The Oedipus Complex

My argument aims to unveil how Jacque Lacan’s re-interpretation of Sigmund Freud’s (in)famous Oedipus Complex strips it of its sexist implication and repositioned the theory as a cornerstone of contemporary feminist theory. Chastised for his allegedly chauvinistic views, Freud once said, “throughout history, people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity” and although men will never escape contemplating this “problem” for “those of you who are women this will not apply – you are yourselves the problem” (Sigmund Freud).  Accusations of Freud’s sexist slant can be traced to this statement’s misogynous implications.  Justifying women’s inferiority through the biological absence of the male sex organ, Sigmund Freud employs the Oedipus Complex to underpin his hypothesis.  For Freud, the psychological development of young girls heavily relies on the alleged “penis envy” she exhibits as a child, explicating her unconscious consent later in life to the male-dominated social system.  Within the discourse of psychoanalysis sexual difference is not innate, and thus sexuality and gender roles are acquired through socialization. The theories Sigmund Freud and Jacque Lacan overlap concerning the fear of castration and penis envy, both intrinsic elements to the Oedipal period. However, their explanations of how a child determines its sexual position in relation to the ‘other’ differ quite a bit.  Freud claims that a young boy realizes his sexual position through successful passage through the Oedipal period, which happens only once his lust for his mother is extinguished by a fear of castration and identification with his father- this paradigm is inversely applicable to the experience of a female.  However, Lacan regards this identification as Symbolic and thus a child’s sexual position is actually rendered by its relationship with what Lacan has coined as the “phallus”, an unattainable ideal manifested in the Symbolic Other.

The Oedipus Complex retrieves its name from the ancient Greek legend of the notorious King Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother- an act of incestuous violence that an oracle early in his life predicted he would commit.  Terrified, he does everything in his power to escape his destiny, yet inevitably fails and in response tears his eyes out, blinding himself the horrid deeds he had carried out. Freud appropriates the Greek Legend of King Oedipus to explicate the perverse bond parents and children of the opposite sex participate in.  Lacing the early developmental years of children, successful passage through the “Oedipal period” is determined by whether the threat of castration triggers the formation of a child’s super-ego and thus entrance into the ensuing “latency period”.  These developmental stages all have inexplicable and varying impacts on the psychological growth of an individual. Lacan’s “point of view consists simply in seeing the Oedipus Complex as the pivot of humanization, as a transition from the natural register of life to a cultural register of group exchange and therefore of laws, symbols and organizations” (Lemaire 92). However, Sigmund Freud presents the paradox that due to the absence of a penis, the threat of castration does not traumatize a young girl to the same extent as her counterpart and thus the formation of the super-ego is frail. Regarding women in the vein of a mutilated male, Freud claims that this “deformity” or “lack” of a penis serves as “scientific” justification of women’s inferiority to men. This ‘penis envy’, as Freud called it, has a crucial impact on a woman’s psychological development and furthermore has fueled the debate on gender inequality. It is this distinction that fuels the sexist discourse against psychoanalysis.

According to Freud, the Oedipus Complex for a boy ensues his infantile sexuality wherein he experiences omnipotent fantasies of his penis.  Furthermore, this fantasy emerges in tandem to the narcissist illusion that he is the only object of his mother’s love. He “regards his mother as his own property.” (Freud 1) This delusion is manifested in an active desire to be possessed and filled by the body of the Other. This incestuous desire can be translated as a fantasy of what Freud coins as Das Ding.  However, the sight of a naked woman shatters this blissful naivety.  In effect, the child who was “so proud of his possession of a penis, has a view of the genital region of a little girl, and cannot help being convinced of the absence of a penis in a creature who is so like himself. With this, the loss of his own penis becomes imaginable, and the threat of castration takes its deferred effect.” (Freud 2).  The female genitalia thus triggers a deep fear that, at the hands of the father (or the Other), he will be “castrated”. In summation, the “destruction of the Oedipus Complex is brought about by the threat of castration” rendered by  “the authority of the father”, which is internalized by the ego, thus forming the nucleus of the super-ego and reinforcing “his prohibition against incest, and so secures the ego from the return of the libidinal object-cathexis.” (Freud 3).  This internal trepidation instills a morality that forbids the sexualization of his parents and results in the boy’s abandonment of his infantile sexuality.  With his incestuous lust suppressed through socialization, the boy submits to the place of his father and internalizes what Freud refers to as the ‘super-ego’, or in other words, the boy’s conscience. In turn, the child learns to live within the moral confines of society and furthermore the incident reinforces a sexuality that is socially acceptable. According to Freud, the failure to successfully pass through the Oedipal period may result in an inappropriate attachment to the mother later in life and/or homosexuality.

