According to Freud, every person must surmount his Oedipal Complex by repressing his desires into the subconscious. In his pre-Oedipal stage, a child harbors an incestuous love for his mother, which he overcomes when his father enters the picture. The father possesses the mother completely and represents the ultimate authority which has the power to punish and castrate. Unable to replace his father, a child learns to identify with him, sublimate his desires and channel his repressed energies into socially acceptable forms of expression. His father, "symbolizes a place, a possibility, which he himself will be able to take up and realize in the future…the boy makes peace with his father, identifies with him, and is thus introduced into a symbolic role of manhood" (Eagleton, 134). Freud also outlines the steps a female child takes in moving past the Oedipal Complex; however, in this blog entry, we will focus on Freud's analysis of the male child.
What happens when a child is unable to successfully navigate the treacherous waters of the Oedipal Stage? Freud argues that the Oedipal Complex is the "nucleus of the neuroses" and in certain cases sublimated desires can cause sexual deviance and confusion, phobias, obsessions, hysterics, paranoia, and schizophrenia (Eagleton 137-138). To demonstrate what can happen when a child never transitions out of what Freud calls the Phallic Stage of the Oedipal Complex, I included a clip from Sex and the City, where Charlotte York walks into her bathroom and finds her husband with his mother, Bunny, who is giving him a bath. In the television series Bunny is portrayed as Trey's strong, interfering mother, who retains a powerful hold over her son and refuses to relinquish any of that power to her new daughter-in-law. In this scene, Bunny is smoking a cigarette next to her naked son and tells Charlotte how much she reminds her of herself. Charlotte realizes that in choosing her, Trey has married his mother. Her husband's inability to separate from his mother is a constant source of tension in their relationship and eventually leads to their divorce.
Another example of a child's failed transition out of the Phallic Stage can be seen in the movie In Dreams, where Robert Downy Jr., who is obsessed with his dead mother, abducts Annette Benning in an attempt to recreate his childhood. Robert Downy Jr., who in a previous scene appeared in his mother's clothes, dresses Annette Benning in the same clothes so that she resembles his mother. He tells her that he will not hurt her if she loves him like his mother loved his father. When Annette Benning refuses to become his mother/wife, he tries to kill her.
Sometimes, the target of a person's neurosis is the father because the child continues to resent the father's authority and never learns to identify with him or the patriarchal role he is expected to assume as an adult. I included a clip from Hamlet 2, which is a movie about a play of the same name, written and directed by Steve Coogan's character, who is a frustrated actor turned high school drama teacher. In choosing an acting career, he disappointed his father and these father issues manifest themselves in the play, which is mostly about how the two main characters, Jesus and Hamlet attempt to gain independence from their strong fathers. In the final scene of the movie, Steve Coogan's character, Hamlet, and Jesus are conflated and become "The Son" who finally gains an independent identity from his father and finds freedom and happiness in the separation.
Another problem that arises from the failure to resolve the Oedipal Stage is when a man transfers his fear of castration to women. In other words, he may believe that a woman can drain his life force during the act of sex—a common belief among Classical and medieval scholars. Aristotle and Galen believed that sexual activity would drain a man's vitality, leaving him permanently debilitated (Blamires 38). I included a clip from Dr. Strangelove; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In this scene, General Jack D. Ripper holds a giant gun in his hand while he tells Mandrake that because he once felt a "profound sense of fatigue" after sex, he believes that sex can lead to a "loss of essence" and has taken great care to avoid losing any more of his vital power to women during sex.
Woman Defamed and Woman Defended. Ed. Alcuin Blamires. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.