Sophocles Play Oedipus Rex English Literature Essay

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In this essay I shall be looking at three of Freud's clinical cases to show how they may enlighten us about the centrality of the Oedipus complex in the formation of the individual.

Personal and political issues feature in Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex and remind us how the fate of the individual is mirrored in the wider society. However, it is usually for other reasons that the Oedipus legend assumes importance in psychoanalytic therapy. In his work, Freud formulated keystones to psychoanalytic theory: unconscious mental actions; repression and resistance; infantile sexuality; and the Oedipus complex.

Freud initially recognised the Oedipus myth in relation to his own experience when, during his self-analysis, he recognised within himself his love for his mother which ran beside the feelings of resentment he had for his father which was at odds with the regard he had for him. He related this divergence to the Oedipus tragedy:

In 1897 he wrote to his then friend Fleiss:

"I have found, in my own case too, being in love with my mother and jealous of my father, and I now consider it a universal event in early childhood...If this is so, we can understand the gripping power of Oedipus Rex... The Greek legend seizes on a compulsion which everyone recognises because he feels its existence within himself." (Masson p.272.)

Freud presents the story as one which has universal significance regardless of one's life-experience and it is this universality of oedipal themes which Freud upholds from the outset of his work and will develop over the years. In a footnote in Three Essays on Sexuality he writes:

'Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls victim to neurosis.' (Freud, S. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). Standard Edition, Vol 7, p.226 n.1.)

The discovery of the Oedipus complex was significant and Freud found that it appeared during the development of the small child. He considered it was central in forming that which plans mental life, and also instrumental in the growth of sexual identity. Because of this, it is fundamental in the focus of human desire and in the construction of the personality. It should be noted that the Oedipus complex is not limited to normal development as it also located within psychopathology shaping "the nuclear concept of the neuroses" (ibid.).

Freud's thinking centred around the child and how it developed and dealt with feelings, both hostile and loving, directed towards each parent. Freud realised that the resolution of these conflicting feelings and desires was important in the development of the individual's personality and also in the individual's pattern of object-relations.

Those who have come after Freud have developed his work by discovering early or pre-genital aspects of the Oedipus complex, even in young children, of primal feelings of love, hate, envy and jealousy to which the awareness of triangular situations give rise. The most notable is seen in the work of Melanie Klein.

Through Freud's clinical work, it emerged that the Oedipus complex appears in different forms: the positive or direct, the negative and the complete. The story of Oedipus Rex contains the positive form. Freud traced the development of the Oedipus complex as it related to a boy's psychosexual development. In it, there is a sexual desire to exclusively possess his mother who is his first object of his affection. From about the ages of 3 to 5 this desire for his mother that the boy feels provokes an opposition to his father whom he then wishes dead. Because of this the boy is fearful that the father will castrate him as he has been found to have incestuous longings for his love object and hate for his father. The reverse is true in its negative form - love for the parent of the same sex and dislike for the parent of the opposite sex. Freud later discovered the complete form of the complex when these two versions are to be found together. Freud named this the phallic stage when the child engages with the Oedipus complex. Freud suggested that, because of the profound anxiety generated by the threat of castration, the boy eventually lets go of his wish to fulfil his desire for his mother. This decline of the Oedipus complex enables the boy to enter into the latency period. However, this period has its limits as Freud suggests that the complex re-emerges with the onset of puberty and is then overcome when the boy or girl makes an object-choice.

In 1923, in "The Infantile Genital Organisation" (1923e), Freud added a fourth pregenital phase, the "phallic stage" to the three - oral, anal and genital - he had introduced in 1915 in one of his revised versions of the Three essays. From then on, he considered that the child's psychosexual development focuses essentially on the primacy of the penis as the decisive erotogenic zone, and on the Oedipus complex as regards object relations. At the same time, he stated that the Oedipus complex reaches its climax between 3 and 5 years of age, during the phallic phase - precisely when sexual desire for the opposite-sex parent is at its height and castration anxiety is at its most intense.

Despite Freud's thinking about the subject, the phrase 'Oedipus complex' does not appear in the first (1905) edition of Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. (Put footnote: However, it was to appear in later editions.) Freud developed the concept throughout his work and it is interesting to note that no singular text of Freud's is given entirely over to explaining the complex. Freud first published the term Oedipus complex in 1910, in "A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men" (1910), the term complex being borrowed from Jung. (Footnote: S.E. Vol.11. p.171). However, the concept had been a familiar one to Freud having had already spoken of the "nuclear complex" in his "Five Lectures" (Footnote: S.E. Vol.11. page 47).

