Talk:Oedipus Complex

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The term 'Oedipus complex', one of the cornerstones of psychoanalytic theory, derives from a Greek myth in which Oedipus unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother.

Freud dates the Oedipus complex to the ages of three to five years. The Oedipus complex explains the child's sexual attraction towards the parent of the opposite sex and jealousy of the parent of the same sex. The Oedipus complex is central to Freud's theory of human development.

For Lacan, the Oedipus complex marks the transition from a dual and potentially incestuous relationship with the mother to a triadic relationship in which the role and authority of the father or the Name-of-the-Father are recognized. Failure to negotiate this transition is held by all schools of psychoanalysis to be the primary cause of neurosis.

Sigmund Freud

Freud remarks that Sophocles's Oedipus Rex has such "gripping power" because being in love with one's mother and jealous of one's father is "a universal event in early childhood."[1] The expression 'the Oedipus complex' is not used until 1910. It initially refers to the boy's perception of his mother as a sexual object and of his father as a rival.

The Oedipus complex (complexe d'Oedipe) was defined by Freud as an unconscious set of loving and hostile desires which the subject experiences in relation to its parents; the subject desires one parent, and thus enters into rivalry with the other parent.

In the 'positive' form of the Oedipus complex, the desired parent is the parent of the opposite sex to the subject, and the parent of the same sex is the rival.

The Oedipus complex emerges in the third year of life and then declines in the fifth year, when the child renounces sexual desire for its parents and identifies with the rival.

Freud argued that all psychopathological structures could be traced to a malfunction in the Oedipus complex, which was thus dubbed 'the nuclear complex of the neuroses'.

Although the term does not appear in Freud's writings until 1910, traces of its origins can be found much earlier in his work, and by 1910 it was already showing signs of the central importance that it was to acquire in all psychoanalytic theory thereafter.

More Freud

Freud's sexual theories of children are attempts to explain the phenomenon of sexual difference, and assume the existence of a primal state in which only maleness exists; the fact that a girl does not have male genitals is therefore the result of her castration.

A girl may believe that she has been castrated by a jealous mother who resents her sexual feelings for her father, whilst the boy fears that he might be castrated by a jealous father. As he comes to accept the reality of that threat and to identify with his father, the Oedipus complex begins to dissolve. For the girl, matters are more difficult. The dissolution of her Oedipus complex requires her to adopt a 'feminine attitude' towards her father, and to displace her desire to regain the penis she has lost onto the desire to have a baby.[2]

Jacques Lacan More

Although Lacan follows Freud in making the Oedipus complex the crual moment in human development, he modifies the concept in a number of ways, both by introducing the idea of a symbolic phallus which is distinct from the biological penis, and by mapping it onto the transition from nature to culture described by Levi-Strauss. A successful negotiation of the Oedipal triangle is a precondition for entry into the human symbolic order.

Jacques Lacan

Lacan first addresses the Oedipus complex in his 1938 article on the family, where he argues that it is the last and most important of the three 'family complexes' (see complex).

At this point his account of the Oedipus complex does not differ from Freud's, his only originality being to emphasise its historical and cultural relativity, taking his cue from the anthropological studies by Malinowski and others.[3]

Sexual Difference

It is in the 1950s that Lacan begins to develop his own distinctive conception of the Oedipus complex.

Though he always follows Freud in regarding the Oedipus complex as the central complex in the unconscious, he now begins to differ from Freud on a number of important points.

The most important of these is that in Lacan's view, the subject always desires the mother, and the father is always the rival, irrespective of whether the subject is male or female.

Consequently, in Lacan's account the male subject experiences the Oedipus complex in a radically asymmetrical way to the female subject (see sexual difference).

The Oedipus complex is, for Lacan, the paradigmatic triangular structure, which contrasts with all dual relations (though see the final paragraph below).

The key function in the Oedipus complex is thus that of the father, the third term which transforms the dual relation between mother and child into a triadic structure.

The Oedipus complex is thus nothing less than the passage from the imaginary order to the symbolic order, 'the conquest of the symbolic relation as such.'[4]

The fact that the passage to the symbolic passes via a complex sexual dialectic means that the subject cannot have access to the symbolic order without confronting the problem of sexual difference.

