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An oedipal complex or the Oedipus complex is a concept within psychoanalytic theory referring to a stage of psychosexual development where a child of either gender regards the parent of the same gender as an adversary, and competitor, for the exclusive love of the parent of the opposite gender. The name derives from the Greek myth of Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his father, Laius, and marries his mother, Jocasta.

Freud considered the successful resolution of the Oedipus complex to be key to the development of gender roles and identity. He posited that boys and girls resolved the conflicts differently as a result of castration anxiety (for males) and penis envy (for females). Freud also held that the unsuccessful resolution of the Oedipus complex could result in neurosis, and homosexuality. Most Freud scholars today agree that Freud's views on the Oedipus complex went through a number of stages of development. This is well exemplified in the Simon and Blass (1991) publication, which documents no fewer than six stages of development of Freud's thinking on this subject:

  • Stage 1. 1897-1909. Following the death of his father in 1896, and his later seeing Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, Freud begins to use the term "Oedipus" but does not, at this stage, use the term "Oedipus complex".
  • Stage 2. 1909-1914. Freud refers to Oedipal wishes as being the "nuclear complex" of every neurosis, and later uses term "Oedipus complex" for the first time in 1910.
  • Stage 3. 1914-1918. Incestuous wishes in relation to the father as well as to the mother are now considered.
  • Stage 4. 1919-1926. Stage of complete Oedipus complex, in which considerations of identification and bisexuality become more evident in Freud's work. Freud now begins to use the term "complete Oedipus complex"..
  • Stage 5. 1926-1931. Applies the Oedipal theory to religious and cultural themes.
  • Stage 6. 1931-1938. Gives more attention to the Oedipus complex in females.

It can be seen from this model that Freud's writings on the Oedipus complex in females date primarily from his later writings, of the 1920s and 1930s. He believed that the Oedipal wishes in females are initially homosexual desires for the mother, and in 1925, raised the question of how females later abandon this desire for their mother, and shift their sexual desires to their fathers (Appignanesisi & Forrester, 1992). Freud believed that this stems from their disappointment in discovery that their mother lacks a penis. It is noteworthy that, as Slipp (1993) points out, "Nowhere in the Standard Edition of Freud's Collected Works does Freud discuss matricide" (Slipp, 1993, p95). Freud's final comments on female sexuality occurred in his "New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis" in 1933 (Slipp, 1993) and deal with the different effects of penis envy and castration anxiety. While Freud argued that both sexes experience desire for their mothers and aggression towards their fathers, Carl Jung believed that females experienced desire for their fathers and aggression towards their mothers. He referred to this idea as the Electra complex, after Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon. Electra wanted to kill her mother, who had helped plan the murder of her father. The Electra complex is not considered to be a part of Freudian psychoanalytic theory.

Although common usage refers to 'suffering from an Oedipus complex', psychoanalysis does not consider the complex a pathology, but instead a perfectly normal stage that all children go through. Oedipal desires are thought to remain heavily repressed and unconsciously in the minds of all functioning adults.

Theory of the Oedipal complex

Relying on material from his self-analysis and on anthropological studies of totemism, Freud developed the Oedipus complex as an explanation of the formation of the super-ego. The traditional paradigm in a (male) child's psychological coming-of-age is to first select the mother as the object of libidinal investment. This however is expected to arouse the father's anger, and the infant surmises that the most probable outcome 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 writings, the Oedipus complex was a far more complicated process 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 phallus, but resigns from his attempts to take the mother, shifting his libidinal attention to new objects of desire. In contrast, Otto Rank theorized in the early 1920s that the powerful mother was the source of the super-ego in normal development, a theory that catapulted Rank out of the inner circle in 1925 and led to the development of modern object-relations therapy. (Rank coined the term pre-Oedipal.)

Little Hans: a case study by Freud

"Little Hans" was a young boy who was the subject of an early but extensive study of castration anxiety and the Oedipus complex by Freud. Hans' neurosis took the shape of a phobia of horses (Equinophobia). Freud wrote a summary of his treatment of Little Hans, in 1909, in a paper entitled "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy." This was one of just a few case studies that Freud published.

Hans's fear and anxiety were thought to be the result of several factors, including the birth of a little sister, his desire to replace his father as his mother's mate, conflicts over masturbation, and other issues. Freud saw 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. Hans' behavior and emotional state did improve when he was provided with information by his father, and the two became closer.

