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This year will be the 100th anniversary of the publication of Freuds The

Unconscious, a revolutionary paper that followed years of revolutionary clinical work. In a

period of almost 50 years, Freud was able to produce several ideas that changed our
understanding on the human mind and had a deep impact on the XIX century. Amongst
them, the Oedipus complex or Oedipal situation as other authors refer to it is possibly
one of the most important because of its clinical and theoretical significance. However, the
subsequent generations of psychoanalysts started to develop concepts and theoretical
frameworks that took different directions from Freuds initial work. Psychoanalytic authors
drew their attention to the relationship between the analysand and the analyst, identity,
language, and other concepts. It is worth asking then if the Oedipus complex and Oedipal
situation are still live concepts in Psychoanalysis. To answer this question, it is necessary to
formulate a comprehension of the Oedipus complex and the Oedipal situation and,
posteriorly, study their manifestations in the contemporary psychoanalytic practice.

The Oedipus complex and the Oedipal Situation

The Oedipus complex is a concept which developed along Freuds entire written
work, suffering several changes from its formulation caused by his clinical discoveries and
theoretical innovations. During 1897, Freud was researching and expanding his work on
hysteria and developing a theory about dream work. In parallel, he started to use numerous
everyday events and elements from his own self-analysis to construct his theory. By
analysing a dream from his maid, Freud wrote about the death wish that children may have
against the parent of the same sex (Freud, 1982, pp.255). This would be the first antecedent
of the Oedipus complex. In the same year, this idea was expanded in another
communication with Fliess. Making an association between his self-analysis and the

Oedipus myth1, Freud discovered that during his childhood he had fallen in love with his
mother and was jealous of his father (Ibid, 1897, pp.265). Moreover, he proclaimed that this
dynamic is universal during early childhood (Ibid).
Even though its conceptualisation was in 1910, as will be discussed later, a greater
and formal explanation of the Oedipus complex can be found in Freuds metapsychological
work on Dreams. In this book, he narrated the Oedipus myth and unveiled its link with
unconscious infantile wishes: Oedipus prophecy would be understood as the realisation of
an early wish of killing the father in order to possess the mother (Freud, 1900, pp.262).
Freud went even further and sustained that those wishes would be repressed during
childhood and would remain within us (Ibid, pp.263). In this way, the Oedipus complex
was bound to infantile sexuality, becoming an essential component of the development of
the child and taking place between the third and fifth years of life (Freud, 1905, 1924).
During his clinical work, Freud was dedicated to analyse the triadic configurations
in his patients using the Oedipus complex. In his work on an infantile phobia (Freud,
1909a), Freud studied the phantasies and mechanisms associated with the rivalry between
Little Hans and his father. This analysis led to the formulation of the castration complex,
which played an important role in the last definition of Freuds Oedipus complex.

Briefly, according to Sophocles in Watling (1990), Oedipus, son of Laius and Jocasta, was destined to kill
his father and marry his mother. Laius tried to kill Oedipus, but he was saved by a shepherd and raised in
another city. When Oedipus was older and during his return to Thebes, he killed Laius without knowing
who he was. At Thebes and after solving the Sphinxs riddle, he became King and married Jocasta.
Eventually, the truth started to emerge after the interrogation to Tiresias, a blind seer form that time.
Jocasta was the first to discover the fulfilment of the prophecy, hanging herself because of it. When
Oedipus realised that he had killed Laius and Jocasta was dead, he blinded himself due the horror of his

It was not until 1910 that Freud coined the term Oedipus complex2 (Freud, 1910).
However, unlike his work on Dreams, Freud focused on the unfaithfulness felt by the child
due to the discovery of his mother having sexual intercourse only with his father (Ibid,
pp.171). This idea was a turning point in the approach to the Oedipus complex. Since that
moment, Freud centred his studies on the exploration of the sexual relationship phantasies
between the childs parents. The climactic moment on this matter in Freuds work would be
the theorisation of the primal scene, a concept that emerged from the analysis of the Wolf
Man and consisted of the phantasy of watching the parents having sexual intercourse (Ibid,
1918). Along with this, the Wolf Mans case study allowed Freud to propose the negative or
inverted Oedipus complex, where the child chooses as a love object the parent of the same
sex and has death wishes for the other parent (Ibid, pp.119).
Just five years after the Wolf Man case, Freud reformulated his theory on Oedipus
complex, adjusting it to his structural model of the mind (Freud, 1923). Specifically, he had
to solve how the Oedipus complex was going to be comprehended in the light of the three
agencies of the mind. By revisiting his theory on bisexuality of the mind (Freud, 1905),
Freud concluded that the Oedipus complex would be composed by four trends given by
identifications and object-choices with the father and the mother. The positive or negative
character of the Oedipus complex would be given by the strength the child identifications
and object-choices with the each parental figure (Ibid, 1923, pp.34). In this way, Freud
associated the aftermaths of the dissolution of the masculine Oedipus complex with the
renouncement of the mother as a love object-choice and an ambivalent identification with
the father given by the castration complex. While in the feminine Oedipus complex, there
2 The notion of complex was borrowed from Jung (Quinodoz, 2005) to refer the organised group of
representations and memories imbued with intense affects, partially or totally unconscious (Laplanche &
Pontalis, 1988).

