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Manifestations of Human Desire in Literature: A Psychoanalytical Approach

Updated on October 31, 2017

“The desire accomplished is sweet to the soul,” The King James Bible, Proverbs 13:19

Writing and reading literature can shed light into the different manifestations of human desire such as the longing for friendship, love, wealth, and justice. Authors who stress human desire central to their text create meaning through the medium in which they write and the specific literary devices they use. A reader’s interpretation of an author’s text is influenced by multiple factors; however, individual experience is the strongest influence on interpretations concerning sentimental aspects of human nature such as desire. Using a variety of critical techniques, psychoanalytic models, and close-reading seemingly unrelated texts from a range of genres in both poetry and prose can be bound harmonically by different forms of human desire such as “Misery” by Anton Chekhov, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe, and “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller.

Desire is a mentality familiar to everyone. Every human experiences the desire to drink water, eat, and sleep. Many individuals desire landing a decent job, getting married, and raising a family. Chekhov’s sledge-driver in “Misery” desires a friend, just someone to listen and care about his dead son. Marlowe’s shepherd in “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” desires a romantic relationship in pastoral England. Miller’s character Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” desires wealth and success in his pursuit of the American Dream. Desire, as a mentality, manifests in a variety of forms, especially in literature; each form causes different effects both emotionally and mentally.

Different psychoanalytic models that probe into theories of self-identification can shed light into the various forms of desire exhibited in Chekhov’s short story, Marlowe’s poem, and Miller’s drama. Using Jacques Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”[1] (1949) can explain why Chekhov’s Iona desires friendship, why Marlowe’s shepherd attempts to swoon his preferred lover, and why Willy Loman wants to pursue a life dominated by materialistic success. In addition, two other psychoanalytic models, Rene Girard’s “Mimetic Desire”[2] (1961) and Susan Stewart’s “On Longing”[3] (1993) can explain the reinforcing competiveness and fear that drive these character’s desire to burn passionately.

Chekov’s Iona in “Misery” desires companionship from the very beginning of the story when he asks “To Whom Shall I Tell My Grief,” (Barnet, Burto, Cain, 2013, p. 85). Throughout the story, Iona has three superficial encounters with passengers that momentarily ease his grief, but nevertheless exemplify his desire for companionship and excess of loneliness. This is highlighted when he says “He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart,” and “Again he is alone and again there is silence for him… The misery which has been for a brief space ceased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever” (Chekhov, 1886/2013, p. 87). Essentially, when Iona superficially converses with his passengers he is temporarily admitted back into society and the carnival spirit of the urban life, but then transpiring back into cold isolation after their ride ends. This characterizes Iona’s desperate desire for a friend; he would rather be a clown among the carnival of people and abused and disrespected than a ‘ghost’ that drifts through the streets unnoticed without any recognition of his existence.

Iona’s desire is manipulated by the pressures from his environment; this is characteristic of Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage,’ in which the environment produces an ideal image and individuals alter themselves to be ‘normal’ (Lacan, 1949). Iona bodily appearance as an old man, “white like a ghost,” and “bent as double as the living body can be bent” portrays him as an ‘other’ (Chekhov, 1886/2013, p. 85). Furthermore, through Stewart’s theory of the spectacle, Iona’s passengers bracket him as a freakish other through their insults and mockery of him (Stewart, 1993).

It is important to note that if Iona did not offer the service of sledge-driving, he would be completely isolated without any superficial contact; only his services as a carriage-man can temporarily reduce the barrier between him and the world. Even so, this momentary breakdown of separation opens opportunities for the ‘normal’ to directly mock and abuse Iona’s freakishness. Ultimately, because Iona’s own insecurities and loneliness, he abandons his own social value to make an effort at rejoining the world and finding a friend despite ill-treatment and exploitation (Formica, 2008).

Marlowe’s shepherd in “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” demonstrates his desire for romance from the opening lines of the poem, “Come live with me and be my love” (Marlowe, 1599/2013, p. 724). Understanding the shepherd’s desperate promises and elusive language characterized by Marlowe’s remarkable alliterations and consonance such as “And see the shepherds feed their flocks,” and “With buckles of the purest gold” become clearer when readers consider the shepherds setting and true intentions (Marlowe, 1599/2013, p. 724).

It can be argued that Marlowe’s shepherd is at the May Day or Beltane festival during this poem, and he desires a lustful companion through Marlowe’s use of Carpie Diem pastoral idealizations, subtle allusions to popular festive forms, symbolism of floral elements such as roses, posies, kirtle, and myrtle that represent different aspect of sexuality, and considering Marlowe’s reputation as a cynical drunkard and atheist (Riederer, 2013, 4-5). This is very important because the shepherd’s personality and social reactions must be taken into account in response to peer pressure while attempting to understand the delicate intricacies of the shepherd’s desire for romance.

