Rebecca West’s Harriet Hume: Psychoanalysis and the Discourse of Sovereignty

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper, not in proceeding


Building on Michel Foucault’s (1976) argument that a grand narrative of sovereignty characterised the idea of government and permeated entire systems of thought in the twentieth century, this paper asks whether Freudian psychoanalysis is also embedded within the same meta-discourse. Drawing on psychoanalytic accounts of Rebecca West’s work (Varney, 2000; Bonikowski, 2005) which tend to focus on West’s more overtly psychoanalytic novels, I investigate the notion of how psychoanalytic readings of Harriet Hume (1929) are compromised by the meta-narrative of sovereignty. Focusing specifically on the death scene that provides the conclusion to West’s underrated modernist fantasy novel, I draw upon Freud’s notion of the death instinct, an idea that has previously been linked with West’s first novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918). I argue that the concept of the death instinct is intimately connected to the sovereign power as conceived as the right to take life. Looking principally at Foucault’s claim in The History of Sexuality (1978) that at the heart of the Freudian psychoanalytic project is the outmoded concept of sovereignty, I argue that, since sovereignty represents primarily a traditional power structure, these psychoanalytic readings tend to uphold the patriarchal norms that such a system is based on. Expanding on the work of critics who theorise the intersection between Foucault’s conception of power and psychoanalysis (Whitebook, 2006; Guilfoyle, 2006), I argue that not only is West’s novel complicit with a discourse of sovereignty in its use of binary divisions to circumscribe power relations, but she also embeds a similar schema in her the minds of her characters. This paper opens up discussions of how the modernist novel might be understood in terms of sovereignty.


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Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Languages and Literature
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2008
Publication categoryResearch
Externally publishedYes
EventThe Novel and its Borders - Aberdeen University, Scotland
Duration: 2008 Jul 10 → …


ConferenceThe Novel and its Borders
Period2008/07/10 → …