Hans himself was unable to connect the fear of horses and the desire to get rid of his father. George Serban, in a more modern commentary, says:

"This assumption was suggested to him by 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)"

Critiques of the Oedipus Complex

Popular culture often portrays Freud as overly focused on sexual influences and his theory of the Oedipus Complex is often considered untenable. However, there have been many critiques of the Oedipus complex among the psychoanalysts and philosophers who acquaint themselves with the work of Freud.

Alfred Adler contended with Freud's belief over the dominance of the sex drive and whether ego drives were libidinal; he also attacked Freud's ideas over repression. Adler believed that the repression theory should be replaced with the concept of ego-defensive tendencies - compared to the neurotic state derived from inferiority feelings and overcompensation of the masculine protest, Oedipal complexes were to him insignificant. Although Freud believed that the Oedipus complex takes place around the age of five, Melanie Klein believed it took place far earlier, possibly in the first two years of a child's life. There have also been criticisms from anthropologists such as Bronisław Malinowski and Edvard Westermarck. Research such as that of Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands is often cited as a challenge to Freud's conviction that the Oedipus complex is a universal phenomenon. Within feminism, there is critique regarding the interpretation of Freud's penis envy (feminism and the oedipus complex).

Philosophy and the Oedipus Complex

Philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, along with radical psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, have used their work to show how internalized power structures are a function of the world order we live in, bent on disciplining the subject. Discipline is meant by Foucault in both its senses; he argues that the science of man has created its own object, relying on Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the will to power. According to this theory the Oedipus Complex can only arise historically under certain conditions.

Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus apply this to the dissemination of Freud's Oedipus Complex, which they call "Oedipalization". They believe 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. Their idea is that the family structure is the smallest unit of this subjection because now 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. Therefore they assume a system of pure immanence without an outside. They believe psychoanalysis is intent on producing neuroses while the capitalist system is really inherently schizophrenic. They propose an escape through anoedipal structures, relying on psychoanalyst Melanie Klein's concept of partial objects and proposing non-centered schizophrenia as a tendency to strive for, displacing psychoanalysis for schizoanalysis.

French theorist and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan revised the Oedipus complex in line with his structuralist attempt to combine psychoanalysis and linguistics. 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 dictates on the one hand to be the father and on the other not to, the father is elevated to an ideal. He is no longer a real material father, but a function of a father. Lacan terms this the Name of the Father. The same goes for the mother — Lacan no longer talks of a real mother, but simply of desire, which is a desire to return to the undifferentiated state of being together with the mother, before the interference through the Name-of-the-Father.

This desire necessarily lacks something, i.e. it is a desire of lack. 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. All language relies on this absence of the phallus from the system of signification. According to this theory, without a phallus outside of language, nothing in language would make sense or could be differentiated. Thus Lacan remodels the linguistic theory of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. It is this idea that forms the basis of much contemporary thought, especially poststructuralism. Nothing can be thought that is outside of language, but the phallus is there and therefore structures the whole system of thought accordingly. Oedipus could also be thought of the theme of the story.

Negative Oedipus Complex

The following text is meant as a representation of the Negative Oedipus Complex as Freud originally developed it. This does not necessarily represent the view of modern psycho-analytical theory. Furthermore, we will mostly describe here the Negative Oedipus Complex as Freud developed it for boys. The concept was developed much later for girls and Freud expressed doubts whether or not his ideas about girls were correct.

Theory: The concept of the negative Oedipus Complex is inseparably linked to Sigmund Freud’s concept of passive aims. He did not begin to develop these until around 1910, and most subsequent psychoanalytical writers have largely overlooked the significance of the subject. Only in 1918, Freud used the term Negative Oedipus Complex for the first time, in his essay on The Wolf Man case. The Wolf Man, so called because of his dreams about wolves, was a Russian aristocrat who was in psychoanalytic treatment with Freud for a long time. In his essay on the case, Freud focused for the first time on the existence of the negative complex in childhood. Others have named the concept passive, inverted, incomplete or negative Oedipus Complex. We chose the term negative Oedipus Complex taking into account the fact that this form of the complex in girls is not passive and also has active elements.