would be an identification with the mother and the fear to lose her as love object (Freud,
1923, 1924, 1931). Finally, he proposed that the Superego the agency where the early
identifications reside is the heir of the Oedipus complex (Ibid, pp.36).
Between 1920 and 1930 the second generation of psychoanalysts began to propose
and publish their own ideas on the Oedipus complex that differed from Freuds initial ideas.
Klein stood out from the rest of her colleagues thanks to her clinical experience with
babies. This allowed her to have a different approach and understanding of early
experiences and how babies develop.
Klein proposed that the Oedipus conflict would start in the pre-genital stage (Klein,
1928, pp.179). She formulated a situation where oral and anal phantasies of a sadistic
character would play an important role in the relationship with the mother (Ibid, pp.170).
The baby would feel intensely frustrated because of the impossibility of understanding
sexual processes, driving the baby to appropriate the contents in the mothers womb in a
sadistic way (Ibid, pp.169-170). Along with the sadistic impulses, Klein also included her
idea of epistemophilic instinct to the Oedipus complex, relating it to the wish to
comprehend what is unknown i.e. parental sexual processes or Freuds primal scene (Ibid,
pp.170) and explaining how it develops in boys and girls (Ibid, pp.172-176). Additionally,
the child will have to deal with the fear of castration from his mother in the first place an
expansion to Freuds castration complex and then from his father, setting the foundations
for the superego (Ibid, pp.170-171). As Klein stated, these early stages of the Oedipus
conflict will be the first antecedents of the Oedipus complex, which would take place
during the genital phase as Freud proposed (Ibid, pp-173). These differences with Freud,
according to Britton (1992), would possibly be the reason why Klein decided first to coin

the term the Oedipus situation, finally being formulated as the Oedipal situation some years
Although her first approach was centred on the babys hate and frustration, years
later Klein abandoned this idea and focused on the relations between the Oedipal situation
and the depressive position. Specifically, she stated that the core of infantile depressive
feelings, i.e. the child's fear of the loss of his loved objects, as a consequence of his hatred
and aggression, enters into his object relations and Oedipus complex from the beginning.
(Ibid, 1945, pp.28). By proposing this, Klein stated that the capacity to tolerate the loss of a
loved object, mourning and phantasies of reparation would be in direct relation with the
mother and the father in the Oedipal situation (Ibid). Moreover, the resolution of the
Oedipus complex would be linked with the babys capacity to repair his mother after being
damaged and to preserve his father in the internal and external world (Ibid, pp.28, pp.32).

Oedipus complex and Oedipal situation nowadays

From more than 27,000 articles published between 2000 and 2015 on the
Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing website, a significant number of 5,826 papers
almost one in every five are related specifically to the Oedipus complex or Oedipal
theories (PEP Web, 2015). Although this inquiry is not precise enough to determine if these
articles are expanding, attacking or just mentioning the Oedipus complex or Oedipal
situation, this proportion could be interpreted, following Lacan (1954), as a signifier that
keeps returning in the discourse. In other words, the aliveness of a concept would also be
given by how often it returns in the academic psychoanalytic discourse.
It is important to notice here, following the analogy between Oedipus complex and
Oedipal situation with a signifier, that there is not a single shared definition of the Oedipal

situation in psychoanalytic literature. All mentions to it implicitly refer to a triadic

