Oedipus Complex, Early

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Underlying the Oedipus complex as Freud described it, there is an earlier layer of more primitive relationships with the oedipal couple. These precede the classical Oedipus complex that arises in the third year of life and subsides with the development of the superego. This notion first appears in a Melanie Klein publication (1927a and b).

In describing the Oedipus complex in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess dated October 15, 1897, Freud (1985c) founded psychoanalysis upon a theory of fantasies. The core of childhood development is the fantasies about the oedipal couple. He sought to verify these theories with evidence from children (1909a). A number of people produced children's fantasies that confirmed the Oedipus complex, among them Sándor Ferenczi (1913/1927).

Klein developed a rigorous technique for working with children, through which she demonstrated that disturbing oedipal fantasies intrude into all the activities of childhood. She found areas of development in the infant that were too distant to reach with adult analysis. The Oedipus complex was active, in some form, from a period much earlier than the third year of life. The evidence was of two kinds: Firstly, the analysis of symptoms which had started in the first year of life indicated fantasies, anxieties, and defenses that operated then, when the symptoms started. Secondly, much of the fantasy life involved pregenital impulses suggesting the presence of the three-person constellation of exclusion, rivalry, and murder, right back to the oral phase. She also concluded that the violence of the Oedipus complex can be seen to arouse guilt in children, and therefore posited the presence of a super-ego at the earliest stages of the Oedipus complex. That finding reversed the theory of the development of the super-ego out of the Oedipus complex (Klein, 1928, 1933).

It was not only children's play, but the developmental task of learning that could be obstructed, according to Klein (1930, 1931). The development of the primal scene into the terrifying images of the early Oedipus complex could lead to severe distortions of intellectual development.

These early fantasies had a remarkably different character from those of the later "mature" Oedipus complex. In these early phases the oedipal objects were experienced in primitive form, archaically "good" or "bad," and engaged in an immense variety of forms of intercourse between themselves. So different was this conception of the oedipal couple that Klein coined the term "combined parent figure" for it. In 1935 Melanie Klein described the depressive position, which arises from a major developmental step. At that point good and bad versions of the object can be recognized for the first time to be the same figure in reality (1935, 1940). Much of the distortion of the oedipal couple at the early stage is connected with the combining of the good and bad objects. The capacity to enter the depressive position marks the transition from the early Oedipus complex to the mature stage and results in an increasing respect for the reality of external objects. And with the emergence into the depressive position, feelings of protectiveness and repair gather, as the determining characteristics of the mature Oedipus complex (1945).

When Klein described the paranoid-schizoid position (1946) her interest in the Oedipus complex fell away, and the world of primitive defense mechanisms at the earliest moments in life absorbed the energy of Kleinian research. It was not until the 1980s that Kleinians returned to a serious study of the Oedipus complex (Britton, et al., 1989).

The Oedipus complex has come to be seen less in terms of innate impulses of love and hate. Instead the primal scene, which the oedipal parents inhabit, is a stage upon which enquiry, learning, and creativity are founded. The child has the opportunity to attain the third position, the observer of (and enquirer into) parental intercourse. Achieving this position emotionally is the primitive foundation of thought, knowledge, and intellectual life.

Otto Fenichel (1931) postulated a connected notion, that of "precursors of the Oedipus complex."

Early fantasies are regarded by many analysts as immature and unformed attempts at creating mental representations of the external reality, and not necessarily as having a central role in development. These early experiences are claimed by some to be mere precursors of the mature Oedipus complex; present, but essentially inactive components.

Robert D. Hinshelwood

See also: Archaic mother; Combined parent figure; Unconscious fantasy.


Britton, Ron, Feldman, Michael, and O'Shaughnessy, Edna. (1989). The Œdipus complex today. London: Karnac Books.

Fenichel, Otto. (1931). The pre-genital antecedents of the Œdipus complex. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 12, 138-170.

Ferenczi Sándor. (1927). Ein kleiner Hahnemann. In his Bausteine zur Psychoanalyse : Vol. 2, Praxis (pp. 185-195). Leipzig: Internationaler psychoanalytischer Verlag. (Originally published 1913)

Freud, Sigmund. (1909a). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 3-147.

. (1985c [1887-1904]). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904 (Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Ed. and Trans.). Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap/Harvard University Press.

Klein, Melanie. (1927a). Criminal tendencies in normal children. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 7, p. 177-192. Repr. 1975 in: The Writings of Melanie Klein, t. I, London: Hogarth, p. 170-186.

. (1927b). Symposium on child analysis. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 8, p. 339-370. Repr. 1975 in: The Writings of Melanie Klein, t. I, London: Hogarth, p. 139-169.

. (1928). Early stages of the Œdipus conflict. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 9, p. 167-180. Repr. 1975 in: The Writings of Melanie Klein, t. I, London: Hogarth, p. 186-198.

. (1975). The Œdipus complex in the light of early anxieties. In The Writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 1). London: Hogarth. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 26, (1945), 11-33.)