115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Trapped in The Street: A Psychoanalytic Perspective

Kaela Clapp, University of Hawaii, Manoa

This presentation explores the psychoanalytic framework present throughout Ann Petry’s The Street. By mobilizing Freud’s work on the structural model of the psyche, fantasy, and wish fulfillment, this paper demonstrates how Petry’s text functions as a piece of protest to highlight violent cycles of oppression present in 1940s Harlem.



Often described as a descendent of Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ann Petry’s The Street is a powerful novel that follows the heartbreaking journey of Lutie Johnson’s quest for the American Dream. Set in 1940s Harlem, The Street tracks the violent and tragic aspects of poverty, racism, and sexism that trap many characters in various ways. As a piece of protest, Petry seamlessly documents Lutie Johnson’s journey with her son while critiquing the perverse environment and supporting characters that surround the pair. Petry develops the reader’s emotional ties to various characters throughout the text to connect readers with a deeper understanding of larger social injustices of the time period. By crafting identities and tracking disturbing histories for her characters, Petry addresses larger institutional and ideological problems of racism and sexism infesting 1940s Harlem. Using a psychoanalytic framework and lens that focuses on Freud’s structural model of the psyche, along with his claims regarding fantasy and wish fulfillment, I will analyze how both individuals and a place can influence one’s experiences and identities. More specifically, I will show how Freud’s model of the psyche mirrors the apartment building in which Lutie and her son live, highlighting characters’ apartment locations with similar locations of the id, ego, and superego.  I will show how the violent street constantly pervades the lives of its inhabitants and continues to trap characters in their specific marginalized roles. Freud’s foundational essays, “The Ego and the Id,” along with “On Dreams” and “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” contribute to my analysis of The Street. By mobilizing  Freud’s structural model of the psyche in addition to his work on object fixation, I plan to uncover how Petry provides a more complex analysis of the environment of the street and the identities of characters who live on it. In doing so, I argue and demonstrate how the exploitation of Lutie Johnson and her son, reinforces the need for the text as social criticism to combat violent and traumatic cycles of oppression.