Tipping the Iceberg
The id, ego, and superego are the three elements of Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory, which Freud developed in order to analyze and understand the behaviour of a patient through the relationship and conflict between the conscious and subconscious mind. Through the lens of psychoanalysis, readers are also able to better understand the intentions and conflicts between a character’s mind and actions in a story. According to Freud, the ego is assigned with the task of mediating and creating a balance between the two extremes of the human psyche: the superego, which is supposed to observe standards of morality and societal norms and the id, which strives to gratify one’s primitive desires. However, there are times when either extreme of the psyche overpowers the other, making it difficult for the ego to reconcile the two. One such instance is Mrs. Sommers, in the short story, “A Pair of Silk Stockings” by Kate Chopin. The tension between Mrs. Sommer’s role as a mother and her primal urges as a woman creates a conflict between her superego and id, a conflict that Mrs. Sommers has never resolved as she has always sided with her superego, making sacrifices for her children and ignoring her feminine desires. However, her method proves to be unsustainable as she finally gives in to her id, ignoring her societal duties as a mother. Through psychoanalysis, it becomes evident that making constant sacrifices as a mother is the result of a broken ego that is not able to create a balance between one’s moral or societal duties and one’s primeval desires, a failure that could backfire in the long run, causing one to make extremely selfish decisions down the road.
The superego aims to align decisions with the values and norms that society dictates. As a mother, Mrs. Sommers, similarly, tries to abide by the norms, basing her decisions on maternal duties imposed by society and culture and suppressing her feminine desires as a consequence. As soon as she gets the money, the first people that she thinks to spend it on are her children: “a dollar or two should be added to the price usually paid for Janie’s shoes, the boys and Janie and Mag [should get] new shirts, Mag should have another gown, and the boys [will have] caps and the girls [will get] sailor-hats.” Following the norms of the society, Mrs. Sommers’s superego restrains her from thinking beyond anything else other than her duties as a selfless mother. After years of caring for her family and kids, Mrs. Sommers’s superego prevents her from inserting her needs and desires into the equation as “[her] vision of her little brood looking fresh and dainty and new for once in their lives [excites] her and [makes] her restless and wakeful with anticipation.” Behaving strictly as a mother her entire life in a society where roles are fixed, Mrs. Sommer derives joy and anticipation from the comfort of her kids. Duty and morality within her superego restrain Mrs. Sommers from considering her needs and desires, a restraint that ultimately causes her to totally ignore her maternal duties and to make hasty and extreme decisions that she will regret later on.
On the opposite side of the superego lies the id, which aims to fulfill one’s natural and unconscious desires and needs. For the entirety of her maternal life, Mrs. Sommers solely follows society’s expectations of a mother, repressing her own desires. However, Mrs. Sommer’s approach proves to be neither sustainable nor healthy since finally in a frail state of mind and body, she gives in to her primal urges and ignores her maternal duties. She spends all her money on a pair of silk stockings, a pair of shoes, gloves, some magazines, dinner, and a play. As a woman who is always looking for a better deal, she “[does] not [even] move in the direction of the bargain counter.” None of the items she acquires are products that she would buy as a mother. Mrs. Sommers forgets her typical role as a selfless mother, who sacrifices her own needs for her children’s needs as she goes on a shopping spree that satisfies her feminine desires. Mrs. Sommer’s id presents itself as the stronger part of her psyche when it wins the battle against her superego. Her id’s desires have been suppressed for so long that even after she spends all her money and is sitting on the cable car to return home, she wishes that “[it] would never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever.” Mrs. Sommer’s method proves that tending to one extreme of the psyche is faulty as it could lead a person to make extremely careless and regrettable decisions.
In the midst of this madness lies Mrs. Sommer’s ego, the part of the psyche that is supposed to bring balance and peace between the two extremes: the superego and the id. The ego fails to help Mrs. Sommers make a reasonable decision in this situation as it gives in to her id, allowing it to win the battle. As a mother, Mrs. Sommers constantly focuses her attention and income on her children and forgets to take care of herself. For example, on the day of acquiring the money “… between getting the children fed and the place righted and preparing herself for the shopping bout, she actually [forgets] to eat any luncheon at all!” Always tending to one side of the psyche proves to be unsustainable as it causes people to make poor decisions that they will regret down the road. Mrs. Sommers does not “wish to act hastily, to do anything she might afterward regret”; however, the concern that occupies her head for two days is quickly forgotten once she is exposed to items that appeal to her primitive desires, items like the silk stockings. Mrs. Sommers may seem to be satisfied with her purchases now, but her actions will backfire once her superego takes over her psyche again. Mrs. Sommers will heavily regret her poor use of money, money that could have been used for her children’s clothing and food. The ego guides one to make the most balanced decisions to satisfy the two extremes of the psyche; therefore, to avoid poor decision making, one must reach a balance between the two extremes rather than merely tending to one.
The psychoanalytic lens allows the readers to understand the importance of tuning in to both one’s morals and personal desires in order to achieve a sustainable lifestyle. Mrs. Sommers’ constant sacrifices for her superego causes an imbalance in her ability to make good decisions, forcing her ego to lose the battle against her id, thus allowing her to make hasty and selfish decisions that she will soon regret. While decisions can be affected by all three elements of the psyche, it is the ego that should be given the final say in one’s decision-making, otherwise, like the tipping of an iceberg, a constant build-up of imbalance between the pulling elements of the psyche can cause catastrophic events that can be impossible to reverse.