Imaginary Phallus

In The Seminar, Book V, Lacan analyses this passage from the imaginary to the symbolic by identifying three 'times' of the Oedipus complex, the sequence being one of logical rather than chronological priority.[5]

The first time of the Oedipus complex is characterised by the imaginary triangle of mother, child and phallus.

In the previous seminar of 1956-7, Lacan calls this the preoedipal triangle (see preoedipal phase).

However, whether this triangle is regarded as preoedipal or as a moment in the Oedipus complex itself, the main point is the same: namely, that prior to the invention of the father there is never a purely dual relation between the mother and the child but always a third term, the phallus, an imaginary object which the mother desires beyond the child himself.[6]

Lacan hints that the presence of the imaginary phallus as a third term in the imaginary triangle indicates that the symbolic father is already functioning at this time.[7]

In the first time of the Oedipus complex, then, the child realises that both he and the mother are marked by a lack.

The mother is marked by lack, since she is seen to be incomplete; otherwise, she would not desire.

The subject is also marked by a lack, since he does not completely satisfy the mother's desire.

The lacking element in both cases is the imaginary phallus.

The mother desires the phallus she lacks, and (in conformity with Hegel's theory of desire) the subject seeks to become the object of her desire; he seeks to be the phallus for the mother and fill out her lack.

At this point, the mother is omnipotent and her desire is the law.

Although this omnipotence may be seen as threatening from the very beginning, the sense of threat is intensified when the child's own sexual drives begin to manifest themselves (for example in infantile masturbation).

This emergence of the real of the drive introduces a discordant note of anxiety into the previously seductive imaginary triangle.[8]

The child is now confronted with the realisation that he cannot simply fool the mother's desire with the imaginary semblance of a phallus - he must present something in the real.

Yet the child's real organ (whether boy or girl) is hopelessly inadequate.

This sense of inadequacy and impotence in the face of an omnipotent maternal desire that cannot be placated gives rise to anxiety.

Only the intervention of the father in the subsequent times of the Oedipus complex can provide a real solution to this anxiety.

Imaginary Father

The second 'time' of the Oedipus complex is characterised by the intervention of the imaginary father.

The father imposes the law on the mother's desire by denying her access to the phallic object and forbidding the subject access to the mother.

Lacan often refers to this intervention as the 'castration' of the mother, even though he states that, properly speaking, the operation is not one of castration but of privation.

This intervention is mediated by the discourse of the mother; in other words, what is important is not that the real father step in and impose the law, but that this law be respected by the mother herself in both her words and her actions.

The subject now sees the father as a rival for the mother's desire.

Real Father

The third 'time' of the Oedipus complex is marked by the intervention of the real father.

By showing that he has the phallus, and neither exchanges it nor gives it,[9] the real father castrates the child, in the sense of making it impossible for the child to persist in trying to be the phallus for the mother; it is no use competing with the real father, because he always wins.[10]

The subject is freed from the impossible and anxiety-provoking task of having to be the phallus by realising that the father has it.

This allows the subject to identify with the father.

In this secondary (symbolic) identification the subject transcends the aggressivity inherent in primary (imaginary) identification.

Lacan follows Freud in arguing that the superego is formed out of this Oedipal identification with the father.[11]

Since the symbolic is the realm of the law, and since the Oedipus complex is the conquest of the symbolic order, it has a normative and normalising function: "the Oedipus complex is essential for the human being to be able to accede to a humanized structure of the real."[12]

This normative function is to be understood in reference to both clinical structures and the question of sexuality.

The Oedipus complex and clinical structures

In accordance with Freud's view of the Oedipus complex as the root of all psychopathology, Lacan relates all the clinical structures to difficulties in this complex.

Since it is impossible to resolve the complex completely, a completely non-pathological position does not exist.

The closest thing is a neurotic structure; the neurotic has come through all three times of the Oedipus complex, and there is no such thing as a neurosis without Oedipus.

On the other hand, psychosis, perversion and phobia result when "something is essentially incomplete in the Oedipus complex."[13]

In psychosis, there is a fundamental blockage even before the first time of the Oedipus complex.

