Freud's "Oedipus complex".

The theory that would become the Oedipus complex developed from what remained of the seduction theory after Freud had decided that his patients had not actually been seduced by their relatives but had wished to be. Freud first publicly referred to the myth of Oedipus as representing a human truth in The Interpretation of Dreams and later confirmed his findings in the case study of "little Hans" (1909). Hans (actually Herbert Graf, the son of one of Freud's early followers) was a five year old boy who refused to leave his house as he was terrified that a horse would bite him - or, decided Freud, that his father would castrate him with his big (horse-like) penis in retaliation for Hans's forbidden longing for his mother. The case of Little Hans proved to be the first occasion that Freud had tested one of his theories directly on a child instead of relying on adult patients' memories of this long-ago period, and he was relieved that the case confirmed how important a part childhood played in the formation of a later neurosis. However, it should be noted that Hans's analysis had in fact been carried out largely by his father, with Freud playing the part of an observer and advising him on the correct means of treatment.

Freud did not refer to his new theory as "the Oedipus complex" until the following year, 1910, in A Special Type of Object Choice Made By Men. As we have seen, he argued in Totem and Taboo in 1913 that civilisation itself had been founded on a literal playing out of the Oedipal drama, the primal murder of the father, and that the mind of primitive man represents our own infantile state. In its best known (or "positive") form, the complex is considered to be the (male) child's (unconscious) wish to kill his father so that he can take (sexual) possession of his mother, which often translates into a conscious desire to surpass (castrate) him. Freud later outlined a passive trajectory: the child can also wish to replace his mother and be loved by his father. This is the "negative form" of the complex.

These binary oppositions, however, are not as simple as they first appear. Individual cases can occur anywhere between these two poles. Therefore, the role of ambivalence, "the most natural and common of conditions" (1), in the child's attitude to the parents is the key to understanding the Oedipus complex. Ambivalence is the rule rather than the exception in the Oedipal triangle: Hans was tormented by his phobias all the more painfully as he loved his father as much as he resented him, so he was also afraid of falling horses as they represented the punishment that could come to his father through his hateful wishes (2).

The Oedipus complex is an infantile phenomenon which occurs in the phallic phase (from three years of age) and is usually resolved in early childhood (at around the age of five) as the child realises that it will result in castration whichever path he takes. If he tries to threaten his father he will be defeated as the father is always stronger and can satisfy the mother's desires in ways unattainable to small children, whilst if he wants to be in his mother's place he will have to allow himself to be emasculated as a precondition to this new role. He therefore rejects Oedipal attachments and thus enters the latency period, which lasts until puberty. The Oedipus complex is replaced here by the superego, which becomes the source of morality or conscience in each individual and acts at this stage as an introjected parental authority which forbids incest. Its relative strength is usually determined by the moral constraints on the child - a boy raised in a very oppressive and authoritarian community will often develop a correspondingly strict superego. Freud argued that the Oedipus complex is present in everyone; those raised by foster-parents may experience it just as strongly as children brought up by their natural parents as it is not tied to biology but to the importance of parental figures. The complex became one of the most important tenets of Freudian theory. Shortly before his death Freud wrote that: "If psychoanalysis could boast of no other achievements than the discovery of the repressed Oedipus complex, that alone would give it a claim to be included among the precious new acquisitions of mankind" (3).

In the "normal" path of sexual development, childhood attachments are given up for good; once the Oedipus complex is resolved it should not return. Freud saw this resolution as total - he noted in The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex in 1924 that: "It is equivalent, if ideally carried out, to a destruction and abolition of the complex" (4). He expressed this in even more dramatic terms in Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes a year later: "the literally smashed to pieces by the shock of threatened castration" (5). The re-emergence of sexual life at puberty, then, brings only traces of the complex. However, as we have seen, some people remain tied to childhood conflicts through the fixation or regression of the libido, and in such individuals the complex may be activated again and become pathogenic. In these cases sufferers will attempt to repress the returning complex due to feelings of disgust and shame that have been built up against it over the latency period by the superego in place of the simple pleasure felt by the infant. A conflict is thus created between the unconscious desire and its conscious prohibition which results in a need for energic release. Since total repression is rarely achieved, the complex will emerge from the depth of the unconscious and force its way into consciousness, thus initiating an outbreak of neurotic symptoms (6). As previously stated, it is not important if (repressed) events which appear to motivate neurosis (for example, a "memory" of being punished by the father for being naughty) did actually happen or not - the neurotics believe they are real, so this leads them to want revenge.

