A great quote from Michelle Scalise Sugiyama – from a chapter in Evolution, Literature, Film: A Reader (2010).

Much of Freud’s work on psychology has now been surpassed, or refuted. (Notably, his former student Carl Jung found him to be mistaken about many things.)

Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt, 1921

Sigmund Freud – smoking and snorting way too much cocaine – by Max Halberstadt, 1921

Here is one example… the (so-called) `Oedipus Complex’.

As Scalise Sugiyama points out, even the concept itself could hardly be more wrong:

`Literary interpretation and theory derive their legitimacy from the tacitly accepted yet largely unexamined premise that characters are representations of human beings and, as such, exhibit the same psychology as their author and audience.

To put it another way, literary characters do not exhibit the thought processes of okapis, ostriches, octopi, or any other species. (Even the metamorphosed Gregor Samsa thinks, perceives, and responds primarily as a human.)

We assume that literary characters have human beliefs, desires, emotions, and perceptions – for example, that a (mentally competent) character’s conceptualization of dog, fetch and devotion reliably corresponds to our own.

By virtue of its subject matter then, all literary criticism is in one way or another psychological criticism, and in a fundamental way, literary study is the study of human cognition…

Yet, despite the fact that literary scholarship regularly makes assumptions about the operation of the mind, its practitioners customarily receive no training in cognitive design and evolution.

This essay addresses a specific – yet widespread – manifestation of the problem: the persistence of the oedipal paradigm.

This model, which in various literary permutations is commonly invoked to analyse everything from male sexuality to family dynamics to narrative structure, is founded upon an inaccurate conception of what the mind is designed to do.

Freud did not understand that, in order for a psychological feature to evolve, it has to contribute to fitness (a biological term referring to the differences in physical and psychological attributes that cause some individuals within a given population to contribute more genes to subsequent generations than other individuals do).

As a result, he posited a highly unlikely phenomenon.

Freud’s mistake is understandable, but given what is now known about human cognition, behaviour and biology, the continued use of this model by his intellectual descendants is not…

Mainstream psycho-literary criticism remains founded on the century-old conceptualization of the mind original developed by Freud, a model no longer taken seriously in cutting-edge psychological research…

The basic premise of the oedipal complex is that all children go through a phase in their sexual development where they are sexually attracted to their opposite-sex parent and consequently desire to kill their chief rival, namely their same-sex parent… Contrary to Freud’s hypothesis, there is compelling evidence that sexual apathy or aversion toward family members is activated during the early years of childhood.

As Robin Fox so frankly puts it, to understand incest avoidance, we need to understand how the human breeding system evolved… a mechanism inhibiting incestuous mating is much more likely to have evolved than a mechanism motivating incestuous mating…

In light of this research it is important to note that Oedipus does not fall in love with Merope, the woman who raised him – and significantly – the woman he believes to be his biological mother. (Nor does he murder Polybus, the man who raised him and the man he takes to be his biological father.) As Jean-Pierre Vernant noted over twenty-five years ago, technically speaking, Oedipus has no Oedipus complex…

If he did, his “oedipal” feelings would be directed towards Merope, not Jocasta…

It may be that Freud named the oedipal complex after the infamous king of Thebes not because Oedipus’s childhood experience mirrored the developmental phase he described but simply because Oedipus was readily recognizable as a man who killed his father and had sex with his mother.

Or perhaps Freud unconsciously misconstrued the myth to suit his purposes…

As a handful of scholars have pointed out, however, it is actually a misinterpretation…

Moreover, as Martha Nussbaum notes, erotic desire is not a major theme of Sophocles’s play, even in the marriage between Oedipus and Jocasta…

As these critiques illustrate, the psychoanalytical version of the myth glosses over some important details:

(1) Oedipus does not have sexual feelings for the woman he knows as his mother, Merope; and

(2) Oedipus does not harbour feelings of sexual rivalry towards the man he knows as his father, Polybus.

The Freudian interpretation of the Oedipus myth also overlooks the important biological fact that infants are incapable of reproduction. Sexual desires at this age are a waste of time, energy and resources that could be – and are – directed toward more immediately useful development such as motor coordination, language acquisition, social cognition, and understanding the psychical and psychological properties of objects in their environment… in pre-Freudian Western culture, sexual desire was assumed to awaken during puberty, not in infancy or childhood.

Freud put the cart before the horse, assuming that the relationship between  parent and child is sexual in nature when in fact the opposite is true: adult sexual relationships borrow from infantile and parental behaviour…

According to Fox, “Freud was a great reader of the anthropology of his day. He had read Darwin and Westermarck (of course).”

…It is surprising then, that a man of such powerful intellect did not see the relevance of these men’s ideas to his own.

More surprising is the tenacity with which literary criticism has held on to such a counterintuitive paradigm…

Thus, through its continued use of the oedipal model, and its disregard of a century’s worth of advances in psychological and anthropological science, literary scholarship presents a picture of the human psyche that is both inaccurate and incomplete.’

(Scalise Sugiyama in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, pp. 306-15)

So “The Oedipus Complex” is an annoying-persistent meme

If you hear anyone using it, just refer them to this excellent chapter (above) by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, in ELF: A Reader (2010). It is called “New Science, Old Myth: An Evolutionary Critique of The Oedipal Paradigm” (and – is actually a reprint of an earlier article, from 2001.)

And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)

And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:

StoryAlity #71On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication

Comments, always welcome.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Michelle Scalise-Sugiyama (2001), reprinted in Boyd, B., Carroll, J., & Gottschall, J. (2010). Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.

7 thoughts on “StoryAlity #90 – Freud was wrong about Oedipus (Sugiyama)

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