1st Project. The Oedipus Complex: Motherly Roles in Literature

   Jordan Smith

         Although I do not agree with virtually any of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, one peculiar complex that he introduced was the “Oedipus Complex.” In which, “in psychoanalytic theory, [the Oedipus complex is] a desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a concomitant sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex” (Britannica). Under closer examination of the novels and works of literature we have been studying in British literature, I have observed a recurring theme of the subjection of women, and the peruse of “womanly” roles commonly allied with motherhood, unruly expectations set upon women of the time their works take place which expects them to perform such roles, and the common objectification of women whom are simply forced to fulfill this “motherly” role to all those around her. In this essay, we will be taking a closer look at womanly roles and the duty of a “mother” in literature which could align with Sigmund Freud’s highly debated “Oedipus complex” theory.

            Beginning with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” we can closely see the discrepancies between the role of men, and the role of women in the play. Two prominent women, as insignificant as the play made them seem, were Ophelia, Hamlet’s prospective love interest, and Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude. Early in the play Hamlet makes a jab at how his mother was quick to remarry. “’But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two…Why, she would hang on him as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on. And yet, within a month, (let me not think on it; frailty, thy name is woman!)’” (29). We can see that Hamlet is projecting this belief that he has about his mother onto the entirety of the female sex. “Frailty thy name is woman” generally is applicable to the wide range of women and the entirety of the female sex, and presumably also extends to Hamlet’s view on Ophelia as a prospective love interest as she is also a woman under the female sex. Hamlet’s view on women being the “frailty” of the sex stems from his own preconceptions about his mother, and from there he assumes that all women are to some extent similar in kind to the Queen Gertrude. This is interesting because we are forced to consider our stance on Queen Gertrude’s position. We can infer that her decision to remarry was for her own protection and necessary for her stature in society as well as her right as Queen, but also this ingrained duty to Hamlet as mother is straining to her. Throughout the play, Hamlet projects his feelings about his mother onto Ophelia; he views all women to some extent as similar in kind to his mother, and equally pushes this unrealistic standard onto Queen Gertrude that first and foremost her duty should lie to a man, and not herself. How strange it is to uphold the expectation that before women are mothers, their duty should lie to a man—and how strange it is that once these women have sons, their duty then lies with their son over a woman’s own self-preservation. Additionally, although Hamlet’s biological father is dead, Hamlet resents his Uncle the King who upholds a fatherly role which significantly aligns with Sigmund Freud’s theory that men are subconsciously attracted to their mothers and resentful of their same-sex parent. Despite Hamlet not feeling attraction for his biological mother Queen Gertrude, it could easily be said that he projects these qualities of his mother onto Ophelia, for whom he feels attraction for. “The Oedipus complex is named for the Greek myth of Oedipus, a Theban king who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. Sigmund Freud used the myth as a parallel to his theory that children are attracted to their opposite-sex parent and feel hatred toward their same-sex parent” (Brittanica). Even though Hamlet does not hold attraction for his mother, he seeks correlation and similarities of that of his mother in the women around him, such as an expectation that all women must adhere to their “womanly role” and abide by their duty that lies in a man.

            It could equally be noted that Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” is also somewhat suggestive of this “Oedipus” complex. When narrator Victor Frankenstein is not uncovering how to cheat death and create artificial life, he is married to Elizabeth, who is also his cousin—a girl adopted and raised by Victor’s own family, and from a young age forced to play the role as Victor’s future wife. “I [narrator Victor] have often heard my mother say, that she [Elizabeth] was at that time the most beautiful child she had ever seen, and shewed signs even then of a gentle and affectionate disposition. These indications, and a desire to bind as closely as possible the ties of domestic love, determined my mother to consider Elizabeth as my future wife; a design which she [Elizabeth] never found reason to repent” (22). Despite her life being a gift to Victor from his mother, it is inherently obvious that Victor’s mother has a duty to Victor and Victor’s father, all men in her life who have placed her in their minds as a caretaker. Thus because of this role, Victor’s mother is succumbed with this need to fulfill this role with another woman should the need eventually arise. Later on in the novel, Victor’s mother grows very sick and is presumed to be close to death. Before her passing, she insists that Elizabeth marries Victor so that all things in the house and home will be taken care of. This placates an “empty role” that needs to be filled and can only be filled by that of a mother, Victor’s mother, and when she is gone, Elizabeth must step up and take his mother’s place as a dutiful wife and “mother” of the house. “Elizabeth endeavored to renew the spirit of cheerfulness in our little society. Since the death of her aunt, her mind had acquired new firmness and vigor. She determined to fulfil her duties with the greatest exactness; and she felt that most imperious duty, rending her uncle and cousins happy, had devolved upon her. She consoled me, amused her uncle, instructed my brothers; and I never beheld her so enchanting as at this time, when she was continually endeavoring to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself” (29). Elizabeth’s role in this story seems to fulfill that of a mother to Victor and the rest of his family. And although she is not a mother, she must be caring, dutiful, and always happy etc. Elizabeth’s role in the household is to play that of a mother who cares for everybody but herself. “Many aspects of the Oedipus complex have been criticized. Critics argue that the theory was established with minimal evidence, making it difficult to justify as a universal phenomenon without consideration for differing cultural and social factors” (Britannica). The “Oedipus” complex in Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” could be a play on Marry Shelly’s part as the unrealistic gender roles perpetrated during this time are written, and the overall perspective on a “woman’s role” which often concedes with that of mother and to nurture and care for men in this story who are to some degree still “children” in need of a woman who can be their devoted wife, as Victor wanted, and also the household mother, which Elizabeth fulfilled after Victor’s mother passed.

            To most people currently, Sigmund Freud’s theory might be criticized heavily or even just plain and simple absolutely nuts. Still, despite this information, it cannot be denied that considering my own reservations about Freud’s psychoanalytical theory and the legitimacy of it all (or lack, thereof), there is still an ever-present unusual relationship between the men in these stories and works of literature and their mothers. Whether it be traits they seek for the women in their lives to fulfill and align with the persona of that of a mother, or simply the blatant sexist misogyny of their time in which the written works take place is merely uncanny to the “Oedipus” complex. Perhaps this similarity is a connection throughout history and merely presents itself in other various works of literature and art over time. Or it could be that the “Oedipus” complex presents itself in unique ways and is simply easily applicable to these works because Freud’s theory is rather vague and stems from antiquated gender norms and the perpetration of misogyny and sexism throughout history. Still, I cannot help but to wonder—are the men in these works of literature subconsciously searching for women who can fulfill the duty of a motherly role, or are the women of this time purely shaped by the loads of sexism around them which forces them to play mothers, dutiful wives, and whatever roles or caring acts aside from their own self-preservation which is secondary to the needs and service of a man?

Works Cited:

Shakespeare, William, et al. Hamlet ( Folger Library Shakespeare). 1st ed., Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Shelley, Mary, et al. Frankenstein: The 1818 Text (Penguin Classics). Penguin Classics, 2018.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Oedipus Complex | Definition & History.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Sept. 2020, www.britannica.com/science/Oedipus-complex.

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