The positive libidinal feelings of a child to the parent of the opposite sex and hostile or jealous feelings toward the parent of the same sex that may be a source of adult personality disorder when unresolved. It is a pattern of profound emotional ambivalence, a troublesome mixture of love and hate.

The Oedipus Complex occurs during the phallic stage, from roughly ages 3-6 years. Freud believed that during this stage boys seek genital stimulation and develop both unconscious desires for their mother and jealousy and hatred for their father, whom they consider a rival. It was said that boys felt guilt and lurking fear that their father would punish them, such as by castration. Freud also believed that conscience and gender identity form as the child resolved the Oedipus Complex at age 5 or 6, but this actually happens earlier. A child tends to become strongly masculine or feminine without even having the same sex parent present.

Freud argues that all sons unconsciously desire to kill, even if they love, their fathers. He found his own unconscious wish to murder his father in his intensive self analysis in 1897, shortly after the death of his father.

Freud says it is only the male child that we find the fateful combination of love for the one parent and simultaneous hatred for the other as a rival. Freud believed Oedipal was a normal part of human psychological growth and it is during this stage children produce emotional conflicts.

The Oedipus Complex originates from a myth about a Greek hero named Oedipus, written by Sophocles. Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta who in the fulfillment of an oracle unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. When Oedipus and Jocasta realize what has happened, Jocasta hangs herself and he rips the golden brooches from his dead mothers gown and plunges them deep into his eyes. Now blinded, he finally sees the truth and banishes himself to a distant land. The fact that Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother without knowing that he has done either shows that it was done unconsciously.

The Oedipus Complex (or Oedipal Complex) often suffers from being too narrowly defined. The complex can exist in many forms, between various relations of the opposite sex.

It is not correct to state that the complex can only exist in young males who wish to kill their father and assume his role in the household. The boy may subconciously identify himself with his father and hence see him as competition for his mother. This can lead to a stronger relationship with his mother and potential distancing from his father. Once the boy overcomes the complex, he will be left with one of two things: an identification with his mother (due to their closeness), or a strong identification with his father. Freud regarded the latter as more normal: 'the passing of the complex consolidates the masculinity in the boy's character'-Freud

The same situation can also apply to a young girl. Girls play house and have dolls because they have a desire to assume the same role that they see their mother has. This can lead to a strengthening of relations between a young girl and her father: an attempt to remove her mother and assume a maternal role. On dissolution of this complex, the girl is left with a strong relationship with her father, while having found an 'intensified relationship with the mother'-Freud

In both situations there is the possiblity that the boy will finish more closely identifying himself with his mother and the girl with her father. According to Freud, this is the more abnormal outcome. Freud uses this outcome as a way of explaining the possible origins of 'bisexuality'in some people. Freud states the result, whatever it may be, is due to the 'relative strength of the masculine and feminine dispositions' in the child. In extreme cases, a boy may be so feminine in disposition that he behaves as though he were a daughter. That is, he coexists well with his father, maintaining an affectionate relationship, while remaining jealous and hostile with his mother.

It is also possible that Oedipus relations may exist between siblings; cousins of the same and different generations; uncles, aunts and their nieces and nephews et cetera. Although the existence of the complex is more common in 3-6 year old males than anyone else, it is important that other, less common scenarios are acknowledged.

Source: Freud, Sigmund. (1923). The Ego and the Id. The Hogarth Press: London.

The Oedipus Complex in Literature

A Jewish woman brought her son in to a psychiatrist.
After privately talking to the boy, the psychiatrist
explained that he had a severe Oedipal conflict
that would take years to resolve. The woman exclaimed,
"Oedipus, schmedipus, as long as he loves his mother!"
-Psychiatrist joke

In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Jocasta exclaims, "How oft it chances that in dreams a man/Has wed his mother!" For Sigmund Freud, "how oft" meant "always." The theory of the "Oedipus complex", examined by Freud in The Ego and the Id, formed the core of his interpretation of many psychological phenomena. He described it thusly:

At a very early age the little boy develops an object-cathexis [fixation] for his mother...the boy deals with his father by identifying himself with him. For a time these two relationships proceed side by side, until the boy's sexual wishes in regard to his mother become more intense and his father is perceived as an obstacle to them; from this the Oedipus complex originates (640).
Freud believed that this Oedipus complex is a core element of the human psyche. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, he wrote, "The Oedipus complex is the nuclear complex of the neuroses...Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis" (290). To Freud, 'neurosis' is anything from anxiety to "homosexuality" (644). The overcoming of this complex, according to Freud, is something common to all human experience. Because literature describes and represents human experience, it has long portrayed the Oedipus complex, often unconsciously.

