The Insistence of Lacan on Woman as the Letter

M. A. Franks


Literary critics learn how to read the letter of the text, how to interpret the style, the form, rather than just reading for content, for ideas. The psychoanalyst learns to listen not so much to her patient’s main point as to odd marginal moments, slips of the tongue, unintended disclosures. Freud formulated this psychoanalytic method, but Lacan has generalized it into a way of receiving all discourse, not just the analysand’s.

There is no better way to read Lacan.1

--Jane Gallop

the propagation of psychoanalysis . . . has shown us, ever since Freud, that interpretation necessarily represents appropriation, and thus an act of desire and murder.2

--Julia Kristeva


These two quotations explicitly address psychoanalysis as a way of reading or interpreting, appropriate for a seminar which is to examine psychoanalysis within the frame of literary theory. Gallop offers, or perhaps insists on, a way of reading Lacan, that is to say reading Lacan in a Lacanian, psychoanalytic way. I begin with her statement out of an admitted preference for the slightly peculiar situation it produces for reader/practitioner of literary theory: not to attempt an explanation or application of psychoanalysis to literature, but rather to view psychoanalysis in the light that it has itself shed or cast over literature. To repeat, as it were, the psychoanalytic act (in so far as it acts upon literature as a text) upon the text of psychoanalysis. To elucidate this diacritically, I mean that I will not attempt so much to show what Lacan does to literature — that is, to enumerate the methods he employs while reading, to extract general psychoanalytic principles of literary theory from his texts. Rather I hope to, to borrow Lacan’s phrasing, hold up a mirror to the psychoanalytic act of reading. By focusing on the way Lacanian psychoanalysis might read itself I hope to demonstrate and explore key elements of the way Lacanian analysis reads literature. At the same time, it is my intention to place emphasis on this mirror as structure, to better register the reflexive implications of Lacan’s texts.3

The significance of the second quotation from Kristeva marks the second register of this presentation — placing at the center of the discussion the question of desire and violence, or as she more explicitly puts it, "desire and murder." At this point I am reduced to merely asserting this question or specter of violence in psychoanalytic interpretation as an anticipation, a threat whose presence and influence I will attempt to acknowledge and monitor.

How then does one begin to read Lacan in this way? Gallop has given us various areas of focus: "odd marginal moments, slips of the tongue, unintended disclosures." Already we are at a disadvantage; reading Lacan’s notoriously difficult texts "straight" proves almost an impossibility as it is, much less to turn one’s attention to that which is not explicit in the text. One could go so far as to argue that everything of importance in Lacan’s texts is latent in some sense; and whether or not it is even possible to skirt around this to get to an "unintended disclosure" could be strongly contested. But perhaps this gives us a clue: it would stand to reason (albeit superficially) that if Lacan’s significant content is very often latent, hidden, and submerged in his texts, then perhaps what we are looking for as a marginal moment is that which seems, on some level, obvious or so self-apparently intended as to go more or less unnoticed by the complex reader.

So let us begin with the "obvious." In the essay "The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious," Lacan reverses Saussure’s concept of the sign, which was represented by the ideogram of signified over sign. He criticized this formulation for its privileging of the signified over the signifier as well as the indication (which Saussure illustrates with arrows going up and down) that there is a reciprocity between the two, a crossable relationship. Saussure presumes a unity between language and concept which ultimately leads into a regression of a representational (referential) theory of language — that is to say, to the unity of signifier and signified, which in Saussure is then capable of referring to the thing. Lacan’s reformulation is signifier over signified, and in addition he emphasizes the bar between them, as "a formula of separateness rather than reciprocity of signifier and signified".4 Lacan "cuts" into the Saussurian sign, upsetting its unity and recasting the signified as an effect of the signifier. This radically undermines any unity of language and concept, and indeed denies the possibility of accessing the concept as such. We are left with the available signifier and its laws.

Moreover, Lacan ascribes to Jakobson’s differential structure of language, in which each signifier is reducible to phonemes, or differential elements, and these, operating in a signifying chain, form the basis of meaning. Lacan makes a passage from these phonemes to the letter, which is, as he defines it, "the essentially localized structure of the signifier."5

According to Lacan, "the subject is what is represented by the signifier, and the signifier can only represent something for another signifier" (Benevenuto 118). Therefore, "the signifier anchors itself to the subject, marking its place with a letter, and whether or not the subject knows, reads or denies it, the subject will function like a signified and will always slide under the signifier. Thus the subject is constituted as secondary in relation to the signifier, while signification has a life of its own" (Benevenuto 116). Lacan maintains that the subject, who uses language, is born into and constituted by it, and more specifically is constituted in and through the signifier.

Language or speech does not mask what we believe to be true, but rather the truth speaks through and is produced by language. The subject produces truth about which he does not know by speaking, which is why within the psychoanalytic context the analyst must pay the most attention to the subject’s "mistakes," or unintended statements. Lacan then goes on to differentiate and describe the two linguistic forms of metaphor and metonymy:

Metaphor, which is conceived as vertical (after Jakobson) is the substitution of one word for another. Metaphor is the action of poetry, and is characterized by creativity, symbolism, and liberation — liberation from the oppression of the bar between the signified and the signifier. Metaphor "crosses" this bar, as represented in Lacan’s mathematical formulation with what looks like a plus sign.

