Oedipus Complex Research Paper

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Sophocles, one of the  great Greek playwrights, is best known for his Oedipus trilogy based on the tragic myth of the king of Thebes, who unknowingly slew his own father and married his own mother. When he learns of the truth of his deed, great tragedy befalls him. Some 2,500 years later, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, shocked the scientific world with his then radical ways of treating mental illness through a “talking cure.” This cure was based on a theory of personality in which people were driven by sexual and aggressive desires, which were clearly evident in young children. In his early case histories of Anna O, Dora, and Little Hans, for example, he discerned a clear pattern—little children seemed to have sexual feelings toward the opposite-sexed parent and feelings of jealousy and hostility to the same-gender parent that he or she would like to replace. But these children often felt guilt  over both  the  erotic and  aggressive  feelings that might prompt later neurotic symptoms. Freud framed his theory of neurosis as the “Oedipus complex,” named after the fabled story of King Oedipus. Freud would claim that all neuroses were based on this early “family romance,” which he claimed was universal.

In Freud’s theory of the stages of psychological development, in which the social intersected with the developmental, he postulated that children went through an “oral stage” of dependency and attachment to the caretaker(s) via sucking the breast, an “anal stage” of learning self control, and an “Oedipal stage” in which the young child felt erotic desire for the opposite-sexed parent and resentment to the parent of the same sex whom he or she aspired to replace. Girls felt angry toward their mothers who denied this wish and were thought  to have castrated the little girls, who  then  suffered “penis envy,” which today is understood more as based on male status and power than genitalia. Little boys feared that their sexual feelings to the mother would be greeted by a violent expression of paternal revenge, castration, and were left with enduring anxiety over their masculinity. In both cases, the turmoil of the Oedipus  complex eventually resolved when  the  child identified with its parents as role models for its personality and  mediators of society’s values, which were then internalized as one’s conscience—the superego. Henceforth, the child would submit to the internalized voice of authority, repress its desires, and renounce the desire for the opposite-sexed parent. Thus, for Freud, the Oedipus complex was the basis of (1) the superego (conscience) and the guilt upon which civilization depended, (2) the foundation of gender identity, (3) later choices of a mate, and (4) the central core of neurosis.

Freud has been significant for social theory because of his concerns with the emotional side of socialization and development and the applications of his theory to important  aspects of  social life.  In  common  with  many Enlightenment thinkers who embraced a “social contract theory,” he saw that passions and desires needed to be restrained in order for people to live together in relative harmony. In his early story of the origins of the Oedipus complex that were evident in primitive incest taboos, he theorized that people once lived in “primal hordes” ruled by a powerful patriarch who monopolized sexual access to the women of his group, including his daughters. When the sons reached puberty, they were excluded from the group. But,  sexually deprived and  outnumbering  him, they banded together, overthrew and slew the father, and ate his body to incorporate his power. But soon they felt remorse over the deed and henceforth vowed to repress their desires for the sake of joint living. In Freud’s theory of civilization, the Oedipus complex was the psychological foundation of civilization. Socially required constraint was maintained by the repression of desire through fear of punishment from within. People experienced this fear as guilt, as much about unconscious wishes as about actual conduct. Renunciation—at the cost of suffering—was the price of civilization that enabled collective adaptation.

Freud  saw similar dynamics operating  in  religion, which he considered an illusion of an all-powerful, benevolent father who gratifies frustrated wishes and provides people with the happiness that actual fathers, and real-life circumstances, typically deny. His theory of group psychology suggested that  people were likely to submit to the authority of a father figure to gain his love and recognition. Moreover, the common attachment to the same leader fostered unconscious attachments between group members.

Freud’s theories were controversial from the start. He was attacked on scientific as well as moral grounds. His theories have been  difficult to  test,  especially by  the “objective” methods typical of social sciences. One of the earliest to examine of the Oedipus complex was anthropologist  Bronislaw Malinowski  ([1927]  2001),  who claimed that among the Trobriand  Islanders, where the maternal  uncle  rather  than  the  father  disciplined the (male) child, Oedipal resentment was directed to him, not to the father who had sexual access to the mother. More recent studies shed doubts on Malinowski’s findings. Recent French theories such as those of Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan have recast the theory in terms of internalized discipline mediated through language, while Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggested that the Oedipus complex is fostered by capitalism to sustain its power.

