Desire is at the heart of human existence. Joyce Carol Oates explores desire as an outgrowth Freud’s Theory of Personality Modes in her short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.
Desire is an expansive concept. It can be classified in many ways, as many different things. In general, it is most commonly seen in two ways: it may be seen more narrowly as “passionate sexual desire” (Hofmann & Nordgren 5), or it can be understood in a broader sense, encompassing “all sorts of ideals and wishes” (Hofmann & Nordgren 5). But the concept of desire has varying connotations across disciplines. In Buddhism, for example, desire is the root of all human suffering. To desire is to “crave pleasure, material goods, and immortality” (Basics of Buddhism), all of which are insatiable wants, meaning they can only bring suffering.
In Christianity, desire is unending, but not a solely negative phenomena — they do some good too; “our desires get us out of bed in the morning” (Cavanaugh). As human beings, we desire because we live – the issue is desiring something that is not satisfying. But that’s where God comes in. “The solution to the restlessness of desire is to cultivate a desire for God,” according to Cavanaugh.
Even though desire can lead you to God, it can also distance from Him. For example, all of the seven deadly sins are founded in desire, one way or another. Lust is sexual desire, and Gluttony is the excessive desire for pleasure eating. Pride is the desire to be important and attractive to others, the excessive love of self. Envy is coveting your neighbors, the desire to be equal and/or better than them. Anger is the desire to get revenge/punished and justice, and Sloth is the omission of desire. “The majority of the seven deadly deadly sins have their bases in desire” (Ratneshwar et al. 108). (this feels incomplete. Needs a sentence or two to wrap up)
In Philosophy, desire is believed by Thomas Hobbes to be the fundamental motivator of human action (Schmitter). Aristotle described desire as the appetite for pleasure. It is something that exists beyond our wants and needs; it is something stronger. Desire is overpowering, a force that demands to be given in to. Needs are internal forces, while desire originates externally – “needs push, desires pull” (Ratneshwar et al. 99).
This doesn’t make desires any less compelling than needs, though – they are typically more so. The lure of our desires can make us ignore our needs in pursuit of them, with us rationalizing it them as needs. Desires are specific wants, exacerbated by imagination, thought, and longing. It’s the dwelling on a desire that makes it so powerful. The longer time spent dwelling on a desire, the more likely we are to fall victim to a state of mind in which one acts against their better judgment through weakness of will, or as Aristotle termed it, Akrasia (Ratneshwar et al. 100).
For the purposes of this essay, the term desire is used in a neutral way; it refers to the generality of wants and wishes held human beings.
Sigmund Freud believed that human behavior is driven by desire, locked away in the unconscious mind. Born in the Czech Republic in 1856, Freud was an Austrian neuroscientist and psychoanalyst. He invented the field of psychoanalytic psychology; he believed that all human behavior occurred as a result of interaction between distinct parts of the mind. Freud was famous for his theories, some of which include the unconscious mind, repression as a defense mechanism, interpretation of dreams, and the psychosexual stages of development. (Franzen). Freud’s theories had a vast impact; it “shaped the culture” of the twentieth century (Franzen). The usage of his work in media is so frequent, a term has been created that refers to the incorporation of his theories into a literary work: “Freudian manifestation” (Franzen). Despite the fact that his theories are nearly one hundred years old, they are still being applied to various works today.
One of Sigmund Freud’s most popular theories is the Structural Model of Personality. Also known as Freud’s Personality Modes, the theory proposes that the human psyche is comprised of three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. Together, these agents make up an individual’s personality.
If you were to imagine an angel and a devil sitting upon your shoulders, the Id would be the devil. The Id, is the disorganized part of a person’s personality; it hosts the most primitive and instinctual drives of a human being, such as thirst, anger, hunger, and desire. The Id actively ignores all consequences, “lacks morals”, and is “self serving” (Franzen). The pleasure principle is the driving force of the Id, meaning it is based on instant gratification and impulse; it allows us to get our needs met (Franzen).
Unlike the Id, which is present in a person from birth onward, the Superego is the part of personality we are taught. The Superego is the angel on your shoulder, telling you to do what’s right. Influenced by our parents, the Superego develops through the moral and ethical restraints placed upon us as we grow. The Superego that utilizes these teachings to keep the Id in check, so we can learn to act in “socially acceptable ways” (Franzen). The Superego is our moral conscious that “manifests our ideals,” distinguishing “right from wrong” (Franzen). It always considers the consequences of choices and how they influence those around us.
The third component of Freud’s Personality Modes is the Ego. The Ego is always the shoulders upon which the angel and devil sit — it is the decision maker. The Ego’s purpose is balance; it is “the judge who mediates between the Id and the Superego” (Franzen). The Ego tries to accommodate the desires of the Id in a realistic manner, while simultaneously complying with the limitations established by the Superego.
Freud’s Structural Model of Personality is commonly applied to pieces of literature, such as Joyce Carol Oates’ Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.
- Franzen, Lori. (2019). Freudian Personality Modes. Personal Collection of L. Franzen, Los Alamitos High School, Los Alamitos, CA..
- Franzen, Lori. (2019). Freudian Psychosexual Stages of Development. Personal Collection of L. Franzen, Los Alamitos High School, Los Alamitos, CA..
- Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” Literature: An Introduction, edited by X.J. Kennedy. Little Brown and Company, 1987, pp. 373-385.
- Hofmann, W., & Nordgren, L. F. (2015). The Psychology of Desire. Guilford Press.“Basics of Buddhism.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/edens/thailand/buddhism.htm#:~:targetText=In%20Buddhism%2C%20desire%20and%20ignorance,them%20can%20only%20bring%20suffering.
- Ratneshwar, S., Mick, D. G., & Huffman, C. (2000). The Why of Consumption: Contemporary Perspectives on Consumer Motives, Goals and Desires. London: Routledge.
- Lorenz, Hendrik. (2009). The Brute Within: Appetitive Desire in Plato and Aristotle. Clarendon Press.
- Schmitter, Amy M. “17th And 18th Century Theories of Emotions: Hobbes on the Emotions.”
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 2010, plato.stanford.edu/entries/emotions-17th18th/LD3Hobbes.html#:~:targetText=Hobbes%20does%20allow%20that%20there,them%E2%80%9D%20(Leviathan%2013.14).