A Freudian Analysis Of Defense Mechanisms In Three Day Road

Throughout one’s life, situations will arise where a person feels the need to protect themselves from uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, compiled her father’s research and classified the psychological methods of protection as defence mechanisms: subconscious coping habits that distance one’s conscious mind from unwanted thoughts to protect their ego from guilt and anxiety. After encountering feelings of jealousy, one may react by using defence mechanisms to distort their reality in order to deal with this distress. Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road greatly exemplifies the use of defence mechanisms as methods to cope with one’s jealousy. Boyden illustrates Elijah’s use of defence mechanisms as a product of his jealousy, using these coping methods to suppress the fear of having his status and honour taken away. As a result, Three Day Road illustrates how jealousy will activate a person’s defence mechanisms.

Elijah’s jealousy triggers the Freudian defence mechanism of sublimation. Freud defines sublimation as the channeling of uncomfortable thoughts or feelings into a socially acceptable activity or behaviour. During a conversation between Elijah and a Frenchman named Francis, Francis alludes to how Peggy, a Canadian-Indigenous soldier who has killed countless men, is the greatest hunter of them all. Elijah, vexed by what he hears, “Xavier can see Elijah growing angry thinking about this Peggy  …  Xavier can hear Elijah say to himself  …  Getting up, Xavier watches as Elijah makes his way outside  …  practicing self-control, knowing as he floods his vein that he is using the medicine right now out of anger… he’s protected once more”. Elijah grows angry out of jealousy, loathing the idea of people believing that there is a hunter, higher in skill than Elijah himself, in the same field. Manifesting into Freud’s definition of sublimation, Elijah channels his anger from jealousy by taking morphine to protect himself from these unwanted thoughts. He displaces these negative emotions in order to return to Francis and converse without having the urge of combusting into a tantrum, a socially unacceptable behaviour. Once Elijah manages his behaviour with the morphine, he is advised by Francis that he should “do what we do. Collect evidence of your kills. Do what my people taught your people a long time ago. Take the scalp of your enemy as proof. Take a bit of him to feed you  ...  They will buy you honour among us  …  And we are honourable men”. Elijah takes this advice shortly after when he scalps his first victims on, by channeling his jealousy of Peggy through desperate actions of scalping his own victims, in efforts to succeed beyond Peggy. He displaces these negative emotions by accommodating his desire for recognition as the best while attaining honour into an activity that is socially acceptable amongst honourable men. Elijah desires to be honoured amongst honourable men, making use of the advice he takes from Francis to satisfy his void of jealousy, upon the awareness of a superior being. Elijah, using sublimation, channels his uncomfortable feelings into a socially acceptable activity or behaviour. By channeling these feelings in a socially acceptable direction, Elijah turns his jealousy into a constructive routine solely based on human interaction and gaining respect. Whether it be constructive routines such as Elijah sublimating his negative emotions or scalping his enemies, his feelings of jealousy briefly alleviate through the accumulation of these corrupt acts.

In the coming of age process, Elijah accommodates his increasing desire to kill through the Freudian defence mechanism of projection. Freud defines projection as the misattributing of one’s own negative beliefs onto another person. When Lieutenant Breech confronts Elijah about the horrors he commits on the battlefield, Elijah immediately says how Breech “‘  …  acts out of jealousy and out of fear.’ Elijah reaches for his revolver and snaps open the holster.’ And jealousy is what prompts Lieutenant Breech to threaten to court-martial Elijah for doing his job too well’”. Ironically, it is Elijah who projects his jealousy and fear onto Lieutenant Breech. Manifesting into Freud’s definition of projection, Elijah misattributes his own negative beliefs of jealousy of himself onto another person, Lieutenant Breech. Elijah’s jealousy of Lieutenant Breech leads to his own implications that he will face a court-martial (before Lieutenant Breech even mentions this). This prompts Elijah to impulsively pull out his revolver with the intention to kill, proving Lieutenant Breech to be an object of jealousy to him because of his power to strip away Elijah’s participation in the war which ultimately removes his highly regarded rank. Elijah wants to maintain his honour but his jealousy of Lieutenant Breech taking his honour and status away awakens a fear in which he feels that he must stop. Elijah projects his own jealousy and fear onto Lieutenant Breech almost as if he were to be held culpable for being jealous of Elijah doing his job, “too well”. In anguish, Elijah ultimately carries out the decision to kill Lieutenant Breech and then asks Xavier, “Would you rather ... face the consequences, X? Don’t you see that we are free of it now? We have no more worries”. Elijah extinguishes this source of jealousy — stating that he is free from his worries — implying that he initially has these worries rather than them being spontaneous. This further proves Freud’s definition of projection because Elijah initially has this negative belief of jealousy in which he attributes to Lieutenant Breech by stating how he “acts out of jealousy and fear”. This suggests that Elijah constantly worries about his jealousy towards Lieutenant Breech, leading to Elijah’s use of projection as a coping method to channel his excuses for committing atrocities due to Lieutenant Breech acting as a barrier against Elijah to advance in his rankings. As Elijah ages and his justification to kill diminishes, he resorts to using projection to “blame” others to relieve his guilt from knowing deep down that the approach to his goal is morally unjust.

Defence mechanisms are activated once an individual experiences feelings of jealousy. Elijah, in particular, uses the defence mechanisms of sublimation and projection to suppress his fear of having his honour and status taken away. While using sublimation, Elijah channels his uncomfortable feelings of jealousy into socially acceptable activities and behaviour through scalping and by regulating his emotions through the morphine. With time, Elijah accommodates his increasing desire to kill by using projection to relieve his guilt, misattributing his own negative beliefs of jealousy onto another person. Elijah’s circumstances significantly apply in Sigmund Freud’s quote: “The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life”. Growing out from being the virtuous man, Elijah gradually comes to be the wicked man through his jealousy yet still feeling the need to defend himself from accepting that he is the wicked man. 

16 August 2021
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