William Shakespeare's Hamlet illustrates the longing for the mother and ambivalence toward the father very well. "It was not until the material of [Hamlet] had been traced the Oedipus theme that the mystery of its effect was at last explained" (524), remarks Freud in "The Moses of Michaelangelo." For the proper interpretation of Hamlet, it is necessary to highlight the ambiguity of the father-figure in Freudian theory. In "Family Romances," Freud points this out by quoting the Latin saying, "Paternity is always uncertain" (299). He notes that children often create "romances" for themselves, wherein the current father is replaced by something "grander," "an expression of longing for the happy, vanished days when &91;their&93; father seemed to [them] the noblest and strongest of men" (300).

The aforementioned fantasy is clearly palpable in Hamlet, where the titular character struggles to "avenge" his old, noble father-figure. Hamlet expounds to his mother: "A combination and a form indeed/Where every god did seem to set his seal/To give the world assurance of a man/This was your husband." Hamlet's representation of his father is a 'ghost' that will only speak to him, and cannot be seen by Gertrude. This supports the notion that his 'father' is a virtual one. Hamlet's vengeance is directed toward his new father, described as "A murderer and a villain/A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe/Of your precedent lord/a vice of kings/A cutpurse of the empire and the rule" (III.iv). He despises his mother for marrying him.

Indeed, the prince of Denmark is disgusted by the mere thought of his mother engaging in intercourse with this new father: "To live/In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed/Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty-". He wants her to forget Claudius and "repent," though what to do next he never really clarifies. His obsession with his mother's sexuality is evident--he dwells on Claudius' "reechy kisses", "paddling[s] on the neck with his damn'd fingers," and "pinch[ings] on the cheek" (III.iv). The essential content of what he is saying is "Claudius is a terrible replacement for my father;" his gratuitous elucidations of the physical aspects of their relationship point to a fixation on his part. When Hamlet is about to die, he first says "adieu" to the "wretched queen," and only then does he instruct Horatio (V.ii). In this way, Hamlet is a superior literary example of unresolved father-issues and maternal fixations.

There have been numerous critics of Freud's interpretation of the Oedipus complex. Some of them come from the Marxist camp, others from the feminist or post-structuralist. Criticisms of Oedipal theory, however, serve to complement Freud's original insights; they provide new and fresh perspectives on the circumstances and consequences of the Oedipus complex and their function in literature.

One of these critics was Erich Fromm, a prominent German psychologist of the Marxist-oriented Frankfurt School. He believed that the Oedipus complex was more about power than sexuality. In his 1944 essay "Individual and Social Origins of Neurosis," Fromm wrote, "Freud states that the Oedipus complex is justifiably regarded as the kernel of neurosis...But I do not think that this conflict is brought about essentially by the sexual rivalry, but that it results from the child's reaction to the pressure of parental authority, the child's fear of it and submission to it." Thus, the conflict with the father (who is the authority figure in the Oedipal relationship) is the central element of the complex, rather than the desire for the mother. Fromm came to this conclusion partly by examining Sophocles' entire trilogy (Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus), in which the only common theme is paternal conflict, as opposed to maternal fixation. Oedipus Rex in particular, as the traditional foundation of Oedipal theory, provides a testing ground for Fromm's hypothesis.

From the very beginning, the aspect of blood guilt is the driving force of events in the play. "The god's command" is "Punish [Laeus'] takers-off, whoe'er they be," and makes no reference to Jocasta or Oedipus' marital status. Oedipus is accused of both wedding his mother and killing his father. When Teiresias informs the spectators that "[Oedipus] shall be proved the brother and the sire/Of her who bare him son and husband both/Co-partner, and assassin of his sire," Oedipus makes no effort to contest the former charge, and instead accuses Creon of the latter. Even the Chorus doesn't notice that accusation--they mention "Doer of foul deeds of bloodshed," but nothing about incest. When Jocasta and Oedipus do finally come around to their peculiar relationship, Jocasta says, "This wedlock with thy mother fear not thou/How oft it chances that in dreams a man/Has wed his mother! He who least regards/Such brainsick phantasies lives most at ease." This contextualization of the classic Oedipal reference reveals its true meaning: an attempt at conveying to Oedipus the insignificance of that particular circumstance of their situation. When Oedipus replies that he is still uneasy, Jocasta reminds him of his priorities: "Thy sire's death lights out darkness much." It seems that even Sophocles' writings, to which Freud turned for inspiration, are more in accordance with the ideas of Fromm: the Oedipus complex is more about the father than the mother.