Metonymy, on the other hand, is horizontal, a relation of word to word. It is characterized by lack, and is associated with realism and servitude, that is, the servitude to the burden of the bar, which in its mathematical formulation is represented without a vertical line, therefore giving the appearance, not merely coincidentally, of a minus sign.

But while it would appear that Lacan casts metaphor in strong, positive terms and metonymy in weak, negative ones, he nonetheless asserts that metonymy provides the possibility of metaphor. He refers often to the "insufficiency" of the metaphor, and criticizes the tendency of linguists to privilege metaphor over metonymy. In Gallop’s reading of the relationship between the two, metaphor cannot be produced or reproduced without metonymy, but once it has crossed over that bar, it is free from the shackles of servitude.

We shift now from this essay to the essay "The Purloined Letter," to see how these principles or concepts figure in the way that Lacan reads this short story by Poe. Fairly early on, Lacan makes this rather mysterious assertion:

this sign is indeed that of woman, in so far as she invests her very being therein, founding it outside the law, which subsumes her nonetheless, originarily, in a position of signifier, nay of fetish.6

For we know that Lacan believes the letter, that literal letter of the story, to be the signifier, and this passage just quoted, which aligns the woman (the Queen) with the sign (in the position of signifier), recasts the discussion in a complex way. Moreover, Lacan introduces in the same sentence the sexual concept of the fetish, and places it in intimate proximity to the woman and the signifier. It seems that Lacan has double-sexed the signifier in metonymic fashion. The "straight" or obvious reading traces the letter in the story in its function as the letter of the signifier; but the chain woman-signifier-fetish, once introduced, cannot be left behind and thus we are forced to read it alongside (or behind) the first reading. So that when Lacan maintains that

destroying the letter . . . [is] the only sure means . . . of being rid of what is destined by nature to signify the annulment of what it signifies (63)

we also read letter-as-signifier doubled over with woman-as-signifier-as-fetish. So we read, in fact, "destroying the woman is the only sure means of being rid of what is destined by nature to signify the annulment of what she signifies," and "destroying the fetish is the only sure means of being rid of what is destined by nature to signify the annulment of what the fetish signifies."

And if this "reading under" seems unjustified, or to be based on insufficient evidence, we are then confronted with this explicit metaphor:

Just so does the purloined letter, like an immense female body, stretch out across the Minister’s office when Dupin enters. But just so does he already expect to find it, and has only, with his eyes veiled by green lenses, to undress that huge body (66).

The letter, the signifier, is here explicitly female and explicitly sexual. Not only that, but its sexuality is contagious — Lacan repeatedly refers to the "feminization" of the Minister once he has stolen the letter. He "is obliged to don the role of the Queen, and even the attributes of femininity and shadow, so propitious to the act of concealing"(61). When the signifier alters its proximity, or is altered, from Queen to Minister, the Minister "follows the Queen" in attributes and character. Lacan writes,

the Minister . . .. came to forget [the letter] . . . But the letter, no more than the neurotic’s unconscious, does not forget him. It forgets him so little that it transforms him more and more in the image of her who offered it to his capture, so that he now will surrender it, following her example, to a similar capture (65, emphasis added).

And now we have yet another complicating association: woman is now not neatly equated with the signifier, but adopts a position of giving it up, "offering" it, as he puts it. We notice how Lacan implies the Queen’s active role in the loss of the signifier/letter, how he does not see it so much in terms of a theft but as a quasi-voluntary act of surrender on the part of the woman. The Minister adopts that feminine surrender in his own relation to the letter, "offering" it, as it were, to Dupin in his turn.

And where is Dupin in all of this? We know that Lacan finds an analogue of the analyst in the figure of Dupin; so then his implication in this chain of signifiers is certain to be key. And we do not have to look long for Dupin’s metaphorization: he is the "hand of the ravisher" (67), maintaining in a very specific fashion the sexual metaphor of the letter/woman.

And the editors of the essay have added this footnote as a clarification:

[this] might be read as follows: analysis, in its violation of the imaginary integrity of the ego, finds its fantasmatic equivalent in rape (or castration. . . ) But whether that ‘rape’ occurs from in front or from behind (above or below the mantelpiece) is, in fact, a question of interest for policeman and not analysts (note 38, 67).

Let us read this again: analysis is analagous to rape insofar as it "violates" the "imaginary integrity" of the ego. Rape is a metaphor — the chosen metaphor — for psychoanalysis. The justification for this admittedly violent act is, we repeat, "the imaginary integrity of the ego." To be sure, it is a foundational premise of Lacanian psychoanalysis that the unity of the ego is false, imaginary — and this is why Lacan so viciously attacked ego psychology, which sought to discover and produce this nonexistent unity.

