 20th century. During the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, incest as a literary theme featured in numerous works, which focused mostly on father-daughter and brother-sister relationships. During the period when Sigmund Freud was presenting his psychological theories on the repression of desires as it pertains to psychological development, there were many literary discussions revolving around this theme.
Psychologists and anthropologists, seeking to understand the moral, emotional, and physical taboos against incest, and the manifestations of incest in literature, often select the Victorian era as an area of study. Nonetheless, it seems evident that the subject of incest appeared in earlier literature, notably Jacobean Drama and 18th-century novels, especially those that were set in the American Deep South.
Some critics purport that Romantic poetry is rife with themes of incest in works describing sibling relationships. Poems that depict an idyllic shared childhood of sisters and brothers are often associated with incest. One plot line seen in novels of the time feature siblings separated at birth and who later seek a forbidden closeness.
Tragedy marks incestuous relationships in both Romantic poetry and novels. Freud classified this as an exacting of punishment for a prohibited relationship as per ancient times when the penalty for incest was death. Freud saw incestuous themes within the relationships of many siblings depicted in literary works. The White Doe of Rylstone (1815) is one example of a brother-sister relationship that Freud interpreted as implicitly incestuous due to the closeness of the main characters.
Lord Byron's Manfred (1817) and Shelley's Laon and Cythna (1818), both poems from the Romantic era, appear to depict incestuous relationships that result in tragic consequences. The fact of incest as a socially and morally unacceptable relationship fueled writings om this topic. Victorian literature presents the subject of incest in literature in a less explicit way. Critics mention The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Wuthering Heights (1847) as two prominent examples.
Stringent legal measures were enforced during two time periods – the Elizabethan and Victorian – that were also significant in terms of their literature. Queen Elizabeth I officially penalized incest in 1583. She ensured that crimes of incest would be addressed appropriately by setting up a High Commission Court to deal with it. It took many years for another major legal act, the Punishment of Incest Act, to be passed.
Real cases of incest have manifested most often between fathers and daughters. This phenomenon is reflected in literature. Critics have analyzed these occurrences within certain frameworks, often against a backdrop of a paternalistic culture. Shakespeare's King Lear, portraying the relationship between Lear and his daughter Cordelia, contribute to literary representations of incest.
The 19th century saw a less obvious rendering of incest in literature. It was only in the 20th century again, when Freud brought the discussion of incest into the open, that the subject was addressed in a public forum. Psychoanalytical studies of literature began to proliferate. With regard to analyzing explicit or implicit incestuous relationships, psychoanalytical analysis was being applied to detect that which was real or inferred.
Jane Ford in Patriarchy and Incest from Shakespeare to Joyce (1998) posits that not only James Joyces' Finnegan's Wake contains the theme of incest, but also that a deeper examination of Ulysses reveals it. Taking a Freudian approach, by rereading cases to look for hidden meaning, Ford presents a plethora of incestuous themes in literary works. She points to father-daughter relationships in many of Shakespeare's plays, to narratives in Henry James' novels, and to obscure suggestions in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim.
The subject of incest in literature has produced a literature of its own, consisting of analyses predominantly based on feminist or psychoanalytical research perspectives. Such analysis has not emerged only in recent years, but previously, with studies by Otto Rank who, in addition to Freud, perceived recurrent themes of incest in literature. Rank's 1912 book, Das InzestMotiv in Dichtung und Sage (The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend), is considered by critics to be a seminal work of psychoanalytical criticism on the subject of incest.