We see once again how fundamental the Oedipal myth was in Freud's thinking when he writes in The Interpretation of Dreams:

"King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our own childhood wishes" (1900:262). In the years that followed, Freud constantly referred to the idea of the Oedipus story in his clinical work, as in the "Dora" case in 1905, that of "Little Hans" in 1909 and "The Wolf Man" in 1918. It is to these cases that we now turn.

Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (Dora) (1905[1901])

In 1900, Dora, a woman of 18 (whose real name was Ida Bauer), consulted Freud who he accepted for analysis. Her presenting issue was that her father had had an affair with a woman named as Frau K. The woman's husband, Herr K, then began to flirt with Dora who seemed to be in love with him because he reminded her of her father. During this time, Herr K. took Dora in his arms and kissed her. Dora acknowledged to Freud that she had become aroused by this; she then got upset and had felt shame. It was from this point that Dora began to have strong negative feelings when in the presence of men; it was Freud's opinion that these pointed to Dora's constitution to be typically hysterical.

It was during her analysis with Freud that Dora unconsciously experienced erotic feelings towards Freud as she had done previously with Herr K. She also wanted to take revenge on Freud in the same way that she had wanted to with Herr K. Dora transferred two important persons from her past into the analysis with Freud. He represented Herr K and also Dora's father who's place, subsequently, had been taken by Herr K. The analysis brought to light a real event from Dora's life which resonated with feelings from her childhood, namely, the fantasy she had as a child of being seduced by her father. There is a clear link in this fantasy with the Oedipal situation and this was more important in Dora's childhood for the structure of her psyche than was the real event which had occurred with Herr K. As Freud states:

"At the beginning it was clear that I was replacing her father in her imagination...She was even constantly comparing me with him consciously." (ibid: 118)

It became apparent to Freud that Dora's conduct went beyond what should have been correct for her feelings towards her father. Freud goes on to state that she "felt and acted more like a jealous wife - in a way which would have been comprehensible in her mother." (ibid:56) The Oedipal situation is also evident as Dora identified with her mother. She did this, Freud suggests, by the confrontation with her father, thoughts of suicidal, and the incidents she made. He goes on to propose that this showed Dora to be placing herself in her mother's position and also with the woman that her father now loved. Freud concludes that Dora "was in love with him" (ibid:56).

Little Hans

The case study of an account of the very first psychoanalytical treatment of a child, who presented with a phobia of horses, was given in Freud's 1909 paper 'Analysis of a Phobia in a five-year old boy (Little Hans)'. The analysis was not conducted by Freud, but by the boy's father, Max Graf in 1908 and Freud supervised the analysis via Herr Graf.

Through this clinical work, Freud was able to provide evidence for his theory about children's sexuality. His analysis also presented confirmation that psychoanalysis could cure phobia in a child. We shall see that Freud's case study illustrated that, for Hans, he was anxious about the mystery of sexuality. The study also upheld Freud's theory that he had proposed in his paper Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality about the presence of infantile sexuality.

Freud showed evidence of the primary attention Hans took in his body and specifically his penis or, to use Hans' term, his widdler about which he was curious and gave both anxiety and pleasure. Hans gained ambiguous answers from the questions he posed to his parents, especially when concerning women or girls. We see this in his mother's reply to being asked if she also had a widdler: 'of course. Didn't you know that?' (footnote?) This ambiguity laid open for Hans the possibility that she had a penis like him. Freud suggested that this idea creates in the boy an infantile sexual theory where both men and women possess a penis. according to which women have a penis just as men do. Even though Hans' father tells him this is not so, the boy continues to wonder:

Hans: "Have you got a widdler?"

I: "Of course. Why, what do you suppose?"

Hans: "But how do little girls widdle, if they have no widdlers?"

I: "They don't have widdlers like yours. Haven't you noticed already, when Hanna was being given her bath?" (1909b p.31)

Freud suggested that because girls do not possess a penis there is formulated castration anxiety in the boy. This was born out in the exchange with Hans when his mother saw him with his genitals in his hand. His mother said: "If you do that, I shall send for Dr A to cut off your widdler. And then what'll you widdle with?" (ibid:8) Freud points to this event as the moment when the boy begins his castration complex and this points to the development of a neurosis.