Freud has been consistently criticized in the past half-century as representing a bourgeois, male-dominated perspective on human psychology. "Freud," writes the feminist critic Toril Moi, "...systematically refuses to consider female sexuality as an active, independent drive" (Davis, Schleifer 294). Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in the Anti-Oedipus, note,

Insofar as psychoanalysis...regards the patterns of punishment resulting from Oedipus as a confession of guilt, its theories are not at all radical or innovative. On the contrary: it is completing the task begun by nineteenth-century psychology, namely, to develop a moralized, familial discourse of moral pathology (Rivkin, Ryan 211).
From this point of view, Freudian psychoanalysis, because of its bourgeois nature, has its greatest applicability in the situation of a bourgeois family, and can provide insight into the problems inherent in its structure. Literature provides numerous examples and case studies of such families and their neuroses.

Eugene O'Neill's semi-autobiographical work Long Day's Journey Into Night illustrates the impact unresolved Oedipal conflicts can have on bourgeois families. Edmund, for instance, displays a classic form of such conflict. He is engaged in a power struggle with his father. He shouts at him, "You've never given [my mother] anything that would help her want to stay off [morphine]!...Jesus, when I think of it I hate your guts!" Thus challenged, Tyrone responds in kind, "How dare you talk to your father like that, you insolent young cub!" (141). As an authority figure, he does not address the substance of Edmund's attacks against him, but instead points out the latter's youth and lack of authority. Tyrone's highlighting of Edmund's status as a son underscores the underlying Oedipal nature of the father-son power struggle.

Edmund is also romantically fixated on his mother. He says, "If she'd had to take care of me all by herself, and had that to occupy her mind, maybe she'd have been able..." (142). In this way, he displays his desire to possess the mother alone, and casts his father as the destroyer of that one chance. Mary herself expresses Edmund's desires when she croons, "All you need is your mother to nurse you. Big as you are, you're still the baby of the family to me" (43). Mary and Edmund are the only ones who consistently display signs of physical affection towards one another--aside from a "mechanical" kiss bestowed on Tyrone on page 123, Mary only hugs and kisses Edmund, and, with the exception of two of Tyrone's ignored kisses in Act One, Edmund is the only one who hugs and kisses her. The Oedipus complexes and neuroses that function in this family fail to ever erupt into open conflict, leaving the characters to drown their frustrations in addiction.

Mary is burdened with the neuroses of the bourgeoisie. She has Oedipal fixations on her father--Tyrone takes the time to note, "Her father wasn't the great, generous, noble Irish gentleman she makes out...he had his weakness. She condemns my drinking but forgets this" (137). When Edmund attempts to inform her of his disease and mentions her father, she cuts him off: "There's no comparison at all with you...I forbid you to remind me of my father's death" (120). She contrasts the "dirty hotel rooms" of Tyrone with "[her] father's home" (72). Her father is a sort of idealized male, who not only runs a good house, but "spoils" her--something Tyrone never does.

These fixations, to believe Freud, cause her to display signs of homosexuality; her fondest memories hearken back to her experiences in the convent (an exclusively female environment), and her prayers are always addressed to the "Blessed Virgin"--never to Jesus or God the Father. She "loves" Mother Elizabeth--"better than [her] own mother" (175); interestingly, Mother Elizabeth is the only non-male authority figure mentioned in the play (aside from the Blessed Virgin; Mary herself is hardly in authority). She keeps regretting her meeting with Tyrone, which took her away from the convent: "[I] was much happier before [I] knew he existed, in the Convent" (107). In her final, hypnotic, state, she declines all physical contact with men--"You must not try to touch me. You must not try to hold me. It isn't right, when I am hoping to be a nun." Oedipal repressions and repressed homosexuality contribute to Mary's severe unhappiness with her current state, and her lack of power and female role models make hers a tragedy of female submission.

Sigmund Freud's contribution to the study of human psychology cannot be overestimated. An in-depth analysis of many plays and other works of literature reveals an application of Freud's ideas that was often unintentional; in particular, identifying unresolved Oedipal conflicts allows us to trace the psychological development and motivations of many characters. It allows us as readers to look at the fictional family as a unit and a structure to be analyzed for function or dysfunction, which in turn gives us insight into literature's applicability to our own lives.

Works Cited

  • Davis, Robert Con and Schleifer, Ronald, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Longman, 1986.
  • Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, 1989.
  • Fromm, Erich. "The Individual and Social Origins of Neurosis." August 1944. <>.
  • Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael, eds. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. <>.
  • Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. <>.

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