Interestingly, Freud recognised Oedipal tendencies in himself first, before diagnosing them in patients and thus concluding that the Oedipus complex must be universal. He stated in his clinical papers (7) that a psychoanalyst had to be able to recognise his own complexes before analysing a patient in order that they did not lurk unresolved to prejudice his views of the patients' neuroses and thus create what Freud later referred to as a "counter transference". It was for this reason that he recommended that all new psychoanalysts undergo a "training analysis" themselves, conducted by a more experienced analyst (8). How then was Freud's own Oedipus complex demonstrated? His relationship with his parents appeared to be closer to the "positive" side of the complex. Freud never criticised his father for his weak nature and failure to provide for the family whilst he was still alive, but his death, as we have seen, caused a period of great self-analysis for him. The main impetus for Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory came from his realisation that, if all neurotic illnesses (such as his own "neurasthenia") were caused by childhood abuse, then even his own father could not be considered innocent. The way was thus clear for an understanding of fantasy life (9), and Freud began work on his magnum opus The Interpretation of Dreams in which he finally discussed his disappointment with Jacob.

Two incidents in particular stand out here. The first of these occurred when young Sigmund was seven or eight: "One evening before going to sleep I disregarded the rules which modesty lays down and obeyed the calls of nature in my parents' bedroom while they were present. In the course of his reprimand my father later let fall the words: 'The boy will come to nothing'. This must have been a frightful blow to my ambition, for references to this scene are still constantly recurring in my dreams and are always linked with an enumeration of my achievements and successes, as though I wanted to say: 'You see, I have come to something'" (10). This situation was subsequently reversed when Jacob was dying and afflicted with the incontinence of old age: hence Sigmund could at last feel compensated for his transgression by being able to place his father in this humiliating position.

The second incident happened a few years later: "I may have been ten or twelve years old, when my father began to take me with him on his walks and reveal to me in his talk his views upon things in the world we live in....'When I was a young man', he said, 'I went for a walk one Saturday in the streets of your birthplace; I was well dressed, and had a new fur cap on my head. A Christian came up to me and with a single blow knocked off my cap into the mud and shouted: "Jew! get off the pavement!"' 'And what did you do?' I asked. 'I just went into the roadway and picked up my cap', was his quiet reply. This struck me as unheroic conduct on the part of the big, strong man who was holding the little boy by the hand. I contrasted this situation with another which fitted my feelings better: the scene in which Hannibal's father, Hamilcar Barca, made his boy swear before the household altar to take vengeance on the Romans. Ever since that time Hannibal had had a place in my fantasies" (11). Freud's determination to make up for his father's apparent lack of heroism led him to respond much more forcefully when faced with similar situations of anti-Semitic abuse. When his young sons were bullied by a Gentile crowd during a family holiday to Thumsee, Bavaria, he advanced upon them, brandishing a stick, with such fury that they fled (12).

These childhood incidents, then, were clearly important to Freud as they both led him to surpass his father. Freud also used to fantasise that he would have had a better life if he had been Emmanuel's son, which explains his slip in the first edition of Dreams of "Hasdrubal" (Hannibal's brother) for "Hamilcar" (Hannibal's father). Freud later referred to such fantasy feelings as a "family romance". The child imagines that his "real" father is not the unsatisfactory husband of his mother but rather a noble and perfect figure who will one day return to claim his son. Interestingly, Freud's own family romance did nearly become a reality as there was at one time a plot afoot in the Freud family for him to marry Emmanuel's daughter Pauline (his half niece). This, of course, would have made Freud the grandson-in-law of his own father - very oedipal!

Freud's resentment (mixed, of course, with love and affection) of his "old" father (he was after all over forty when Freud was born and already a grandfather) was matched by his love for his beautiful young mother (aged twenty-one at his birth and therefore almost as close in age to her son as to her husband). Whilst she could be rude and tyrannical towards other members of the family, Amalie visibly and audibly worshipped her "golden Sigi" and he revelled in this, letting her dominate him well into adulthood. It is significant, as both Peter Gay and Paul Roazen (13) note, that Freud wrote a lot more about the son's oedipal feelings for his father than for his mother; he clearly did not want to follow up the implications or ambivalence of the "mother" part of the complex. This explains his reluctance in his letters to Fliess (14) to admit to having stolen coins from Amalie at the age of two and a half at the instigation of Resi Wittek. He later claimed that the nursemaid took them herself (which earned her a jail sentence) without using him as a go-between.