Young girls also pass through the Oedipal period, yet not to the same traumatic degree as boys.  For Freud, “things happen in just the same way with little girls, with the necessary changes: an affectionate attachment to her father, a need to get rid of her mother as superfluous and to take her place” (Freud 24). Although a young girl’s passage through the Oedipus Complex is also laced with the fear of castration, it does not have the same harrowing effect on girls as it does with a boy. At first, a young lady regards her clitoris in the same manner that a young boy perceives his penis.  It is only when exposed to the genitals of the opposite sex that she becomes aware of her “deformity”. Freud constructs a paradigm wherein the absence of a penis and the realization of this truth plagues a young girl in her youth, who perceives this void as an inferiority to the opposite sex.  In an attempt to justify this lack, a young girl “explains it by assuming that at some earlier date she had possessed an equally large organ and had then lost it by castration” (Freud 3) or that when she grows older, she will acquire just as big an appendage as the boy’s. Ultimately she adopts attributes of the mother and culminates a strong desire for her father, expecting to one day bare his child as compensation for her lack.  However, according to Freud, a young girl is spared of the brutal awakening, as it is not a social taboo for a lady to carry on a flirtatious yet harmless relationship with her father. In other words being “daddy’s girl” can be a life long affair because it isn’t necessarily perceived as inappropriate.  Freud claims that due to the benign nature of this experience starves her of reconciling with the social taboo and thus renders a woman morally inferior insofar as her ‘super-ego’ will never be as developed as that of a man.

In the infamous words of Freud: “here the feminist demand for equal rights for the sexes does not take us far, for the morphological distinction is bound to find expression in differences of psychical development. ‘Anatomy is Destiny’, to vary a saying of Napoleon’s” (Freud 3). Many feminists, such as Juliet Mitchel, Nancy Chodorow and Jane Gallop, blame Freud for fueling gender inequality by justifying women’s moral and social inferiority through evidence based on observation rather than scientific fact. The Oedipal vision “exhibit’s a distinct patriarchal bias: it reduces politics to an activity of fathers and sons while relegating women to the role of passive objects of male desire” (Brunner 1998).  Most postmodern feminists perceive Sigmund Freud’s theories as detrimental to socially assumed gender roles. Deconstructing the thesis that a woman’s sexuality is solely rooted in the desire to procreate, feminist Irigaray criticizes Freud for fueling gender inequality in contemporary society. Irigarary asks, “how can we accept that the entire female sexuality is being controlled by the lack and envy of the penis?” (Irigaray 58)  Author of the book “Freudianism: The Misguided Feminism”, Shulamith Firestone concedes that Freud’s psychoanalytical theories are justified, yet only under the condition that every time Freud employed the word ‘penis’ the word ‘power’ should replace it.  This is what Jacque Lacan did, using the word ‘phallus’ to signify authority.

Jacque Lacan reinterprets Freud’s view of the Oedipus Complex from a structuralist slant. Conceptually revisiting Freudian theory within a postmodernist framework, Lacan refines psychoanalytical discourse from a linguistic angle. The infuriatingly dense language of Lacan ironically draws from the work of linguist Ferdinand Saussure.  Arguing that a subject’s only instrument of expression is language, Lacan believes that the unconscious is structured as such.  However, the meaning one attaches to their words is in the domain of the ‘Other’ and cannot be controlled by the subject. Language is thus laced with a certain objectivity and inter-subjectivity.  In the words of Lacan, “the meaning of a return to Freud is a return to the meaning of Freud” (Lacan 177).  However, from Plato we know “sometimes you have to kill your father to preserve your heritage.  Sometimes you have to throw away the doctrine to find its ‘meaning’” (Borch-Jacobsen 267). Contrary to the beliefs of Freud, Lacan asserts that there is no developmental stages- that the ‘Symbolic Order’ is always present and signifiers are moments wherein a child must learn to cope with the ‘Other’. For Lacan, “the Oedipus Complex is not a stage like any other in genetic psychology, it is the moment in which the child humanizes itself by becoming aware of the self, the world and the others” (Lemaire 90). Employing Saussurean linguistics to elucidate the complexities of psychological development, Lacan regards the Oedipal paradigm as a ‘linguistic transaction’.  His reinterpretation of Freud’s allegedly phallocentric theories are applauded by many feminists who claim his work offers a less gender bias framework wherein gender inequality can be dissected and analyzed through a nonsexist lens.


