The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex Sigmund Freud

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Freud, S. (1924). The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIX (1923-1925): The Ego and the Id and Other Works, 171-180

The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex

Sigmund Freud

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Editor's Note to "The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex"

James Strachey

(a) German Editions:

1924 Der Untergang Des Ödipuskomplexes Int. Z. Psychoanal., 10 (3), 245-52.

1924 Der Untergang Des Ödipuskomplexes G.S., 5, 423-30.

1926 Der Untergang Des Ödipuskomplexes Psychoanalyse der Neurosen, 169-77.

1931 Der Untergang Des Ödipuskomplexes Neurosenlehre und Technik, 191-9.

1940 Der Untergang Des Ödipuskomplexes G.W., 13, 395-402.

(b) English Translation::

The Passing of the Oedipus Complex’ 1924 Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 5 (4), 419-24. (Tr. Joan Riviere.)

‘The Passing of the Oedipus Complex’ 1924 C.P., 2, 269-76. (Reprint of above.)

The present translation, with a changed title, is based on that of 1924.

This paper, written in the early months of 1924, was in its essence an elaboration of a passage in The Ego and the Id (p. 31 ff. above). It further claims our special interest as laying emphasis for the first time on the different course taken by the development of sexuality in boys and in girls. This fresh line of thought was carried further some eighteen months later in Freud's paper on ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’ (1925j). The history of Freud's changing views on this subject is discussed in an Editor's Note to the latter paper (p. 243 ff. below).

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The Dissolution1 of the Oedipus Complex

To an ever-increasing extent the Oedipus complex reveals its importance as the central phenomenon of the sexual period of early childhood. After that, its dissolution takes place; it succumbs to repression, as we say, and is followed by the latency period. It has not yet become clear, however, what it is that brings about its destruction. Analyses seem to show that it is the experience of painful disappointments. The little girl likes to regard herself as what her father loves above all else; but the time comes when she has to endure a harsh punishment from him and she is cast out of her fool's paradise. The boy regards his mother as his own property; but he finds one day that she has transferred her love and solicitude to a new arrival. Reflection must deepen our sense of the importance of those influences, for it will emphasize the fact that distressing experiences of this sort, which act in opposition to the content of the complex, are inevitable. Even when no special events occur, like those we have mentioned as examples, the absence of the satisfaction hoped for, the continued denial of the desired baby, must in the end lead the small lover to turn away from his hopeless longing. In this way the Oedipus complex would go to its destruction from its lack of success, from the effects of its internal impossibility.

Another view is that the Oedipus complex must collapse because the time has come for its disintegration, just as the milk-teeth fall out when the permanent one begin to grow.


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1 [‘Untergang.’ We learn from Ernest Jones (1957, 114) that Ferenczi, in a letter of March 24, 1924, objected to the strength of this word and suggested that it was chosen as a reaction to Rank's ideas on the importance of the ‘birth trauma’. Freud, replying two days later, ‘admitted that the word in the title might have been emotionally influenced by his feelings about Rank's new ideas, but said that the paper itself was quite independent of the latter’ (Jones, loc. cit.). It must be pointed out, indeed, that the phrase ‘Untergang des Ödipuskomplexes’ had in fact been used twice by Freud in The Ego and the Id, which was written before the publication of Rank's hypothesis. (See above, pp. 32 and 34.) In the same passage he had in fact also used the still stronger word ‘Zertrüm-merung (demolition)’.]

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Although the majority of human beings go through the Oedipus complex as an individual experience, it is nevertheless a phenomenon which is determined and laid down by heredity and which is bound to pass away according to programme when the next pre-ordained phase of development sets in. This being so, it is of no great importance what the occasions are which allow this to happen, or, indeed, whether any such occasions can be discovered at all.1

The justice of both these views cannot be disputed. Moreover, they are compatible. There is room for the ontogenetic view side by side with the more far-reaching phylogenetic one. It is also true that even at birth the whole individual is destined to die, and perhaps his organic disposition may already contain the indication of what he is to die from. Nevertheless, it remains of interest to follow out how this innate programme is carried out and in what way accidental noxae exploit his disposition.

We have lately2 been made more clearly aware than before that a child's sexual development advances to a certain phase at which the genital organ has already taken over the leading role. But this genital is the male one only, or, more correctly, the penis; the female genital has remained undiscovered. This phallic phase, which is contemporaneous with the Oedipus complex, does not develop further to the definitive genital organization, but is submerged, and is succeeded by the latency period. Its termination, however, takes place in a typical manner and in conjunction with events that are of regular recurrence.

When the (male) child's interest turns to his genitals he betrays the fact by manipulating them frequently; and he then finds that the adults do not approve of this behaviour. More or less plainly, more or less brutally, a threat is pronounced that this part of him which he values so highly will be taken away from him. Usually it is from women that the threat emanates; very often they seek to strengthen their authority by a reference to the father or the doctor, who, so they say, will carry out the punishment. In a number of cases the women will themselves


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1 [The ideas contained in this and the preceding paragraph had been expressed by Freud in very similar terms in Section IV of ‘“A Child is Being Beaten”’ (1919e), Standard Ed., 17, 188.]