The nature of popular festive forms opens opportunities for interpreting the shepherd’s desires through Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ (Lacan, 1949). While May Day, situated in the context of the English renaissance, is characterized by banquets, gambling, alcohol, and prostitution, the potential of outside environmental influence increase drastically because the powerful effects of peer pressure (Bakhtin, 1984, pp. 259, 260). Furthermore, in carnivalesque settings, attractiveness is related to the internalization of cognitive-social characteristic for males (Adams, 1977/2010). Essentially, this means individuals participating in the folly of festivals temporally abandon their uniqueness to embody the ideal images of the surrounding environment. In addition to embodying an ideal image characteristic of Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage,’ the individual also develops a temporary attitude that influences their perception of other people. Essentially, the shepherd’s desire is a product of other people’s desire.

This last concept, that the shepherd desires another’s desire is characteristic of Girard’s “Mimetic Theory,” and a reinforcing power that drives the shepherd’s desire for lust. By associating in the festive folly, the shepherd identifies himself with his environment and spontaneously begins to desire what those around him desire, whether it be a way of life, object, or person (Girard, 1961). Marlowe’s shepherd, identifying with the merry carnival, will spontaneously desire what the other participants’ desire. In this case, the shepherd’s senses of attraction to a particular woman, as influenced by his surroundings as characteristic of Adam’s “Physical Attractiveness, Personality, and Social Reactions to Peer Pressure” exemplify his desire for lust (Adams, 1977/2010).

Miller’s main character Willy Loman in his “Death of a Salesman” demonstrates Willy’s desire for wealth and success several times throughout the drama, such as when he says in Act 2 “Gee whiz! That’s really somethin’. I’m gonna knock Howard for a loop, kid. I’ll get an advance and I’ll come home with a New York job. Goddammit, now I’m gonna do it,” and when his son Biff refers to Willy in Act 2 “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong… He never knew who he was” (Miller, 1949/2013, pp. 1075, 1106). In these Excerpts, Miller certainly makes a statement about desiring materialistic wealth by using Willy as a pathetic character that blindly chases the ‘American Dream’ only to fall dead and achieve nothing he ever set out to accomplish.

Nevertheless, Willy’s desire is stubborn and rooted in his unwavering pride. Through and in-depth examination of Willy’s mental health, it is clear that he is suffering multiple-personality disorders of love, jealous, and grand delusions, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia that may be linked to his deep desire of materialistic pursuits (Riederer, 2013, pp. 3-6). According to Picken’s “Living with Serious Mental Illness: The Desire for Normalcy” Willy “desires normalcy, having normal things, experiences, doing meaningful activities, and being safe, well, and independent” (Pickens, 1999, p. 1).

Using Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage,’ readers can understand that Willy’s desire for normalcy is also the desire for materialistic pleasure. The ideal image or ‘norm’ of 1940s New York City life was influenced by the dominance of commercialism, and consumerism. Out of this, stereotypes were born such as being well liked and good looking was all a person needed in order to become respectable and successful in the business world; traits Willy embodies stubbornly. When Willy says “Oh, I’ll knock em’ dead next week. I’ll go to Hartford. I’m very well liked in Hartford” and “You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. ‘Willy Loman is here!’ That’s all they have to know, and I go right through” (Miller, 1949/2013, pp. 1057, 1058) Ultimately, Willy is a product of his environment – 1940s urban culture.

Furthermore, Willy’s admiration for his brother Ben explains his desire for wealth through Girard’s “Mimetic Desire” (Girard, 1961, pp. 7-21). In this case, Ben is Willy’s mediator for desire. Ben promotes the ‘American Dream’ as an idealized way of life and is Willy’s role model. This is shown when Ben says in Act 1 “So this is Brooklyn, eh? Opportunity is tremendous in Alaska William. Surprised you’re not up there,” and in Act 2 “You’ve got a new continent at your doorstep, William. Get out of these cities, they’re full of talk and time payments and courts of law. Screw on your fists and you can fight for a fortune up there” (Miller, 1949/2013, pp. 1062, 1080). Essentially, Ben’s desire for opportunity and prosperity spontaneously influences the same desire in Willy. Thus, Willy desire for materialistic success is only a reflection of his brother’s dream.