 Lacan describes the Oedipus Complex as  “the transition from a dual, immediate or mirror relationship proper to the Symbolic, as opposed to the Imaginary” (Lemaire 78).  The first reversal takes place during the ‘mirror stage’, in which the child experiences the alienating identification of seeing its own reflection in the mirror. Blissfully perceiving the outside world through the lens of the ‘Imaginary Order’, this “self-recognition in the mirror takes place somewhere between the ages of six to eight months” (Lemaire 79).  The mirror stage “is the advent of co-anesthetic subjectivity preceded by the feeling that one’s own body is in pieces” (Lemaire 81). Crucial to the formation of the alienated ego, it is in this moment of recognition that the child obtains his first insight of the self. Before the traumatic awakening rendered by the mirror stage, a child imagines that he once had the Phallus, or in other words, had an inseparable union with his mother. For a boy, the mother represents desire.  This desire evolves throughout the developmental stages of a child, reaching its peak during the Oedipus Complex. However, for Lacan, it is the Symbolic Order, rather then the Imaginary, that paves the way into the next stage: the Oedipal period.

Jacque Lacan argues the Oedipus period marks a child’s introduction into the Symbolic Order.  He constructs a paradigm wherein a young boy’s passage through the Oedipus Complex can be articulated by three distinct stages.  The “first coincides with the mother-child relationship,” at which point he wishes to be “the desire of his mother’s desire” (Lemaire 82). Yet the child’s entrance into the Symbolic Order relies on the second reversal: a repressive break with transcendental idealism. Lacan asserts that the Oedipus Complex needs to be understood as a metaphorical operation that is triggered by the child’s realization that the (m)Other’s lack of the phallus is a need that the he’s unable to satisfy.  This incestuous lust for his mother is shattered by the realization that the (m)Other’s desire gravitates towards the father figure, an attraction he understands as an aspiration to atone for the absence of the phallus. The father “renders the mother-child fusion impossible by his interdiction and marks the child with a fundamental lack of being” (Lemaire 87). Ensuing this brutal awakening, the child is inflicted with the fantasy of the phallus, the missing signifier that manifests as a desire that cannot be met. Lacan erects a paradigm wherein the phallus (manifested in the paternal metaphor of the father) emerges as unattainable ideals that exist outside the system of signification and language, structuring it accordingly.  A child identifies “with the father as he who ‘has’ the phallus” and thus “a child’s identification with the father announces the passing of the Oedipus Complex by way of ‘having’ (and no longer ‘being’)” (Lemaire 83). Lacan coins the word “phallus” as an abstract signifier to symbolize authority, and furthermore “gives the ratio of desire” (Lacan 24), rather than a physical penis.  In the dictionary, the phallus has been defined as: the sexually undifferentiated tissue in an embryo that becomes the penis or the clitoris. The Symbolic phallus is the signifier of the signifier that cannot be pronounced but is at the root of our desire. Given that satisfaction is the death of desire, the phallus is repressed on the pretext that it is a signifier that cannot be pronounced and is thus unattainable.  However, it is the process of incessantly desiring the phallus that laces our existence.

According to Lacan, when a young boy recognizes that his aspirations to usurp the place of his father are in vain, he reconciles with this ‘Symbolic castration’ by surrendering to the mastery of his father and begins to emulate him instead.  The child then shifts into the third and final stage: “identification with the father and registration of the self through relativation” (Lemaire 83). This idealization and fear of what Lacan defines as the ‘Name of the Father’ is a paternal metaphor Lacan employs to designate not necessarily the father, but rather the signifier, which resides outside the Symbolic Order and serves to stabilize it. “It is the name of the Father that we must recognize as the Symbolic function which identifies his person with the figure of the Law” (Lacan 16). The name of the Father is “a protagonist in the subject’s entry into the order of culture, civilization and language” (Lemaire 85).  The child begins to rely on language in order to express its sexual position in relation to the Other. The father is “present only through his law, which is speech, and only insofar as his speech is recognized by the mother does it take on the value of the Law” (Lacan 35). For Lacan, a child only recognizes itself as a subject once it has entered into the ‘Symbolic Order of language’. In effect, the child “follows a dialectic of identifications in which his Ego constitutes itself and in which the ideal of the self takes shape” (Lemaire 87). Ultimately the “Father and son reached an agreement that if the son submitted to castration (the Law of the Father) the Name of the Father will recompense him by allowing him to adopt the Father’s name and marry another woman. The son would then be recognized as a speaking subject, a member of the Symbolic community, and thereby regain his wholeness” (Schroeder 83). It is at this moment in psychological development that the boy enters into the Symbolic Order.

