Oedipus complex

Freud’s Oedipus complex – to the fore between the ages of three and five years – involves wish-fulfilling fantasies of the death of the same-sex parent, with usurpation of their place in the couple. Inverse forms are also central. The boy’s fear of castration by the vengeful father and the girl’s fear of loss of love lead to the abandonment of these wishes and to installation of the superego. Freud describes all this at the phallic level.

Klein, like Freud, sees the Oedipus complex as central, but modifies and extends his ideas in her new conceptions of an earlier Oedipus situation. She postulates infantile preconception with an exciting and terrifying parental couple, phantasied first as a ‘combined figure’: the maternal body containing the father’s penis and rival babies. This primitive version of a couple, phantasised as in continuous intercourse, exhibits sadistic oral, urethral and anal features, due to projections of infantile sexuality and sadism. Phantasies about the maternal body link to Klein’s new understandings of primary femininity and both the male and female Oedipus complexes.

Primitive superego figures develop early, in relation to infantile sadism generally, not simply as a result of the oedipal situation. The splitting characteristic of paranoid-schizoid functioning (see paranoid-schizoid position) facilitates clear and oscillating division of the part-object parents into ideal/loved ones and denigrated/hated ones. Increasing awareness of whole objects, ambivalently regarded, and the onset of depressive guilt for attacks lead increasingly to the need to relinquish oedipal desires and to repair the internal parents, allowing them to come together (see depressive position). For Klein, the Oedipus complex and the depressive position are closely linked.

Reproduced from The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought by Bott Spillius, E., Milton, J., Garvey, P., Couve, C. and Steiner, D. (Routledge, 2011)

See a list of key papers on the Oedipus complex