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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory Oedipus Complex: A Critical Study with Reference to D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lover by Sofe Ahmed

Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory Oedipus Complex: A Critical Study with Reference to D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lover by Sofe Ahmed

Sigmund Freud and his Oedipus complex are among the most often discussed critical and contentious issues of modern psychology and literature. Freud’s theory of Oedipus complex has brought a lot of controversies in modern psychology and literature while some critics opine Freud’s concept of Oedipus complex deserves a great deal of appreciation. Nonetheless, prominent English novelist D.H. Lawrence is one of those modern writers who are greatly influenced by Freudian theories and have been promoting Freud’s notions through their works. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is considered as one of the most modern as well as controversial novels of the twentieth century. In this fiction, the protagonist Paul’s extremely emotional dealing with his mother is the illustration of Doctor Freud’s psychological theory Oedipus complex. Nevertheless, this paper aims to critically analyze the facts lying with the hallucination of Oedipus complex as it is presented in Sons and Lovers .The evaluation is conducted liberally and objectively as well as through comparisons between the central characters of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Sophocles’ King Oedipus. This attempt also tends to judge the universality of Freud’s claim, particularly his sexual theory with the help of modern biological experiments and the result of relevant laboratory tests, conducted by eminent psychologists and psychiatrists worldwide.

Key Words: Freudian Psychoanalysis, Oedipus complex, Sons and Lovers.
Through his masterpiece Sons and Lovers, Lawrence has tried his best to universalize this Freudian concept. He tries to show that his hero Paul can never come out from the labyrinth of Oedipus complex as mythical Oedipus could not.
Introduction: Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory Oedipus complex is one of the most influential as well as divisive theories of the twentieth century. Freud coined the term Oedipus complex to refer to a stage in the development of young boys. He felt that young boys, around the age of five, wish to have all their mother’s love which leads to a feeling of jealousy resulting in even an unconscious wish for the death of their fathers ( However, the concept has greatly dominated the modern way of thought. Specially, in case of literature the upshot of this theory is quite vivid because Freud himself has taken the imaginative root of his theory from the masterpiece of Greek literature Sophocles’ King Oedipus. Many of the modern writers are also greatly influenced by the theory and have been trying their utmost to prove the universality of Freud’s theory. Among such writers D.H. Lawrence is remarkable. Through his masterpiece Sons and Lovers, Lawrence has tried his best to universalize this Freudian concept. He tries to show that his hero Paul can never come out from the labyrinth of Oedipus complex as mythical Oedipus could not. Hence he tends to make a universal link between the two worlds modern and ancient in order to prove the eternal appeal of Oedipus complex.

