The Oedipus Complex in Literature
A Jewish woman brought her son in to a
After privately talking to the boy, the psychiatrist
he had a severe Oedipal conflict
that would take years to resolve.
"Oedipus, schmedipus, as long as he loves his mother!"
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
phenomena. He described it thusly:
At a very early age the little boy develops an object-cathexis [fixation] for his
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
Freud believed that this Oedipus complex is a core element of the human psyche
. In Three
the Theory of Sexuality
, he wrote,
"The Oedipus complex is the nuclear
complex of the
...Every new arrival on this planet
is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus
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
back...to 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
Latin saying, "Paternity is always uncertain" (299). He notes that children often create
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
The aforementioned fantasy is clearly palpable in Hamlet, where the titular
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
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
come from the Marxist camp, others from the feminist or post-structuralist. Criticisms of
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
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
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
From the very beginning, the aspect of blood guilt is the driving force of events in the
"The god's command" is "Punish [Laeus'] takers-off, whoe'er they be," and makes no
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
prayers are always addressed to the "Blessed Virgin"--never to Jesus or God the Father. She
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
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
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.
- Davis, Robert Con and Schleifer, Ronald, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary
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
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.
- Sophocles. Oedipus Rex.
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