Novels, Poetry, and Psychology

What can be learned about psychology from reading novels and poetry? How can novels and poetry be used to teach psychology?

Personality and Virginia Woolf

"Teaching theories of personality using novels"

 

Noam Chomsky wrote: "It is quite possible ... that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology." In Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer wrote: "A single day, rendered intensely, can become a vivid window into our psychology."

The first time I taught Theories of Personality at The University of Tennessee, I had my students read parts of Beneath the Mask and The Cult of Personality Testing as an introduction to the topic. In the second half of the course I had the students read three novels in the following order:

1. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)             
2. The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
3. Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)

I also showed the movies Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours.

There are many similarities in the three novels. Each novel focuses on one day in the lives of the main characters. Each of the main characters is planning a party/celebration for the evening of that day. Each novel is framed by a tragedy near the end of the novel.

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The three novels provide remarkable views of personalities in different times and contexts. They also offer the students an excellent introduction to Virginia Woolf. Student reactions to reading novels, as a means of studying personality were overwhelmingly positive.

Mark Hector is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Tennessee.

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