Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Oedipus Complex

a.k.a. Oedipal Conflict

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is among the most brilliant and controversial figures in western intellectual history, and the Oedipus Complex is his most controversial and far-reaching theory.

Briefly summarized, a child (archetypally male) wishes sexually to possess the opposite-sex parent and to kill or remove the same-sex parent. Thus a male child yearns for his mother and opposes his father's attentions to the mother.

This family model applies less to female children. Freud confessed to understanding men's psychology better than women's. Freud's associate C.G. Jung adapted the Oedipal Conflict to women characters by theorizing the Electra Complex, named for Electra in the Oresteia who reveres the memory of her slain father and plans revenge on her mother for his death, but psychology since Freud (esp. as developed by women practitioners) has largely dismissed the Electra Complex, which now has little standing in psychoanalysis. Thus the Oedipal Conflict applies more exclusively to male psychology or studies of patriarchal culture.

In modern Psychology, Behavioral and Psychopharmacological therapies have significantly displaced Freudian psychoanalysis, which now survives mostly in literary and cultural studies, and in old-fashioned "talking-cure" psychoanalysis.

On learning of the Oedipal conflict, most people spontaneously react with denial and disgust, but such a reaction is consistent with Freud's idea that resolving the conflict requires repression.

For instance, a 3-year-old boy at my daughter's Day Care once told his father, "I'm going to kill you and marry Mom," but the boy today probably doesn't remember this statement or the feelings behind it. He, like nearly all adults, got over it, redirecting sexual or aggressive energies to more appropriate objects.

Recently in a coffee shop a young mom came in with her 5-ish son and her young husband. Standing, the husband kissed the wife, which the son saw. When the mom sat down, the little boy ran over and kissed her, which the husband saw. When she stood up, the husband drew her close to him again.

Their behavior never appeared conscious, explicit, or outrageous in any sense. The assumed latency of this conflict in all men and their relationships with mothers makes it a perennial subject, theme, or narrative in art, literary and otherwise.

Most challenging aspect of comprehending Oedipal Conflict (besides its emotional repugnance): We tend to focus on the young male individual at the center of the complex, but in fact it's a triangle of three including son, mother, father.

Significance of Oedipal Conflict (and, more limited, the Electra Complex) to Tragedy:

Conforms to Aristotle's assertions or implications that tragedies involve family relationships. (Poetics 13b, 14c)

Peer-relationships dominate in popular, escapist genres like romance, comedy, and romantic comedy, but conflicts between generations often power tragedy.

Emily Grosvenor, "My son’s Oedipus complex" Salon, 11 May 2014

American Dad: "Is She Not Hot Enough?"

Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" commercial: "His mother has a tattoo that reads 'Son'."

(Some men get the name "Mom" tattooed on their body to show their devotion to their mothers. This most interesting man in the world quote shows that his mother is so devoted to him, she wears a "Son" tattoo instead.)--Lennox West,

Selections from Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Ch. V “The Material and Sources of Dreams” (1899, w/ several subsequent editions)


 . . . It is far more probable—and this is confirmed by incidental observations of normal children—that in their amorous or hostile attitude toward their parents, psychoneurotics do no more than reveal to us, by magnification, something that occurs less markedly and intensively* in the minds of the majority of children. Antiquity has furnished us with legendary matter which corroborates this belief, and the profound and universal validity of the old legends is explicable only by an equally universal validity of the above-mentioned hypothesis of infantile psychology.  [Freud's insight may apply also to Tragedy, which represents larger-than-life family conflicts that mirror repressed conflicts in normal families]

I am referring to the legend of King Oedipus and the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles. Oedipus, the son of Laius, king of Thebes, and Jocasta, is exposed [i.e., abandoned to die] as a suckling, because an oracle had informed the father that his son, who was still unborn, would be his murderer. He is rescued, and grows up as a king's son at a foreign court, until, being uncertain of his origin, he, too, consults the oracle, and is warned to avoid his native place, for he is destined to become the murderer of his father and the husband of his mother. On the road leading away from his supposed home he meets King Laius, and in a sudden quarrel strikes him dead. He comes to Thebes, where he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, who is barring the way to the city, whereupon he is elected king by the grateful Thebans, and is rewarded with the hand of Jocasta. He reigns for many years in peace and honour, and begets two sons and two daughters upon his unknown mother, until at last a plague breaks out—which causes the Thebans to consult the oracle anew. Here Sophocles' tragedy begins. The messengers bring the reply that the plague will stop as soon as the murderer of Laius is driven from the country. But where is he?

Where shall be found,
Faint, and hard to be known, the trace of the ancient guilt?

The action of the play consists simply in the disclosure, approached step by step and artistically delayed (and comparable to the work of a psychoanalysis*) that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius, and that he is the son of the murdered man and Jocasta. [*the plot-narrative of Oedipus may thus be compared not only to a detective story but to a psychoanalytic interrogation]

Shocked by the abominable crime which he has unwittingly committed, Oedipus blinds himself, and departs from his native city. The prophecy of the oracle has been fulfilled.