configuration which vary from theoretical framework and author. For instance, the above
description of Kleins Oedipal situation represents this problem. Britton (1989), from the
British school, approaches the problem by defining a triangular space i.e. a space
bounded by the three persons of the oedipal situation and all their potential relationships
(pp.86). To illustrate his concept, he narrated an episode with a patient in which the relation
between his person and his own thoughts represented the parental intercourse who excluded
the patient in session (Ibid, pp.88). In this way, the persons in the triangular space could
also be thoughts.
Another example is the study of the Oedipal situation in adolescents made by Mann
(2004), where identity formation is emphasised. Specifically, unsolved issues in the Oedipal
situation would provoke problems in the elaboration of the Oedipus complex in
adolescence, ascribing to this unconscious dynamic a relevant role in the reconstruction of
identity (Ibid, pp.152). Finally, from a Lacanian perspective, Wilson (2003) remarks the
importance of what he called analytic third. Reviewing the ideas of Freud, Winnicott, Green
and others, he focused on how a third is necessary to the psychoanalytic process to work.
By saying that the formations of the unconscious are, quite precisely, the analytic third
(Ibid, pp.88), Wilson proposed that both analyst and analysand can find a way in which
their discourse feels like a shared object analytic third (Ibid).
These approaches have in common the Oedipus complex as their structural
component, where each main character and relationship is constructed, described and
determined by the authors theoretical framework. Thus it is possible to sustain that the
Oedipal situation is related to what Lacan formulated as master signifiers (Lacan, 1964) or,
from another tradition, to Bions non-satured elements (Bion, 1970). The Oedipal situation

would be like an empty container, which only has meaning once it is filled with an event or
theoretical understanding. Paraphrasing, Brittons triangular space would be the structure
which returns constantly in psychoanalytic work. What may have changed is, therefore, the
way in which the Oedipus complex and Oedipal situation are filled with a particular
understanding of the problem that it represents.
Nevertheless, there is a subject that escapes the previous analysis. Almost every
theorisation on the Oedipus complex embraces the main characters of the myth, but none of
them refers to Tiresias3. This character, who was a bisexual blind seer, played a major role
in the myth by telling the truth that Oedipus was unable to see. Coloma (2011) studied this
character using the psychoanalytic framework and proposed that Tiresias embodies an
analytic stance. The truth that Tiresias said to Oedipus would come from outside in the
same way as the Id manifests according to Freud (1923). The bisexual and blind
characteristics of Tiresias greatly resembles the Freudian unconscious, which has a bisexual
origin and does not have a particular object choice (blind) (Freud, 1905, 1915). In addition,
Coloma (Ibid) formulates that Psychoanalysis works on the invisible thoughts,
unconscious and that the analyst has to oscillate between not-knowing (Tiresias
blindness) and creating meaning (Oedipus search for the truth). This approach is radically
distinct from other contemporary traditions and opens way to different possibilities of
research on psychoanalytic technique.

The Oedipus complex has a monumental theoretical concept in Freudian
psychoanalysis. It condenses the notions of the unconscious, repression, infantile sexuality
3 See Footnote 1

(bisexuality and the difference of the sexes), instinct theory, castration complex, and many
others. It may not be a coincidence that Freud decided to position the Oedipus complex in
the centre of the psychoanalytic aetiology by saying that it is the nuclear complex of
neurosis (Freud, 1909b), and relating it to every human being (Freud, 1913). The
introduction of the Oedipal situation by Klein added complexity to the subject, relating the
Oedipus complex to the development of the child. These ideas are part of the backbone of
Psychoanalysis and questioning their validity nowadays could also be seen as wondering
about the validity of Psychoanalysis itself.
The Oedipus complex and Oedipal situation are still alive in contemporary
psychoanalytic theory. Their vitality depends on how often they return in the
psychoanalytic discourse, manifested in reinterpretations, constructions and deconstructions
found in journals and publications. However, the understanding of these concepts greatly
vary depending on the theoretical framework. From the vast amount of conceptualisations
and approaches, it is possible to essay a global formulation. The Oedipal situation could be
defined as an organisation of three members4, which maintains the structure of the Oedipus
complex, and is satured5 with the vicissitudes of an historical or actual moment and a
specific theoretical understanding of it. This comprises of a baby, his father, his mother,
representations and phantasies associated to each member, the relationships between the
baby and each parent, and the relationship between the mother and the father.
There is still more space for new theorisations. The work of Coloma illustrates how
the myth allows new understanding, not only for psychopathology, but also for the

4 Following Brittons triangular space (Britton, 1989)

5 According to Bions use of the word (Bion, 1970)

psychoanalytic training. This may be a forgotten characteristic of myths and the

unconscious: their inexhaustibility.