The manifestation of the Negative Oedipus Complex in boys consists of:

  • Identification with the mother. In the passive Oedipus complex, the boy identifies with his mother as wanting to take her place in the romantic and sexual relationship with the father.
  • Passive genital or phallic aims. The boy wants to receive his father's love, the boy himself has a passive role. Because the woman has a passive role in intercourse, Freud termed the wish to be penetrated by his father the passive genital aim.
  • Homosexual object choice. The boy wants his father to satisfy his sexual instincts, the father is his choice of object. These sexual instincts, however, should be interpreted more in a romantic way, than in an adult erotic way.
  • Castration anxiety. In the passive Oedipus complex, a boy recognizes that his wish to be copulated by his father requires that he himself has the genitals of a woman, so that he be castrated. The boy does not want to part with his penis and therefore fears the castration. In the normal Oedipus complex, castration anxiety means the fear of being castrated by his father as punishment for loving his mother.
  • Feminine attitude. This is the term Freud used to describe what later became the passive Oedipus Complex. The attitude is called feminine because the boy has a feminine identification with his own mother. He wants to take her place in the relationship with the father.

According to Freud, for both boys and girls, the oedipal development starts by the discovery of the differences between the sexes. This notion leads to differences in the oedipal development. As far as the girl is concerned, the awareness of the differences of the sexes gives rise to the idea that her penis was taken away by the mother for whom she feels a lot of resentment (Freud’s idea). Modern psychodynamic theory suggests a less sexually driven perspective: the girl rivals with the mother for her father’s love (Positive Oedipus Complex); at the same time she wants a good relationship with the mother and she identifies with the father and rival with him (Negative Oedipus Complex).

As we can see, at the basis of the concept lies Freud’s idea of innate human bisexuality. Freud explains this as follows in his book The Ego and the Id (1923):

“… a boy has not merely an ambivalent attitude towards his father and an affectional objects-choice towards his mother… (which is the ‘normal’ Oedipus Complex) …but at the same time he also behaves like a girl and displays an affectionate feminine attitude to his father and a corresponding jealousy and hostility towards his mother”.

According to Freud, the resolution of the Oedipus Complex in any form is a distinct and separate identification which the young boy has with both his father and his mother. In the negative form, the boy identifies with his mother as wanting to take her place in sexual intercourse, in other words: he wants to be loved in an erotic way by his father. Because the woman has a passive role in intercourse (according to Freud), the concept has been named passive Oedipus Complex, or passive mode of satisfaction. Freud termed the wish to be penetrated by his father the passive genital aim. In modern psychodynamic theory, the Negative Oedipus Complex is seen as less concerned with the pure sexual aspects that Freud described. A boy, in fear of being castrated by his father, may be willing to give him authority and to give up masculinity to keep a good relation with the father.

It is important to keep in mind the difference Freud makes between the terms identification and object choice. When a young boy identifies with his mother, he wants to take her place; hence, he wants to be loved by his father. If the boy’s mother is his choice of object, he sees her as the object of his sexual instincts: he wants to penetrate her and thus sees the father as a rival. So, in the normal Oedipus Complex the mother is the boy’s choice of object, while she is the object of the boy’s identification in the inverted complex.

Interestingly, Freud connected the Castration Complex, which is a part of the normal Oedipus Complex, to the inverted form. In the normal form, a boy is afraid of being castrated by his father as punishment for loving the mother. In the negative form, Freud sees the fantasy of castration or wish to be castrated of the boy as essential, even a precondition, for the central wish of the inverted complex: the boy wanting to be penetrated by his father. In the boy’s fantasy, his castration is necessary for the creation of the female sex organs (identification with the mother), which permits intercourse with the father.

See also


  • Appignanesi, L. & Forrester, J. (1992). Freud's Women. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson. ISBN:: 0-297-81244-0
  • Serban, George. The Tyranny of Magical Thinking. E. P. Dutton Inc., New York 1982. ISBN 0-525-24140-X
  • Simon, B. & Blass, R.B. (1991). The development and vicissitudes of Freud's ideas on the Oedipus complex. In P. Neu (ed.). Cambridge Companion to Freud. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0-521-3779-X. pp161-174
  • Slipp, S. (1993). The Freudian Mystique: Freud, Women and Feminism". New York: New York University Press. ISBN: 08147-7968-9 (hardback copy).
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