Study Guide

Oedipus the King by Sophocles in Psychoanalysis

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Oedipus the King by Sophocles

Remember Oedipus? The king who unknowingly married his mother, Jocasta, after having unknowingly murdered his father?

So many scary accidental deaths in Oedipus the King.

Anyway, yeah, you know Oedipus. After he committed these crimes, he then blinded himself and went into exile in order to serve himself up some justice.

Then Freud got wind of him. And this poor guy's story was so central to psychoanalysis that Freud made his name into an adjective, "Oedipal." He also used it to name the most important of all the psychoanalytic complexes: the infamous "Oedipus Complex."

The caricatured version of the "Oedipus Complex" goes something like this: every man wants to marry his mother and murder his father. (Women are sometimes said to suffer from an "Electra Complex." But that was, for the unenlightened and sometimes outright misogynist Freud, another story.)

Of course, there's an element of truth to that caricature—it does get at something essential about the Freudian account of infantile development and adult conflict. But it drastically simplifies what, in Freud's founding formulation, is a very complex complex.

For Freud, Sophocles' tragedy shows the strength of unconscious forces in human life. What Freud added to the classical reception of the play was a sense of just how generalizable this story was.

Just because Oedipus's crimes look larger than life doesn't mean that they're not true to life. As in, a part of everyday, modern life. We are all propelled by forces that remain unseen—unless, we undertake the urgently necessary work of psychoanalysis.

Working to understand the unconscious, and our repressed desires, is the only thing that can help us avert repeated tragedy. But it's no guarantee. Freud always warned that no matter how hard we work to understand ourselves and our society, a happy ending can never be ensured.

We guess Sophocles wasn't the only one with a pretty tragic worldview…

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