Oedipus complex

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According to the theory of psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud, the Oedipus conflict or complex is a stage in the psycho-sexual development of the child which explains the origin of certain neuroses in childhood. Freud claimed to have discovered the Oedipus complex during his own self-analysis in the late 1890s, first discussing the notion in his groundbreaking The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). The idea is taken from the Greek myth of Oedipus, who was fated by the oracle to kill his father Laius and marry his mother Jocasta. Freud developed the notion of the Oedipus complex to explain the child's unconscious desire for the exclusive love of the parent of the opposite sex, occurring around the age of five and a half years (a period known as the phallic stage in Freudian theory). This desire includes jealousy toward the parent of the same sex and the unconscious wish for that parent's death. Freud used the term to describe the unconscious feelings of children of both sexes toward their parents. However, later researchers used the term "Electra complex" for the phenomenon in girls, referring to the Greek myth of Electra. While never achieving universal acceptance, Freud's work has been a major influence in our understanding of human nature. The realization that our childhood experiences, particularly with our parents, are foundational in the development of mature personality led to innovations in research in psychological development. Freud's model, though, posits a structural and therefore unchangeable origin to violent feelings of jealousy and anxiety, whereas others view these as the result of deviation from our true human nature.


The Stages of Psycho-Sexual Development

According to Freud's early psychoanalytic theory, the libido, alternately understood as a quantity of energy or sexual desire, was attached to specific sexual instincts. The child is born with a quantity of libido that needs to be "cathected" or invested into objects to achieve satisfaction. If this libidinal energy builds up, it causes frustration. Freud postulated that at birth children are "polymorphously perverse," that is, their libidinal drive has no particular object of cathexis. Children take pleasure from the stimulation of any part of the body. Over time, as part of the maturation process, the libido acquires specific objects, going through several stages associated with different zones of the body.

The oral stage, as the name suggests, is the stage when the infant's mouth on the mother's breast is the primary focus of the libido. While the primary purpose of feeding is nourishment, the child also enjoys the pleasure of sucking. This stage lasts until potty training. During the second stage at around two years old, centering on the anal zone, the ability to control one's own bowels pleases both the parents and, through either holding or evacuating, also creates a sensation of pleasure for the child. During the third, or phallic, stage at around three or four years old, the object of libidinal cathexis becomes the genital zone. One of Freud's more controversial claims was that children discover masturbation during this period. At this stage, children of both sexes undergo the phallic stage. There is no difference yet between boys and girls. Finally, at around five or six, the child enters into the phase of the Oedipus complex.

Theory of the Oedipus complex

The traditional paradigm in a (male) child's psychological coming-into-being is to first select the mother as the object of libidinal investment. During the male phallic stage, the young boy loves his mother and identifies with his father. However, as the libido becomes cathected in the genital zone, the boy's love for the mother becomes more exclusive and sexualized. Consequently, the identification with the father becomes rivalrous. At this point, Freud conjectured, the boy sees the female genitals and surmises that she has been castrated. (This hypothesis of Freud's may have been based on the observations of one of his case studies, "Little Hans.") He fears that if he arouses the father's anger, the father might castrate him as well. This "castration anxiety" causes the son to retreat from his desire for the mother. The castration complex essentially ends and replaces the Oedipus complex. The boy retreats in fear from his desire to replace the father; he represses his desires and the Oedipus complex disappears. After the dissolution of the Oedipus complex, under the influence of infantile amnesia, the child goes through a latency period until reaching puberty.

After the repression of the Oedipus complex, when the boy renounces the mother as object, he will either identify with the lost object (mother) or strengthen his identification with the father, depending on the relative strength of the masculine and feminine tendencies in the boy. As a correlate to his notion of polymorphous perversity, Freud postulated an original bisexual disposition. The outcome of the child's sexual development is determined by which identification takes precedence.

Although Freud devoted most of his early literature to the Oedipus complex in males, he believed that the Oedipus complex was universal, and that females underwent an inverted Oedipus complex. The girl's first love object is also the mother, but the father is not the primary identification. When she discovers the boy's external genitals, she feels castrated and blames the mother, weakening the early cathexis. Her attention turns to the father, who has the missing organ, but for that reason she also feels envy, what Freud called "penis envy." This is the girl's equivalent to the castration complex, except that the castration complex ends the boy's Oedipus complex, while it serves to initiate the girl's. She desires her father and envies her mother, what some would later call the "Electra complex" after the Greek myth of Electra, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who helped plan the murder of her mother after she cuckolded her father. Since there is no equivalent threat of castration, as she is already castrated, the complex is not abandoned suddenly, but eventually weakens over time through the maturation process.

Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex began with the material from his self-analysis. Later, after Freud adopted his structural model, based on anthropological studies of totemism, Freud extended the Oedipus complex to the social level in his theory of the primal band in Totem and Taboo (1912). When Freud introduced his structural, tripartite theory of the mind, the heir to the Oedipus complex became the superego.

Little Hans: a case study by Freud

Freud published only a handful of case studies. One of these was about a young boy that Freud diagnosed as suffering from castration anxiety stemming from his unresolved Oedipus complex. In 1909, Freud wrote a summary of his analysis in a paper entitled "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy." "Little Hans" was not a patient, but the son of music critic and early Freud devotee, Max Graf. The father reported to Freud that his son was suffering from a crippling phobia of horses (Hippophobia). Freud saw the boy only once, working primarily through the father.

Freud interpreted Hans' fear and anxiety to be the result of several factors, including the birth of a little sister, castration anxiety over the boy's desire to replace his father as his mother's mate, and conflicts over masturbation. At the time that Freud wrote the case study, he believed that anxiety was the product of incomplete or unsuccessful repression, so Freud diagnosed this anxiety as rooted in an incomplete repression of sexual feelings and other defense mechanisms the boy was using to combat the impulses involved in his sexual development. Later, after the development of his tripartite theory of the mind as composed of three structures, the ego, superego, and id, he reversed the order, treating anxiety as the cause of repression. (See Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety 1926).

Whatever the relationship between anxiety and repression, it should be noted that much of the fabric of the case study was suggested by Freud. It was largely a construction, as has been pointed out by many scholars. Freud would often suggest an interpretation that he would ask the patient to validate, but in this case Hans was unable to find on his own any connection at all between the fear of horses and the desire to get rid of his father. George Serban commented,

This assumption was suggested to him by [Freud via] his father. Furthermore, Freud himself admitted that "Hans had to be told many things that he could not say himself;" that "he had to be presented with thoughts which he had so far shown no signs of possessing;" and that "his attention had to be turned in the direction from which his father was expecting something to come." (Serban 1982)

Development of the concept

Jacques Lacan's structural interpretation

French theorist and psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, revised the Oedipus complex in line with his attempt to articulate a theory of psychoanalysis in terms of structuralist linguistics, based on the theory of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Lacan claimed that the position of the father could never be held by the infant. On the one hand the infant must identify with the father, in order to participate in sexual relations. However, the infant could also never become the father, as this would imply sexual relations with the mother. Through the contradictory dictates, on the one hand to be the father and on the other hand not to be the father, the father's position is elevated to an ideal. He is no longer a real material father, but the function of a father. The father, and accordingly the phallus (not a real penis, but a representation of mastery), can never be reached. Thus he is above or outside the language system and cannot be spoken about or reached through language. Lacan termed this the "Name-of-the-Father." The same goes for the mother, who is no longer a real mother, but simply a desire to return to the undifferentiated state of being together with the mother, before the interference through the Name-of-the-Father, that is, through language. The Oedipus complex is another name for that desire.

Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus

Lacan's linguistic idea was politicized by philosopher Gilles Deleuze, along with radical psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, who created a politically revolutionary critique (Anti-Oedipus) of the Oedipus complex and the social structure on which it is based. They argued that internalized power structures are a function of the world order we live in, bent on disciplining the subject. They drew on French philosopher Michel Foucault's notion of discipline, which Foucault used in both senses of the term, to instill a sense of self-discipline and/or to impose it from without, often through punishment. According to this theory, the Oedipus complex can only arise under certain conditions, namely under capitalism.

They argued that in contemporary society, power does not come from a central force like God or a monarch, but is spread over small power units which keep people in submission. Thus, the Oedipus complex is implicated, since the family structure is the smallest unit of social power. They endeavored to show that the Oedipal model of the family is a kind of organization that must colonize its members, repress their desires, and give them complexes in order to function as an organizing principle of society. They asserted that the capitalist system, and psychoanalysis as its tool, rely on making people believe in a father, who is more powerful than them and has a phallus, which will always be unobtainable for them.


Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex was controversial from the beginning, and not only in the general public, but among other psychologists and philosophers who acquainted themselves with his work.