In perversion, the complex is carried through to the third time, but instead of identifying with the father, the subject identifies with the mother and/or the imaginary phallus, thus harking back to the imaginary preoedipal triangle.

A phobia arises when the subject cannot make the transition from the second time of the Oedipus complex to the third time because the real father does not intervene; the phobia then functions as a substitute for the intervention of the real father, thus permitting the subject to make the passage to the third time of the Oedipus complex (though often in an atypical way).

The Oedipus complex and sexuality

It is the particular way the subject navigates his passage through the Oedipus complex that determines both his assumption of a sexual position and his choice of a sexual object (on the question of object choice).[14]

In his seminar of 1969-70, Lacan re-examines the Oedipus complex, and analyses the myth of Oedipus as one of Freud's dreams.[15]

In this seminar (though not for the first time, see S7) Lacan compares the myth of Oedipus with the other Freudian myths (the myth of the father of the horde in Totem and Taboo, and the myth of the murder of Moses[16]) and argues that the myth of Totem and Taboo is structurally opposite to the myth of Oedipus.

In the myth of Oedipus, the murder of the father allows Oedipus to enjoy sexual relations with his mother, whereas in the myth of Totem and Taboo the murder of the father, far from allowing access to the father's women, only reinforces the Law which forbids incest.[17]

Lacan argues that in this respect the myth of Totem and Taboo is more accurate than the myth of Oedipus; the former shows that enjoyment of the mother is impossible, whereas the latter presents enjoyment of the mother as forbidden but not impossible.

In the Oedipus complex a prohibition of jouissance thus serves to hide the impossibility of this jouissance; the subject can thus persist in the neurotic illusion that, were it not for the Law which forbids it, jouissance would be possible.

In his reference to fourfold models, Lacan makes an implicit criticism of all triangular models of the Oedipus complex.

Thus, though the Oedipus complex can be seen as the transition from a dual relationship to a triangular structure, Lacan argues that it is more accurately represented as the transition from a preoedipal triangle (mother-child-phallus) to an Oedipal quaternary (mother-child-father-phallus).

Another possibility is to see the Oedipus complex as a transition from the preoedipal triangle (mother-child-phallus) to the Oedipal triangle (mother-child-father).


The principle that desire is the desire of the Other is also decisive in how Lacan reformulates Freud's theory of the child's socialisation through the resolution of its Oedipal complex in its fifth or sixth year. Lacan agrees with Freud that this event is decisive both in the development of the individual, and in the aetiology of any possible subsequent mental illness. However, in trying to understand this stage of subjective development, Lacan distances himself from Freud's emphasis on the biological organ of the penis. Lacan talks instead of the phallus. What he is primarily referring to is what the child perceives it is that the mother desires. Because the child's own desire is structured by its relationships with its first nurturer (usually in Western societies the mother), it is thus the desire of the mother, for Lacan, that is the decisive stake in what transpires with the Oedipus complex and its resolution. In its first years, Lacan contends, the child devotes itself to trying to fathom what it is that the mother desires, so that it can try to make itself the phallus for the mother- a fully satisfying love-object. At around the time of its fifth or sixth desire, however, the father will normally intervene in a way that lastingly thwarts this Oedipal aspiration. The ensuing renunciation of the aspiration to be the phallic Thing for the mother, and not any physical event or its threat, is what Lacan calls castration, and it is thus a function to which he thinks both boys and girls are normally submitted.

The child's acceptance of its castration marks the resolution of its Oedipal complex, Lacan holds, again shadowing Freud. The Oedipal child remains committed to its project of trying to fathom and fulfil this desire. It accordingly (and famously) perceives the father as a rival and threat to its dearest aspirations. Because of this, in a maverick theoretical conjunction, Lacan indeed likens the father-child relation at this point (at least as it is perceived by the child) to the famous 'struggle to the death for pure recognition' dramatised in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In this struggle, of course, the child invariably loses. But everything turns, according to Lacanian theory, on whether this loss constitutes a violent humiliation for the child or whether, as in Hegel's account of 'Lordship and Bondage’, its resolution involves the founding of a pact between the parties, bound by the solemnification of mutually recognised Law. If the castration complex is to normalise the child, Lacan argues, what the child must be made to perceive is that what satisfies or orders the desire of the mother is not any visible (imaginary) feature of the father (his obviously better physical endowments, and so on). The child must come to see that the whims of the mother are themselves ordered by a Law that exceeds and tames them. This law is what Lacan famously dubs the name (nom) of the father, trading on a felicitous homonymy in French between nom (name) and non (the 'no!' to incestuous union). When the father intervenes, (at least when he is what Lacan calls the symbolic father) Lacan's argument is that he does so less as a living enjoying individual than as the delegate and spokesperson of a body of social Law and convention that is also recognised by the mother, as a socialised being, to be decisive. This body of nomoi is what Lacan calls the big Other of the child's given sociolinguistic community. Insofar as the force of its Law is what the child at castration perceives to be what moves the mother and gives the father's words their 'performative force’ (Austin), Lacan also calls it the phallic order.

