Psychological content appears in a wide range of literary forms, from poetry to short stories, plays and novels. However, the most explicit reference to the human mind is to be found in psychological novels which deal with individuals' inner experiences, thoughts, feelings, emotions and introspections.
The psychological novel is a work of fiction in which the characters' thoughts, motivations and feelings are of greater interest than the external action. Psychological novels place emphasis on characters, their emotional reactions and go deeper into their minds than novels of other genres. Events may not be presented in a chronological order, but as they occur in the characters' minds, memories or fantasies.
The psychological content can take different forms in literature. It can be represented symbolically or with the help of metaphors. It can also be found in the structure of the text, the time, the place, the action or even in meter and rhythm in the case of poetry.
Written 1,000 years ago in Japan, The Tale of Genji, is considered to be world's first psychological novel. In Europe, Boccaccio, was the first exponent of literary psychology. However, early psychological content in literary works are found in the texts of Plato and Aristotle. The beginning of psychological literature as a genre can be traced back to Samuel Richardson's Pamella and Laurence Sterne's introspective novel Tristam Shandy.
Psychological novels fully developed in the 20th century, backed by Sigmund Freud's discoveries in the field of psychoanalysis. Freud is well known for his theories regarding the unconscious mind and the mechanism of repression. He stated that the mind can be divided into two parts: the conscious mind which includes everything people are aware of and the unconscious mind which includes people's feelings, thoughts and memories that influence their behavior.
James Joyce is one of the most prominent writers of the 20th century who went deep into his characters' minds. Ulysses is a fusion of the stream of consciousness and the narrator's voice. Time is not presented chronologically; it is dependant on the characters' perception, while the focus is on the emotional and psychological processes in the minds of his characters. Thoughts, memories, fantasies and ambitions are presented as they occur, regardless of what readers may consider logical. In the last chapter of the novel, Joyce uses no punctuation to present one of the character's uninterrupted flow of thoughts.
Virginia Woolf uses stream-of-consciousness to emphasize the psychological traits of her characters. She follows her characters thoughts as the story unfolds and highlights those events which haunt her characters' memories. Woolf uses a multiplicity of narrators to capture what is going through her characters' minds.
Russian authors Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy also explored human psychology. Dostoyevsky made use of psychological realism, his novels being a mixture of psychology, sociology and literature. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky presents the spiritual struggle, the suffering and the redemption of a student who murders a pawnbroker. The Brothers Karamazov presents the inner struggle between mind and heart in the context of religion.
In Tolstoy's War and Peace, people's inner life, feelings and thoughts are as important as the events of life. Tolstoy's heroes are continually facing inner struggles, doubt, new insights and disillusionment, while striving to find truth and justice. Tolstoy emphasizes in his War and Peace the irrational reasons behind human behavior. Wisdom is not linked to reason as one might think, but to an acceptance of people's mysterious actions. The description of the characters' inner lives is even more complex and refined in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Inner monologues are used to express nuances of despair, love and disillusionment.
Henry James and Arthur Miller are two of the most important contributors to psychological realism in American literature. Henry James explores the minds of his characters facing different complex social situations. He places his characters in circumstances which don't have always a happy ending. Unlike the characters in romantic fiction whose lives improve through perseverance and hard work, James' characters are created without idealization.
Arthur Miller is well known for his deep insight into the minds and personal weaknesses of his characters. Death of a Salesman presents different stages in one of the characters' psychological breakdown. The story unfolds mirroring the protagonist's troubled mind, in different periods of his life. The central character fails to grasp the emotional and spiritual understanding of himself and his personal failure.