The anxiety created by this event was enhanced by the birth of Hans's sister:

"Hans felt a strong aversion to the new-born baby that robbed him of his parents' love. This dislike has not entirely disappeared and is only partly overcompensated by an exaggerated affection."(ibid: 68) The conflicting feelings which the birth of his sister generated continued to develop. He was not just jealous, but stated that her would have her dead whilst simultaneously asserting his affection towards her.

It was clear to Freud that Hans was showing what he had written in The Interpretation of Dreams and in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality:

"Hans really was a little Oedipus who wanted to have his father 'out of the way', to get rid of him, so that he might be alone with his beautiful mother and sleep with her" (ibid:111).

This wish of Hans's to sleep with his mother co-existed with his wanting his father to go away or to die. This strong emotion of a death-wish was, for Freud, a normal oedipal part of all boys' development. As with Hans, if this wish was to intensify it may become the source of presenting signs. Freud writes about this ambivalence between love and hate which forms a core focus of the Oedipal condition.

"But his father, whom he could not help hating as a rival, was the same father whom he had always loved and was bound to go on loving, who had been his model, had been his first playmate, and had looked after him from his earliest infancy: and this it was that gave rise to the first conflict." (ibid: 134)

At this point in his work, Freud gave the phallus a primary place in the development of both genders, but suggests that boys may be aware that girls posses a vagina:

"But although the sensations of his had put him on the road to postulating a vagina, yet he could not solve the problem...his conviction that his mother possessed a penis just as he did stood in the way of any solution." (ibid:135)

In this paper Freud mentions fantasies which are directly connected to female sexuality, he does not connect them explicitly to any particular conception of female sexuality which would be the counterpart of male sexuality. This work would be taken up by others, notably Klein. Freud's theory of sexuality was based on the thought that the difference between the sexes was a subject of possessing or of not possessing a penis.

In this paper, Freud suggests that Hans's phobia - the fear of being bitten by a horse - was the result of a compromise: the boy's unconscious anxiety of being castrated by his father was directed towards the horse. Freud's showed through this clinical case that the phobia prevented the resolution of the Oedipus complex. At one and the same time, Hans felt an incestuous attachment to his mother and the ridding of his father and on the other hand he felt attachment to his father yet hated him as a rival who prevented him from being with his mother. Both of these positions, Freud suggests, Hans found unbearable and these guilty feelings elicited in the boy the horror of being punished for his prohibited desires by being castrated.

Freud attempted to clarify the universal nature of the Oedipus complex in his 1913 paper, Totem and Taboo. In it he explores the role the Oedipus complex plays in the personality development of all human beings and refers back to the case of Little Hans. He postulates the idea that the original crime of the killing of a father by a son and taking the father's woman for himself is handed down through the generations. The guilt related to this first killing appears in each of us as the Oedipus complex:

"...the beginnings of religion, morals, society and art converge in the Oedipus complex...(and) constitutes the nucleus of all neuroses." He goes on the say: " is the fundamental phenomenon of our emotional life." (Totem and Taboo p.157)

In the paper The Ego and the Id (1923b) Freud added to the idea of the positive Oedipus complex that of its negative (or inverted) form. He forwarded the theory which he based on the existence of a bisexual constitution which all people have from the earliest years. In the negative or inverted complex the boy wants to marry his father and eliminate his mother whom he experiences as a rival. This is unlike the positive form of the Oedipus complex in which the opposite is true and there is regressive identification with the mother. This, for Freud, is the earliest form of love for the object where the passive feelings the boy has towards his father directs the surrender of heterosexual longings for his mother along with masculine affinity with the father who is his rival. With this in mind we turn to Freud's clinical work which he presented in the paper "Wolf-Man" in 1918.

"From the history of an infantile neurosis" or "The Wolf Man"(p156 Quinodoz)

This analysis is of a 23 year old man who suffered from problems which were deemed to be incurable. The patient, Serguei Constantinovitch, presented with elements of psychosis but it was with his infantile neurosis which Freud was most concerned.

