The Id, Ego, and Superego as Literary Citicism

Using Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat"

Theodor Seuss Geisel Reads To Children Outside.
Gene Lester / Getty Images

One of the best secondary classroom crossover units between the discipline of English Language Arts and the courses that cover Psychology—usually through the discipline of Social Studies—is a unit on the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) on their Read, Write, Think website. This unit covers the key concepts of Freudian psychology as a science or as a tool for literary analysis in a highly engaging manner. The unit is titled “Id, Ego, and the Superego in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat."

Julius Wright of Charleston, South Carolina—the lesson creator—uses the iconic elementary text from "The Cat in the Hat" to teach students to analyze a literary work using the plot, theme, characterization, and psychoanalytic criticism. The unit is designed for eight 50 minute sessions.

Students will read Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat and analyze the development of each character from the text and pictures using Sigmund Freud's personality theories. The students will determine which characters exhibit the characteristics of id, ego, or superego. Students can also analyze the static nature of characters (i.e.: Thing 1 & Thing 2) locked in one stage.

Wright provides student-friendly definitions and commentary for each psychoanalytic stage in one of the handouts on the Read, Write, Think website.

Freud's Psychoanalytic Personality Theory for Students

Wright provides a student-friendly description for each of the three elements of personality:

The id is the part of the personality that contains our primitive impulses—such as thirst, anger, hunger—and the desire for instant gratification or release. The id wants whatever feels good at the time, with no consideration for the other circumstances of the situation. The id is sometimes represented by a devil sitting on someone’s shoulder. As this devil sits there, he tells the ego to base behavior on how the action will influence the self, specifically how it will bring the self pleasure.

Example from the Dr. Seuss text, The Cat in the Hat:

“I know some good games we could play,” said the cat. 
“I know some new tricks,” said the Cat in the Hat. 
“A lot of good tricks. I will show them to you. 
Your mother will not mind at all if I do.”

Wright's student-friendly description for the Superego stage:

The superego is the part of the personality that represents the conscience, the moral part of us. The superego develops due to the moral and ethical restraints placed on us by our caregivers. It dictates our belief of right and wrong. The superego is sometimes represented by an angel sitting on someone’s shoulder, telling the ego to base behavior on how the action will influence society.

Example from the Dr. Seuss text, The Cat in the Hat:

“No! Not in the house!” Said the fish in the pot.
“They should not fly kites In a house! They should not.
Oh, the things they will bump! Oh, the things they will hit!
Oh, I do not like it! Not one little bit!”

Wright's student-friendly description for the Ego stage:

The ego is the part of the personality that maintains a balance between our impulses (our id) and our conscience (our superego). The ego works, in other words, to balance the id and superego. The ego is represented by a person, with a devil (the id) on one shoulder and an angel (the superego) on the other.

Example from the Dr. Seuss text, The Cat in the Hat:

“So we sat in the house. We did nothing at all.
So all we could do was to Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit!
And we did not like it. Not one little bit.”

There are many examples in ​The Cat in the Hat, and the personality types may overlap, which encourages healthy debate and discussion between students.

Common Core Standards

Other handouts for this unit include a Defining Characterization worksheet that supports details about direct and indirect characterization, as well as a chart of the five different methods of indirect characterization for students to use in analyzing The Cat in the Hat. There are also extension activities featured on the handout The Cat in the Hat Projects with a list of potential essay topics for an analytical or evaluative essay of characters.

The lesson meets specific Common Core standards, such as these anchor standards (for grades 7-12) for reading that can be met with this lesson:

  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
  • Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

If there is an essay assigned from suggested topics, the anchor writing standards (for grades 7-12) for writing could be met:

  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Using the Illustrations as a Visual Guide

In teaching the lessons, it is very important that each student has a copy of The Cat in the Hat as the illustrations contribute to their characterizations of the different Freudian stages. In teaching the lesson to grade 10 students, many of their observations were centered around pictures. For example, students could connect illustrations to specific behaviors:

  • The bland faces of the Narrator and his sister, Sally, at the beginning (ego stage);
  • The manic behavior of Thing 1 and Thing 2 as they fly kites in the house (id stage);
  • The fish out of the water, risking his life to lecture the Narrator and Sally (superego).

Literary Analysis and Psychology Class

Students in grades 10-12 may be taking psychology or AP Psychology as an elective. They may be already familiar with Sigmund Freud's work Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), The Ego and the Id (1923), or Freud’s seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams (1899).

For all students, Psychoanalytic Criticism builds on the Freudian theories of psychology. The OWL at Purdue website features the commentary of Lois Tyson. Her book, Critical Theory Today, A User Friendly Guide discusses a number of critical theories that students may use in text analysis. 

In the chapter on psychoanalytic criticism, Tyson notes that:

"[...]Some critics believe that we read psychoanalytically[...]to see which concepts are operating in the text in such a way as to enrich our understanding of the work and, if we plan to write a paper about it, to yield a meaningful, coherent psychoanalytic interpretation" (29).

Suggested questions for literary analysis using psychoanalytic criticism are also on the OWL website include: 

  • How can characters' behavior, narrative events, and/or images be explained in terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind?
  • What does the work suggest about the psychological being of its author?
  • What might a given interpretation of a literary work suggest about the psychological motives of the reader?
  • Are there prominent words in the piece that could have different or hidden meanings?
  • Could there be a subconscious reason for the author using these "problem words"?

Literary Applications of Psychoanalysis

After the unit students can take this idea and analyze a different piece of literature. The use of psychoanalytic criticism humanizes literary characters, and discussions after this lesson can help students develop an understanding of human nature. Students can use their understanding of id, ego, and superego from this lesson and apply these understandings to characters in more sophisticated works, for example: 

  • Frankenstein and the Monster's shifts between id and superego.
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and his attempts to control id through science.
  • Hamlet and his ego as he wrestles with the dilemma of avenging his father's murder.

All literature can be viewed through this psychoanalytic lens.