The Oedipus Rex is a tragedy of fate; its tragic effect depends on the conflict between the all-powerful will of the gods and the vain efforts of human beings threatened with disaster; resignation to the divine will, and the perception of one's own impotence is the lesson which the deeply moved spectator is supposed to learn from the tragedy. Modern authors have therefore sought to achieve a similar tragic effect by expressing the same conflict in stories of their own invention. But the playgoers have looked on unmoved at the unavailing efforts of guiltless men to avert the fulfilment of curse or oracle; the modern tragedies of destiny have failed of their effect.

If the Oedipus Rex is capable of moving a modern reader or playgoer no less powerfully than it moved the contemporary Greeks, the only possible explanation is that the effect of the Greek tragedy does not depend upon the conflict between fate and human will, but upon the peculiar nature of the material by which this conflict is revealed. There must be a voice within us which is prepared to acknowledge the compelling power of fate in the Oedipus . . . .  [In Freud's psychoanalytic reading, the conflict between the individual soul's freedom and the will of the gods shifts to a psychological struggle between the child and its parental environment]

And there actually is a motive in the story of King Oedipus which explains the verdict of this inner voice. His fate moves us only because it might have been our own, because the oracle laid upon us before our birth the very curse which rested upon him. It may be that we were all destined to direct our first sexual impulses toward our mothers, and our first impulses of hatred and violence toward our fathers; our dreams convince us that we were.

King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and wedded his mother Jocasta, is nothing more or less than a wish-fulfilment—the fulfilment of the wish of our childhood. But we, more fortunate than he, in so far as we have not become psychoneurotics, have since our childhood succeeded in withdrawing our sexual impulses from our mothers, and in forgetting our jealousy of our fathers.

We recoil from the person for whom this primitive wish of our childhood has been fulfilled with all the force of the repression which these wishes have undergone in our minds since childhood. As the poet [Sophocles] brings the guilt of Oedipus to light by his investigation, he forces us to become aware of our own inner selves, in which the same impulses are still extant, even though they are suppressed. The antithesis with which the chorus departs:

Behold, this is Oedipus, Who unravelled the great riddle, and was first in power,
Whose fortune all the townsmen praised and envied;
See in what dread adversity he sank!

this admonition touches us and our own pride, us who since the years of our childhood have grown so wise and so powerful in our own estimation. Like Oedipus, we live in ignorance of the desires that offend morality, the desires that nature has forced upon us, and after their unveiling we may well prefer to avert our gaze from the scenes of our childhood. [Freud's note: None of the discoveries of psychoanalytical research has evoked such embittered contradiction, such furious opposition, and also such entertaining acrobatics of criticism, as this indication of the incestuous impulses of childhood which survive in the unconscious. . . .]

In the very text of Sophocles' tragedy there is an unmistakable reference to the fact that the Oedipus legend had its source in dream-material of immemorial antiquity, the content of which was the painful disturbance of the child's relations to its parents caused by the first impulses of sexuality. Jocasta comforts Oedipus—who is not yet enlightened, but is troubled by the recollection of the oracle—by an allusion to a dream which is often dreamed, though it cannot, in her opinion, mean anything:

For many a man hath seen himself in dreams
His mother's mate, but he who gives no heed
To suchlike matters bears the easier life. [lines 1166-68 in Oedipus the King]

The dream of having sexual intercourse with one's mother was as common then as it is today with many people, who tell it with indignation and astonishment. As may well be imagined, it is the key to the tragedy and the complement to the dream of the death of the father. The Oedipus fable is the reaction of fantasy to these two typical dreams, and just as such a dream, when occurring to an adult, is experienced with feelings of aversion, so the content of the fable must include terror and self-chastisement [cf. catharsis as fear and pity]. The form which it subsequently assumed was the result of an uncomprehending secondary elaboration of the material, which sought to make it serve a theological intention. The attempt to reconcile divine omnipotence with human responsibility must, of course, fail with this material as with any other.

Another of the great poetic tragedies, Shakespeare's Hamlet, is rooted in the same soil as Oedipus Rex. But the whole difference in the psychic life of the two widely separated periods of civilisation, and the progress, during the course of time, of repression in the emotional life of humanity, is manifested in the differing treatment of the same material. In Oedipus Rex the basic wish-fantasy of the child is brought to light and realised as it is in dreams; in Hamlet it remains repressed, and we learn of its existence—as we discover the relevant facts in a neurosis—only through the inhibitory effects which proceed from it.

In the more modern drama [Hamlet compared to Oedipus the King], the curious fact that it is possible to remain in complete uncertainty as to the character of the hero has proved to be quite consistent with the overpowering effect of the tragedy. The play is based upon Hamlet's hesitation in accomplishing the task of revenge assigned to him; the text does not give the cause or the motive of this hesitation, nor have the manifold attempts at interpretation succeeded in doing so. According to the still prevailing conception, a conception for which Goethe was first responsible, Hamlet represents the type of man whose active energy is paralysed by excessive intellectual activity: 'Sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.' According to another conception, the poet has endeavoured to portray a morbid, irresolute character, on the verge of neurasthenia [fatigue, headache, depression].

