Oedipus refers to a 5th-century BC Greek mythological character Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his father, Laius, and marries his mother, Jocasta. A play based on the myth, Oedipus Rex, was written by Sophocles, ca. 429 BC.
Modern productions of Sophocles' play were staged in Paris and Vienna in the 19th century and were phenomenally successful in the 1880s and 1890s. The Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), attended. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams first published in 1899, he proposed that an Oedipal desire is a universal, psychological phenomenon innate (phylogenetic) to human beings, and the cause of much unconscious guilt. Freud believed that the Oedipal sentiment has been inherited through the millions of years it took for humans to evolve from apes. He based this on his analysis of his feelings attending the play, his anecdotal observations of neurotic or normal children, and on the fact that Oedipus Rex was effective on both ancient and modern audiences. (He also claimed that the play Hamlet "has its roots in the same soil as Oedipus Rex", and that the differences between the two plays are revealing. "In [Oedipus Rex] the child's wishful fantasy that underlies it is brought into the open and realized as it would be in a dream. In Hamlet it remains repressed; and—just as in the case of a neurosis—we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences.")
However, in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud makes it clear that the "primordial urges and fears" that are his concern and the basis of the Oedipal complex are inherent in the myths the play by Sophocles is based on, not primarily in the play itself, which Freud refers to as a "further modification of the legend" that originates in a "misconceived secondary revision of the material, which has sought to exploit it for theological purposes".
Freud described the character Oedipus:
His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so.
A six-stage chronology of Sigmund Freud's theoretic evolution of the Oedipus complex is:
- Stage 1. 1897–1909. After his father's death in 1896, and having seen the play Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, Freud begins using the term "Oedipus". As Freud wrote in an 1897 letter, "I found in myself a constant love for my mother, and jealousy of my father. I now consider this to be a universal event in early childhood.
- Stage 2. 1909–1914. Proposes that Oedipal desire is the "nuclear complex" of all neuroses; first usage of "Oedipus complex" in 1910.
- Stage 3. 1914–1918. Considers paternal and maternal incest.
- Stage 4. 1919–1926. Complete Oedipus complex; identification and bisexuality are conceptually evident in later works.
- Stage 5. 1926–1931. Applies the Oedipal theory to religion and custom.
- Stage 6. 1931–1938. Investigates the "feminine Oedipus attitude" and "negative Oedipus complex"; later the "Electra complex".
The Oedipus complex
In classical psychoanalytic theory, the Oedipus complex occurs during the phallic stage of psychosexual development (age 3–6 years), when also occurs the formation of the libido and the ego; yet it might manifest itself at an earlier age.
In the phallic stage, a boy's decisive psychosexual experience is the Oedipus complex—his son–father competition for possession of mother. It is in this third stage of psychosexual development that the child's genitalia is his or her primary erogenous zone; thus, when children become aware of their bodies, the bodies of other children, and the bodies of their parents, they gratify physical curiosity by undressing and exploring themselves, each other, and their genitals, so learning the anatomic differences between "male" and "female" and the gender differences between "boy" and "girl".
Psychosexual infantilism—Despite mother being the parent who primarily gratifies the child's desires, the child begins forming a discrete sexual identity—"boy", "girl"—that alters the dynamics of the parent and child relationship; the parents become objects of infantile libidinal energy. The boy directs his libido (sexual desire) upon his mother and directs jealousy and emotional rivalry against his father—because it is he who sleeps with his mother. Moreover, to facilitate union with mother, the boy's id wants to kill father (as did Oedipus), but the pragmatic ego, based upon the reality principle, knows that the father is the stronger of the two males competing to possess the one female. Nonetheless, the boy remains ambivalent about his father's place in the family, which is manifested as fear of castration by the physically greater father; the fear is an irrational, subconscious manifestation of the infantile id.
Psycho-logic defense—In both sexes, defense mechanisms provide transitory resolutions of the conflict between the drives of the id and the drives of the ego. The first defense mechanism is repression, the blocking of memories, emotional impulses, and ideas from the conscious mind; yet its action does not resolve the id–ego conflict. The second defense mechanism is identification, in which the boy or girl child adapts by incorporating, to his or her (super)ego, the personality characteristics of the same-sex parent. As a result of this, the boy diminishes his castration anxiety, because his likeness to father protects him from father's wrath in their maternal rivalry. In the case of the girl, this facilitates identifying with mother, who understands that, in being females, neither of them possesses a penis, and thus are not antagonists.
Dénouement—Unresolved son–father competition for the psycho-sexual possession of the mother might result in a phallic stage fixation that leads to the boy becoming an aggressive, over-ambitious, and vain man. Therefore, the satisfactory parental handling and resolution of the Oedipus complex are most important in developing the male infantile super-ego. This is because, by identifying with a parent, the boy internalizes Morality; thereby, he chooses to comply with societal rules, rather than reflexively complying in fear of punishment.
Oedipal case study
In Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy (1909), the case study of the equinophobic boy "Little Hans", Freud showed that the relation between Hans's fears—of horses and of his father—derived from external factors, the birth of a sister, and internal factors, the desire of the infantile id to replace father as companion to mother, and guilt for enjoying the masturbation normal to a boy of his age. Moreover, his admitting to wanting to procreate with mother was considered proof of the boy's sexual attraction to the opposite-sex parent; he was a heterosexual male. Yet, the boy Hans was unable to relate fearing horses to fearing his father. As the treating psychoanalyst, Freud noted that "Hans had to be told many things that he could not say himself" and that "he had to be presented with thoughts, which he had, so far, shown no signs of possessing".
Feminine Oedipus attitude
Initially, Freud equally applied the Oedipus complex to the psychosexual development of boys and girls, but later modified the female aspects of the theory as "feminine Oedipus attitude" and "negative Oedipus complex"; yet, it was his student–collaborator "Theory of Psychoanalysis", proposed the Electra complex to describe a girl's daughter–mother competition for psychosexual possession of the father.
In the phallic stage, a girl's Electra complex is her decisive psychodynamic experience in forming a discrete sexual identity (ego). Whereas a boy develops castration anxiety, a girl develops penis envy, for she perceives that she has been castrated previously (and missing the penis), and so forms resentment towards her own kind as inferior, while simultaneously striving to claim her father's penis through bearing a male child of her own. Furthermore, after the phallic stage, the girl's psychosexual development includes transferring her primary erogenous zone from the infantile clitoris to the adult vagina.
Freud thus considered a girl's negative Oedipus complex to be more emotionally intense than that of a boy, resulting, potentially, in a woman of submissive, insecure personality; thus might an unresolved Electra complex, daughter–mother competition for psychosexual possession of father, lead to a phallic-stage fixation conducive to a girl becoming a woman who continually strives to dominate men (viz. penis envy), either as an unusually seductive woman (high self-esteem) or as an unusually submissive woman (low self-esteem). Therefore, the satisfactory parental handling and resolution of the Electra complex are most important in developing the female infantile super-ego, because, by identifying with a parent, the girl internalizes morality; thereby, she chooses to comply with societal rules, rather than reflexively complying in fear of punishment.
In regard to narcissism
In regard to narcissism, the Oedipus complex is viewed as the pinnacle of the individual's maturational striving for success or for love. In The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924), Freud writes that in "the Oedipus complex... [the parent's] personal significance for the superego recedes into the background' and 'the imagos they leave behind... link [to] the influences of teachers and authorities...". Educators and mentors are put in the ego ideal of the individual and they strive to take on their knowledge, skills, or insights.
In Some Reflections on Schoolboy Psychology (1914), Freud writes:
- "We can now understand our relation to our schoolmasters. These men, not all of whom were in fact fathers themselves, became our substitute fathers. That was why, even though they were still quite young, they struck us as so mature and so unattainably adult. We transferred on to them the respect and expectations attaching to the omniscient father of our childhood, and we then began to treat them as we treated our fathers at home. We confronted them with the ambivalence that we had acquired in our own families and with its help, we struggled with them as we had been in the habit of struggling with our fathers..."
The Oedipus complex, in narcissistic terms, represents that an individual can lose the ability to take a parental-substitute into his ego ideal without ambivalence. Once the individual has ambivalent relations with parental-substitutes, he will enter into the triangulating castration complex. In the castration complex the individual becomes rivalrous with parental-substitutes and this will be the point of regression. In Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (Dementia paranoides) (1911), Freud writes that "disappointment over a woman" (object drives) or "a mishap in social relations with other men" (ego drives) is the cause of regression or symptom formation. Triangulation can take place with a romantic rival, for a woman, or with a work rival, for the reputation of being more potent.