The Law and Symbolic Identification

The Law of the father is in this way theorised by Lacan as the necessary mediator between the child and the mother. A castrating acceptance of its sovereignity precipitates the child out of its ambivalent attempts to be the fully satisfying Thing for the mother. As Lacan quips, when the child accedes to castration, it accedes to the impossibility of it directly satisfying its incestous wish. If things go well, however, it will go away with 'title deeds in its pocket' that guarantee that, when the time comes (and if it plays by the rules), it can at least have a satisficing substitute for its first lost love-object. What has occurred, in this event, is that the individual's imaginary identifications (or 'ideal egos’) that exclusively characterised its infantile years have been supplemented by an identification of an entirely different order: what Lacan calls a symbolic identification with an 'ego ideal'. This is precisely identification with and within something that cannot be seen, touched, devoured, or mastered: namely, the words, norms and directives of its given cultural collective. Symbolic identification is always idenification with a normatively circumscribed way of organising the social-intersubjective space within which the subject can take on its most lasting imaginary identifications: (For example, the hysterical-vulnerable female identifies at the symbolic level with the patriarchal way of structuring social relations between sexes, outside of which her imaginary identification would be meaningless).


So, to repeat and summarise: Lacan's philosophical anthropology (his answer to the question: what is it to be human?) involves several important reformulations of Freudian tenets. By drawing on Hegel, game theory, and contemporary observations of infant behaviour, he lays greater systematic emphasis than Freud had on the intersubjective constitution of human desire. In this feature at least, his philosophical anthropology is united with that of philosophers such as Levinas, Honneth and Habermas. Equally, since for Lacan human desire is 'the desire of the other', what he contends is at stake in the child's socialisation is its aspiration to be the fully satisfying object for the mother, a function which is finally (or at least norm-ally) fulfilled by the Law-bearing words of the father. Human-being, for Lacan, is thus (as decentred) vitally a speaking animal (what he calls a parle-etre); one whose desire comes to be 'inmixed' with the imperatives of, and stipulated within, the natural language of its society. [see Part 2] Particularly, Lacan picks up on certain cues within Freud's texts (and those of Saint Paul) to emphasise the dialectical structuration of human desire in relation to the prohibitions of Law. If the Law of the father denies immediate access to what the child takes to be the fully satisfying object (as expounded above), from this point on, Lacan argues, (at least neurotic) desire is necessarily articulated in the interstices of what is permitted by the big Other. And it is characterised by an innate and 'fatal' attraction to what it prohibits as such, which is why he placed such central emphasis throughout his career on the enigmatic Freudian notion of a death drive.


For Freud, the childhood desire to sleep with the mother and to kill the father. Freud describes the source of this complex in his Introductory Lectures (Twenty-First Lecture): "You all know the Greek legend of King Oedipus, who was destined by fate to kill his father and take his mother to wife, who did everything possible to escape the oracle's decree and punished himself by blinding when he learned that he had none the less unwittingly committed both these crimes" (16.330). According to Freud, Sophocles' play, Oedipus Rex, illustrates a formative stage in each individual's psychosexual development, when the young child transfers his love object from the breast (the oral phase) to the mother. At this time, the child desires the mother and resents (even secretly desires the murder) of the father. (The Oedipus complex is closely connected to the castration complex.) Such primal desires are, of course, quickly repressed but, even among the mentally sane, they will arise again in dreams or in literature. Among those individuals who do not progress properly into the genital phase, the Oedipus Complex, according to Freud, can still be playing out its psychdrama in various displaced, abnormal, and/or exaggerated ways.


