CriticaLink | Freud: On Narcissism | Overview

Although the title suggests that Freud's 1914 essay is an introduction to the concept of narcissism, the argument it is directed for the most part to an audience of specialists and presupposes some familiarity with psychoanalytic theory. Once you get a handle on some of the basic concepts such as ego, libido and cathexis, a careful reading of "On Narcissism" will give you many insights into the development of what we now call "Freudian" psychoanalysis. Not all of the key concepts of classical Freudianism are in place in this essay; there is no mention of the "id," for example, but we can glimpse the beginning of a theory of the superego in Freud's discussion of the functions of the ego ideal.

"On Narcissism" is a pivotal essay in the history of Freudian psychoanalysis. It is situated between the groundbreaking early work, the most famous of which is The Interpretation of Dreams of 1900, and later works which elaborate the now-familiar components of Freudian theory (the tripartite structure of id, ego, and superego and the Oedipus complex, for example). These later texts include "The Unconscious" (written a year later, in 1915), Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id (1923), Civilization and its Discontents (1927), and "An Outline of Psycho-Analysis" (1938). "On Narcissism" does, however, include a brief discussion of the castration complex and the ways it is manifested in boys and girls.

Perhaps most striking (and possibly disturbing) to contemporary readers are the essay's treatments of gender relations and sexuality. Feminists, theorists of gender, and queer theorists have often turned to Freud both as a guide to the operations of the mind and as a thinker who deserves harsh criticism. The Resources section includes a selection of texts that engage Freud in their explorations of these issues.

Don't be put off by the many clinical references to mental illnesses. Check the glossary of Terms for brief explanations of these conditions. What is perhaps most important for your understanding of Freud's argument here are the contrasting ways libido functions in these various conditions.