But this does not settle the matter — the matter of the metaphor. Already when we begin to talk of the foundational premises of Lacanian psychoanalysis in this way we neuter the issue; we begin to regard terms such as ego and imaginary and subject as genderless. And this is perhaps in fact what Lacan is trying to or intending to say. But what insists in Lacan’s text is in fact the sexed image of woman, of femininity, along with an accompanying image of the rapist/analyst. This is the metaphor of the text. And therefore we only do violence to its signification if we disregard its peculiar substitution: woman for signifier; woman in relation to signifier; woman holding signifier dear; woman at the same time wanting to offer the signifier up. And therefore: man/detective/psychoanalyst violating the signifier in an act justified and to some extent ontologized by the woman’s attachment to this thing she believes belongs only to her, which she at the same time wants to offer up.

We find ourselves unavoidably in the realm of an all too familiar rape rhetoric. Woman is raped because on some level woman she wants to be raped. Woman is raped moreover because her body/virtue/virginity is not properly hers or even real, but is only an illusion of unity and ownership, which the rapist will disabuse her of. It follows that it is man’s right to rape the woman, because it is an act of truth, of making it clear that there is no such thing as bodily integrity or a right to one’s unified self.

And suddenly the psychoanalytic terminology doesn’t sound so neutral. It tips over, bows over, to the male, to the phallus, to the analyst. Lacan may maintain the false integrity of the ego and the instability of the signifier in general, intersubjective terms. But what insists, once again, is the woman and her poeticized rapist, the "ravisher" — the sexual metaphor looms over the text and creates a poetry of rape.

So what the letter insists, on the one hand, is woman. On the other hand, the woman is the letter. But in both cases, the pursuance of the letter is agreed upon. Either as woman herself or as what woman holds dear, the letter must be relentlessly pursued.

Lacan again: "The sender, we tell you, receives from the receiver his own message in reverse form. Thus it is that what the ‘purloined letter,’ nay, the ‘letter in sufferance’ means is that a letter always arrives at its destination" (72, emphasis added).

That is to say, the letter has its destination in and through suffering, through violence, as the object of pursuit. Thus we see that in the way that the signifier always returns to the one who deploys it, only in reverse form, and this is the proper place for the signifier we also read: woman is raped, the thing which she values has been taken, but this is the result of her own concealed invitation for the loss of that value. It comes back to her, in reverse, in its violation. Violence is inscribed at the heart of discourse, an inscription that has a long philosophical and literary tradition, a tradition that includes Sade, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.

Laplanche and Pontalis write that Lacan wishes "(a. to relate the structure of the unconscious to that of language and to apply to the former the same methods which proved fruitful in linguistics, (b. to show how the human subject comes to be inscribed within a pre-established order which is itself symbolic in nature."7 What does the reader do then with this metaphoric violence inscribed at the heart of the analytic act, at the heart of language, this violence built on one of the most perfidious and self-justifying myths of female sexuality? We attempt in this reading not to privilege the metaphor but to observe the metaphor’s privilege: what does this violence, this desire, do to our pre-established order and to our language? Where may we look for an opening, an escape? Do we look, perhaps, at some of the other "margins" of Lacan’s texts, the questions that almost emerge from his writing — that metaphor is, after all insufficient; it lacks something and depends inherently on the metonymic — that no one, perhaps especially men, ever had the phallus nor can ever possess it — that female jouissance might lie outside the realm of phallic articulation and might in fact alter completely all the structures currently holding thrall over language, sexuality, and literature.

And do we dare suggest, as we read Lacan reading literature, that haunting the straight line of his intention, with its proliferation of discourses on the phallus and metaphor, there might be a shadow, a fear, an unconscious letter that insists, contrary to all intended purposes, that the phallus does not and has never existed, and that we have long been playing with the most apparent and childish of fantasies.



1. Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan. 23.

2. Julia Kristeva, quoted in Reading Lacan. 27.

3. Lacan maintains that the proper positioning of the psychoanalyst is to assist the patient in accomplishing this very recognition: to concentrate not on the mirror-image but on the ways in which the mirror functions as a mirror, a structuring device. This recognition is for him the charge of the psychoanalytic project itself.

4. Bice Benevenuto, The Works of Jacques Lacan: an introduction, 110.

5. Jacques Lacan, "The insistence of the letter in the unconscious," in Modern Criticism and Theory, David Lodge, ed., 68. (61-2)

6. Lacan, "The Purloined Letter," Yale French Studies, Vol. 48, 61-2.

7. Laplanche and Pontalis, Yale French Studies, Vol. 48, 201.

Works Cited


Benevenuto, Bice, and Roger Kennedy. The Works of Jacques Lacan; an introduction. London: Free Association, 1986.

Gallop, Jane. Reading Lacan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Lacan, Jacques. "The insistence of the letter in the unconscious," in Modern Criticism and Theory. David Lodge

and Nigel Wood, eds. New York: Pearson Education, 2nd ed. 2000[1988].

–"Seminar on the Purloined Letter," Yale French Studies, Vol. 48, "French Freud: Structural Studies in

Psychoanalysis," Millwood, NY: Kraus Reprints, 1984[1972], 38-72.

Laplanche, Jean, and J. B. Pontalis, excerpt from "Vocabulaire de la psychoanalyse," Yale French Studies, vol. 48, 179-202.