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Jauss, Lacan, and the Dude

Jay Bennett


Jay Bennett

University of Colorado at Boulder


Jauss, Lacan, and the Dude


In the following essay, I use the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski to outline and explore the theories of Jacques Lacan and Hans Robert Jauss in an effort to illuminate the intellectual depth of the film and highlight the differences between these two theorists. Lacan expands upon Freud’s psychoanalytic concepts in order to explain the human transition from infantile complacency to an unsatisfactory world of symbolic representation. Jauss is one of the founders of reader-response criticism, which argues that a piece of art can only be considered significant if it rejuvenates an ongoing, universal conversation. I argue that the fundamental difference between the two theorists is their interest in the individual (Lacan) as opposed to the collective (Jauss), and apply these contrasting theories to the film as well as its critical and popular reception.



A fundamental difference between psychoanalytic and reader-response criticism, as represented by Jacques Lacan and Hans Robert Jauss, respectively, is that psychoanalytic theory focuses on the individual’s conscious while reader-response is primarily concerned with the conscious of a collective. The Coen brothers’ seventh film The Big Lebowski can be used to outline this difference between psychoanalytic and reader-response criticisms. Lacan describes the transition of every child from the “imaginary” state to the “symbolic” state. In the imaginary, all of the infant’s needs are satisfied without a logical source. Their world is one of completeness and plentitude where there is no sense of self or other. All that one can comprehend in the imaginary is a series of desires and subsequent fulfillment of those desires. When the child realizes that there are other autonomous beings with desires and lacks of their own, he recognizes his own sense of lack and feels that he has been castrated, or robbed of his non-literal phallus. The child then experiences a traumatic transition from the imaginary into the symbolic order. The symbolic order is a collective adherence to social customs, such as languages and laws that are used to project a real state that we have no access to, or way of describing directly.

            A Lacanian interpretation of The Big Lebowski might claim that the Dude, the movie’s main character, resists transitioning from the imaginary to the symbolic. The Dude’s best friend and bowling partner Walter Sobchak, on the other hand, embraces the symbolic order and strictly adheres to the customs of religion and society. The Dude has effectively satisfied his sense of phallic lack with weed, White Russians, and bowling. Having reestablished a sense of completion in his life bordering on Zen satisfaction, the Dude resists further assimilation into the symbolic order. His unemployment, regular consumption of narcotics, informal attire, ungrammatical speech, and use of an unconventional pseudonym all indicate that he has no desire to enter what most would consider responsible adult life. The Dude’s altered name is of particular significance, as Lacan writes that a subject who appears “to be the slave of language is all the more so of a discourse in the universal movement in which his place is already inscribed at birth, if only by virtue of his proper name” (Lacan, "Agency" 1170).

            A Lacanian may also point to the Dude’s acid flashbacks as evidence of an inherent desire to resist the symbolic world. In his flashbacks, the Dude flies, dances, rents bowling shoes from Saddam Hussein, and even sees a strike from the perspective of a bowling ball sliding down the alley through the spread legs of women in skirts. A psychoanalytic reading would deem these images as “signifiers” that have “an active function in determining certain effects in which the signifiable appears as submitting to its mark, by becoming through that passion the signified” (Lacan, "The Signification" 1184).

            It is only when the Dude’s rug is wrongfully urinated on that he willingly interacts with the symbolic order, using the social customs that it outlines to attempt to right the wrong. The Dude’s given name is Jeffrey Lebowski, and the perpetrators who pee on his rug are looking for another, wealthier Lebowski who owes them money. Walter, a Jewish Vietnam veteran who refuses to bowl on Saturdays, is the Dude’s guide to the symbolic order. Walter is aggressively moral, pulling a gun on another bowler to enforce the rules of the game. He often asks the Dude after his unreasonable behavior, “Am I wrong?” to which the Dude at one point replies, “No, Walter, you’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.” Walter defends an ideal or moral symbolic state, where the customs and laws are strictly obeyed. He also has no sense of lack; he has satisfied it with a symbolic sense of purpose through religion. It is Walter who encourages the Dude to seek compensation from the other Lebowski for his rug. This action involves the Dude in an extremely complicated and farcical kidnapping ruse concerning Lebowski’s wife, Bunny. A Lacanian understanding may assert that the Dude has been caught up in the affairs of the symbolic order,-- those who have not successfully filled their sense of lack. One could go on to identify the specific phallic lack of other characters, such as Lebowski’s monetary insecurity, Bunny’s inability to experience sexual pleasure, and of course the kidnapping Nihilists who “believe in nothing.”

