Oryx and Crake: Jimmy’s Oedipus Complex
Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is a novel of speculative fiction that paints a terrifying dystopia that takes place within the next century. It is the portrait of a world destroyed by the unrestrained growth in technology, specifically in the field of genetics. Several different themes are incorporated in the novel; among those are social and economic stratification, genetic manipulation, and the child sex slave trade. With the diversity in themes, it is not hard to take one of many critical approaches to the novel. Although the themes mentioned may be of greater importance to the novel, the psychological aspects of the characters are also important. The novel is the retelling of the story of the end of civilization through the eyes of Snowman, once known as Jimmy. Much of the novel is focused on the story of Jimmy’s childhood and his relationship with his parents, specifically his mother. Jimmy’s relationship with his mother appears to correspond to Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex with many associated symptoms including repression, guilt, anxiety, transference and conflicts with the super-ego.
As the text of Oryx and Crake jumps back and forth from the past to the present, Snowman tells the story of how things came to be. His narrative is filled with memories of the past, when he was a child and lived with his parents in the compound where his father worked. There is much focus on his relationship with his mother and how he viewed her, and she becomes very influential to Jimmy’s personality and mentality.
Studies on Freud’s Oedipus complex, and the related anxiety, guilt, and repression that come with it, show that this complex clearly characterizes Jimmy’s childhood. Freud invented the Oedipus complex as a way of explaining infantile love. In the story Oedipus Rex, Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother. The Oedipus complex is used to describe young boys’ love toward their mothers. According to Freud, young male children develop a fixation on their mothers. The mother is the first love of a child’s life; therefore, she becomes a love-object for the child. The child also sees the father as an obstacle to his love, and he develops a desire to get rid of the father (Gay 22). Young males initially attempt to get over this jealousy by identifying with the father. As the child matures, the feelings for the mother become too intense and the child becomes hostile toward the father as he is a perceived threat to the love-object. This is where the complex originates. Eventually as the child matures, the complex is given up and the boy further intensifies his identification with the father (640). There are other related symptoms that correspond with the Oedipus complex. These include repression, guilt, and anxiety. These also play a crucial role in Jimmy’s childhood.
From early on in his life, Jimmy had raised his mother to an almost godlike status. His most important goal was pleasing her. When he and his mother went for a walk when he was a child, his mother tried to teach him about cells and disease. When he realized his mother was vexed by his indifference to the subject, he quickly uttered “I want to hear about the tiny cells, I want to!” (Atwood 21). He spent much of his time desperately trying to amuse his mother, or trying to do anything that would make her smile or reinforce her love for him. It seems that in his childhood, he was plagued by loss anxiety, or the fear that he would lose his mother or her love. Anxieties that plague children with the complex include the fear of castration and the fear of the loss of love (Gay 778). Jimmy's attempts to entertain and please his mother are attempts to retain her love for him. Jimmy angered his mother over the question of getting a pet; the result made her cry and Jimmy felt afraid that he had gone too far, that his mother might leave him. He also felt guilty for upsetting her, saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” while patting her on the back (33).
Jimmy frequently expresses feelings of guilt over many things, including his parents' deteriorating marriage. When Jimmy burned his hair with a cigarette lighter, his parents got into a fight and his mother was blamed for having the lighter in the house. Jimmy felt guilty, believing it was he who started the fight (Atwood 16). Jimmy also feels guilty for the incinerated pigoons. His parents had a fight over Jimmy when he cried because he believed a cough would kill him, and he tries to please his mother by intently listening to her about diseases (21). When he cannot possibly please his mother, he falls into a state of repression.
Repression is a reaction to an impulse that has no resolution. Jimmy’s love for his mother is blocked by her lack of interest in him; therefore his love for her is blocked and becomes unconsciously discharged through another route. Killer, the pet rakunk, becomes his new love-object since his mother’s love for him is not always returned. The repressed love for his mother is now expressed through Killer. Even as Snowman remembers the birthday, he explains “He’s repressed his birthdays: they weren’t a matter for general celebration…” (Atwood 50). When Jimmy’s mother finally ran off, with Killer, Jimmy states that he mourned for months. The statement “Which one of them was he mourning the most? His mother, or an altered skunk?” further reinforces his repression (61). He had placed his repressed love for his mother in his rakunk to the point where he did not even know which he actually loved more.
Later in Jimmy’s life, Oryx became his love-object. However, he
still had dreams about the loss of his mother, dreams of him alone in
his house when he was a child and his mother not being there. His dreams
are about his mother, but she is never there; he only dreams of her absence
(Atwood 277). He has never really gotten over his fear of loss for his
mother. He remembers his mother as a “clear image, full colour,
with a glossy white paper frame around her like a Polaroid” (49)
but he cannot exactly remember what his father looked like.
When Jimmy’s mother left, he had no outlet for his obsession. Killer, the pet rakunk, would normally have been the outlet for his obsessive love; however, his mother took Killer with her. Her departure left Jimmy with no one besides his father whom he did not like anyway. Jimmy’s repressed love for his mother was transferred to Oryx. Freud explains transference as the compulsion to repeat emotions or states of mind that existed in one’s past; it is a characteristic of the Oedipus complex (Gay 602). Jimmy’s love had to find an outlet when his mother left; therefore, his love obsession was transferred to Oryx. It is obvious that Jimmy is obsessed with Oryx from the first time he saw her on the child pornography website. Of all the children on the website pornography, Oryx was the only one he saw as a person. “Oryx was three-dimensional from the start” (Atwood 90). He is obsessed with her throughout his life and after her death. The love for his mother that was stagnated after she left was transferred to Oryx.
There are other incidences in Atwood’s novel that reinforce Jimmy’s obsession with his mother. This can be seen with the many visits from the CorpSeCorps. They frequently visited Jimmy to gain updates on his mother, asking him if he had seen or heard from her. In one instance, the Corpsmen show Jimmy a film of his mother being executed. After the film they ask him questions about it in an attempt to confirm his mother’s identity. Although Jimmy attempts to show no emotion, he is deeply affected by the film. “The next few weeks were the worst he could remember” (Atwood 259). These visits from the CorpSeCorps are ways that Atwood reinforces the relationship between Jimmy and his mother.
What remains of the complex is what Freud termed the super-ego. “In ideal cases, the Oedipus complex exists no longer, even in the unconscious; the super-ego has become its heir” (Gay 677). In a nutshell, the super-ego is the super-morality, or the moral conscious of oneself (Gay 655). Snowman has conflicts with his super-ego, which is what his previous Oedipus complex has developed to. This causes him to often feel too moral or to lack morality at times, such as with his many promiscuous relationships.
Based on the Freudian background, Jimmy’s relationship and attachment to his mother led to his Oedipal complex in childhood and his super-ego conflicts in adulthood. If his relationship with his mother could have been more normal or reliable, the complex might have dissolved leaving him to identify with his father. However, the abrupt disconnection with his mother caused him unconscious conflicts later in life as a result of an unresolved Oedipal complex.
Copyright 2006 Dr. Michael O'Conner
All rights reserved.