Oedipus and Freud’s theory on the psyche (Superego, ego & id)

When reading Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, I immediately did a mental character analysis on Oedipus and realized how similar he is to Marlow from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness…Now bare with me, I know it is a bit of a stretch, but what I’m trying to say is, if you apply Freud’s psychology on the psyche as being structured in 3 parts – superego, ego, and id, you can see the qualities these two protagonists share.

So, what is Freud’s theory on the psyche? Allow me to explain. I love this theory, I’m honestly so psyched to tell you!! (Yes, that pun was intended)

THE SUPEREGO – It incorporates the values and morals of society which one learns from parents and other people. It controls the id’s impulses, especially the ones society forbids. The superego focuses on morality instead of reality and impulsivity. It also has two systems: the conscience and ideal self. The conscience can punish the ego through guilt and the ideal self is a visual/imaginary image of how one aspires to be.

THE EGO – This is the malleable part of the psyche, as it mediates between the unrealistic and reckless id and the real world. It works by reason and reality. It postpones satisfaction and considers society’s norms and etiquette. It is rational and orientated towards problem solving. For example, Freud made an analogy that the ‘id’ is the horse whilst the ‘ego’ is the rider. This would mean that the ego would have to have superior strength over the chaotic and unreasonable id.

THE ID – This is the primitive and instinctive component of one’s personality. It is the unconscious and impulsive part of one’s psyche as it responds directly and immediately to instincts. It is illogical, irrational, and fantasy oriented. It has no sense of being realistic and therefore it is selfish and ambitious in nature.

So, how does this all relate to Oedipus and Marlow?

Well with Oedipus the King, initially in the play, Oedipus displays all these Apollonian (I’m apply Nietzsche’s theory of the Apollonian and Dionynsiac duality) qualities (being righteous, in order etc), but as he meticulously and desperately searches for his own truth, he begins to show Dionysiac qualities. He begins to lose himself as he discovers himself. His superego consisted of being godly like for his people as well as being a confident, courageous, and respectable leader. However, once he took the time to truly discover his ‘riddle’, his id took over. His ego could not mediate between the two extremes and therefore, in the tragic moment of the third act when Oedipus stabs himself in the eyes, it is a moment of impulsivity and aggression. His emotions overtook his thoughts and his rationality.

When you apply the Psychodynamic Theory, an individual’s moral standards are malleable because when given the proper circumstance, an individual may succumb to the id’s urges and act irrationally. For Heart of Darkness, when Marlow sees ‘the woods unmoved, like a mask – heavy, like the closed door of a prison – they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence’ (pg. 71), it draws a parallel to the journey into the Congo with the journey of discovering self-hood. Marlow begins to understand the thoughts, emotions, and desires everyone represses from their daily consciences. He comprehends ‘When you have to attend to things of that sort, the mere incidents of the surface, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades. The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily’ (pg. 43). In addition to this, when he comes face to face with a tribe member, he recalls the face ‘looking at me very fierce and steady; and then suddenly, as though a veil had been removed from my eyes’ (pg. 75). This conveys a sense of having peeked behind the mask to see what is concealed under the unconscious. This scene draws a parallel to Oedipus the King because when Oedipus and Teiresias have their confrontation, Teiresias plays the role of the tribe member, the one who knows the truth, the one who actually personifies the truth of the protagonist and the overarching theme of the narrative.

When Marlow searches for Kurtz, he enters unknown land and water, which can serve as the unconscious because whilst he is discovering this unknown territory, he is also discovering unknown parts of himself. The steamboat is a metaphor for a consciousness rowing in an all-too-primitive mind because the steamboat portrays a super-ego trespassing into an id. And once one goes into this territory, there is no going back. This analogy applies to Oedipus because in the third act, when he figures out his truth, there is no going back because he is too far deep in his chaotic origins/id and therefore reacts irrationally.

So yeah that’s basically it. I literally thought of Charlie Marlow from Heart of Darkness when reading Oedipus the King. I saw immediate parallels between the two characters. It’s amazing how literature and psychology bleed into one another.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *