The Oedipus complex, in psychoanalytic theory, is a group of largely unconscious – dynamically repressed – ideas and feelings which concentrate on the desire to possess the parent of the opposite sex and eliminate the parent of the same sex. According to classical psychoanalytic theory, the complex appears during the so-called oedipal phase of libidinal and ego development; between the ages of three and five years, though oedipal manifestation may be detected earlier.
Oedipus and the Sphinx
The complex is named after Greek mythical character Oedipus, who – albeit unknowingly – kills his father, Laius and marries his mother, Jocasta. According to Sigmund Freud, the Oedipus complex is a common phenomenon, and is responsible for much unconscious guilt.
Freud spoke of the mythical Oedipus in these terms: “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.”
Classical theory considers the successful resolution of the Oedipus complex to be developmentally desirable, the key to the development of sexual roles and identity. Freud posited that boys and girls resolved the conflicts differently as a result of the male’s castration anxiety – caused by Oedipal rivalry with the father – and the female’s penis envy. He also held that the unsuccessful resolution of the Oedipus complex could result in neurosis, paedophilia, and homosexuality.
Classical theory holds that a resolution of the Oedipus complex takes place through identification with the parent of the same sex and temporary renunciation of the parent of the opposite sex; the opposite-sex parent is then rediscovered as the growing person’s adult sexual object.
In classical theory, people who are fixated at the Oedipal level are ‘mother-fixated’ or ‘father-fixated’, and reveal this by choosing sexual partners who are discernible surrogates for their parent(s).
The classical paradigm in a human (male) child’s psychological maturity is to first select the mother as the object of libidinal investment. However, this is expected to arouse the father’s anger, and the infant surmises that the most probable result of this would be castration. Although Freud devoted most of his early literature to the Oedipus complex in males, by 1931 he was arguing that females do experience an Oedipus complex, and that in the case of females, incestuous desires are initially homosexual desires towards the mothers. It is clear that in Freud’s view, at least as we can tell from his later writ, the Oedipus complex was a far more complex procession in female than in male development.
The infant internalizes the rules pronounced by his father. This is how the super-ego comes into being. The father now becomes the figure of identification, as the child wants to keep his penis, but resigns from his attempts to take the mother, shifting his libidinal attention to new objects.