The Oedipus Complex.


Since children are surrounded by adults with preconceptions about masculine and feminine behaviour it is tempting to assume that they first become aware of gender as something adults seem to think is important. Some theorists have suggested that children would take on a gender role without any outside assistance, as an inevitable consequence of their biological difference. Another viewpoint, which is not well researched, is that awareness of boys and girls being different comes about through socialisation - seeing other people and interpreting relationships.

Two immediate problems are that Freuds's description of the Oedipus Complex is quoted out of context with the rest of his argument, particularly as he was probably speaking in metaphors. The other is that we have to rely on other people's translations from his German text. I have always felt unhappy with the idea, since I could never remember experiencing anything like it, and I certainly had never found my father threatening. Perhaps, I thought, I hadn't, in fact, gone through the process. However, if it was normal for the father to be such an extreme threat, one would expect a boy to reject the father and cling to his mother.

However, there are a number of other criticisms. Freud wrote of the Oedipus and Electra complexes as occurring at the age of around four. There are studies that suggest that infants are able to discriminate perceptually between the sexes before the age of one year. Recent thought is that in the second year of life, they can to label themselves as males or females and, shortly after, label others.

When I was about seven or eight, a boy at school told me that girls don't have willies. Why he felt the need to tell me, I don't know, but I filed it away my memory under the heading "interesting but not immediately relevant information." Freud never suggested how small boys and girls could know they were different by the presence or absence of a penis. Clearly, every male and female child experiences its genital organs as part of its body map and the feelings they arouse. Thus it may behave as a boy but, without a basis for comparison, how does it know it is not a girl, and vice versa? This was in an era when people rarely undressed fully, even for sex, and certainly not in front of children. Many would even keep their underclothes on to bathe. Not all children had little sisters or brothers, and this was the age of total propriety when well-bred young ladies did not even look too closely at the 'baser' parts of flowers, the pistils and stamen.

The stereotypical picture of a Victorian father is of someone authoritarian and punitive, usually aloof and unbending. Stone (10) suggests that: "The middle class Victorian father was a terrifying and often cruel authority figure." While he is describing the English middle class, these issues are apparent in Freud's own life. His own father was 41 when he was born, and when Freud was four, may well have been pre-occupied with the family business, which was in difficulties. Freud was very close to his mother and, at his father's death, he recorded his need to acknowledge considerable hostility towards him.

It is now becoming accepted that an empathetic and caring father is valuable to a child's development. What are we to make of this 'new man' father? Is he a threat to a satisfactory resolution of the Oedipus complex? There is no evidence of this.


1. Stone. L, (1981) The Past and the Present, London: Routledge and Kegan-Paul.

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Bland. J. (1998) The Oedipus Complex.
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Last amended 28.04.98