2 [See ‘The Infantile Genital Organization of the Libido’ (1923e), p. 141 above.]

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mitigate the threat in a symbolic manner by telling the child that what is to be removed is not his genital, which actually plays a passive part, but his hand, which is the active culprit. It happens particularly often that the little boy is threatened with castration, not because he plays with his penis with his hand, but because he wets his bed every night and cannot be got to be clean. Those in charge of him behave as if this nocturnal incontinence was the result and the proof of his being unduly concerned with his penis, and they are probably right.1 In any case, long-continued bed-wetting is to be equated with the emissions of adults. It is an expression of the same excitation of the genitals which has impelled the child to masturbate at this period.

Now it is my view that what brings about the destruction of the child's phallic genital organization is this threat of castration. Not immediately, it is true, and not without other influences being brought to bear as well. For to begin with the boy does not believe in the threat or obey it in the least. Psycho-analysis has recently attached importance to two experiences which all children go through and which, it is suggested, prepare them for the loss of highly valued parts of the body. These experiences are the withdrawal of the mother's breast—at first intermittently and later for good—and the daily demand on them to give up the contents of the bowel. But there is no evidence to show that, when the threat of castration takes place, those experiences have any effect.2 It is not until a fresh experience comes his way that the child begins to reckon with the possibility of being castrated, and then only hesitatingly and unwillingly, and not without making efforts to depreciate the significance of something he has himself observed.

The observation which finally breaks down his unbelief is the sight of the female genitals. Sooner or later the child, who is so


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1 [Cf. the case history of ‘Dora’ (1905e), Standard Ed., 7, 74 and the second of the Three Essays (1905d), Standard Ed., 190.]

2 [Cf. a footnote added, at about the time this paper was written, to the case history of ‘Little Hans’ (1909b), Standard Ed., 10, 8, in which reference is made to papers by Andreas-Salomé (1916), A. Stärcke (1921) and Alexander (1922). A third experience of separation—that of birth—is also mentioned there, but, as in the present passage, Freud objects to the confusion with the castration complex. Cf. also a footnote to ‘The Infantile Genital Organization of the Libido’ (1923e), p. 144 above.]

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proud of his possession of a penis, has a view of the genital region of a little girl, and cannot help being convinced of the absence of a penis in a creature who is so like himself. With this, the loss of his own penis becomes imaginable, and the threat of castration takes its deferred effect.

We should not be as short-sighted as the person in charge of the child who threatens him with castration, and we must not overlook the fact that at this time masturbation by no means represents the whole of his sexual life. As can be clearly shown, he stands in the Oedipus attitude to his parents; his masturbation is only a genital discharge of the sexual excitation belonging to the complex, and throughout his later years will owe its importance to that relationship. The Oedipus complex offered the child two possibilities of satisfaction, an active and a passive one. He could put himself in his father's place in a masculine fashion and have intercourse with his mother as his father did, in which case he would soon have felt the latter as a hindrance; or he might want to take the place of his mother and be loved by his father, in which case his mother would become superfluous. The child may have had only very vague notions as to what constitutes a satisfying erotic intercourse; but certainly the penis must play a part in it, for the sensations in his own organ were evidence of that. So far he had had no occasion to doubt that women possessed a penis. But now his acceptance of the possibility of castration, his recognition that women were castrated, made an end of both possible ways of obtaining satisfaction from the Oedipus complex. For both of them entailed the loss of his penis—the masculine one as a resulting punishment and the feminine one as a precondition. If the satisfaction of love in the field of the Oedipus complex is to cost the child his penis, a conflict is bound to arise between his narcissistic interest in that part of his body and the libidinal cathexis of his parental objects. In this conflict the first of these forces normally triumphs: the child's ego turns away from the Oedipus complex.

I have described elsewhere how this turning away takes place.1 The object-cathexes are given up and replaced by identifications. The authority of the father or the parents is introjected into the ego, and there it forms the nucleus of the super-ego, which takes over the severity of the father and perpetuates


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1 [In Chapter III of The Ego and the Id, p. 29 ff. above.]

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his prohibition against incest, and so secures the ego from the return of the libidinal object-cathexis. The libidinal trends belonging to the Oedipus complex are in part desexualized and sublimated (a thing which probably happens with every transformation into an identification) and in part inhibited in their aim and changed into impulses of affection. The whole process has, on the one hand, preserved the genital organ—has averted the danger of its loss—and, on the other, has paralysed it—has removed its function. This process ushers in the latency period, which now interrupts the child's sexual development.

I see no reason for denying the name of a ‘repression’ to the ego's turning away from the Oedipus complex, although later repressions come about for the most part with the participation of the super-ego, which in this case is only just being formed. But the process we have described is more than a repression. It is equivalent, if it is ideally carried out, to a destruction and an abolition of the complex. We may plausibly assume that we have here come upon the borderline—never a very sharply drawn one—between the normal and the pathological. If the ego has in fact not achieved much more than a repression of the complex, the latter persists in an unconscious state in the id and will later manifest its pathogenic effect.