In regards to the opposite sex, Lacan adapts an infantile interpretation of femininity. The difference between the male and female experience during their passage through the Oedipal period is rooted in the distinction that a boy desires to possess, whereas a girl desires to be possessed. Furthermore, the androgynous nature of the term ‘phallus’ erects a two-fold understanding for the word: in one sense it represents the presence of a penis and in the other, as in the case of a woman, it signifies its absence. Thus, the phallus is not only the object of desire but also the subject. Within Lacan’s linguistic framework, the Oedipus Complex unveils why a woman’s words don’t carry the same weight as that of their male counterpart.  Lacan’s rereading of Freudian theory doesn’t justify, but rather elucidates the process in which gender roles are assumed and acted out. For a girl, the Oedipus Complex is a capricious moment wherein lies a dual desire and disappointment. Lacan’s account of a young girl’s experience is in accord with that of Freud, yet deviates slightly. At first, a young girl fantasizes of the omnipotence of a phallus.  She desires to possess the body of the (m)Other.  However, upon the brutal awakening brought on by the sight of a boy’s naked body, she is overwhelmed by both loss and envy.  She imagines that she has been deprived of a pleasure she once thought she had.  This envy causes her to distance herself from her mother out of disappointment, and in tandem fuels the desire to be possessed by her father. The inevitable rejection by her father renders the girl’s loss of infantile sexuality and results in both a young girl’s morality and femininity learned by example from her mother.  Ultimately she learns to identify with both her mother and her father, as she does in the paradigm constructed by Freud. 

Lacan believes that a young girl, upon recognizing the innate absence of a phallus, “comes to accept, not without resistance, her socially designated role as subordinate to the possessor of the phallus, and through her acceptance, she comes to occupy the passive, dependent position expected of women in patriarchy” (Grosz 69).  According to Lacan, women perceive themselves not only as objects of exchange, but also as objects of desire. This objectification, Lacan explains, starves women of equal rights, rendering her subordinate to the position of men, who through the possession of the phallus take on the role of the “speaking subject”. In accordance with Freud, he claims that only young boys, due to their possession of a penis, are actually capable of entering into the Symbolic Order, whereas girls are stranded in the Imaginary Order. The possession of a phallus lends a Symbolic capital to men and explicates gender inequality in society. Often a boy, due to his conflation of his penis with the phallus, elevates himself to a position of power and authority.  Lacan describes gender inequality through these terms. His conceptualization of sexuality, psychological development and the Oedipus Complex offer a futile terrain wherein the Complexities of gender relations can be explored.

      Lacan’s work can be extrapolated to the contemporary discourse on feminism. In fact, many feminists claim that “Lacan was not Freudian; that, under cover of Freudianism, he constructed a completely original theory” (Borch-Jacobsen 267).  Lacan’s rereading of the Freudian discourse appropriates his sexist slant to explicate rather then justify gender roles in postmodern society.  Inspired by Lacan’s theory of ‘gender’ being a fictional construction, feminist Judith Butler conceptualizes that a person is innately ungendered yet through social conditioning and social recognition (Hegel) it becomes a property. This non-metaphysical slant serves as a cornerstone in feminist theory in that it constructs a relational understanding of gender as “the point of convergence among culturally and historically specific sets of relations.” (Butler). Informed by Lacan, the discourse avers that gender “operates as an interior essence that might be disclosed, an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates” (Butler 94).  In other words, sex is an effect of the discourse on the body, gender is an effect of the discourse on sex and lastly sexuality is an effect of a gendered discourse on sex. “Neo-Freudianism is especially relevant because it evolved from the first conflict between feminist principles and Freudian tenets” (Buhle 10).  Judith Butler, among many other postmodernist feminists, extrapolates Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud to illustrate the mechanisms in which the internalization of social norms fabricates one’s gender. The concept of the ‘self’ as a fictional construction is employed by feminist as a catalysis to their struggle for equal rights. Providing explanation rather than justification, Jacque Lacan’s reinterpretation of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus Complex has repositioned psychoanalysis within the feminist discourse, however despite this, gender equality is far from achieved.






Borch-Jacobsen, M. (1994)  “The Oedipus Problem in Freud and Lacan” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 2: pp. 267-282.


Buhle M. (1998) Feminism and its Discontents: A Century of Struggle With Psychoanalysis, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: pp. 10.


Butler, J. (2004) Undoing Gender. London, England: Routledge: pp 35-90.


Freud (1917), Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die psychoanalyse, Vorlesung XVIII, XX, XXI, XXII, XIII / Introductory lectures on Psycho-analysis: Lecture XXI: The development of the libido and the sexual organizations.


Freud (1924), Der Untergang des Ödipuskomplexes / The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex.


Irigaray, L., (1984) Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un. Paris: Minuit: pp. 45-87.


Lacan, J. (2002) Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Northon: pp. 219-439


Lemaire, A. (1977) Jacque Lancan, trans. David Macey. London/New York: Routledge & Kegen Paul Ltd: pp 78-93.


Silverman, K. (1984) The Subject of Semiotics, New York:  Oxford University Press: pp. 28-89. 


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