Freud’s Theory of Psychoanalysis in Shutter Island

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Published: Jul 27, 2018

Words: 3528|Pages: 8|18 min read

Published: Jul 27, 2018

Freud’s introduction to the concept of psychoanalysis was one that provided an explanation as well as a potential solution to an issue that was otherwise untreated: hysteria. Although Freud’s theory was met with heavy skepticism, it is a theory that had enough merit to still be used in today’s psychological field. Freud acknowledged his theory’s incompleteness but claimed that it was better than the alternative, for if someone provided a complete and thorough theory, it would be a product of pure speculation (Freud 5). What makes Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis so valuable is that it is effective. Not only as a treatment, but as an explanatory text regarding trauma and hysteria. A prime example of Freud’s concepts of psychoanalysis and hysteria may be found in the novel Shutter Island. Edward “Teddy” Daniels, the protagonist of Shutter Island suffers from the symptoms of repression and trauma, and his repressed object is attempting to surface from his unconscious through the trials in which Daniels undergoes throughout the novel.

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As aforementioned, Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis was largely incomplete and was thus met with objection. His test subjects were very similar in their upbringing and nature, and it was also an embarrassingly small test group compared to his colleagues’ work. Not only that, part of his treatment for hysteria and trauma involved the use of a sort of hypnosis, a practice hardly understood even by today’s psychologists. Freud acknowledged this; and though it was not a thorough theory, it still revealed much about trauma and hysteria that most knew little about. Freud writes when talking about doctors: “He cannot understand hysteria. He is in the same position before it as the layman.” (2). And what’s more: Freud’s methods, though somewhat in their infant stage, often times worked. In fact, the fundamental idea of his theory is practiced by contemporaries today. At its very least, the theory provided a step towards treatment, as, “Hystericals, accordingly, tend to lose his [doctors’] sympathy…” (Freud 2) and often went untreated.

Psychoanalysis operates based on the idea that symptoms of hysteria are a product of a process known as repression. John Wilson writes, “According to Freudian thinking the ego is highly selective in what it regards as legitimate parts of itself and censors anything it does not like as a result of shame, guilt or morality. These dissociated parts of ourselves will be forced away and kept in the id.” This is the fundamental idea of repression: memories, thoughts, or experiences that do not concur with our self-image are sent into the unconscious (also known as the id). Freud says, however, that the repressed object is always attempting to resurface from the unconscious; he writes, “If a stream flows in two channels, an overflow of one will take place as soon as the current in the other meets with an obstacle.” (5). This “overflow” is where one may begin to see hysterical symptoms as a result of repression.

Although there are several case studies, Freud goes into most depth in his lectures regarding a particular case involving devastating symptoms. He describes a woman with “...severe paralysis...disturbance of eye-movements, and much impairment of vision; difficulty in maintaining the position of the head, an intense nausea when she attempted to take nourishment, and at one time for several weeks a loss of the power to drink, in spite of tormenting thirst. Her power of speech was also diminished...she could neither speak nor understand her mother tongue...she was subject to states of ‘absence,’ of confusion, delirium, alteration of her whole personality.” (1). It is important to note that until Freud and his partners, these severe symptoms of hysteria often went untreated, for it was a misunderstood and mysterious disorder. Although Freud’s theory was lacking in many aspects, it was able to at least provide treatment for several patients who suffered these severe symptoms as well as provide some significant insight into what was otherwise an essentially untouched subject. He continues to write, “The doctor...put her in a sort of hypnosis and repeated them to her over and over [the objects that were repressed], in order to bring up any associations...The patient yielded to his suggestion and reproduced for him those psychic creations...These were dreams...which commonly took as their starting point the situation of a girl beside the sick-bed of her father. Whenever she had related a number of such fancies, she was, as it were, freed and restored to her normal mental life.” (2). Also, “When this had been going on about six weeks [her not drinking], she was talking one day in hypnosis about her English governess, whom she disliked, and finally told, with every sign of disgust, how she had come into the room of the governess, and how that lady’s little dog, that she abhorred, had drunk out of a glass...after she had given energetic expression to her restrained anger, she asked for a drink, drank a large quantity of water without trouble...The symptom thereupon vanished permanently.” (3).

This was the origin of what is known as the “talking cure”. The “talking cure” is essentially the extracting of the repressed object which would in turn lead to the resolution of the patient’s symptoms. The “talking cure” based its methods off the fact that, “The nature of the symptoms became clear through their relation to the scene which caused them.” (Freud 3) and that “...hysterical patients suffer from reminiscences.” (Freud 4). This is crucial when psychoanalyzing Edward “Teddy” Daniels from Shutter Island, as the novel in its entirety is a product of Daniels’s suffering from repression.

