Put simply and summarised in one sentence, the Oedipus complex is the phenomenon whereby a very young child is attracted to its mother and becomes jealous of its father, whom the child regards as its rival for the mother’s affection. In summary, the Oedipus complex is about the child’s attachment to its mother, the psychical energy it has towards its mother as an object of desire.
So far, so non-controversial. After all, when a child is in the womb, it is entirely dependent on the mother for sustenance, protection, and life. When it’s born, it relies on the mother’s breast for sustenance, and the mother is likely to be the one who takes the most interest in the baby, the one the baby sees and encounters the most. For Freud, our psyches develop as we grow up, into a complex trinity of ego, id, and superego (which might be loosely paraphrased as ‘conscious self’, ‘unconscious primal desires and urges’, and ‘voice of conscience’). But when we’re very young, we’re all ‘id’. We haven’t had enough exposure to, or experience of, the wider world, to perceive that we are not the centre of the universe and that there are other people in the world, people with their own lives and desires, some of whom may also seek the affection of the mother.
Of course, the key figure here is the father: the child’s main rival for its mother’s affection. Thinking in terms of quite traditional gender roles here (and it’s worth bearing in mind that Freud first formulated the Oedipus complex in the 1890s, when women were still primarily stay-at-home mothers while their husbands went out and worked), the mother would spend most of the day with the baby, bonding with it; but then, when the father returns home from work, suddenly the child realises that he does not have a monopoly on the mother’s time and affection.
What can the very small child – who is still a very young child at this stage – do about resolving this problem? The father is too strong for it to overcome, so it cannot get rid of this rival for its mother’s love. One solution is, in the words of the old adage, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. Or, in the Oedipal scenario, ‘if you can’t kill Dad, become him’. The child realises that if it strives to be like this rival, it can seek to replace him that way instead, rather than trying to kill him in order to remove him from the picture.
How did Sigmund Freud come up with this rather curious theory? Well, not all of it is as outlandish as it might first appear. First of all, we simply have to observe the behaviour of small infants to see that they are, by their very nature, selfish: they don’t know how to be anything else. Their lives revolve around being fed and performing key bodily functions. Eat, go to the toilet (although not literally, of course: even potty-training has not yet begun!), sleep. It’s natural that the small child would assume they were the most important person in the world and that the mother was there to ‘serve’ them and bestow affection on them. Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex helps to explain how we shift from this wholly self-centred view of our relationships with others to a wider and more nuanced understanding of our place in the world.
But Freud also took inspiration from the ancient Greek play, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, in which Oedipus inadvertently kills his father (without realising it’s his father) and marries his mother (again, not realising it’s his mother). And Freud thought his theory of the Oedipus complex could also help to explain what is going on in another great tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which, for Freud, the title character has repressed his desire for his mother, not least because his uncle has married Gertrude and Hamlet lacks the courage to challenge his uncle as a rival for his mother’s affection.
It’s widely thought that Freud introduced the term ‘Electra complex’ – after Electra, the ancient Greek heroine who killed her mother, Clytemnestra in revenge for the murder of her father, Agamemnon – as the female complement to the (male-centred) Oedipus complex. But in fact, it was one of Freud’s followers, Carl Jung, who introduced the term ‘Electra complex’ in 1913, three years after Freud had named the Oedipus complex. Actually, Freud believed that the Oedipus complex could be applied to both male and female children: there is, then, such a thing as a female Oedipus complex (with the young girl desiring her father and wanting to kill her mother). The main difference is the experience of this psychodrama, with boys developing castration anxiety (the fear that his father will discover he desires his mother, and castrate him to deprive him of sexual power), and girls developing penis envy (wishing they had what their father has).
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.