On the other hand, Freud’s views have also been strongly criticized by a number of empirical scientific researchers. Dr. C. Boeree thus perfectly says “Freud's books and lectures brought him both fame and ostracism from the mainstream of the medical community. He drew around him a number of very bright sympathizers who became the core of the psychoanalytic movement. Unfortunately, Freud had a penchant for rejecting people who did not totally agree with him. Some separated from him on friendly terms; others did not, and went on to found competing schools of thought.” (Boeree, 2006).Yet Freud’s Oedipus complex becomes a matter of immense controversy which tends to shake the readers’ thought and belief while they read anything written based on ‘Oedipus complex’.
…according to him (Freud) (hysteria) was caused by sexual desire but unfortunately this was not acknowledged by his mentor Dr. Joseph Breuer…
The Basis of Freudian Psychoanalysis: To understand and analyze Oedipus complex in better ways it is important to know the basis of Freudian psychology or psycho analysis. Freud starts his mission in the world of psychology with the treatment of hysteria which according to him was caused by sexual desire but unfortunately this was not acknowledged by his mentor Dr. Joseph Breuer under whose guidance Freud learnt about hysteria (Rahim, 2002). This presupposition about psychological diseases was one of the bases of Freud’s sex theories. Besides, he had a guess or assumption of the division of human brain and its functions. He strongly believed and popularized the idea of conscious versus unconscious mind. In his hypothesis, the conscious mind is what one is aware of at any particular moment like someone’s present perceptions, memories, thoughts, fantasies, feelings etc.; and preconscious mind is what closely works with the conscious mind or it is the memory that is not presently conscious but can be made conscious easily. According to Freud, these two are the smallest parts of brain the largest part is what he called the unconscious mind. In Freud’s view this unconscious level of mind is the source of man’s motivations such as desires for sex, food and so on, (Rahim, 2002)
…Freudian psychology is largely based on objects that are guided by needs; hunger, thirst, the avoidance of pain and sex.
 Furthermore, Freudian psychology is largely based on objects that are guided by needs; hunger, thirst, the avoidance of pain and sex. Dr. C. Boeree comments that “When everyone thought of male and female as roles determined by nature or God, he showed how much they depended on family dynamics.” (Boeree, 2006) Hence, Freud’s thoughts are supposed to be guided by desires. To him these desires are the fundamental factors of human life and psyche other than any spiritual and moral functions. According to Freud, among the objects organism is the prime one whose important part is nervous system which is known as id at beginning. This id transforms the needs of organism into motivational forces which Freud called wishes. Here there is a great contradiction regarding this id. Dr. C. Boeree says “The infant, in the Freudian view, is pure or nearly pure id” (Boeree, 2006). Now question comes if a child’s id is pure how does he or she possess sexual complexity or desire which causes him to envy his father even to wish death for him?

A picture of normal human brain

Major internal parts of the human brain
Freud’s imaginative division of brain

It is a well-known fact that the human brain has both some conscious and some unconscious feelings and functions but the question is whether the brain is naturally divided or not? Or does there truly exist any unconscious level of mind which lays the foundation for sexual desire? If it is true with empirical evidence then Freud can have a universal appeal, otherwise modern psychology and civilization have to reconsider and be careful about its disastrous effect on them. According to Dr. C. Boeree “Behaviorists, humanists, and existentialists all believe that: (a) the motivations and problems that can be attributed to the unconscious are much fewer than Freud thought, and (b) the unconscious is not the great churning cauldron of activity he made it out to be. Most of the modern psychologists today see the unconscious as whatever we don't need or don't want to see. Some theorists don't use the concept at all”, (Boeree, 2006). Carl Jung, another famous psychologist, says that it is the concept of unconscious which has made Freud nothing but puny. The conscious is on the other hand a function or feeling of brain not its level or part. There is no separation or any separate parts in brain known as conscious, unconscious and preconscious (Boeree, 2006).
All Freudian movement is run based on this concept, actually it is nothing but a scheme.
Professor Joseph Jastrow in his prominent work Freud: his Dream and Sex Theories gives a rather rational evaluation of unconscious mind hypothesis of Freud. He says that unconscious is the fundamental source of Freudian psychology. All Freudian movement is run based on this concept, actually it is nothing but a scheme .The fundamental question is here cheated. If we accept this then we may also accept the ancient concept of ghost, applied by Morceress for the treatment of hysteria. Though Freud got some popularity but it was like Hoodman who also achieved fame for his division of mind based on guess. He claimed that man has two minds but later this assumption was dumped as an unscientific one. It indeed remained as an erroneous chapter in the history of unconscious. Likewise, Dalpon says Freud’s unconscious mind does not have any scientific value. It is a shadow of ghost and should be thrown out as Hoodman’s. He further says that I am supposed to come to this conclusion that Freud’s unconscious is nothing but a groundless imaginative story, (Rahim, 2002). So it is now easy to conclude that Freud’s concept of sex remaining in unconscious is also groundless as because there is no existence of such level in brain or unless there is any level which contains sex from one’s birth then it is quite easy to agree with those biologists who claim that sexual desire is not inherited by birth other than it is rather a physical need which depends on growth of human anatomy or body. For instance, those who suffer from any physical weakness or diseases consequently suffer from sexual weakness too. That means there remains a causal relation or interconnection between body and sex.