Edward Daniels is subject to an immense amount of trauma. He was a World War II veteran and was exposed to the most gruesome aspects of the already horrific war. One example of his war traumas is as follows:

“Cawley...placed a record on the phonograph and the scratch of the needle was followed by stray pops and hisses...Reminding him of...a record collection he’d seen in the office of a subcommandant at Dachau, the man listening to it when he’d shot himself in the mouth. He was still alive when Teddy...entered the room. Gurgling. (Lehane 76).

Daniels, though a character with little sympathy for injustice, still cannot help feeling perturbed by such a gruesome event. Although this was not his primary trauma, it only added to the unfathomable amount of psychological distress Daniels was burdened with. Teddy also recounts a more severe trauma, saying is as follows:

“They looked at us and they wanted us to do what we did. And we sure as hell wanted to do it. So we executed every one of those fucking Krauts. Disarmed them, leaned them against walls, executed them...By the end of that day, we’d removed five hundred souls from the face of the Earth. Murdered ‘em all. No self-defense, no warfare came into it. It was homicide...They deserved so much worse...but how do you live with that? How do you tell the wife and the parents and the kids that you’ve done this thing? You’ve executed unarmed people? You’ve killed boys?...what you did was also wrong. And you’ll never wash it off.” (Lehane 144-145).

This memory is almost unparalleled in its traumatic scope. Teddy, already dealing with the psychological distress that comes with war, was posed with a remarkably difficult ethical situation. His own desires, along with other public pressures, encouraged the execution of the Nazi soldiers; however, the mass-murder of five hundred people was something that conflicted with his self-image, despite who these people were, and thus added even more immense psychological stress. To completely understand how powerful the trauma that actually inspired Teddy’s delusion was, it is necessary to understand that the aforementioned traumas were not repressed but merely added stress. What was repressed was something arguably much darker than even mass-murder.

The following is the description of a woman named Rachel Solando’s crime; this name however is an alias in which Teddy assigned to take the place of his wife, Dolores Chanal. Rachel Solando is a completely fictitious character in which the following crime’s blame was placed as a product of delusion and Teddy’s inability to mentally handle that Dolores Chanel, his wife, was in fact the one to commit the crime:

“Rachel Solando...drowned her three children in the lake behind her house. Took them out there one by one and held their heads under until they died. Then she brought them back into the house and arranged them around the kitchen table and ate a meal there...” (Lehane 41).

Upon discovering this, Teddy (which he himself should be noted is also a product of delusion; Edward “Teddy” Daniels is, in fact, Andrew Laeddis)[1] murders his wife. This is the trauma that completely split Teddy’s consciousness. Wilson writes, “If one does not like an idea or an impression then one simply shuts it out and refuses to believe it can exist. At the same time one nurtures and encourages one’s preferred belief system and amplifies its existence by repetition and the impetus of acquired duration.”. This is precisely what Teddy (or rather Andrew) suffers from. To fully comprehend what an impact the aforementioned event had on Teddy, one must realize that even in his complex delusion in which is Shutter Island, he still remembers the subcommandant as well as the mass-murder. This is indicated to be fact, as the psychiatrists on Shutter Island do verify that Teddy was a U.S. Marshal and war veteran. Referring back to Freud’s case studies, we see a woman was left unable to consume water due to her seeing a dog she despised drink from a glass. Compare that to Teddy’s traumas, and it is clear that he has incredible psychological will. For him to completely bury the trauma involving Rachel Solando/Dolores Chanal and frame a web of delusion that somehow excluded the situation indicates what profound psychological impact the event had on Teddy.

And this delusion in which was a product of such a traumatic event is what frames the plot for Lehane’s Shutter Island: Teddy, a U.S. Marshal looking for escaped murderess Rachel Solando. Teddy of course has no recollection of his true identity or that he murdered his wife and is also ignorant to the fact that Rachel Solando, who drowned her three kids, is in fact a proxy of sorts for his wife, Dolores Chanal.