Freud asked Constantinovitch to recall central characters from his childhood. In the recollection he remembers a dream which stimulates anxious, phobic thoughts - of being eaten by wolves. From this, Freud concludes that Constantinovitch had discovered his parents copulating from behind and this must have been when the patient was 18 months old. Freud assumes this was the case so that Constantinovitch would have seen his parent's genitals. The analysis of the dream led Freud to believe that it had caused anxiety because of rejecting the desire to be penetrated from behind by his father so taking his mother's position. Here Freud points to the conflict between the Constantinovitch's passive tendencies which relate to the negative Oedipus complex and his masculine tendencies which relate to the positive or form of the complex. As with the case of Little Hans, the feelings that Constantinovitch had towards his father - a passive position - was repressed and the anxiety this provoked was displaced as a phobia upon an animal, namely a wolf. This experience, Freud suggests, did not have a pathogenic result at the time but later when the patient was 4 years old when his sexual development allowed him to engage with it. Freud wrote:

"The form taken by the anxiety, the fear of 'being eaten by the wolf', was only the transposition of the wish to be copulated with by his father, that is, to be given sexual satisfaction in the same way as his mother. His last sexual aim, the passive attitude towards his father, succumbed to repression, and fear of his father appeared in its place in the shape of the wolf phobia." (ibid p. 46)

The first significant incident which impressed Freud was a sudden change in the patient's character when the boy was 3 years old. This change had coincided with the arrival of his nanny. Two recalled memories appeared to confirm to Freud the hypothesis of seduction having taken place. The first memory had to do with verbal threats of castration made by the nanny, while the second had to do with sexual play of his sister who would toy with Constantinovitch's penis. Freud later concludes that the change in the boy's character may have been the immediate outcome. Freud showed how the boy turned away from his sister and towards his nanny. One day, as he was showing his penis to her, she scolded him and told him that children who did that kind of thing got a "wound" in that place. This threat triggered the fear that he might lose his penis. The castration anxiety was intensified when the idea came into his mind - after seeing his sister and another little girl urinate - that girls do not possess a penis.

Freud noted that the boy's sister had played with his penis and imagines this event to have had led to regression to the anal-sadistic stage which would accompany the 'passive feminine attitude' which the boy took up. He writes:

"It looks as though his seduction by his sister had forced him into a passive role, and had given him a passive sexual aim. Under the persisting influence of this experience he pursued a path from his sister via his nanny to his father. - from a passive attitude towards women to the same attitude towards men - and had, nevertheless, by this means found a link with his earlier and spontaneous phase of development." (From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (The "Wolf Man") 1918b (1914) S.E. Vol.17, p.27)

With this case, Freud showed that the threats, fears and phobias of castration, hostility and guilt came from the boy's father. Constantinovitch thought that a cure would be forthcoming if could get back inside his mother and be reborn. Here Freud thinks this wish is not just about the stated aim, but also of copulating with his father. The analysis Freud gave this was one in which there were part-objects, that is, the penis inside the womb. He writes:

"There is a wish to inside the mother's womb in order to replace her during intercourse - in order to take her place in regard to the father...There is a wish to be back in a situation in which one was in the mother's genitals; and in this connection the man identifying himself with his mown penis and is using it to represent himself." (ibid: 101-102)

Through his clinical cases, Freud came to realise that, not only were there positive and negative forms of the complex, but that both forms of the Oedipus complex reside together in every human being. This led him to suggest that complex or complete form of the Oedipus complex involves four people - the father and mother, and the masculine and feminine tendencies of either a girl or a boy based on the psychic bisexuality which Freud suggests we all possess. The balance of these two tendencies varies and, depending on which gains ascendency, the sexual identity of the individual is founded. Heterosexual psychosexual development can be seen to occur where there is the predominance of the positive Oedipus complex over the negative one.


In his paper "The Dissolution of the Oedipus complex" (1924d), Freud postulates how the Oedipus complex dissolves or disappears. What in fact disappears is the Oedipal conflict as we see it in the 3-5 year old child, but remains in the unconscious in its final form as the fundamental organiser of the individual's mental life, having lost the pathogenic character associated with the idea of complex.

Freud attends to the question of how a girl gains understanding of herself as a woman, and what forms the basis for her sexual conflicts. His answer brought him further controversy. He suggested that both girls and boys share the same instinctual drives and thus the same earliest relationship to the mother.

A few years later, Freud reconsidered what he had written on the sexual development of girls in Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes (1925j). Freud realised that girls must follow a different developmental path to boys because they share the same object, namely that of the mother. The difference for the girl is that she has to move her object from the love experienced for the mother towards love for the father. Freud still thought, however, that the girl's development is influenced by the phallus and the substitute for this is the girl wanting to have a baby by the father. Freud's paper Female Sexuality (1931b) reaffirms this view.