The plot of the drama, however, shows us that Hamlet is by no means intended to appear as a character wholly incapable of action. On two separate occasions we see him assert himself: once in a sudden outburst of rage, when he stabs the eavesdropper behind the arras, and on the other occasion when he deliberately, and even craftily, with the complete unscrupulousness of a prince of the Renaissance, sends the two courtiers to the death which was intended for himself. What is it, then, that inhibits him in accomplishing the task which his father's ghost has laid upon him? Here the explanation offers itself that it is the peculiar nature of this task.

Hamlet is able to do anything but take vengeance upon the man who did away with his father and has taken his father's place with his mother—the man who shows him in realisation the repressed desires of his own childhood. The loathing which should have driven him to revenge is thus replaced by self-reproach, by conscientious scruples, which tell him that he himself is no better than the murderer whom he is required to punish. I have here translated into consciousness what had to remain unconscious in the mind of the hero; if anyone wishes to call Hamlet an hysterical subject I cannot but admit that this is the deduction to be drawn from my interpretation. The sexual aversion which Hamlet expresses in conversation with Ophelia is perfectly consistent with this deduction—the same sexual aversion which during the next few years was increasingly to take possession of the poet's soul, until it found its supreme utterance in Timon of Athens.

It can, of course, be only the poet's own psychology with which we are confronted in Hamlet; and in a work on Shakespeare by Georg Brandes (1896) I find the statement that the drama was composed immediately after the death of Shakespeare's father (1601)—that is to say, when he was still mourning his loss, and during a revival, as we may fairly assume, of his own childish feelings in respect of his father. It is known, too, that Shakespeare's son, who died in childhood, bore the name of Hamnet (identical with Hamlet). Just as Hamlet treats of the relation of the son to his parents, so Macbeth, which was written about the same period, is based upon the theme of childlessness. Just as all neurotic symptoms, like dreams themselves, are capable of hyper-interpretation, and even require such hyper-interpretation before they become perfectly intelligible, so every genuine poetical creation must have proceeded from more than one motive, more than one impulse in the mind of the poet, and must admit of more than one interpretation. I have here attempted to interpret only the deepest stratum of impulses in the mind of the creative poet. . . .

Instructor's suggestions on how to deal with discussions, attitudes involving Oedipal Conflict

The truth of the Oedipal Conflict and our denial of it are natural and normal. The conflict affects men most in early life, when they're hardly conscious of it or anything else. People mature by repressing forbidden urges, so anyone normal will just as unconsciously deny it as they unconsciously expressed it at an earlier stage.

Incest is an evolutionary taboo, but the family is a sexual community.

Families don't happen without sex.

Birth is sexual—women may describe birth-experiences in terms that sound like people describing powerful sexual experiences.

As children mature, they become sexual (and they're always latently sexual). The nearest objects of attraction are family members, for whom some degree of affection is encouraged. Earlier humans often expected children to leave the family home at puberty. Modern cultures depend on extended childhoods for educational purposes, increasing tensions that more "natural" societies may have avoided.

Problems associated with incest and Oedipal conflict may increase with "royal families" both because of extended childhoods and because members of royal family can marry only other royalty or nobility. (Prince Charles and Princess Diana were distant cousins, and he said once that she had a better claim to the throne than he did.)

Point is not that people react to tragedy because they themselves are inclined to forbidden family relations, but because those inclinations are always there to some degree but repressed, so when we see such relations represented, we react powerfully.

We may not "like" such ideas, but they keep reappearing, especially in the most serious literature that lasts across generations and appeals to something like a universal human nature.


Useful extensions or complications to Oedipal Conflict:

The disgust associated with the Oedipal impulse is usually focused on the son as an individual, who must learn to repress inappropriate feelings of lust for his mother and hostility towards his father.

However, the Oedipal conflict involves all three family members: father, mother, son.

As a result, fathers may feel competition with sons for the wife-mother's affection; mothers may see sons as a devoted young male who wants her attention, in contrast to a distracted or debilitated aging husband.


Cultural implications of the Oedipal Complex:

The Oedipal Conflict recurs in tragedies, which themselves appear most regularly in cultures that are transforming from traditional to modern, or into a period of imperialistic greatness.

The transition from tradition to modernity challenges a civilization or culture to maintain continuity while managing change.

The son's management of conflicting attitudes toward parents may parallel this cultural-generational transition.


Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (1939)  

applies individual psychoanalytic theory to collective history, particularly religion as "the neurosis of mankind."

Moses actually an Egyptian who learned monotheism from a surviving cult of Amenhotep IV (monotheistic pharaoh who reduced myth, ritual, etc.)