Freud and his mother: the Oedipus complex in The Door in the Floor

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Oedipus complex is a term used in psychoanalytic theory to refer to the desire of a gendered child to eliminate the parent of the same gender and possess, sexually, the parent of the other gender. Freud's conceptualization of the term, in particular, refers to the desire to eliminate the father and possess the mother, for both boys and girls. The origin of this idea, as argued in a paper by Hartocollis (2005), may have dated back to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex play rather than the actual Greek myth. In his book, Interpretation of Dreams, Freud referred to men having dreams of making love to their mother as a basis for the Oedipal complex, an observation also made by Sophocles. The Oedipus complex is resolved by fear of castration, which leads to the adoption of the Father figure's identification. The objects of the dissolved complex become the nucleus of the superego - your conscience, so to speak.

This theory apparently only works for healthy, heterosexual little boys. Incomplete resolution results in neurosis and perhaps non-heterosexuality. Little girls were beyond Freud's understanding, and he struggled to draw a parallel process for them. The best he could do, which really was not very good, was to propose that little girls never fully completely dissolve the complex and bear a partial hatred for her mother for the rest of her life while wanting to bear children for her father. Subconsciously, of course. Oh, and yes, she does not have much of a superego, aka conscience. Cheat, lie, and steal, par for the course!

In an article exploring Freudian themes in The Door in the Floor (Williams, 2004), the author (Ivey, 2006) argued that the film was "a dark contemplation of oedipal sexuality and loss, and the unconscious strategies employed to avoid these facts of life in the psychological crucible of family relationships (p. 871)." He went on to demonstrate how Ted (Jeff Bridges), estranged from his wife Marion (Kim Basinger), resorted to sexual perversion as a way of dealing with the loss of his sons, objectifying women so that he wouldn't have to form intimate relationships with them. Where there is no intimate attachment, there is no loss. Ivey (2006) believed that Bridges' boyish look and wardrobe (oversized night shirt) placed him in the role of the boy who would open the door in the floor, the door that may relate to his birth and subsequent relationship with women (specifically, his mother). This loss of a child may have been associated with an earlier loss, perhaps of the Oedipal kind relating to his parents (Ivey, 2006).

Most obviously connected to the Oedipal theme were Eddie and his lust for Marion, who was old enough to be his mother. Eddie was hired as Ted's assistant for the summer, probably on the basis of him bearing a resemblance to one of their dead sons. On the one hand, Eddie idealized Ted as a father figure he wished he had; on the other, he was his sexual rival. Parents can help a child overcome or deal with the Oedipus complex successfully by acknowledging the desire but not gratifying it. Ted and Marion meanwhile used Eddie to work out their losses. Ivey (2006) wrote:

Eddie is a virgin and Marion proceeds to seduce him under the pretext of gratifying his needs and facilitating his transition to manhood. The English translation of the Latin school motto in one photograph of the dead sons is: ‘Come hither boys and become men’. The first act of heterosexual intercourse traditionally represents the transition from boyhood to manhood because it is the adult act that led to one’s conception. Marion wonders if her sons had sex before they died and suspects that the younger son did not. Because she identifi es Eddie with Thomas, her intercourse with him implies an enactment of the fantasy of erotic union with her dead son. What are her real motives for this incestuous relationship? One, of course, is revenge; she uses Eddie to punish Ted for his infi delity. But a more atavistic motive is to sexually incorporate her dead son, perhaps reincarnate him, and thereby avoid suffering his loss. This solution, like Ted’s voyeuristic perversion, is maladaptive and doomed to failure. One of the most painful images in the fi lm is the fi nal sex scene between Marion and Eddie. The camera focuses on her face and what we see is not pleasure or connectedness but inconsolable despair and desolation.

Ted’s motives might be that he wants to assuage the guilt he feels about his own infi delity by entrapping Marion in a mutual betrayal. This explanation, however, is superfi cial and fails to do justice to the ubiquitous infl uence of the unconscious. The possibility that he wishes to reanimate his emotionally dead wife by reuniting her with her dead son also misses the compelling fact of Ted’s guilt and his conviction that he was responsible for the death of his sons. He omitted to wipe off the snow from the tail lights and rear window of the car, indirectly causing the snow plow to crash into them. But this was an accident, so why would Ted hold himself responsible? A psychoanalytic answer is that, however much he loved his sons, their emerging manhood confronted him with his middle-age decline and the erosion of his patriarchal authority. We see this symbolized by the fact that one of the boys was in the driver’s seat when the accident occurred. Their youth and virility, moreover, would result in sexual conquests beyond the reach of their aging father, representing an oedipal victory over him. In other words, he may have wanted them dead. The tragic realization of this unconscious wish is the real occasion for his guilt and the reason for his inability to properly mourn their loss. By presenting Eddie to Marion, Ted is attempting to undo the terrible harm he feels he’s done and to resurrect his dead son.

The only one Ivey (2006) believed to have succeeded with the task of resolving the Oedipal complex was Eddie, by virtue of his adopting a paternal role towards Ruth, the 'replacement' daughter to Ted and Marion, and his distancing of both Ted and Marion. It is interesting to see how loss and the mourning thereof relate to the Oedipus complex as illustrated in the film and framed by Ivey: "Interpersonal losses in adulthood recall early infantile experiences of harming or killing loved internal objects, making the experience of subsequent grief hard to endure. In cases where destructive impulses are felt to dominate the mind, loved internal objects are felt to be irrevocably lost or destroyed. Excessive guilt interferes with the work of mourning and gradual resurrection of the good internal objects, resulting in either melancholia or pathological denial of the experience of loss. The former describes Marion’s situation, the latter Ted’s.(p.877)" It may be a stretch to some extent to apply the Oedipus complex to Ted (Ivey referred to Laіus, Oedipus' father, as the prototype for Ted's character), but it is a compelling interpretation of the film, nevertheless.

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Reference
Hartocollis, P. (2005). Origins and evolution of the oedipus complex as conceptualized by Freud. Psychoanalytic Review, 92(3), 315-35.

Ivey, G. (2006). Sex in the mourning: Oedipal love and loss in The Door in the Floor. International Journal of Psychoanalytics, 87, 871-9.

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4 Response to Freud and his mother: the Oedipus complex in The Door in the Floor

Anonymous
August 1, 2010 at 6:45 AM

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August 18, 2010 at 2:41 AM

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Anonymous
October 22, 2010 at 9:55 AM

last week our class held a similar talk on this subject and you point out something we have not covered yet, appreciate that.

- Kris

October 23, 2010 at 2:13 AM

Out of curiosity - which class is it? Which wasn't covered? And is this your third time on the site?

 

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