Therefore we can say that in Freud’s time medical science, biology and the equipment of biological test were not as modernized as they are today. When Freud divided human brain into three levels, he had quite little opportunity to find reliable and diagnostic evidence about the formation and function of brain. Consequently, he had to depend on his imagination and presupposition for this division. For instance, Freud was totally dependent on Hypnotism for the treatment of hysteria. This hypnotism was not indeed any scientific remedy prescribed by medical science rather it was used by sorcerer, charmer, and those who treat with amulet and quack remedies (Rahim2002). But unfortunately Freud was guided by this unscientific method of superstitious people for his psychoanalysis and sex theories. Possibly for this reason Freudian psychoanalysis has almost lost its value and rationality to modern psychologists.

On the contrary, modern psychologists and biologists have rather invented the existence of glands which actually contain and pass our feelings and sentiments instead of three levels in our brain. These glands create feelings in the body and not in the brain, which grow with age and require maturity of themselves as well as body to create (sexual) feelings .Hence it is quite clear that children’s glands and feelings must differ from those of adults’. C. W. Valentine thus perfectly says, “…children are free from all sexual feelings” (Rahim, 2002).

Picture of glands in human brain

Oedipus Complex; the Theory: Sigmund Freud introduced the term ‘Oedipus complex’ in his Interpretation of Dreams (1899). According to him the concept is a desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex, which produces a sense of competition with the parent of the same sex and a crucial stage in the normal developmental process (Freud, 1913). In brief, Freud used the term to refer to a stage in the development of young boys. He assumed that in early development young children, in the age group of five, wish to have their mother’s entire love. Thus, jealousy causes them to resent and even unconsciously wish for the death of their father. The term Oedipus complex was indeed named after the name of Greek mythical figure Oedipus who was the son of king Laius and queen Jocasta of Thebes, and finally killed his father and married his mother unconsciously which according to the belief of the writer and people of that time, was designed by fate( Safra, 1768).

But according to Sigmund Freud the accidents or incidents in the life of Oedipus happened because of sexual complexity between Oedipus and his mother. And on the basis of this story he invented the concept Oedipus complex which he attributed to the children of about the age of three to five. He views that all human behavior are motivated by sex or by the instincts, which in his opinion are the neurological representations of physical needs. He firstly referred to those as the life instincts which perpetuate the life of the individual, initially by motivating him or her to seek food and water, and secondly by motivating him or her to have sex. The motivational energy of these life instincts, the "oomph" that powers our psyches, he called libido, from the Latin word for "I desire", (Boeree.2006).

Freud's clinical experience led him to view sex as much more important in the dynamics of the psyche than other needs. We are, after all, social creatures, and sex is the most essential of social needs. Here, we have to remember that Freud put much more importance on sexual desire than anything else.

Critical Evaluation: Thus, it is clear that Freud thought that man was born with some feelings and sentiment like sexual desire, propensity etc. Accroding to him, man is sex-driven by birth; a child must possess sexual desire even when he is in his mother’s womb and this inborn sexual predisposition lays the foundation for all other propensity. But this claim of Freud has been disproved by a number of modern biological experiments or tests which suggest that every propensity or sentiment is originated from separate nerve, and sex producer nerve is unable to produce other feelings, similarly other nerves are not also involved in producing sex. And at the time of birth sex producer nerves are immature which require a certain stage of age to produce sexual feelings that means theses cannot work before blooming youth.

However, there are a number of empirical researches which prove that during childhood children are free from all kinds of sexual feelings or complexities. In this case eminent modern American psychologist Dr. C.W Valentine’s experiment is remarkable. Dr. Valentine observed thousands of children, aged up to six in order to verify Freud’s view of child-sexuality. Finally he came out with the result that is shown in the following diagram.

