Understanding the Oedipus Complex

The Oedipus complex describes a state of psychosexual development in which a male child desires his mother and grows envious and hostile towards his father. The concept, developed by Sigmund Freud, is based on the behaviors exhibited in Sophocles’ myth, Oedipus Rex. There are also other psychological concepts based on that of the Oedipus complex, such as the Electra complex.

The Oedipus complex, or Oedipus conflict, usually comes into existence when a male child is around the age of three or four. A boy subconsciously develops a sexual attraction towards his mother and in turn poses his own father as a threat. Some view the Oedipus conflict as a critical event in a boy’s childhood as it has a great impact on his adult life. Most males outgrow this stage, suppressing the desire for his mother and the jealously towards his father. A child may continue to subconsciously harbor this hostility towards his father and sexual desirability towards his mother. As this child continues to age, he is more likely to gravitate towards females who exhibit the same qualities as his mother.

In the Greek myth of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’ father, Laius, has been told by an oracle that his own son would kill him and take his own mother as his wife. In an attempt to spare his own life, Laius left his newborn son in the mountains to die. Soon after, a shepherd happened upon the child and brought him to the king of Corinth. Oedipus was raised by the king and never told that he was adopted. An oracle once again prophesized that he would kill his own father, and Oedipus left Corinth. He came to pass a man whom he mistook for a robber, and killed him. Soon enough he came upon Thebes, which at this time was plagued by the presence of a sphinx, a grotesque and fearsome creature that killed travelers along the road to the city if they did not answer her riddle correctly. “What walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?” the sphinx inquired. Oedipus answered correctly, “A human being, who in infancy crawls on all fours, in adulthood walks upright upon two legs, and in old age uses a cane.” Upon uttering his answer, the sphinx killed herself. The people of Thebes were grateful to be rid of the monster, and in return for Oedipus’ bravery, they made him king and allowed him to have Queen Jocasta as his wife. Apparently the king had only just died, and a replacement was required. King Oedipus and Queen Jocasta lived happily for several years, and the Queen bore Oedipus four children. Unexpectedly, a plague came upon the city of Thebes, and the oracle proclaimed that the prophecy had in fact been fulfilled; Oedipus had killed his father, the king of Thebes, the man whom he encountered on his way to the city and killed. So, unbeknownst to him until that very moment, Oedipus had killed his own father and married his mother. Soon after, Jocasta killed herself. Oedipus was forced into exile for his incestuous acts, as well as the children that were born as a result of this unspeakable marriage. The only repentance and relief from his sinful actions came as he died at a shrine near Athens.

Sigmund Freud, who developed the Oedipus complex, also posed that females go through a similar stage in which they become sexually attracted to their father. It is called the Electra complex. A female child develops a sexual attraction towards her father and remains resentful towards her mother. As in the Oedipus complex, females who remain under the power of the Electra complex are apt to choose a husband who exhibits characteristics comparable to those of her father.

Sigmund Freud poses an interesting view on the psychological development of children. As in the myth of Oedipus Rex, a child is often subconsciously attracted to those who exhibit qualities of their parent of the opposite sex. Some may find the Oedipus complex unsettling, at the very least, but it brings a certain level of understanding as to why children are often more in favor of the parent of the opposite gender.