            Alternatively, a Jaussian reader-response interpretation of The Big Lebowski would be much less interested in the actions of the story’s characters. A Jaussian scholar would instead look to the actions of the readers, or in this case, viewers. According to Jauss, a text is neither “aesthetic” nor “positivistic,” meaning that the text itself has no autonomous significance and the significance is not derived from the historical framework of the text. Rather, an artifact is considered an event and its significance is completely dependent on the people’s reaction to that event. Writing and works of art are part of an ongoing conversation, and an artifact’s ability to energize or alter the conversation is the source of its significance. “A literary event can continue to have an effect only if those who come after it still or once again respond to it–if there are readers who again appropriate the past work or authors who want to imitate, outdo, or refute it” (Jauss, "Literary History" 1417). So how does The Big Lebowski confirm or alter the “horizon of expectations” of movie viewers?

            The Big Lebowski has one of the largest cultural followings of any movie in the history of film. The Coen brothers’ unique comedy quickly became a cult classic after its release. The tendency of fans to dress up as characters in the movie and quote lines of dialogue at screenings led to an annual festival in honor of the movie. Lebowski Fest began in Louisville, Kentucky in 2002 with 150 fans in attendance. Today, almost every major city has its own Lebowski Fest, or “The Dude Abides,” as it is known in London. Participants enjoy an evening of bowling, costumes, trivia, contests, live bands, cheap White Russians, and a screening of the movie (, “Information, Man”).

            Before Lebowski Fest, the only comparable event surrounding a movie was screenings of the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Traditionally, fans attend the movie dressed as characters and sing along during the showing. Movie viewers’ “horizon of expectations” already encompassed dressing up and quoting lines of the movie, which The Big Lebowski reconfirms. The Coen brothers’ movie, however, also promotes horizontal change by establishing the largest celebration surrounding a movie screening ever seen. Now it is completely commonplace to attend a movie premier such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and see fans dressed up as their favorite characters.

            Dudeism is another social phenomenon that a Jaussian scholar might identify as an example of horizonal change. Dudeism, or The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, is an online mock religion devoted to spreading the philosophy and lifestyle of the Dude. Over 150,000 “Dudeist Priests” have been ordained via the Internet (, “Dudeists of the World Unite!”). A Jaussian scholar might find significance in the fact that Dudeism was created in 2005, the same year Bobby Henderson came up with his mock religion Pastafarianism, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Other mock religions that resulted from films or TV shows would also be observed, such as Festivus from Seinfeld or Eventualism from the 1996 film Schizopolis. Dudeism, however, is unique in that it is not specifically outlined in The Big Lebowski, but is rather a commemoration of the Dude as a kind of messiah, perhaps another indication of horizonal change.

            Psychoanalytic and reader-response criticisms differ in that one is concerned with what an artifact says about the individual, while the other finds significance in how and why an artifact changes the expectations of a collective. A Lacanian interpretation is that The Big Lebowski is the story of a man who struggles to resist the transition from the “imaginary” into the symbolic. He only enters the symbolic order when he is forced to, and generally finds the people who adhere to its customs to be unpleasant and filled with a sense of lack. A Jaussian scholar, on the other hand, would focus on the cultural phenomena spawned by the movie. He would seek to identify the “horizon of expectations” of movie viewers or movie enthusiasts prior to The Big Lebowski and explain the resulting shift in expectations. This interest in a collective’s expectations is fundamentally different than the Lacanian scholar’s interest in the individual transition from imaginary to symbolic.



Works Cited

The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Coen. Written by Ehtan Coen and Joel Coen. Perf. Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Ben Gazzara, and David Thewlis. PolyGram Filmed Entertainment Presents, 1998. Film.

“Dudeists of the World Unite!” Dudeism RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2011.

“Information, Man.” Lebowski Fest. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2011.

Jauss, Hans R. “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 1406-1420. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 1169-181. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Signification of the Phallus.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 1181-189. Print.



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