One of my favorite units from the National Council of Teachers of English website (NCTE-http://www.readwritethink.org/) is the unit,“Id, Ego, and the Superego in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat” by Junius Wright of Charleston, South Carolina. The lessons in this unit use 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 psychoanalytical criticism.” The unit is stretched over eight 50 minute sessions, complete with handouts and worksheets for grades 9-12. I have completed the unit with my Advanced Placement English Literature students, however, in a shorter period of time of two 80 minute sessions, since many of my seniors are taking psychology or took psychology as juniors, and they are already familiar with Freud’s seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams.
The premise is that students will read The Cat in the Hat and analyze the development of characters (Narrator, Cat in the Hat, Fish) from the picture book through the stages of id, ego, and superego or analyze the static nature of characters (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 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. According to Freud, we are born with our id. The id is an important part of our personality because as newborns, it allows us to get our basic needs met. Freud believed that the id is based on our pleasure principle. 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.
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.
The ego is the part of the personality that maintains a balance between our impulses (our id) and our conscience (our superego). The ego is based on the reality principle. The ego understands that other people have needs and desires and that sometimes being impulsive or selfish can hurt us in the end. It is the ego’s jobto meet the needs of the id, while taking into consideration the reality of the situation. 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.
I usually read the story aloud, although there are several websites that have The Cat and the Hat with audio read-aloud for teachers who do not want to get swept up in Seuss iambic rhythms and rhymes. I have collected about 30 copies of The Cat in the Hat at used book sales over the past two years; each copy has cost between $.50-$2.00, so the total investment has been $25.00. Making sure each student has a copy of the text is tremendously important, because it is through the illustrations that the students can successfully analyze the characters.
“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.”
“Look how bland their faces are,” notes Alex, “I think this is really the ego stage.”
“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.”
“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!”
After the unit, and once the students have a clear sense of how to analyze the characters in this story, I ask them to take this idea and analyze a different piece of literature. My students have just completed a reading of Antigone, so I asked them to psychoanalyze the actions of one character. Not surprisingly, most of them chose to study Creon’s movement from ego on his first day on the job as the King of Thebes, through his dissolution into id when he fights with both Antigone and his son Haemon.
“But, isn’t he really in superego?” asks Tom, “I mean, Creon is trying to uphold the law as king; he is trying to do what is right, or at least what is politically smart.” Other students consider his point….and this is the reason I love teaching this lesson. The use of psychological criticism humanizes literary characters, and our discussions after this lesson are always more informed by our deepening understanding of human nature. Students will use their understanding of id, ego, and superego from this lesson and apply these understandings to Frankenstein, Paradise Lost, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Richard III, and other important works of literature.
So, thank you, Junius Wright, for a wonderful unit on psychological criticism, but more importantly, thank you, Dr. Seuss. Not only did you teach my students to read, but you continue to teach them to think. And 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?
Not one would confess. Sadly, there is not one superego in the entire class.