The Oedipus complex or conflict is a concept developed by Sigmund Freud to explain the origin of certain neuroses in childhood. It is defined as a male child's unconscious desire for the exclusive love of his mother. This desire includes jealousy towards the father and the unconscious wish for that parent's death. Later researchers used the term Electra complex for the same phenomenon in girls. (In Greek myth, Electra, daughter of Agamemnon, helped plan the murder of her mother.) Freud and his ideas were a primary inspiration for Carl Jung, who further described the concept and coined the term "complex".

The idea is based on the Greek myth of Oedipus, who kills his father Laius and marries his mother Jocasta. The Oedipus conflict, or Oedipus complex, was described as a state of psychosexual development and awareness first occurring around the age of 5 and a half years (a period known as the phallic stage in Freudian theory).

Theory of the Oedipus 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 superego. The traditional paradigm in a (male) child's psychological coming-into-being 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. Freud used the term "Oedipus complex" for both males and females, and did not like the way rivals had coined the term "Electra Complex" for the process in girls.

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.

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 crippling phobia of horses (Hippophobia). 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.

What he learned from Hans' situation backed up his theory.

Hans' 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 always been a great deal of critiques of the Oedipus complex by psychoanalysts and among philosophers who acquainted 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 or 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.

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, arguing 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.


The term Oedipus complex designates a network embracing the wishes and hostile impulses of which the mother and the father are the objects, along with the defenses that are set up to counter these feelings. Freud called this complex "the nucleus of the neuroses," and, beyond that, it may be considered the central structure in the functioning of the human mind. This skeletal definition needs refining in a number of ways:

  • Although very direct expressions of the Oedipus complex can be observed in young children, for the most part it manifests itself through unconscious formations identifiable only through their transposition onto other objects and their impact on other kinds of conflict.
  • The term itself suggests the complexity of this network; most modern-day authors assign it a structuring role in the development of the psyche, of which it will later become an essential functional feature.
  • It is important to distinguish between two aspects of the Oedipus complex, depending on whether the little boy's desire is directed at his mother and his hostility at his father (the positive version), or vice versa (the negative or inverted complex).
  • In both of these instances, the conflict is between wish and prohibition, a fact which signals that the cultural context of the establishment of the conflict in the child must not be overlooked.
  • By extension, it should be borne in mind that, although the objects in question in any society founded on the triangular or nuclear family are the father and mother, this may not be so in other cultures.
  • Lastly, because the Oedipus complex concerns not only the difference between generations but also that between the sexes, a distinction must perforce be drawn between the case of the girl and that of the boy.

