Psychiatrist Looks At Jack And The Beanstalk

Phillip S. Epstein, M.D.

The author is a Resident in Psychiatry at the University of Chicago's Department of Psychiatry. At the time of writing (1966) he is a Fulbright Scholar in Neuro chemistry at the Institute of Psychiatry, the Maudsley Hospital, London.

Traditional and children's stories are part of the folklore studied by social anthropologists, psychoanalysts, and students of literature for insight into the cultures in which the stories originate. The symbols and imagery of the stories reflect the society's mores, ethics and world view, as well as some of the realities of everyday life. Modifications in different cultural and historical contexts but the overall image usually remains the same.

More generally these stories and myths provide delightful image excursions into fantastic other worlds for children and adults alike. Part of their beauty and universal appeal derives from the synthesis of many levels of 'reality' into an apparently simple image statement. In some instances profound philosophical statements find expression beyond the power of words alone in the total image creation of the children's tale, as in Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Jack and the Beanstalk is certainly one of the most popular of the traditional stories which has been preserved and retold for centuries. It is deceptively simple; on the most superficial level it is an imaginative and exciting adventure story with vivid symbols of good and evil clearly stating an unambiguous moral position. Considering it on a more psychological level, a Freudian analyst has no difficulty in relating Jack, his mother and deceased father, the giant and his wife, and Jack's princess as characters in a complex dream-like Oedipal situation. In this context the Freudian symbols are obvious; beanstalk—phallus, climbing beanstalk—sex act, hiding in oven—return to the womb, ogre who devours boys—reversal of original primal horde scene, chopping down of beanstalk—castration, etc. The imagery may also be just as easily discussed in terms of Jungian archetypes. Such analyses and interpretations are of interest and valid in their own terms but they do not adequately deal with the phenomenology of the total image.

The predominant image is one of a miraculous and powerful plant which provides the means to experience the truths, insights and perspectives attendant to a new level of reality or altered state of consciousness. Jack and the Beanstalk is thus a narrative of a psychedelic experience. The correspondence between the beanstalk and a plant such as marijuana is too close to be strictly fortuitous. One may argue that the magical seeds which Jack receives from the mysterious old woman are not hemp seeds but, for example, morning glory seeds; however this point is academic. What is of importance is the fact that the plant takes Jack to new heights of awareness and reality which enable him to live a richer and fuller life.

Upon 'awakening' in the morning Jack begins to climb to the 'other world' and is able to see his mother and past life from this new perspective. As he climbs 'higher and higher' he experiences aching limbs and fatigue; indications of the physical—somatic aspects of the psychedelic drug experience. Having reached the heights, he again meets the guru-like old woman who is of both worlds. Jack makes his way through the new reality-fantasy world and sees the extremes of horror and evil and truth and beauty with remarkable clarity.

Jack visits this world three times, each time advancing to a greater level of awareness. At each successive level the horrors and encounters with the evil ogre are more dangerous but the rewards and treasures which he brings back are increasingly more beautiful. He is really not content until his third 'trip' when returning with the most treasured singing harp he has his ultimate confrontation with the ogre. In slaying the pursuing ogre by chopping down the beanstalk Jack also destroys his means to the other world and thus accomplishes his final re-entry. In the context of the obvious conventional materialistic and capitalistic images of good and evil, he is able to function on a higher plane of reality by virtue of the experiences afforded by the magical plant. We may speculate as to whether Jack ever gets beyond that reality.

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