Electra Complex: Oedipus, Freud and Psychoanalytic Definitions

Andrea Bisko, Sarah Lavoie
  • Author
    Andrea Bisko

    Andrea has taught high school English language and literature for four years. She has a degree in English language and literature teaching from University of Mostar and University of Poitiers. She is very passionate about literature, languages, and psychology which she successfully applies into her teaching, creating an interesting and useful educational environment for her students.

  • Instructor
    Sarah Lavoie

    Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Greek Mythology delivers a story of Electra who helped avenge her father's death. Learn about the Electra complex - a female version of the Oedipus complex theorized by Freud. Updated: 09/15/2021

Electra Complex Definition

According to Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories from the late 19th century, subconscious thoughts deeply influence human behavior. He argued that sexual desires drive people on a subconscious level formed during early childhood. He developed a theory of the Oedipus complex, the name of which originates from Greek mythology. The Oedipus complex is a psychoanalytic term that refers to a mother-son relationship. According to the theory, young boys form a strong sense of themselves and their sexuality at an early age. It sets the ground for a conflict with the father because of the need to be the sole focus of the mother's affection. Freud named this complex after Sophocles' play titled Oedipus Rex, where the protagonist kills his father and marries his mother.

Similarly, the Electra complex refers to a psychoanalytic concept that describes a daughter's sense of rivalry with her mother. The Electra complex is a female version of the Oedipus complex, and its name also originates from the Greek mythological story. In Sophocles' play, Electra and her brother plot the murder of their mother to avenge their father's death. In psychoanalysis, a daughter's fond relationship with the father creates conflict and rivalry with the mother subconsciously.

Sigmund Freud believed that human personalities form in early childhood. He argued that personality development depends upon the ability and manner in which a child deals with inner drives for pleasure.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

During female psychosexual development, a girl is attached to the mother. However, after realizing that she does not have a penis, she turns against her mother, blaming the mother for her castration. She becomes fond and attached to the father and fights for his attention; this happens during the phallic developmental stage, around age three to six. Such longing for the father's attention creates competition with the mother. The daughter develops a strong, unconscious desire to replace her mother in her sexual role. At the same time, the daughter develops resentment for her mother because she entered the world without a penis - a concept Freud called the penis envy.

According to Freud, there are three resolutions to the Electra complex: a masculinity complex, sexual inhibition, and normal resolution. Freud generally believed that women are inferior to men due to not having a penis and much more likely to develop mental illness. His theories were subject to wide criticism even though he is considered the father of psychoanalysis. Psychologist Karen Horney, for example, argued that the personality differences between men and women were due to different socio-cultural environments and settings.

Freud thought that all the psychosexual developmental phases lead children to understand and accept their gender roles and develop a healthy view of sexuality and morality. Following the phallic phase in females is the acceptance of the mother and identification with the same-sex parent. Some sources, however, say that Freud admitted to knowing less about early female development than early male development.

Electra Sophocles Summary

Even though Freud set the basis for the theory of the Electra complex, it was his colleague Carl Jung who coined the term and naming it after the Sophocles' play. It is essential to look closely at the play's storyline to understand the idea of the name.

Electra is a tragedy by the Greek author Sophocles, who also went under the name Euripides. Electra was a daughter of Agamemnon, the king of Argos (or Mycenae, in some versions of the play), and his wife, Clytemnestra. Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to please the gods at the beginning of the Trojan War. After the Trojan War with his concubine Cassandra, he returned to Argos, and he found that his wife had taken his cousin Aegisthus as her lover. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murder Agamemnon and Cassandra as a vengeance for the life of Iphigenia. Mourning her father's death, Electra plots the murder of her mother. Together with his brother Orestes, she kills Clytemnestra and her lover. Orestes then becomes the king of Argos.

Freud's Theories

The Oedipus complex is a common, well-known term created by Sigmund Freud. In psychoanalytic theory, it refers to the powerful mother-son relationship in childhood. The Oedipal complex explains how boys develop a sense of themselves and their personalities through sexual desires and conflict with their parents. Sigmund Freud named this complex after Sophocles's play called Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother.

Sigmund Freud put a substantial amount of importance on unconscious drives for pleasure in the development of personality. Freud's theories of personality involved mental conflicts and sexual desires and how those desires are resolved, or unresolved, in childhood. The symptoms of sexual conflict in boys were aptly named after Oedipus, whom Freud believed personified these drives.

But what about girls? Freud had plenty of ideas about the sexual and personality development of females as well.

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The Story of Electra

In Greek mythology, as told by many great Greek playwrights, Electra is a princess of Argos. Argos is a metropolitan area ruled by Electra's father, King Agamemnon, and her mother, Queen Clytemnestra. There is much strife within the family - Electra's sister, Iphigenia, is sacrificed before the Trojan War by order of the gods, and Electra must send her twin brother, Orestes, away to rescue him from her vengeful mother.

When King Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, he finds that his wife has taken his cousin, Aegisthus, as her lover. Clytemnestra and her lover conspire and kill King Agamemnon. Electra is devastated and prays for her brother's return to avenge her father and claim the throne. Orestes returns to Argos when he comes of age. With the aid of Electra, Orestes kills both his mother and her lover and reclaims the throne of Argos.