The term Oedipus complex itself did not appear in Freud's published work until his paper "A Special Type of Object-Choice Made by Men" (1910h, p. 171). At that time, with some reluctance, he borrowed the word complex from Carl Jung. Freud's reference to the myth of Oedipus, however, originates much earlier. In a letter dated October 15, 1897, to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, he wrote: "I have found, in my own case too, falling in love with the mother and jealousy of the father, and I now regard it as a universal event of early childhood. . . . If that is so, we can understand the riveting power of Oedipus Rex" (1954 [1887-1902]). Indeed the notion is to be found in Studies on Hysteria, where Freud, in quest of the etiology of hysteria, stressed the traumatic role of sexual seductions, experienced by the child and for which the father was responsible (1895d). The notion took on growing significance for Freud over the next few years, as witnessed by the following remarks from The Interpretation of Dreams : "It is as though—to put it bluntly—a sexual preference were making itself felt at an early age: as though boys regarded their fathers and girls their mothers as rivals in love, whose elimination could not fail to be to their advantage" (Freud, 1900a, p. 256), and "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. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laïus and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfillment of our own childhood wishes" (p. 262). The theme was also central to Freud's analysis of "Dora" (1905e [1901]). It is noteworthy, however, that the Oedipus complex made no explicit appearance in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), though Freud took an important step forward in that work by fully acknowledging for the first time the idea of a childhood sexuality prior to puberty. The implications of this were very clear in the case of "Little Hans," published four years later, where Freud focused his explanation of the horse phobia of this "lively little boy" on oedipal impulses: desire for the mother founded on a very active infantile sexuality, along with fear of the father's retribution (1909b). In another case history published in the same year, that of the "Rat Man" (1909d), the role of the Oedipus complex, though evident, was veiled. By contrast, in his narrative of the "Wolf Man" case, effectively completed by the fall of 1914, Freud assigned the complex a major role, correlating it with the theme of the primal scene (the perception, whether real or fantasized, of sexual intercourse between the parents) (1918b [1914]). Throughout this whole period, therefore, the Oedipus complex was pivotal to Freud's clinical thinking. One problem continued to bother him, however. He considered that the complex was universal, a defining characteristic of the human race. But how was this universality to be explained? He offered one possible answer in Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), where he hypothesized as follows: In very ancient times humans were organized in primal hordes, each dominated by a strong, despotic male who monopolized the women and banned their access to the young men under the ultimate threat of castration. But a day came when the sons rose up, killed the father and thus gained access to the women. Thenceforward, however, guilt for this primal crime dogged them. Passed down from generation to generation, the conflict between wish and prohibition, still dominated by guilt regarding the murder of the father, is reborn in each individual: Such is the origin of the Oedipus complex. This mythical story (which aroused opposition even among prehistorians) is typical of Freud's tendency to revisit history and model the past of the individual on the past of humanity as a whole: Psychogenesis was based on what he called phylogenesis. Two years after Totem and Taboo, Freud carried this line of inquiry even further in A Phylogenetic Fantasy: Overview of the Transference Neuroses, a text so speculative that he himself refrained from publishing it. As omnipresent as the notion is in his works, it is striking that, aside from these two contributions concerned with the conjectured history of humanity, Freud never devoted a theoretical text to the specific issue of the Oedipus complex; in the great metapsychological papers of 1915 the oedipal theme is evoked only indirectly. There are, however, two papers, from 1923 and 1924 respectively, which clarify Freud's thinking on the issue in two major respects. In "The Infantile Genital Organization" (1923e), Freud described for the first time what would thereafter be considered a major turning-point in mental development, namely a complete reorganization, occurring roughly between the ages of three and five, centered on the primacy of the penis as erotogenic zone and, with respect to object-relations, on the oedipal drama. In this way Freud rounded out his developmental theory, which identified a series of stages or phases, also referred to as organizations), each characterized by the primacy of a particular erotogenic zone and by a specific object-relational mode. Thus, the oral phase was followed by the anal, the phallic (or oedipal), and then, after a "period of latency," adult genital organization. The phallic phase constituted the high point of the oedipal scenario: During this time sexual desires directed toward the parent of the opposite sex, as well as castration anxiety aroused by the child's fear of retribution from the rival parent, were at their most intense. Later this conflict would wane, as repression did its work (in this case welcome work), and the child would enter latency. Puberty and the intense psychic work it initiated would reactivate the earlier conflict in new guises, but after this stormy episode equilibrium would be achieved thanks to the onset of adult genital organization and the changes of object it made possible: the shift of desire to a woman other than the mother, or a man other than the father. May we then conclude that the Oedipus complex fades away? Freud's paper titled, precisely, "The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex" might be thought to suggest as much. In this text, Freud spoke of the complex being destroyed, or collapsing "because the time has come for its disintegration, just as the milk-teeth fall out when the permanent ones begin to grow" (1924d, p. 173). It is impossible to believe, however, that Freud intended to abandon his major thesis according to which the Oedipus complex was the very framework of the human psyche. What disappears, in fact, is oedipal conflict in its infantile form—not the form of organization that results from it. There are two points that need emphasizing here. In the first place, oedipal conflict in its most acute phase constitutes an essential motor of the play of identifications through which the individual person is constructed; the little boy, after wishing to be his father, and thus replace him in his mother's bed, eventually wishes instead to be like his father with respect to other women. Secondly, the reference to the boy cannot be allowed to obscure the problem of the Oedipus complex in the girl. This issue constituted a major theoretical stumbling block for Freud, and it has been a continual source of difficulty for Freud's successors. To begin with, Freud simply described the Oedipus complex in boys and added that, mutatis mutandis, the same applied to girls. The problem lay in the mutatis mutandis. As long as only the "positive" aspect of the complex was considered, it was enough to say that the little girl directed her incestuous desires toward her father, from whom she wished to obtain a child; indeed, this represented the realization in fantasy of the penis envy that, according to Freud, she harbored since finding out that, unlike boys, she had no penis (1925j). Later on, after the "resolution" of her Oedipus complex, she would obtain that child from a man other than her father. But this account appeared too simple, even to Freud himself, once it became clear that the Oedipus complex had to be viewed in its complete form, composed of both positive and negative aspects. How did the boy and the girl, respectively, enter the oedipal crisis that confronts these two aspects, and how did they emerge from it? And how, in each case, did the play of identifications become established? Freud's own answer to this question focused on castration anxiety. He asserted that, for the girl as for the boy, there was at first only one sexual organ, the male one. According to this infantile sexual theory, everyone had a penis, even if it was not obvious; it sufficed to say, with "Little Hans," that it was "quite small," but "it'll get bigger all right" (Freud, 1909b, p. 11). The child's discovery of the anatomical difference between the sexes was greeted at first by incredulity. In the boy, this was soon replaced by anxiety: if the little girl did not have one, it must be that she no longer had one; he believed that she used to have one, like everyone else, but had been deprived of it. In other words, the little boy understood girls to be, in effect, boys castrated as punishment for their masturbation and incestuous wishes. Thence-forward, castration anxiety, in the case of the boy, would be the chief motor of renunciation of such wishes and behavior, and the factor that would get him out of the acute oedipal crisis of the phallic phase. In contrast, Freud described castration anxiety in the case of the girl as stemming from a castration that had already taken place, and for which she sought reparation from her father, was what caused her to "enter" the oedipal crisis. She would emerge from it, like the boy, by means of a change of object, by directing her desire toward a man other than her father, just as the boy directed his toward a woman other than his mother. The term change of object needs clarifying, for it might seem ambiguous. The child's first object, for both the boy and the girl, is said to be the mother; this was Freud's view, and all psychoanalytic thinking since Freud has confirmed it. The boy effects change in a fairly simple way, shifting his desire to another person of the same sex as his mother; the girl, for her part, must transfer her desire onto someone of the opposite sex. Things remain straightforward, however, only as long as we focus exclusively on the positive complex; things become much more complicated as soon as we consider the complete form, and this theoretical step has sparked a good deal of controversy. Indeed, debate surrounding the theory of the Oedipus complex has remained intense in post-Freudian psychoanalytic discourse.