As we have seen in the three clinical cases above, Freud developed the Oedipus theory in relation to the development of a boy, stating that there was a balance between the development followed by both girls and boys alike. Freud thought that girls developed a similar jealous and erotised relation to the father and a wish to get rid of the mother.

He also discovered that the child's love and attachment to the parent of the same sex is as important as is the contribution of the parent's attitude and responses to the child's oedipal wishes. Freud's proposition was that, faced with conflicts, the child at around 5 inhibits their sexuality and enters into the latency phase, which lasts until puberty. It is at this stage in the child's development that an internal organiser takes over the role of the prohibiting parent, for which Freud used the term Super-ego.

M. Egle Laufer states that those followers of Freud who had accompanied him in his thinking thus far were now angry at what they saw as Freud's implication that the little girl had no inborn sense of her own genitals and hence her worth, but needed the awareness of her difference from that of the boy in order to define herself. (Footnote p.132 in Intro Psycho). Ernest Jones and some early feminists in the 1920's openly criticised Freud accusing him of misogyny. What emerges through this debate is the idea of gender identity and how this relates to the Oedipus complex. Analysts, who opposed some of Freud's thinking, showed through their clinical work with children that girls were aware of having different genitalia to that of boys. They argued that men were not superior to women for the simple reason of possessing a penis and criticised his work on the oedipal theory, specifically the centrality of the penis in the formation of the individual boy or girl. Freud responded to these criticisms by restating that whatever awareness a girl may have of her body this does not annul his theory that sexual instinct is defined by actively seeking an object, and therefore there is the same sexual desire in both boys and girls.

Melanie Klein agreed with Freud's thinking on a number of topics, but there were some issues on which she disagreed with him. She argued that the object is knowable from the very early beginnings of life, whereas for Freud, it was much later that the infant discovered its existence. Through her observation of children, Klein showed that the Oedipus complex was operating long before Freud had considered it to be functioning. (Footnote - she argued in favour of this in her work "Early Stages of the Oedipal Conflict" (Klein 1928).

Klein proposed that there was a need in the infant to keep a good relation to the breast and the mother which feeds and cares for it. This need leads the infant to split and project off on, or into, another object those feelings it has towards the mother which it finds unbearable to hold. The functioning of this defence system creates a type of oedipal situation: one object - the mother - being loved, and another object - the father, for example, being hated as a threat to the infants ownership of the mother.

Klein argued that this primitive complex originated not only in the genital drive as Freud had proposed, but in the oral and anal drives as well, and that it was built on the basis of part-objects. The early stages of the Oedipus complex, as outlined above, are an important discovery in primal object relations. She completed Freud's description of the psychosexual development of both boys and girls. She attached more importance than Freud did to the young boy's fixation on his mother - Freud was more concerned with the young girl's fixation. Klein' theory of female sexuality was unlike Freud's. She postulated that female sexuality was not a castrated equivalent of male sexuality, but had its own reality. This, she claimed, was based on the knowledge of all infants that the vagina exists by itself.

Klein developed Freud's theories of the Oedipus complex by expanding the idea of the inner world of a child. She suggested that this inner world has within it figures brought from early experiences whose task is influenced by projections and how these might connect to the child. These relationships from within the child's fantasy may form complex relationships which, Klein suggests, make up an early edition of the Oedipus complex. She also developed the work of Freud in relation to the character and connections that these internal fantasy figures may have and how they may continue to thrive within the person's adult mind, and thus control their present relationships. Klein states:

"From these interjected figures, - the child's identifications - the super-ego develops and in turn influences the relation to both parents and the whole sexual development. Thus emotional and sexual development, object relations and super-ego development interact from the beginning." (The Oedipus Complex and Early Anxieties in The Oedipus Complex Today. p.82).

One of the cornerstones of psychoanalytic theory, the Oedipus complex, became for Freud the basis for his understanding of the pattern of object relations for every human being. Freud, through his clinical work, demonstrated how the child wrestles with powerful feelings towards its parents and in grappling tries to bring resolution to huge Oedipal desires. He brought perception to the way that these Oedipal tensions were resolved had a direct link to the formation of the personality and, in doing so, fashioned the foundation of their sexual life as an adult - founding the model of the adults object relations.

Other psychoanalysts, such as Klein, have developed Freud's thinking by presenting a pre-genital stage of the Oedipus complex where intense primal feelings of the infant point to an awareness of relating in a triad. Freud's work, and others such as Klein, illustrated that the Oedipus complex is the basis for the formation of the personality and thus the crucible for the formation of the individual.


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