Carl Jung and Alfred Adler were two early followers of Freud who broke with him over the dominance of the sex drive in Freud's theory and whether ego drives were libidinal. Adler attacked Freud's ideas of repression, believing that the repression theory should be replaced with the concept of ego-defensive tendencies. He argued that compared to the neurotic state derived from inferiority feelings and overcompensation of the masculine protest, Oedipal complexes were insignificant. Later, another of Freud's closest disciples, Otto Rank, postulated the birth trauma as prior to the Oedipus complex. Although he originally intended it as a complement to the Oedipus theory, the controversy that resulted eventually caused a break between Freud and Rank.

Following the direction of Rank's theory in pushing the decisive moment further back in the infant's life, Melanie Klein, who worked with very young children with moderate to severe psychological disorders, came to believe that aggressive tendencies were more critical than sexual ones.

There have also been criticisms from anthropologists such as Bronisław Malinowski and Edvard Westermarck. Malinowski's studies of the Trobriand Islanders have often been cited as a challenge to Freud's conviction that the Oedipus complex is a universal phenomenon.


The Oedipus complex is significant for Freud as the origin of neuroses, since the culturally unacceptable desires of the child have to be repressed in adulthood. When they were first conceived, Freud's constructs, such as the unconscious and Oedipus complex, pitted private, unacceptable, sexual desires against the constraints of society. After the development of his tripartite theory (ego, superego, and id), the demands of civilization came to be built into the subject in the form of the superego.

The logic behind Freud's way of thinking is structural. It is not the accidental problems that one encounters that cause neurosis. Rather, Freud put private desires and instincts in opposition to the demands of civilization. Accordingly, it is not just a few neurotic people who suffer from the Oedipus complex, but it is a universal feature of the human condition. It is this philosophical aspect that has given Freud's theory greater currency outside of therapeutic circles. The appropriations of Freud's Oedipus complex by Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari remained inside the realm of structuralism, but replaced the structuring agent, Oedipal desire, with language (the Name-of-the-Father), or capitalism, and the patriarchal family.

Despite Freud's insistence that he was creating a new science, the popularity of his theory, particularly of the Oedipus complex, has remained largely in the field of the humanities, because his theories cannot be scientifically tested (cannot be falsified). Even though critics, the general public, and even the father of "Little Hans" may question the veracity of Freud's assumption that such a diverse range of problems stem from unresolved sexual conflicts in prepubescent children, still the notion of the Oedipus complex attracted attention and fired the imagination of people far and wide. Some have attributed such popularity to the times in which Freud wrote, noting that his "work also seemed at first to offer liberation-from prudishness, hypocrisy, and oppressive institutionalized religion" (Tallis 2001).

There have been unfortunate results of the popularity his ideas achieved in the general public. The idea that even a very young child has sexual impulses and desires (even if it doesn't understand them) has been used as an excuse by child molesters and abusers. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the attribution of all our psychological problems to repressed sexual desires can lead to patients, while undergoing psychoanalysis, "remembering" sexual abuses that never actually happened, and even accusing people of such acts (Tallis 2001).

Even within mental health circles, there has never been complete acceptance of this theory as the source of neuroses. Anthropologists have argued that, based on their research, the phenomenon is not universal. Psychoanalysts, even Freud's colleagues, argued that there are other factors that are more significant. A broad spectrum of scholars, from scientists to theologians, rejects the notion of a structural basis for Oedipal feelings, regarding neuroses as deviations from true human nature. Nevertheless, despite its critics, Freud's basic idea, that our childhood experiences are important in later life, led to major developments within psychology, and continues to have an enormous influence on our understanding of human personality.


  • Borch-Jacobson, Mikkel. 1991. Lacan: The Absolute Master. Stanford University Press. Palo Alto, CA. ISBN 0804717281
  • Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1983. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN. ISBN 0816612250.
  • Freud, Sigmund. 1900. The Interpretation of Dreams. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 4-5: 1 — 621. Avon; Reissue edition. 1980. ISBN 0380010003
  • Freud, Sigmund. 1909. Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 10: 5 — 149.
  • Freud, Sigmund. 1912/1913. Totem and Taboo. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 13: 1 — 161.
  • Freud, Sigmund. 1926. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. The Standard Edition of the Comlete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 20: 87 — 172. W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition. 1977. ISBN 0393008746
  • Serban, George. 1982. The Tyranny of Magical Thinking. E. P. Dutton Inc., New York. ISBN 052524140X
  • Tallis, R.C. 2001. Burying Freud


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