An author’s specific approach to writing on desire can affect a reader’s interpretation of the text drastically. For example, Chekhov’s “Misery” highlights desire for friendship through characterization. Chekhov strategically situates Iona in direful conditions to establish a state of extreme loneliness in him, which proves to be the major cause for his desperate desire for social interaction. Marlowe’s approach to “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” emphasizes the importance of setting, specifically a social carnival atmosphere, in the cultivation of desire for lust. Marlowe can subtly draw readers in with his shepherd’s promises and lofty language, yet underlie the poem with a magnitude of heavy symbolic and allusive statements; in a way he masks his shepherd’s lustful intentions comparably to a modern man drinking under the beer tent after the Labor Day parade that sweet-talks a potential lover. Miller’s approach to “Death of a Salesman” accentuates a psychological awareness of Willy’s materialistic dreams. Miller creates a psychological realist drama with expressionist overtones that display the mental implications of desiring a way of life in pursuit of the ‘American Dream.’

A reader’s personal experiences can influence their interpretation of different manifestations of desire. Because desire is a mentality familiar to everyone, it is an easy theme to sympathize and connect with for readers. With sympathy and emotional connection to a text comes a lower chance of misunderstandings and miscommunication between the author’s intended meaning of the work and reader’s interpretation. This is important for restoring bridges of trust between peoples from differing societies, enhancing human relationships, and breaking down barriers that separate misunderstandings among peoples and nations (O. Alimole, literature in society, June 28, 2013).

Different manifestations of desire appear in literature often. Chekhov’s display of desiring companionship in “Misery,” Marlowe’s presentation of desiring romance in “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” and Miller’s exhibition of desiring wealth and materialistic success in “Death of a Salesman” are only three of many examples. Even so they demonstrate the ability to insert the theme of desire in different forms, genres, styles, and different cultures. For other examples and forms in which desire can manifest, two entry-level texts are “Salvation” by Langston Hughes, which shows a younger Hughes’ desire for transcendence, and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr., which shows King Jr.’s desire for equality and justice.


Adams, G. (2010). Physical attractiveness, personality, and social reactions to peer pressure. Retrieved from

Bahktin, M. (1984). Rabelais and his world. (1 ed., pp. 259-260). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Barnet, S., Burto, W., & Cain, W. E. (2013). Misery; The passionate shepherd to his love; death of a salesman. In Literature for composition: An introduction to literature (10 ed., pp. 85-88, 724, 1044-1107). New York, NY: Longman.

Chekhov, A. (2013). Misery. In Literature for composition: An introduction to literature (10 ed., pp. 85-88). New York, NY: Longman.

Formica, M. (2008). Understanding the dynamics of abusive relationships. Retrieved from

Girard, R. (1961). Mimetic theory. Retrieved from's%20Mimetic%20Theory.pdf

Lacan, J. (1949). The mirror stage as formative of the function of the i as revealed in psychoanalytic experience. Retrieved from

Marlowe, C. (2013). The passionate shepherd to his love. In Literature for composition: An introduction to literature (10 ed., pp. 724). New York, NY: Longman.

Miller, A. (2013). Death of a salesman. In Literature for composition: An introduction to literature (10 ed., pp. 1044-1107). New York, NY: Longman.

Pickens, J. (1999). Living with serious mental illness. Retrieved from

Riederer, B. (2013). Love or lust: What moves the passionate shepherd?; Exploring the psyche of willy loman. Unpublished manuscript, University of Phoenix.

Stewart, S. (1993). On longing: Narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection . (pp. pp. 104-110). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[1] Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’ is a psychoanalytic theory of specular self-identification. Essentially, individuals develop their ego through imitating the environment and people around them. Through observation, individuals can identify ideal images, which individuals then rely on to alter themselves in order to become ‘normal’ (Lacan, 1949).

[2] Girard’s ‘Mimetic Desire’ or ‘Triangular Desire’ is a psychoanalytic theory of self-identification through mediation. When individual spectators admire a subject or other and that subject or other desires a particular object, could be a person, or way of life, the individual spectator will spontaneously desire the same object. Thus, individual desire is only the desire of the subject or other (Gerard, 1961).

[3] Stewart’s “On Longing” presents a psychoanalytic theory called ‘The Structure of Spectacle’ that explains how self-identity is established through differentiation. An individual spectator will establish their self-identity by visually bracketing an object or other by noticing differences. This differentiation provides a comfort for the spectator because they are ‘normal’ whereas the other becomes freakish and abnormal. Verbal or written language is a tool of persuasion that reinforces the oppression and illusions created from the barrier that separates the spectator from the freakish other. This barrier can be either corporeal such as the early 20th century segregation laws in the American south, or incorporeal such as warring schools of critical thought in literary studies throughout the 20th century (Stewart, 1993).


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