Oedipus complex

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Oedipus complex

Oedipus complex: In psychoanalytic theory, the desire a young child feels for the opposite-sex parent and the hostility the child correspondingly feels toward the same-sex parent. Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who introduced the term in his paper “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men” (1910), developed the concept in the late 1800s, claiming in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) that “It is as though — to put it bluntly — a sexual preference were making itself felt at an early age: as though boys regarded their fathers and girls their mothers as rivals in love, whose elimination could not fail to be to their advantage.” In labeling the complex “Oedipal,” Freud drew on the ancient Greek legend dramatized in Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex (c. 430 B.C.), a tragedy in which the protagonist, Oedipus, blinds himself after discovering that the man he killed years ago was his father and the woman he married is his mother.

Freud viewed manifestation of the Oedipus complex as a universal experience, a normal stage of psychosexual development occurring in children aged about three to five and ending in identification with the same-sex parent and repression of the complex. He also viewed the complex, which he associated with castration anxiety in both boys and girls, as central to the development of the superego and for much of his career attributed neurosis chiefly to unresolved Oedipal conflicts. For further discussion, see Peter Hartocollis’s “Origins and Evolution of the Oedipus Complex as Conceptualized by Freud” (2005).

While the term Oedipus complex is generally applied to both sexes, it is sometimes used specifically with reference to boys. Electra complex, a term often attributed to Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung, who used it in his paper “Psychoanalysis and Neurosis” (originally titled “On Psychoanalysis”) (1916), is the female counterpart; like Oedipus complex, it derives from an ancient Greek legend, that of Electra, who convinced her brother to kill their mother in order to avenge their father’s murder.

The term negative Oedipus complex refers to situations in which the child’s feelings are “reversed,” so to speak, with desire for the same-sex parent and hostility toward the opposite-sex parent.

EXAMPLES: William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (1602) and D. H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers (1913) have been said to portray protagonists with unresolved Oedipal complexes. The Brazilian film Ele, o boto (The Dolphin) (1987) — based on Amazonian folklore surrounding dolphin-man Bufeo Colorado — likewise concerns a character with an unresolved Oedipus complex, the son of a human female and a pink river dolphin compelled to pursue his mother. Frank O’Connor’s story “My Oedipus Complex” (1950) and Frank Galati’s play Oedipus Complex (2004), an adaptation of Sophocles’ play that incorporates Freud as a character and commentator, openly address Oedipal issues and themes.