Psychoanalytic And Semiotic Analysis Of Legend And Folklore

Different meanings can be found in legend and folklore, depending upon what method one uses in one's analysis.

If we presume that folklore may be analyzed for normative meaning, there are several options for its study. We shall discuss two brief stories using the psychoanalytic method (a covert analysis) and the semiotic method. Covert analysis often relies upon the use of Freudian psychology to find and interpret images which underscore (1) parts of the body, (2) close kinship, and (3) life crises. These motifs represent a sub-conscious relationship of their bearer to the world. The semiotic method seeks to identify 'signifiers,' signs that represent a particular social phenomenon (i.e. a group of people). By examining the relationship of opposites, which exists among the signifiers, one sees the meaning of folklore emerge. Depending upon the example, either one or both of the opposing signifiers may be textually evident. Through these contrasting signifiers, a performer or creator of folklore intellectually grasps a problem and presents a logical understanding thereof.

The story of the snake in the department store represents, from a psychoanalytic perspective, society (in the case of a mother) attempting to instill a certain fear in the mind of a teenage girl. The girl is experiencing a crisis of self-identification and growing maturity. Along with this oncoming status, an awareness of sexuality develops. In the story, the girl is warned of the dangers inherent in that which is foreign, particularly that which is male. The obviously phallic snake is hidden in the new and different. The Oriental rugs, specifically non-western culture, represent the new world, which is becoming available to the girl. It is the world of sexuality and sensual experience. The 'protagonist' of the story dies as a result of experiencing this new world. She stretches forth her hand, the body part particularly responsible for the exploration of new things and perishes as a result. The cause of her death is similarly relevant. She is slain by a snake, which cannot be doubted to represent a phallus. Exploring the text from this perspective clarifies its meaning in no uncertain terms: the phallus is death for the girl, who is on her way to a school dance-a place for growing boys and girls to interact in a sexually strained atmosphere. Her willingness to explore her own sexuality must be curbed by the overarching norms of society-the superego. The story represents the superego's perspective upon the sexual development of youth; it is an attempt to dissuade the girl from exploration.

The semiotic method produces an entirely different interpretation of the snake in the department store. An implicit meaning is found by examining the contrasts between signifiers. It is not hidden within the psyche, but rather represents a tacit social understanding. The story loses its sexual tilt and becomes a cultural interpretation. There are three primary signifiers in the story:

Eastern Culture v. Western Culture

Broken rules v. Established rules

Death v. Life

These create a distinct system of opposition. Eastern culture is approached through the disregard of the network of social rules. A sign prohibits touching the rugs, but in order to experience the 'other,' the woman oversteps the bounds of propriety. Without this system of order, in her exploration of the chaotic unknown, the woman dies. Once again, we must observe that the storyteller particularly emphasizes the non-western nature of the rugs-it his her way of expressing the unknown. Western culture is familiar to her, it is the understood, rational, ordered world. A sign of prohibition constructs a system of order, a particular social nomos. Moreover, that order equals life. Without it, in the foreign, unknown world, there is only death. So, when the woman ignores the sign by touching the rugs, she pays a stiff penalty. The strong negative association with death promotes acceptance of the social order. The semiotic method provides us with a powerfully distinct interpretation of the tale, one that can be used to denote the construction and maintenance of society.

From a psychoanalytic point of view, the second text, "Welcome To The World of Aids," shows a marked resemblance to the first, in that it explores sexual activity. Psychoanalysis of the tale shows how submission to instinct and pleasure, the id, will lead us to death. The man in the story takes no rational precautions to avoid disease when he meets a girl in a nightclub and becomes physically intimate with her. Instead, he willingly and happily involves himself in a purely physical relationship. After a month of subjection to his id, the man is given a death sentence-because of its incurability, AIDS might just as well be a knife in the heart. Men fear death to such an extent that it is the consummate punishment for the 'wrong' way of life. Psychoanalysis tells us that men should temper their natural drive towards pleasure with a rational awareness of deferred pleasure. That is, the man should not have intercourse with a woman until he is certain that doing so will not cost him his life.

The story can also be analyzed for its meaning using the semiotic method. Its primary signifiers are:


Nightclub v. Other social gatherings

Casual sex v. Marriage/family

The lead character, economically successful but without a family, frequents a particular nightclub, where he meets a woman. This begins a month-long sexual relationship culminating in his realization that she has intentionally given him AIDS. His world, which is that of unmarried sexuality and nightclubs, is that of AIDS; the story claims it to be diseased. In contrast, we construct a situation without AIDS: it prefers traditional social gatherings (church, perhaps?) to that of the nightclub and emphasizes the presence of family relations. Though neither the alternate social situation, nor the alternate familial structure is directly presented by the story, they can be inferred by the strong presence of their opposites. And so we see two available realities. On the one hand, there is the newer, structure-less life led by the single man; on the other is a traditional social life, which leads to marriage. Once again, the latter is emphasized by the former's direct association of death. In the story, the man has chosen the single life. His decision will cost him life entirely. We have, in the story, an implied threat of death for anyone foolish enough to stray from the properly constructed, tat is to say, extant order. As in our semiotic analysis of "The Snake in the Department Store," a social value, that of societal self-preservation, dominates the interpretation of the story.

Both the semiotic and psychoanalytic methods enable a folklorist to examine the normative meaning of texts. They go beyond the inherently obvious and search for answers, which are, to a greater or lesser extent, hidden within the social or personal consciousness of folklore performers. While their understanding of human nature and, therefore, their conclusions differ, they share a common goal of comprehending a text's meaning.


About two years ago, while she was driving me to a dance, my mother told me about a woman who was shopping at K-Mart and looking at some woven rugs that were imported from another country. I don't remember the country, but I know it was not in Europe but more like a place in the East, somewhere like China or India or Korea. But anyway, even though there was a sign saying "please don't touch the merchandise," the woman put her hand inside a rolled-up rug to feel it and suddenly had some kind of attack, falling to the floor. She was rushed to the hospital, but was dead when she arrived. The rug was unrolled at the store and inside they found a large poisonous snake.


This guy was a young single dude with everything going for him. He had his own house, brand new car, and a real good job. This guy was no dummy. He just got a promotion and he had the chance to really go places. Well, anyway, he was downtown at a nice nightclub and he met this chick, nice looking, young"¦beautiful. So, he takes her home to his house and she spends the night with him. They have a good time and in the morning he goes to take her home. She tells him to drop her off downtown near where he picked her up and she'll walk home from there. He says, "Why can't I take you home? Have you got a husband?" She says, "No. I'm not married, it's just that I don't know what kind of guy you are. There are a lot of weirdos around, you know. I'd rather you didn't know where I live." So, eh thinks, well, I can see that but...maybe she's trying to get rid of him, so he asks if he can see her again. She says, "Sure," and they make a date to meet at the same nightclub. So they meet and she goes home with him and they get it on, but when he goes to take her home the same thing happens. This time she has him drop her off in another part of town. This goes on for about a month. She'll stay the night but she won't let him take her home. So he's thinking, O.K., she wants to have sex but she doesn't want to get involved with him. Maybe she just got divorced or something, but she acts like she likes him, so he'll go along with that. Anyway, one morning, after they fucked all night, he wakes up and she's already gone. So he takes a shower and goes in the other room to get dressed and he sees where she wrote on the mirror with her lipstick-WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF AIDS.

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