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Psychoanalytic Criticism of “On Being a Householder” by Dugan


Dugan’s poem “On Being a Householder” attempts to make sense of his irrational anxieties and misgivings about the environment in which he lives. The poem explains the importance of identifying one’s weaknesses and stepping out of the comfort zones. The psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud is a suitable approach that helps understand how the unconscious and subconscious mind play a vital role in influencing one’s outlook of their surroundings. The poem conveys the writer’s repressed concerns, mainly as the night falls. Additionally, it emphasizes the significance of confronting one’s fears while venturing outside of the comfort zone.

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The psychoanalytic approach involves the interpretation of an unintended message in literature work—the analysis centers on the researcher’s biographical background. The primary purpose is to study the unconscious parts inside a literary composition depending on the author’s experience. The approach is founded on particular beliefs about the functioning of the mind, senses, and sexuality (Barry 98). Sigmund Freud created these unique beliefs of the unconscious psyche (Barry 101). The core of Freud’s work is that he emphasized the role of the unconscious in human beings. The mind stores traumatic events, emotions, unacknowledged wants, phobias, libidinal impulses, and unsolved conflicts, among other things (Barry 114). When the desire is converted, the complicated unconscious transfer into the conscious domain is known as sublimation.

In as much as the psychoanalytic theory has been abundantly supported, it has equally some notable weaknesses. For example, the theory is too simple to describe the diverse ambiguity of the human brain. Nevertheless, the concepts of the psychoanalytic approach can also be used to perform literary criticism to discern authorial intent. Accordingly, when applied to Alan Dugan’s “On Being a Householder,” it emerges that while the poem’s surface meaning implies fear of darkness, its underlying meaning cautions on the perils of staying in one’s comfort zones.

The speaker compares his surroundings with the machines in the poem’s first line. Here, the machines depict a complicated kind of life that the speaker finds himself. The machines may be a reflection of the morals, values, and beliefs learned from parents or society. These morals and beliefs are often taught to the young population as they mature, which eventually helps them later in life.

The night in the poem is used by the speaker to resemble death. During sunset, the lights usually perish, which signifies the death of something. The sunset serves as a transition point between death and life since when the night falls, the light goes away, representing death. Similarly, most animals roam at night; thus, they kill at night. They have grown excellent instincts to prey even in the absence of light, providing them an opportunity over other creatures.

For instance, the writer demonstrates his repressed fears of finding himself being snuffed by a female fox upon waking up. The night tends to be linked with death and misery as a result of these predators. At the same time, the night has been used to express a state of unconsciousness. When people are asleep, they are in a state of unconsciousness and are not aware of their surroundings. This explains the writer’s fears during the night, particularly when he sleeps outside on the ground.

The writer further explains why he is afraid of sleeping outside at night. He asks, “Why don’t I go outside and sleep on the ground” (Dugan, lines 3-5). In this section, the author’s phobia of the dark comes out in his unconscious state of mind. According to psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud, the unconscious influences one’s behavior, although people may not be aware of these underlying effects (Barry 110). The id is the most primitive and instinctual portion of the mind, and it is the source of all of our motivations (Barry 110). The superego is made up of the principles, beliefs, and prohibitions that a person has internalized throughout their life. A person’s ego serves as an intermediary between the two. Further, the id acts subconsciously and is entirely concerned with innate wants and desires (Barry 112).

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According to Freud, the writer’s desire to explore nature and experience its greatness, especially during the nights, represent the id’s needs. The id needs seek constant satisfaction, which if not met, an individual can experience intense anxiety, anger, or become tense.

The writer demonstrates his repressed fears of sleeping out alone in the night. He prefers to sleep in someone’s company to avoid the cold night that soaks him wet. Most people have repressed desires or worries that help them cope with guilt and anxiety. For example, one of the most widespread suppressed childhood desires is replacing the same-sex parent with the opposite-sex parent in our emotions (Barry 110). Freud recognized that such desires are more or less suggestive of normal human development. Yet, such desires have been restrained by the most fundamental religious and cultural taboos from the beginning of recorded history (Barry 113). These desires are always expressed in the unconscious mind through dreams.