  1. Freud's original phallic monism aroused vigorous protest during his own lifetime, notably among women psychoanalysts such as Ruth Mack Brunswick, Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney, and Melanie Klein. It is important to bear in mind that Freud's ideas on the primacy of the phallus, penis envy, and castration do not apply to biological or sociological realities but rather to an imaginary register inscribed in culture as well as in the unconscious of each individual. Beyond that, problems of female sexuality, and of femininity itself, remain important areas for psychoanalytic investigation.
  2. As mentioned above, Freud saw the phallic, or oedipal phase as preceded in turn by two other major modes of organization, dominated by the oral and anal erotogenic zones respectively, each having its specific type of object-relationship. Since Freud's time, ever greater attention has been paid to these so-called pregenital phases, such as the earliest object-relationships, the primary narcissism in which the subject is forged, and lastly to autoerotism, the basis of this whole process of development. Their deep theoretical divergences notwithstanding, Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, the founders of child analysis, have played an essential part in this avenue of research; other contributors include pediatricians, notably Donald W. Winnicott, and, more typically, child psychiatrists such as Margaret Mahler, Donald Meltzer, Frances Tustin, Serge Lebovici, and René Diatkine. The field in which most of this work was done was childhood psychopathology, though it has been rounded out by studies of the earliest mother-child relationship conducted within psychoanalysis (Serge Lebovici) or on its fringes (Daniel N. Stern).
  3. Beyond the consideration of the origins of the Oedipus complex, this whole line of advance has given rise to the suggestion that the complex itself might be primal in character. Thus Melanie Klein, in certain of her writings, went so far as to say that, like the object, the oedipal structure was present from birth or even earlier; this thesis has been widely rejected, however, by many psychoanalysts. More acceptably, Claude Le Guen (1974) has described a primal Oedipus complex said to embody an initial triangular situation involving the nascent subject, the mother, and a third party who provokes eight-month anxiety, characterized by René Spitz as a response to the perception of a stranger whose presence suffices to reveal the absence of the mother and cause the child to recreate her intrapsychically to mitigate this loss (Spitz and Cobliner, p. 155). Similarly, André Green (1990) has evoked the relations between the self, the object, and the Other's object.
  4. The claim that the Oedipus complex is universal has occasioned lively polemic. Some authors, such as Géza Róheim, set out to demonstrate the correctness of Freud's view by mustering the ethnographical evidence. This approach was contested by anthropologists and sociologists who emphasized the diversity of family and social structures from one culture to another, and based on those grounds argued that such a complex could only exist within a modern Western society—or even only in the fin-de-siècle Vienna of Freud's day. A whole culturalist current (Bronislaw Malinowski, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and others) sought a middle way. Many years after Freud's time, these controversies seem somewhat dated. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1949/1969) crystallized an important idea in this connection by asserting that, whatever the differences in human social and familial forms, the prohibition against incest was both fundamental and universal.
  5. Finally, it has long been evident that non-oedipal forms of mental organization, or those just lightly marked by the Oedipus complex, are widely found; this truly vast field, extending from perverse structures to autism and infantile and adult psychoses, has seen very significant developments over the last two or three decades.

