Teach Id, Ego, and Superego as Literary Citicism with Dr. Seuss

Use The Cat in the Hat for Engaging Literary Criticism

Dr. Seuss's "The Cat in the Hat" is a great way to introduce secondary students to psychoanalytic criticism.

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 that be found on the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) on their  Read, Write, Think web pages. This unit covers the key concepts for Freudian psychology as a science or as a tool for literary analysis in a highly engaging manner.


How engaging? The unit is titled “Id, Ego, and the Superego in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, and, yes, the students will need access to the text The Cat in the Hat.

This creator of this set of lessons was Julius Wright of Charleston, South Carolina, and the lessons in his unit use the iconic elementary text  "The Cat in the Hat “as a primer to teach students how to analyze a literary work using the literary tools of plot, theme, characterization, and psychoanalytic criticism.

The unit is designed for eight 50 minute sessions, and the Read,Write,Think website also offers the necessary handouts and worksheets necessary.

The central idea for this unit is that students will read Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat and analyze the development of the different characters (the Narrator, the Cat in the Hat, and the Fish) from the text and from the pictures using a psychoanalytic lens that is grounded in Sigmund Freud's theories on personality.

In application and in analysis, the students will determine which characters exhibit the characteristics of id, ego, or superego. Students can also analyze the static nature of characters (ex: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.

The Connection to Freud's Psychoanalytic Personality Theory

Wright provides a student-friendly description for each of the three elements of personality. He provides a description for the ID stage; example for teacher use are included:

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.

Connection example to 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 provides a 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.

Connection example to 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 provides a 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.

Connection example to 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 a multitude of examples that students can find; there may even be debate between students when they have to defend their choices for placing a character in a particular stage of development.

Lesson Meets Common Core State Standards

Other handouts for this unit include a worksheet  Defining Characterization 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 Technology for The Cat and the Hat Texts

Copies of The Cat in the Hat are usually readily available.

Accessing and sharing the text of The Cat in the Hat is easier because of technology. There are several websites that have The Cat and the Hat withaudio read-aloud for teachers who may have difficulty with those Seussian iambic rhythms and rhymes. There is even a read-aloud featuring Justin Bieber that might be a hit with the secondary students.

There are students who may have copies of the text at home; there are always extra copies available at the elementary schools as well that could be borrowed in advance of the lessons.

In teaching the lessons, it is very important that each student has a copy of the text because the illustrations contribute to student understanding in applying the different Freudian stages to characters. In teaching the lesson to grade 10 students, many of their observations centered on 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 that Connects to Psychology Classes

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, regardless of their background with Freud, one form of literary criticism, 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"?

Other Literary Applications 

After the unit, and once the students have a clear sense of how to analyze the characters in this story, 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--even with a primary book text--can help students to 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.

Conclusions about Using Dr. Seuss for Literary Analysis

Julius Wright's unit on the NCTE's Read, Write, Think website is a wonderful introduction to psychoanalytic criticism that is more about having student involved with application more than theory.

As a final note, teachers might ask their  students what did they think of the ending of The Cat in the Hat?

Should we tell her The things that went on there that day?
She we tell her about it? Now, what SHOULD we do?
Well… what would YOU do If you mother asked YOU?

Perhaps one will confess, but there probably will not be one superego in the entire class. That Fish will be disappointed.