Teddy’s delusion, though remarkably intricate, is not without slight flaws though. Teddy, upon meeting his randomly assigned partner (who is in fact his psychiatrist) observes his partner’s, “...olive skin and slim, delicate hands that seemed incongruous with the rest of him, as if he’d borrowed them until his real ones came back from the shop.” (Lehane 14). His partner’s awkward hands was a discrepancy between what his delusion proposed and reality. This is seen again when Teddy confronts Rachel Solando (who in reality was a nurse at the institution) and ponders how, “There was something uncomfortably familiar about her…” (Lehane 43-44). Along with that, there is yet another conflict seen when Teddy is attempting to solve a code (in which he unknowingly created): “Teddy thought it was speaking to him, becoming clearer...he could feel something about them scratching at his brain...It was right in front of him. It was so simple...And then any possible bridges of logic collapsed, and Teddy felt his mind go white…” (Lehane 52). The reason being for the mental collapse was because he could not consciously solve what his unconscious mind had created without ruining his delusion. His mind responds by essentially shutting down in order to protect his created reality. Along with the aforementioned, there is another conflict that can be found which takes form in a dream Teddy has. The dream goes as follows:

“...He’s here.”



The name crawls through his flesh and climbs over his bones.


“Yes.” She [Dolores Chanal] bends her head back, looks up at him. “You’ve known.”

“I haven’t.”

“Yes, you have.” (Lehane 89).

All of these instances are examples of the repressed thought trying to resurface into consciousness. However, Freud observed that if the repressed object is contradictory enough to one’s morals and ethics, it will continue to remain buried in the unconscious for an untold amount of time. Such is the case in all of the aforementioned instances.

Dreams play a significant role in the psychoanalysis of Teddy, as the“Interpretation of dreams is in fact...the interpretation of the unconscious…” (Freud 11). Teddy’s dreams can corroborate with Freud’s claim, as they usually provide some sort of relation to Teddy’s trauma with his wife. In one dream, he sees his wife, and “...the back of her is charred, smoldering a bit...and small ribbons of smoke unwind from her hair.” (Lehane 87). Then, “...she’s no longer burned, she’s soaking wet.” (Lehane 87). The reason he sees his wife charred and burned is because she had burned their old apartment down. Teddy repressed that event too, for it was psychologically too difficult for him to process and, after the burning of their apartment, decided it would be better for their family to move to a cabin, which is presented in the next segment of his dream: “...the view of another place they stayed once, a cabin. There’s a small pond out there with small logs floating in it…” (Lehane 88). Then, “Her belly springs a leak and the liquid flows through his hands,” (Lehane 88) and, “His tears spill down her body and mix with her pouring belly.” (Lehane 89). The constant recurring theme of water is perhaps the most useful in its relation to his past trauma; recognizing the symbolism in water is crucial because it represents the drowning of his children. To further confirm this, his children are what he refers to as the “small logs” floating in the water. The significance allotted to water extends past mere dreams; Teddy also suffers throughout the novel from severe sea-sickness. Along with that, Teddy was constantly being reminded of his dead wife by seemingly random things, and one of the triggers with the most significant effect in this was water: when referring to things that reminded him of his wife, Teddy observes “...nothing was less logical in terms of connective tissue, or more pungent in terms of effect, than water…” (Lehane 20). This, of course, was not random but instead was directly related to Teddy’s past trauma in which his kids were drowned by his wife, which is why water had such a devastating effect on him.

Another example of a dream that allows the reader to peek into Teddy’s unconscious is one in which Teddy and Andrew Laeddis both switch roles in having sex with Rachel Solando and Dolores Chanal with seeming randomness. This ease of interchangeability is due to the fact that Teddy and Andrew are one in the same, as are Rachel and Dolores; the way they are separate is by means of Teddy’s delusion. Sleep is a time devoid of consciousness, thus there is less resistance against the repressed object to surface.

Teddy, already under extreme psychological stress, also suffers physiological symptoms. When referring to war veterans, Jeneen Interlandi writes, “In addition to their nightmares and hallucinations, many of them had a host of physical ailments including headaches, fatigue, digestive troubles and shut down.”. In her paper “How do you Heal a Traumatized Mind?”, Interlandi relays her experiences with psychologist Bessel van der Kolk. One of these experiences was a role-play similar to the one Teddy underwent. The role-play subject was a man named Eugene; “...his job involved disposing of exploded bombs. It was a year of dead bodies, he said. He saw, touched, smell and stepped in more bodies than he could possibly count. Some of them were children.” (Interlandi). This is not entirely unlike some of Teddy’s war traumas. Also, “Eugene killed an innocent man and then watched as the man’s mother discovered the body a short while later.” (Interlandi). While Eugene and Teddy suffer separate traumas, they both are war-related and they both yielded physiological issues. These issues surfaced due to the fact that, “...repressed memories were a common feature of traumatic stress. Traumatic experiences were not being processed into memories...but were somehow getting ‘stuck in the machine’ and then expressed through the body.” (Interlandi).