In conclusion, let it be said that the Oedipus complex and its correlate, the castration complex, are at the very heart of psychoanalysis. These ideas underwent a long maturation within Freud's work, and the theoretical tendencies that have developed since Freud have brought out the great complexity that attends them. The fact remains that in clinical practice these two notions are indispensable to the analyst and invoked on a daily basis; from a theoretical point of view, even if a synthesis is still elusive (there are as many attempts as there are major authors), there is a good measure of agreement on a few essential points.

The assumption that the Oedipus complex is universal remains axiomatic to the architecture of the theory; after all, it is felt to be the basis of the specificity of the human race. It is generally acknowledged, further, that a primary conflict between desire and its prohibition first arises in relation to two parental figures who incarnate its future operation. To which it should be added, in accordance with the contribution of Melanie Klein, that each of these two figures, just like the subject, present two aspects, as "good" and "bad" objects of love and hate. This is the context in which the complete Oedipus complex, and the play of identifications that springs from it, need to be apprehended.

See also


  1. Freud 1985
  2. 1924b
  3. Lacan, 1938: 66
  4. S3, 199
  5. Lacan, 1957-8: seminar of 22 January 1958
  6. S4, 240-1
  7. Lacan, 1957-8: seminar of 22 January 1958
  8. S4, 225-6
  9. S3, 319
  10. S4, 208-9, 227
  11. S4, 415
  12. S3, 198
  13. S2, 201
  14. see S4, 201
  15. S17, ch. 8
  16. see Freud, 1912-13 and 1939a
  17. see S7, 176
  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5: 1-625.
  2. ——. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
  3. ——. (1905e [1901]). Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria. SE, 7: 1-122.
  4. ——. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.
  5. ——. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.
  6. ——. (1910h). A special type of choice of object made by men (Contributions to the psychology of love I). SE, 11: 163-175.
  7. ——. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  8. ——. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.
  9. ——. (1923e). The infantile genital organization (An interpolation into the theory of sexuality). SE, 19: 141-145.
  10. ——. (1924d). The dissolution of the Oedipus complex. SE, 19: 171-179.
  11. ——. (1925j). Some psychical consequences of the anatomical distinction between the sexes. SE, 19: 241-258.
  12. ——. (1954). The origins of psycho-analysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, drafts and notes, 1887-1902 (Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris, Eds.). New York: Basic Books. ——. (1987]]
  • [[1985a [1915]). A phylogenetic fantasy: Overview of the transference neuroses (Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, Ed.]]
  • [[Alex Hoffer and Peter T. Hoffer, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  1. Freud, Sigmund and Breuer, Josef. (1895d [1893-95]). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 1-310.