Analyzing Subconscious Themes in William S. Burrough's Novel "Junky"

Updated on March 31, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

Subconscious Psychological Trauma of WWI

WWI was a time of great change in the United States. Gender roles were lost, changed, and warped for many citizens and different levels of American society. In another essay, I analyze the subconscious psychological trauma WWI has on author's Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. While authors weren't the only ones affected by the change in culture due to WWI, these authors are the ones who expressed their feelings of inadequacy through literature and the revelation of their "fictitious" characters.

Overview: William S. Burroughs' "Junky"

In William S. Burroughs’ first novel, Junky, Burroughs designed the fictional character Bill Lee to un-apologetically portray the junk-driven, postwar culture of the 1950s that Burroughs, himself, took part in.

Upon a closer analysis of Burroughs’ character Bill, one can see that Bill Lee embodies an inner manifestation of Burroughs’ own feelings of rejection and failure, which were correlative to his unsuccessful attempts to become an officer in the war. In many critical analyses of literature, it is suggested that fictional characters are products of underlying subjective calamities within the authors’ life. As the authors create fictional characters to lessen their own feelings of inadequacy within society, we find that they were moving out of reality, and into Carl Jung’s shadow realm. In Junky, Bill Lee is Burroughs’ continually haunting shadow, which, we may find, is not necessarily a negative juncture in Burroughs’ life.


The Reason William S. Burroughs Used Heroin

After “being rejected on physical grounds from five officer training programs” (Burroughs xxxvii), Burroughs began the slow downward spiral of a junk-driven life. Just like many addicts tend to believe, Burroughs claimed that he “did not start using drugs for any reason [he] can remember” (xxxviii).

When Burroughs first began using drugs, he did so, whether he realized it or not, because of the depression which resulted from his multiple failures within the officer training program. He claims his addiction resulted either from problems of motivation to work or no particular reason that he could remember. However, his suppressed feelings of inadequacy during the war effort are clearly reflected upon by Bill Lee in the opening lines. Bill Lee states, “My first experience with junk was during the War, about 1944 or 1945” (1), when, in fact, Burroughs actually had his first real experience in 1946, which was after the war.

In these opening lines, Bill Lee reflects Burroughs’ shadow. Jung postulates that when moving from a successful life to a life filled with failure, one creates the shadow self. “A gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast. One is always inclined to lay the blame on external circumstances, but nothing could explode in us if it had not been there” (Psychology and Religion 25).

William S. Burroughs' Shadow Self

While it may be true that Bill Lee is Burroughs’ negative shadow self, it does not necessarily mean that Burroughs sees his life as a failure. In fact, I believe that Burroughs thinks the opposite. He states that because of his drug use, he is in overall better health. He believes, “When you stop growing you start dying. An addict never stops growing” (xxxix).

Jung also sees the creation of the shadow self as an essential development to further a man’s overall nature. “We instinctively resist trying the way that leads through obscurity and darkness. We wish to hear only of unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness” (Stages of Life 752).


The Shadow Self as Spiritual Evolution

In conclusion, Burroughs designed Bill Lee so that he and others may learn from his experiences of the shadow self. Seemingly, his life took a downward spiral after the war; but ultimately, failure furthered his growth in knowledge of self by expanding the limits of his own understanding.

One would not necessarily say that Burroughs, through his character Bill Lee, was enamored with failure, but, as Jung suggests, Burroughs’ failures created the darkness of Bill Lee’s shadow realm so that he may once again step into the light with new perspective.

Burroughs’ overall life is like a shot of junk. “When you take a shot of junk you are satisfied, just like you ate a big meal” (103). At first he is miserable with his failure, so he creates both physically and fictionally the shadow self of Bill Lee. In the end, Burroughs reflects upon his junk experiences. Just as the novel, as a whole, gives a deeper insight, Burroughs life comes to a whole, and he is satisfied.

Works Cited

Burroughs, William S. Junky. Ed. Oliver Harris. New York: Penguin Group, 1977.

"Psychology and Religion" (1938). In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. 25.

"The Stages of Life" (1930). In CW 8: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. 752.

Carl Jung's Shadow Self

Questions & Answers


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      • Luke Holm profile imageAUTHOR


        2 years ago

        I learn much by researching and writing them as well. I found it very interesting that authors often use their characters to release subconscious burdens they might feel within themselves.

      • SakinaNasir53 profile image

        Sakina Nasir 

        2 years ago from Kuwait

        Great hub Luke! :) I got to learn something new and your topics are always very interesting to read. Keep writing and God bless you!


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