Today, the Victorian family, with the father as breadwinner and  mother  as sole, full-time homemaker, has practically disappeared. So, too, has the classical Oedipus complex been rethought. (See Young 2001 for a recent review of the concept.) Many families consist of single parents and children, second marriages with step-siblings, and other configurations. As with any major theoretical framework, over time psychoanalysis underwent changes in theory and practice. For example, the work of Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, and Harry Stack Sullivan stressed social life and interaction. The British “object relations” theories and the “self psychology” of the Chicago school paid more attention to earlier stages of development, with concerns about early attachments and the adequacy of early caretaking and/or the extent to which the infant’s emerging self is given empathic recognition. Thus, children need to separate from symbiotic ties with caretakers, which can overwhelm and  stifle, while separation and individuation—being on one’s own—brings anxiety and uncertainty. Clinicians are more likely to look at how early attachments, resentments, and  identification with each parent based on such issues as their desired, if not envied, power. Thus notions of “penis envy” or “womb envy” that are salient in early childhood tend to be based less on anatomy than on the social roles and power of mothers and fathers.

For a number of reasons, psychoanalysis and sociology have been separate realms of theory and  practice, though some people have worked at the intersections of the social and the personal; Freud himself offered various speculations. Today, however, those who do work at these junctures are more likely to work within the frameworks of object relations theory or self psychology. For example, Nancy Chodorow (1999) has looked at early gender differences in  separation-individuation from  early attachments to the mother. Young boys are able to make a more complete separation. Young girls are more likely to retain an attachment and identification with their mother, and thus “mothering is reproduced” in the shaping of their character. Jessica Benjamin (1988) has focused more on the need for recognition of self. Young girls deprived of recognition early in life are likely to seek it at any costs and are prone to masochism and humiliation to gain recognition from a man.

The  most important  legacy of Freudian theory in general and the Oedipus complex in particular has been to look at the emotional side of child development in general and gender socialization in particular. More sociological theories of socialization and personality development were influenced by Georg Simmel’s theory of dyads and triads in which the family structure alone gave rise to tensions and conflicts in which one party, the child, might foster conflict between parents, play off one parent against the other, or join one to gang up on the other. Much of what Freud observed was a result of the emotional aspects of the family structure. Charles Cooley, George Herbert Mead, and the symbolic interactionist traditions looked at language, play, role taking, and institutional aspects of socialization that fostered the “social self,” the active “I,” and the socially expected “me.” These approaches, however, often ignore the very powerful role of feelings and passions in  the  development and  motivation of behavior. While few sociologists have tried to frame the major questions of civilization in terms of the Oedipus  complex, some have considered some of the implications of Freud’s insights on gender, desire, and morality. For Philip Slater (1970), the repression of erotic desire to the mother, frustrating basic needs for dependency and community, has fostered a lonely society prone to aggression. Philip Rieff ([1966] 1987), on the other hand, felt that Freudian theory undermined the morally based repression that society required to maintain civility and its high culture. More recently, Lauren Langman (2006a, 2006b) has suggested that  the macroeconomic consequences of globalization, often  experienced as “castration” (powerlessness), have inspired various compensatory strategies such as religious fundamentalisms, which privilege patriarchy and celebrate male aggression.

The nature of the Oedipus complex still fosters lively debate, which will continue as long as people have children whose personal development involves ties to parents and  intense  feelings, emotions,  desires, defenses, and ambivalence, all of which impact the nature of their adult personality.


  1. Benjamin, J 1988. The Bonds of Love. New York: Pantheon Books.
  2. Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. Freud, S 1921. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Liveright, 1951.
  4. Freud, S 1927. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.
  5. Freud, S 1930. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.
  6. Freud, S 1933. New Introductory Lectures on PsychoAnalysis. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1990.
  7. Langman, Laur 2006a. From the Caliphate to the Shaheeden. In Marx, Critical Theory, and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice, ed. Warren W. Goldstein. New York: Brill.
  8. Langman, Lauren, and Meghan Bur 2006b. From Exceptionalism to Imperialism: American Character andPolitical     Process. Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Vol. 24, eds. J. Lehmann and H. Dahms, 189–228. New York: JAI Press/Elsevier.
  9. Malinowski, Bronislaw. Sex and Repression in Savage Society. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  10. Rieff, Philip, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  11. Slater, Philip. The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. Boston: Beacon Press.
  12. Young, Rober 2001. The Oedipus Complex. Cambridge: Icon Books.

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