Daddy’s Girl: The Electra Complex in Poetry and Fiction

For those with a somewhat less warm and fuzzy view of Father’s Day, delve deeper into the psychosis of what it truly means to love your dad. Below, we explore some of the most prominent examples of the Electra complex in literature and poetry. Whether this pertains to unwanted sexual feelings toward one’s father or competitive tendencies with one’s mother in vying for her father’s affections is left to your Freudian discretion. And then, of course, there are the daughters who simply feel that no male could possibly hold a candle to her patriarch and, likewise, the fathers with a somewhat unsettling preoccupation with their daughter(s).

The Greeks had Electra pegged.
The Greeks had Electra pegged.
Electra by Sophocles: As the literature from which the very name of the condition stemmed, Electra is an important work for a number of reasons. The origin story of the complex begins with the title character and her brother, Orestes, exacting revenge on their mother, Clytemnestra, and stepfather, Aegisthus, who jointly participated in the murder of Electra’s father, Agamemnon. Although, in Clytemnestra’s defense, Agamemnon did return from the Trojan War with a mistress named Cassandra and also previously killed his other daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to the gods. It’s all very Greek.
“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath: The ultimate dad-resenter, Plath ended up marrying a man who proved to be just as disappointing to her. Plath’s father, Otto, died when she was just eight years old, and left an indelible imprint on her psyche. The poem is told from the perspective of a girl with an Electra complex whose father dies at a point in time when his daughter still sees him as godlike. To compound the neuroses of the poem, Plath makes the “daddy” in question a Nazi (though this could also be intended as more metaphorical than literal).
A line from "Daddy"
A line from “Daddy”
Hamlet by William Shakespeare: While Hamlet’s Oedipus complex tends to steal the show in Hamlet, Polonius and Ophelia have their own separate father-daughter issues to showcase. Although she has love for Hamlet, Ophelia’s innate Electra complex overpowers those feelings. In spite of her childhood traumas resulting from Polonius’ general absence or his wielding of her as a pawn, Ophelia is loyal, above all, to Polonius and his various agendas.
The ultimate sufferer of an Oedipal complex, after Oedipus of course
The ultimate sufferer of an Oedipal complex, after Oedipus of course
Philosophy in the Bedroom by the Marquis de Sade: And, naturally, no mention of inappropriate relationships in literature is complete without mentioning the Marquis de Sade. Appropriately, the entire dialogue of the novel takes place in a bedroom. The lead character, Eugénie de Mistival, is a 15-year-old virgin whose naïveté is gradually stripped away as the story goes on. Ultimately, Eugénie gives into the Sophocles form of the Electra complex by feeling acrimony toward her mother and allowing her to be raped by a man with syphilis. Eugénie further eradicates any competition with her mother by sewing up her vagina. Check and mate.
A Penguin classic
A Penguin classic
Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O’Neill: Adapted from the Aeschylus play, Oresteia, Mourning Becomes Electra gives us a modernized snapshot of Electra, Agamemnon and the saga of the House of Atreus. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War as opposed to the Trojan War, Lavinia Mannon is the representation of Electra, and vies for the affections of her mother’s paramour. However, she still finds time to focus on the love she has for her father, Ezra Mannon, and avenging his death—thereby embodying all of the key facets of the complex.
Numerous versions of Mourning Becomes Electra were created, both in theater and film
Numerous versions of Mourning Becomes Electra were created, both in theater and film
The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre: Another retelling of the classic Greek tale of Electra, The Flies is one of Sartre’s most uniquely existential plays. The notorious nihilist brings a different, more empirical take to the tale by centering it around Electra’s conflict with Zeus (who one might say is the ultimate father figure).
Cover for No Exit and The Flies
Cover for No Exit and The Flies
Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac: Balzac’s cynical perspective on family life shines through beautifully in this segment of his sequence of novels called La Comédie Humaine. Perhaps it’s no accident that our lead character, Jean-Joachim Goriot, is a pasta maker specializing in vermicelli, the long, spiral-shaped pasta that is all too representative of the semiotics of madness. Goriot inhabits a boarding house populated with characters as odd as he. The other tenants find out that Goriot has a somewhat unhealthy preoccupation with his daughters, Anastasie and Delphine, and has gone bankrupt in order to support them in spite of the fact that they’re both married.
A somewhat cartoonish cover for Balzac's great work
A somewhat cartoonish cover for Balzac’s great work
Snow White by The Brothers Grimm: Even in the sanitized Disney version of this story, one still gets an immediate sense of Snow White’s competitiveness with her wicked stepmother falls under the jurisdiction of an Electra complex. Snow White wants the affections of her father all to herself, but must share them with her unwanted, overly vain stepmother.
Before Disney Snow White, there was the more disturbing Brothers Grimm one
Before Disney Snow White, there was the more disturbing Brothers Grimm one
House of Incest by Anaïs Nin: The title alone should give you some small glimpse into the emotional abstruseness of this particular work from Nin. Sexually abused by her father on more than one occasion as a child, Nin’s exploration of self-love stems largely from an inability to love someone who is unlike oneself or, rather, unlike one’s parent. Around the time Nin was writing House of Incest, released in 1936, she was undergoing psychoanalysis that encouraged her to have an affair with her father in order to take revenge on what he did to her as a child by abandoning him the way he did to her. The title, then, takes on an even more grotesque meaning.
The most straight to the point title on the list
The most straight to the point title on the list
So, um, Happy Father’s Day everyone. May your paternal relationships look far more normal after reading some of these works.

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