There are many similarities between the stories of Oedipus and Electra. Each involves both sexual conflict and murder. Although Freud's ideas seem very extreme to today's psychotherapists, sexual conflict and murder are very often at the heart of our more contemporary stories as well. Nearly every modern movie and TV show has those themes at its heart. So, let's review Sigmund Freud's ideas about personality and development so we can understand the Electra complex.

Sigmund Freud's Stages of Development

Sigmund Freud believed that our personalities are formed in early childhood. He believed that the development of the personality was based upon how a child reacts to internal drives for pleasure, specifically the erogenous zones. Erogenous zones are those areas of the body that stimulate pleasure, including the mouth, lips, tongue, anus and genitals. Freud related certain ages to these erogenous zones and believed that a child's needs focus on a specific erogenous zone at each developmental stage. He named these the psychosexual stages of development.

From age three to about age six, the primary erogenous zone is the genitals. It is called the phallic stage because of Freud's conviction that the penis is the most important organ for both male and female development. Freud believed that children begin to notice and touch their genitals at this stage.

According to Freud, all young boys have a desire, conscious or unconscious, to replace their father as their mother's sexual partner. The young boy is equally as scared of the father finding out his desires and castrating him. This is the basis of the Oedipal complex, which happens within the phallic stage. Healthy resolution of this phase occurs when the child gives up their fantasy of replacing their father and tries to become like his father instead. This leads to the boy understanding his own sexuality, gender role and a sense of morality.

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Video Transcript

Freud's Theories

The Oedipus complex is a common, well-known term created by Sigmund Freud. In psychoanalytic theory, it refers to the powerful mother-son relationship in childhood. The Oedipal complex explains how boys develop a sense of themselves and their personalities through sexual desires and conflict with their parents. Sigmund Freud named this complex after Sophocles's play called Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother.

Sigmund Freud put a substantial amount of importance on unconscious drives for pleasure in the development of personality. Freud's theories of personality involved mental conflicts and sexual desires and how those desires are resolved, or unresolved, in childhood. The symptoms of sexual conflict in boys were aptly named after Oedipus, whom Freud believed personified these drives.

But what about girls? Freud had plenty of ideas about the sexual and personality development of females as well.

The Story of Electra

In Greek mythology, as told by many great Greek playwrights, Electra is a princess of Argos. Argos is a metropolitan area ruled by Electra's father, King Agamemnon, and her mother, Queen Clytemnestra. There is much strife within the family - Electra's sister, Iphigenia, is sacrificed before the Trojan War by order of the gods, and Electra must send her twin brother, Orestes, away to rescue him from her vengeful mother.

When King Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, he finds that his wife has taken his cousin, Aegisthus, as her lover. Clytemnestra and her lover conspire and kill King Agamemnon. Electra is devastated and prays for her brother's return to avenge her father and claim the throne. Orestes returns to Argos when he comes of age. With the aid of Electra, Orestes kills both his mother and her lover and reclaims the throne of Argos.

There are many similarities between the stories of Oedipus and Electra. Each involves both sexual conflict and murder. Although Freud's ideas seem very extreme to today's psychotherapists, sexual conflict and murder are very often at the heart of our more contemporary stories as well. Nearly every modern movie and TV show has those themes at its heart. So, let's review Sigmund Freud's ideas about personality and development so we can understand the Electra complex.

Sigmund Freud's Stages of Development

Sigmund Freud believed that our personalities are formed in early childhood. He believed that the development of the personality was based upon how a child reacts to internal drives for pleasure, specifically the erogenous zones. Erogenous zones are those areas of the body that stimulate pleasure, including the mouth, lips, tongue, anus and genitals. Freud related certain ages to these erogenous zones and believed that a child's needs focus on a specific erogenous zone at each developmental stage. He named these the psychosexual stages of development.

From age three to about age six, the primary erogenous zone is the genitals. It is called the phallic stage because of Freud's conviction that the penis is the most important organ for both male and female development. Freud believed that children begin to notice and touch their genitals at this stage.

According to Freud, all young boys have a desire, conscious or unconscious, to replace their father as their mother's sexual partner. The young boy is equally as scared of the father finding out his desires and castrating him. This is the basis of the Oedipal complex, which happens within the phallic stage. Healthy resolution of this phase occurs when the child gives up their fantasy of replacing their father and tries to become like his father instead. This leads to the boy understanding his own sexuality, gender role and a sense of morality.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How is the Oedipus and Electra complex resolved?

The Oedipus and Electra complex is resolved when children overcome the negative emotions for the same-sex parents and start to identify with them.

What is Oedipal complex in psychology?

The Oedipal complex in psychology refers to the stage when a young boy develops the desire to replace his father as his mother's sexual partner.

What causes Electra complex?

When a young girl realizes that she is born without a penis, she blames her mother for the castration and develops resentment towards her. The young girl forms a deeper connection with her father at that stage.

What is meant by Electra complex?

The Electra complex refers to the state of a young girl being attracted to the parent of the opposite sex during the phallic developmental stage while also developing a sense of competition with her mother.

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