Analytic observation enables us to recognize or guess these connections between the phallic organization, the Oedipus complex, the threat of castration, the formation of the super-ego and the latency period. These connections justify the statement that the destruction of the Oedipus complex is brought about by the threat of castration. But this does not dispose of the problem; there is room for a theoretical speculation which may upset the results we have come to or put them in a new light. Before we start along this new path, however, we must turn to a question which has arisen in the course of this discussion and has so far been left on one side. The process which has been described refers, as has been expressly said, to male children only. How does the corresponding development take place in little girls?

At this point our material—for some incomprehensible reason1—becomes far more obscure and full of gaps. The female sex, too, develops an Oedipus complex, a super-ego and a


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1 [Freud suggested some explanation for this in Section I of his paper on ‘Female Sexuality’ (1931b).]

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latency period. May we also attribute a phallic organization and a castration complex to it? The answer is in the affirmative; but these things cannot be the same as they are in boys. Here the feminist demand for equal rights for the sexes does not take us far, for the morphological distinction is bound to find expression in differences of psychical development.1 ‘Anatomy is Destiny’, to vary a saying of Napoleon's. The little girl's clitoris behaves just like a penis to begin with; but, when she makes a comparison with a playfellow of the other sex, she perceives that she has ‘come off badly’2 and she feels this as a wrong done to her and as a ground for inferiority. For a while still she consoles herself with the expectation that later on, when she grows older, she will acquire just as big an appendage as the boy's. Here the masculinity complex3 of women branches off. A female child, however, does not understand her lack of a penis as being a sex character; she explains it by assuming that at some earlier date she had possessed an equally large organ and had then lost it by castration. She seems not to extend this inference from herself to other, adult females, but, entirely on the lines of the phallic phase, to regard them as possessing large and complete—that is to say, male—genitals. The essential difference thus comes about that the girl accepts castration as an accomplished fact, whereas the boy fears the possibility of its occurrence.

The fear of castration being thus excluded in the little girl, a powerful motive also drops out for the setting-up of a super-ego and for the breaking-off of the infantile genital organization. In her, far more than in the boy, these changes seem to be the result of upbringing and of intimidation from outside which threatens her with a loss of love. The girl's Oedipus complex is much simpler than that of the small bearer of the penis; in my experience, it seldom goes beyond the taking of her mother's place and the adopting of a feminine attitude towards her father. Renunciation of the penis is not tolerated by the girl without some attempt at compensation. She slips—along the


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1 [See Freud's paper, written about eighteen months after this one, on ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’ (1925j), p. 248 below. Much of what follows is elaborated there. The paraphrase of Napoleon's epigram had appeared already in the second paper on the psychology of love (1912d), Standard Ed., 11, 189.]

2 [Literally, ‘come off too short’.]

3 Cf. below, p. 253 and n. 1.

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line of a symbolic equation, one might say—from the penis to a baby. Her Oedipus complex culminates in a desire, which is long retained, to receive a baby from her father as a gift—to bear him a child.1 One has an impression that the Oedipus complex is then gradually given up because this wish is never fulfilled. The two wishes—to possess a penis and a child—remain strongly cathected in the unconscious and help to prepare the female creature for her later sexual role. The comparatively lesser strength of the sadistic contribution to her sexual instinct, which we may no doubt connect with the stunted growth of her penis, makes it easier in her case for the direct sexual trends to be transformed into aim-inhibited trends of an affectionate kind. It must be admitted, however, that in general our insight into these developmental processes in girls is unsatisfactory, incomplete and vague.2

I have no doubt that the chronological and causal relations described here between the Oedipus complex, sexual intimidation (the threat of castration), the formation of the super-ego and the beginning of the latency period are of a typical kind; but I do not wish to assert that this type is the only possible one. Variations in the chronological order and in the linking-up of these events are bound to have a very important bearing on the development of the individual.

Since the publication of Otto Rank's interesting study, The Trauma of Birth [1924], even the conclusion arrived at by this modest investigation, to the effect that the boy's Oedipus complex is destroyed by the fear of castration, cannot be accepted without further discussion. Nevertheless, it seems to me premature to enter into such a discussion at the present time, and perhaps inadvisable to begin a criticism or an appreciation of Rank's view at this juncture.3


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1 [Cf. Freud's paper on ‘Transformations of Instinct’ (1917c), Standard Ed., 17, 128 ff.; see also below, p. 256.]

2 [Freud discussed this topic much more fully in his papers on the anatomical distinction between the sexes (1925j) and on female sexuality (1931b), in both of which he gave a very different account of the girl's Oedipus complex from the present one.]

3 [The question was taken up by Freud soon afterwards in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d). Cf. Section (e) of the Editor's Introduction to that work, Standard Ed., 20, 83 ff.]

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Article Citation [Who Cited This?]

Freud, S. (1924). The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIX (1923-1925): The Ego and the Id and Other Works, 171-180

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