Perhaps Teddy’s most prevalent physiological symptom is headaches. These headaches often materialize when Teddy faces a potential conflict between his delusion and reality. Some examples of the pain he suffers from headaches are: “A dull ache settled into the left side of his head, just behind the eye, as if the flat side of an old spoon were pressed there.” (Lehane 21), “Teddy was feeling the place in the back of his skull by that point.” (Lehane 113), “...a canyon filled with lava cut through the skull just below the part in his hair...the pain erupted like a dozen dagger points pushed slowly into his cranium…” (Lehane 175), etc. It may be noted that the latter of all of these, which is perhaps one of the most intense physiological pains he endures, was after confronting Rachel Solando.

Even Freud talked about psychological disturbances leading to physiological symptoms: “...they undergo a change into unusual bodily innervations and inhibitions, which present themselves as the physical symptoms of the case.” (5). Kamuf writes of another symptom: “...a foreign body is always a symptom, it always does symptom [fait symptome] on the body of the ego, it is a body foreign to the body of the ego.” Teddy, in several instances throughout the novel, expresses the discomfort he feels in his own body. Interlandi too confirms this symptom in saying, “Trauma victims...are alienated from their bodies by a cascade of events that begins deep in the brain.”. These physiological occurrences only add to Teddy’s incomprehensible amount of stress.

Sabouri and Sadeghzadegan write, “...what indeed gives rise to the psychotic state of Andrew is the excessive repetition and recurrence of his delusions, hallucinations and dreams whose sole message is the reminiscence of...past traumas he finds himself unable to recollect.”. Teddy (in reality, Andrew Laeddis) is a victim of repression; his wife drowned their three children and he in turn murders her. This is a profoundly dark event, and Teddy responds to it by entirely shutting it out from his consciousness and then formulating an intricate and detailed web of delusions in which allow him to continue living without these memories. His delusion proposes that his name is Edward “Teddy” Daniels, a U.S. Marshal searching for escaped murderess Rachel Solando on Shutter Island (the place in which he is institutionalized for having murdered his wife and having been a victim to extreme psychological pressures). The psychiatrists at Shutter Island allow Teddy to play out his delusion in the hopes it might act as a sort of parallel to Freud’s “talking cure”. In fact, Freedman writes about an author who dealt with her repression via writing: “Writing for H.D. takes on the magical and the therapeutic value of the talking cure for Freud.”. The psychiatrists are trying to find a successful way to extract Teddy’s trauma in order that he may face its reality and ultimately be relieved of his many psychological and physiological symptoms. Unfortunately, the trauma proves too severe and Teddy is ultimately unable to retrieve the repressed object from his unconscious and progress to a state of reality, and the reader is left with a case study that highlights the mystery and incompleteness in which we understand psychoanalysis and even psychology as a whole. Despite his constant living in delusion, it is said by Teddy’s psychiatrist that, “In his own peculiar way, he hated lies more than anyone I have ever known.” (Lehane 2).

Works Cited

Freedman, Ariela. "Gifts, goods and Gods: H.D., Freud and trauma." English Studies in Canada, vol. 29, no. 3-4, 2003, p. 184+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 3 Nov. 2016.

Freud, Sigmund. Great Books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1988. Print.

Interlandi, Jeneen. "How Do You Heal a Traumatized Mind?" The New York Times Magazine, 25 May 2014, p. 42(L). Literature Resource Center, Accessed 3 Nov. 2016.

Kamuf, Peggy. "The deconstitution of psychoanalysis." Mosaic: A journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature, vol. 42, no. 4, 2009, p. 35+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 3 Nov. 2016.

Lehane, Dennis. Shutter Island. New York, Harper, 2009.

Sabouri, Hossein, and Majid M. Sadeghzadegan. "Distress and psychological distortions in Dennis Lehane's 'Shutter Island'." Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2013, p. 376+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 3 Nov. 2016.

Wilson, John G. "Repression: psychoanalytic and Sartrean phenomenological perspectives."Existential Analysis, vol. 21, no. 2, 2010, p. 271+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 3 Nov. 2016.

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[1] The reason being for my referring to Andrew Laeddis as Edward “Teddy” Daniels is because the narrative follows the latter name throughout the novel; In Teddy’s delusion, Andrew Laeddis is assigned the crime of having killed Teddy’s wife, as the thought of him killing his own wife was too much to mentally bear, and Andrew Laeddis (who, in reality, is the protagonist) instead becomes a completely separate entity from the fictitious identity of “Edward ‘Teddy’ Daniels”.

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