Age of children
Son’s attraction to father
Daughter’s attraction to father
Son’s attraction to mother
Daughter’s attraction to mother
2 years
3 years
4 years
5 years
6 years
(Valentine: 1962. P. 108)

Through the above mentioned diagram Dr. Valentine shows that there is no imbalance in attraction in son or daughter towards father or mother as Freud claimed. Neither male nor female children have any revengeful propensity towards their parents of opposite sex. He rather shows that there is a regular and harmonious fluctuation of attraction or affection of children towards their parents; in some stages sons feel more attracted to their fathers, and in other stages towards their mothers. So is the behaviour among the daughters towards their mothers and fathers. That means the feelings does not remain fixed.

Another research was conducted on children psyche by famous research institute The Gesell Institute of Child Development .The institute carried out an experiment on a group of children aged up to ten and has published a book named Child Behavior that analyzes the attitude, behavior and sentiment of children. The book dedicated its full three chapters to the analysis of the sexuality of children, mother-child relation and father-child relation. But there is no mention of Freud’s view of child-sexuality. The author of the book seems not to even assume any possibility of sexual desire in children’s mind as because they totally ignored the significance of the concept of Freud to be discussed.

If we now evaluate Oedipus’ case there are also a lot of follies and contradictions behind the concept. Wikipedia says “Oedipus himself, as portrayed in the myth, did not suffer from this neurosis – at least, not towards Jocasta, whom he only met as an adult if anything, such feelings would have been directed at Merope – but there is no hint of that”, ( So neither natural mother-son relation (as between Oedipus and Jocasta) nor the duplicate one (as between Oedipus and Merope) has any sexual complexity.

Later on Freud tried to arbitrarily support his theory with fatalistic beliefs what must contradict with his so called-scientific claim. He says; “His (Oedipus’) destiny moves us only because it might have been ours – because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so”, ( according to Freud himself this complex happens because of the curse of oracle. This warrants to question the scientific merit of Freud’s claim. Here it becomes very complex and unscientific claim as because neither science nor any major religion reveals and universalizes that we all human beings are cursed like Oedipus. In particular Oedipus may be a cursed one according to Freud’s belief in imaginative myth. Being a Jew though it is also irrational on his part, but how can it become universal and scientific?. And if we review the concept from the viewpoint of fatalism as Freud suggests, then it also lacks to be universal because it is the belief of all fatalists that fate must vary from person to person so how Oedipus fate goes to all human being equally? By the above comment Freud has made the concept or theory much more complex and irrational. He is Jew and that in Judaism there is no concept of oracle, it is the belief promoted by pagan religion. Hence Freud seems to go against his own belief and claim as a scientist.

Concept of Oedipus Complex in Sons and Lovers: D. H. Lawrence’s masterpiece Sons and Lovers is the most reliable and remarkable illustration of Freud’s Oedipus complex in modern literature.Hu Junjie being a Freudian psychologist writes that Lawrence is one of the most original and controversial English writers of the twentieth century. The major theme of his writing was relation between man and woman. And for the pornographic nature of his work Lady Chatterley’s Lover was rejected by his contemporary English society (Junjie, 2007). However, Oedipus complex is the dominant theme of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers .The complex here chiefly centers around Lawrence’s protagonist Paul and his mother’s dealings or relation. Among the sons of Mrs. Morel, Paul is shown to have most serious Oedipus complex. After the birth of this unhealthy boy Mrs. Morel mysteriously asserts; “With all her face, with all her soul she would make up to it for having brought it into the world unloved”, (Lawrence, 1985). The expression vividly exposes her complexity with Paul. On the other hand, as Paul grows he also begins to fulfill his mother’s wish. He sticks to his mother and trots after her like her shadow. Like a true romantic lover he watches every physical movement of his mother, enjoys her dressing up with plenty of delight and sensual pleasure. Lawrence delineates “Paul loved to sleep with his mother, sleep still most perfect in spite of hygienists, when it is shared with a beloved...”. “His ambition as far as this world’s gear went was quietly to earn his thirty or thirty five shillings, somewhere near home and then when his father died have cottage with his mother”, (Lawrence, D. H. 1985)