In the poem, Dugan demonstrates his cravings for sleeping outside on the ground and enjoying the freshness of the night air while staring at the stars staring back at him. As much as Dugan wishes to sleep outside on the ground, he is suppressed by conscious fears. The author’s apprehension of the dark reflects the environment surrounding him. The fear of the night is rooted in Dugan’s belief that horrible things happen at night. This is shown in the poem’s statement, “and am being snuffed at by a female fox” (Dugan, lines 11-12). The statement suggests the writer’s fear of imminent death that wild animals might inflict him.

At the same time, the poet is also afraid of being castrated when he sleeps alone in the dark. This is illustrated from his statement, “also there are carrion insects climbing my private parts” (Dugan, lines 14-15). The poem’s lines demonstrate how the writer is afraid of facing his fears to enjoy a tinge of what nature offers. The fear of the fox and insects shows how reluctant the writer is to walk out of his comfort zone.

Therefore, the speaker seeks refuge due to the danger that the night may impose. The speaker states that he would find shelter in rented houses or own. This is an indication of the writer’s inability to realize his full potential in dealing with difficult situations that necessitates prompt action. According to the poem, the writer only faces his fears during the night. Because the night is utilized to represent a state of unconsciousness, the writer’s fears are only revealed in his unconscious mind while he sleeps outside.

The poem shows people’s luxury of stepping outside their comfort zone. Dugan uses imagery displaying how hard it is to step out of one’s comfort zone – “I wake up soaking wet with dewfall” (Dugan, lines 10-11). The writer uses the line as a symbol to show the struggles that people must endure when stepping out of their comfort zones. The dew expresses different kinds of problems and struggles imposed by the world. Dugan tries to explain how hard it is for him to get out of his comfort zone. People are always afraid to step out of their comfort zones for various reasons, including fear of failing or losing since they are scared of taking risks.

In the poem, the protagonist complains about insects crawling on his intimate parts when he sleeps on the ground at night. Once again, insects have been utilized as a metaphor for the speaker’s attempt to break free from his comfort zone. Generally, people find it hard to get out of their comfort zones due to fear or their low social-economic status. The world indeed has a lot of dangers and misfortunes. However, these misfortunes are a part of the world and should be faced with the courage to avoid staying in a comfort zone.

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Further, Dugan illustrates that he still finds the world inhabitable and fit to live amidst all the challenges he faces. From his statement, “I would find shelter in houses, rented or owned” (Dugan, lines 16-17), it is evident that houses provide security against the dangers of wild animals. He explains how money is invaluable and incomparable to the beautiful scenery that the sky offers at night since money can buy everything. The expression implies that humans have lost touch with nature’s core. The author uses the money to represent Freud’s developmental and economic model’s psychoanalytical theory. The theory demonstrates it through a framework in which emotional energy is used to direct a force toward innate desires, hence boosting people’s satisfaction. According to the poem, money constructs dwellings, satisfying people’s desires. The author further explains how he longs for the past where attention was paid to the earth, nature, and the beautiful stars above.


Psychoanalytic criticism analyses the unconscious, subconscious, and preconscious psyche of human beings. The critique clarifies the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds in a literary work. The unconscious contains a person’s core biological urges and instincts. Among the most important are the opposing urges of life-creation and destruction. Moreover, the psyche is a power bent on implementing pleasure principles, and the libido forces a person to do so.

Alan Dugan has utilized the psychoanalytic approach in his poem “On Being a Householder.” It is widely used in literacy work by authors as they try to explain their unintended desires and fears. Apart from their unique talents and abilities, says Sigmund Freud, artists have a specific connection to the unconscious mind. In addition to helping the artist overcome some of their inner difficulties and repressions, this specific genius allows the audience or readers to access their unconscious sources of fulfillment that had previously been inaccessible to them through the artist’s work.

For the purposes of this study, “psychoanalysis” has been defined as “the creative use of psychoanalytic techniques” to enhance the quality, value, and validity of literary texts. Psychoanalysis places a greater emphasis on the unconscious mind than on the conscious mind. It is predicated on the premise that a person’s conduct is determined by prior events buried in their intuitive mind. Through the psychoanalytic critique, it is easier to acknowledge how literature alters our perceptions and the fundamental structures of ourselves. This opens up new avenues and opportunities for literary studies and education.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press, 2002.

Dugan, Alan. “On Being a Householder.” Poetry Foundation, 2021. Web.

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