Another thing that Freud never resolved successfully was the position of the female child in the Oedipal triangle. Freud original portrayed female development as parallel to that of boys, but later (no doubt under pressure from his female followers) stressed the differences between the two sexes. Female development is more complicated as the Oedipus complex in girls appears as a secondary formation, emerging after an initial period of intense attachment to the mother. Until the phallic stage, the girl believes that she has the same genitals as a boy. She develops an intense envy upon the sight of the boy's penis, and blames her mother for her "castrated" condition. She turns to her father for consolation, and her desire for a penis is transformed into a desire to give him a baby as a substitute for the missing genital organ.

Whereas for the boy the repudiation of the Oedipus complex at least comes with the promise of his own entry into the patriarchal sphere, it provides no such rewards for the girl. It entails nothing more than an acceptance of her own subordinate position as she realises that she will never be able to provide her father with a satisfactory penis/baby and is thus forced to transfer her affections to a male other and wish to give him a baby instead, to satisfy the "proper" female role of mothering. Her superego also has different roots to the boy's: whilst his comes from castration anxiety, hers is constructed from fear of losing love since she is "already" castrated. The female superego is therefore less strongly developed than the male one; hence women are more likely to commit immoral acts:

"Character traits which critics of every epoch have brought against women - that they
show less sense of justice than men, that they are less ready to submit to the great
exigencies of life, that they are more often influenced in their judgements by feelings
of affection or hostility - all these would be amply accounted for by the modification
in the formation of their superego"

Views such as these, of course, did not exactly endear Freud to the feminists, as will be discussed later in the chapter.


1) See Gay, Peter ([1988] 1995) Freud: A Life for Our Time, Papermac, London, p.364.

2) Ambivalence, as we have seen, is also important in the primal myth of Totem and Taboo. In fact, much of Freud's work is built around this fundamental dualism of love and hate - it is a key factor in all neurotic illnesses.

3) See An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1939), Standard Edition XXIII, pp.193-4.

4) See The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex (1924), Standard Edition XIX, p.177

5) See Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes (1925), Standard Edition XIX, pp.257-8.

6) See also above. It should be noted that the returned Oedipus complex is not the same as that experienced by the infant - it may be more intense and parents may not appear as they were in reality as neurotics, as we have seen, are vulnerable to fantasy that will distort memories of parental figures.

7) See, for example, Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psychoanalysis (1912), Standard Edition XII.

8) Freud found his own neuroses valuable: as he told Fliess, his most original work was done when his neurosis was at its height, although for a long time the public did not realise just how neurotic Freud was as his family refused to allow many of his more intimate letters to be released uncut. Anna, the "beloved disciple", was particularly insistent on this, which was ironic considering that his relationship with her revealed his neurotic state as much as anything else did. Freud's least wanted child, the result of his failed attempts at abstinence after the birth of Sophie (Freud mistrusted contraception) was psychoanalysed by him constantly (in secret), and never left the parental home to marry due to a mutual agreement that she devote her life to learning her father's theories. We may yet learn more: there are still several unreleased letters in the Sigmund Freud Archive in the American Library of Congress that will not become public domain until the twenty-second century.

9) J.M. Masson famously concluded from this shift in Freud's thinking that the Oedipus complex was an invalid formulation and that the stories of sexual abuse brought by Freud's patients were in fact real: thus Freud took refuge in the Oedipus complex as a means of escaping the reality of sexual abuse in children. See Masson, J.M. (1985) The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory (revised edition), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth. However, surely the only logical (and clearly untrue) conclusion that can be drawn from the seduction theory is the one that led Freud to abandon it in the first place: that childhood abuse must be universal.

10) See The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Standard Edition IV, p.216.

11) See The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Standard Edition IV, p.197.

12) It should be noted that the young Sigmund missed the point of his father's story: Jacob told him in order to illustrate how much more difficult life was for Jews when he was a young man, as Jews were not awarded full civil rights until 1867.

13) See Roazen, Paul ([1975] 1992) Freud and His Followers, Da Capo Press, New York, p.44; Gay, Peter (1995) pp.505-6.

14) See Letters to Fliess (1892-99), Standard Edition I, p.264.

15) See Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes (1925), Standard Edition XIX, pp.257-8.


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ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

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