Hu Junjie opines that if we accept Freud’s claim in Sons and Lovers then the Freud theory also lacks to be a universal one as because Lawrence himself describes Mrs. Morel turning her relation to son because of unusual reasons (Junjie, 2007). Lawrence along with describing the complex and unusual relation also finds many unusual factors behind this unusual relation. Among all the factors, the most common one is Mrs. Morel’s shifting her attraction or lust from husband to son which was the outcome of the unusual relation or mismatch between her and her husband regarding character, family status, education, intellect etc. While she is an exceedingly religious woman, her husband is hard drunkard, her refined manner also contradicts with his vulgarity. The marriage life of Mrs. Morel is in fact full of conflicts and frustration as Lawrence himself delineates “Their marriage life has been one carnal bloody flight”. Along with the mental torturing Mr. Morel also often beats her severely and puts her out of home. “The mother is unsatisfied and angry with the coal miner, because he not only fails to live up to her bourgeois idea, but also hurts her in body and mind”. All these hurting and agonizing facts lastly cause her to substitute or to move passionately towards her son to find a bit satisfaction into the world “unloved”. Thus Hu Junjie concludes that “Her personal abnormal emotion is the direct factor for Paul’s Oedipus complex”. That means mother’s abnormal maternity is indeed the basis of Paul’s Oedipus complex. If it is so then how come the theory is universal? Because all the mothers of the world may not necessarily be dissatisfied, wounded, agonized with their husbands, and not all the fathers of the world are drunkard, characterless, unsympathetic like Mr. Morel. Hence, it is clear that Mrs. Morel’s case is an exceptional and individual case and not a universal one. A critic says “Most personality theorists, however, consider these examples aberrations rather than universals, exceptions rather than rules. They occur in families that aren't working as well as they should, where parents are unhappy with each other, use their children against each other. Where there is no mismatch or bizarre relation between wife and husband and the relationship is typical there may be no possibility of such complexity or unusual acts or relation.Hu Junjie further explains that healthy spiritual states must be based on healthy life styles and social systems. The problem described in Sons and Lovers are not only the mental problems but also social factors. So along with psychological factors the sickly life style and mechanical social system are also responsible for the unhealthy and sickly relation between mother and son. Such relation is not healthy and cannot happen in healthy and regular or natural life.

Contrast Between Oedipus and Paul: In order to verify the universality of Freud’s Oedipus complex, we must compare Oedipus and Paul’s theories. Oedipus married his mother Jocasta totally unconsciously. He was even so ashamed and afraid of getting married with his own mother that on hearing the Delphic oracle he left his country Corinth to escape from such crime, and finally he is informed that he married his own mother and after being conscious of his relation with his mother he plugs out his own eyes out of remorse, agony and guilty feelings. On the contrary, Paul makes affair with his mother very consciously, feels quite pleased and comfortable of it instead of feeling ashamed or guilty like Oedipus. If it is a universal phenomenon then why the feelings of both of them are different in the same relation. Also, all critics agree that Oedipus was a victim of fate—Sophocles’ aim behind the drama was mainly to focus on the dominant power of fate what the society throughout history from ancient to Shakespearian to modern time does believe. So on one hand all the Greek or human society views Oedipus is guided or motivated by fate; Freud finds he is guided by sex what Oedipus nor the Greek nor the writer Sophocles himself imagined by his story on the other hand.

Contrast Between Jocasta and Mrs. Morel: Contradiction between Jocasta and Mrs. Morel also resembles the contradiction between Oedipus and Paul. If Freud’s claim is universal then the feelings of Jocasta and feelings of Mrs. Morel irrespective of their relationship with their sons should have been the same. But unfortunately this does not happen. Where Jocasta is married with her son unknowingly and upon being informed she commits suicide out of her agony and shame, Mrs. Morel gets consciously involved in sexual dealings with her own child and feels quite pleased and gratified for it.

