My Oedipus Complex by Frank O'Connor, 1963

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by Frank O'Connor, 1963

Following the publication of his first collection of stories in 1931, Frank O'Connor became established in Ireland as a major writer of fiction. Like his contemporary and fellow Corkman Sean O'Faolain, he also wrote novels but felt uneasy about the form and even argued that Ireland was better suited to stories. His best work is considered to be that which focuses on the mores of the Catholic middle classes in the decades following independence, a time he saw to be one of increasing social repression. His achievements were praised by William Butler Yeats, who once commented that "O'Connor was doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia," an acknowledgment of his mastery of the short story form as well as his commitment to broadly social themes.

"My Oedipus Complex" has an unusual reputation in the O'Connor canon. It is frequently included in collections and has achieved widespread recognition outside Ireland, but it has been subject to some disparagement at home. Certainly the story, broadcast on the BBC in November 1950 and published a month later in Today's Woman, has been reprinted many times and translated into many European languages. In short it has been made available to more readers than any other O'Connor work. When Irish commentators in particular review O'Connor's fiction, however, they rarely do more than glance at the story, preferring instead to concentrate their critical gaze elsewhere.

The reasons for the story's popular appeal are not hard to find. There is a universal quality about this tale of a child whose cozy relationship with his mother is rudely disturbed by the return of his father, a soldier in World War I. The child, Larry, has developed a partiality for daily routines with his mother: early morning chats in her big bed, pleasant walks into town for mass and shopping and later perhaps into the countryside, and evenings that conclude with prayers for a father who seems as mysterious as Santa Claus. When the father does return, there is no longer room for Larry in the big bed, nor, of course, is he the center of his mother's attention at other times of the day. The father has taken his place, and so in Larry's eyes he is no less than a "monster" and "very wicked." They become "enemies, open and avowed," a situation leading to all kinds of petty conflicts. A truce is declared only when both feel ignored by the mother, who is now giving all of her attention to a newborn child. The story concludes with the boy reflecting in a happier frame of mind on the nice model railway his father bought him for Christmas, an ironic echo of the earlier reference to Santa Claus.

These family scenes are presented through the child's eyes but from an adult perspective, a technique that ensures a warm response from many readers and one that is skillfully handled. What is also attractive is Larry's personality. He has a rich imagination, which is evident, for example, in the little dialogues between his two feet, Mrs. Right and Mrs. Left, and in his articulateness and self-assurance. His lack of understanding of such adult matters as marriage, war, and where babies come from, together with puzzlement at his mother's inexplicable concern about his father's well-being, adds to the humorous quality of the narrative. The author, drawing on his own memories of childhood, clearly delights in such childish misconceptions, and many readers can share his delight.

For some critics, however, there is a shallowness to "My Oedipus Complex." The author is perceived to be indulging himself in personal reminiscences and neglecting larger social issues. The story, it is pointed out, is just one of a number from the 1950s that feature Larry Delaney and in which O'Connor seemed to prefer dwelling on the personal. These stories are compared unfavorably with "Uprooted," "The Luceys," "In the Train," and "The Mad Lomasneys," for example, all of which are praised for their portrayal of provincial Irish life. In contrast, there is nothing that can be identified as social or political about "My Oedipus Complex," and there is little indeed to identify the milieu as specifically Irish. There is a lack of toughness, critics conclude, a retreat into sentimentality or even into the exploitation of childhood for material with commercial possibilities.

There is, however, more to this story than such criticism would allow. As the critic Eavan Boland has indicated, the theme of "My Oedipus Complex" is loss of innocence and the acquisition of cunning. Larry's childhood idyll, typified by a purity of early mornings—"feeling myself rather like the sun, ready to illumine and rejoice"—is gradually replaced by an adult sense of the need for allegiances and strategies to fight a hostile world. One can even see in the boy foreshadowings of the lonely characters O'Connor explored in other stories. Moreover, the boy's growth in self-awareness is presented in a narrative that does not slip into nostalgia but maintains a distance between the teller and the tale.

O'Connor said in an interview for Paris Review that, for him, having "a story to tell" was essential. He had to work with experiences that had an extraordinary aspect to them, ones that would captivate listeners everywhere. (His preferred term was "listeners" rather than "readers.") He said elsewhere that "the tone of a man's voice speaking" was also an essential ingredient in a good tale. Nowhere are these attributes better illustrated than in "My Oedipus Complex." Although the resulting intimacy between the writer and the reader/listener can be a basis for criticism—O'Connor's contemporary Francis Stuart referred to his writing as "soft-centred"—it has undoubtedly helped to make the story one of the best known of the modern period.

—F. C. Molloy