Contrast Between Electra and Annie Morel: Freud’s female Oedipus complex known as Electra complex has also failure in Sons and Lovers .Electra’s abhorrence to her mother aroused from her sense of taking revenge of her father’s murder and mother’s relation with that killer .This sort of bitter propensity or reaction is quite usual from any daughter or child when his or her parent is slain. These feelings may rise from affection not from passion. However if Electra complex is a universal phenomenon caused by sexual feelings why Lawrence’s Annie is totally indifferent? Why he fails to apply it equally in case of Annie? In no stage Annie’s feelings resemble Electra’s in the novel. She is neither jealous of her mother nor feels weak to her father. Freud’s so-called child sexuality cannot prevent or cause Annie love her father nor abhor the mother. He rather has to show all the children’s abhorrence towards their vagabond and characterless drunkard father what is realistic, logical and is supposed to be a natural behaviour as all men admire good and detest bad. Annie as a rational creature of God and acts naturally.

Conclusion: It is true that in the history of psychology, Freud’s view of sexuality has intensive influence upon a number of thinkers. Some of his followers seem to have dedicated all their creativity behind the establishment of Freudian sex theories. But along with modernization of psychology and psychoanalytical process Freudian sex theories have been losing their appeal or acceptance. Possibly for that very reason Joseph Jastrow being a follower of Freud says that Freud’s Oedipus complex is an indecent and inadequate concept. It is impossible to find any root or origin of this claim. After constant perusal we have become able merely to know that it is nothing but a consequence of Freud’s imaginative psychoanalysis based on his personal supposition that lacks evidence. (Rahim, 2002) Besides this, if we come to conclude Paul’s case, his Oedipus complex and its causes are already vivid to us. Paul has not become a normal adult by getting over some problems like other children. That is not only determined by his mother’s abnormal maternity. The reasons are many ; some originate with the parents; some with himself and his brothers, some even from the society, the mechanical civilization, which all lead to the family tragedy and distortion of personality and devastate people’s healthy development on spirits. Hence, it is easy to realize and recognize that Paul’ relation with mother is the outcome of many unusual and abnormal causes, what are partial, exceptional and individual rather than universal. Thus it can be asserted that it is not usual or natural for the people living in a healthy family and environment to have such anomalous and complex emotional problems.

  1. Boeree. Dr. C. George. 2006. Personality Theories e-text book.
  2. Freud, Sigmund. 1913. Interpretation of Dream, 3rd edition. Translation in English: Macmillan. Franz Deuticke, Leipzig & Vienna. Germany.
  6. Junjie, Hu.2007. “Analysis of Paul’s Oedipus complex in Sons and Lovers”, Xiaogan University.
  7. Lawrence, D. H. 1985. Sons and Lovers London: Banton Books.
  8. Rahim, Moulana Mohammad Abdur. 2002. Pashchatto Sobhyotar Dharshonic Bhitthi (Philosophical Ground of Western Civilization). Khairun Prokashoni, Dhaka.
  9. Safra, Jacob E. 1768. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, Volume: 8, Chicago.
  10. Valentine, C.W.1962. The Normal Child and Some of His Abnormalities Penguin Books. Baltimore.
Author’s Bio: Sofe Ahmed is currently working as a lecturer of English at Ideal College, Sylhet, Bangladesh. He has research interest and experience in several fields. Currently his work on primary education in Bangladesh has been published in Teaching Journal of the OOI Junior Academy, U.S.A titled “The Strategic Priority for the Primary Education Development in Bangladesh: From Divergence to the Convergence of Multidimensional Institutions as Option”. Transactions on Primary Education, Volume 10,Number 1,2010, ISBN 0-9703797-8-1.

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