My Oedipus Complex by Frank O'Connor

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story begins in retrospection. The adult Larry remembers his idyllic and blissful early childhood at home with his mother while his father was away during World War I. Larry, confident of his mother’s full attention, accompanied her throughout each day, prayed unfailingly for his father’s safe return, and urged his mother to brighten up the house by bringing home a baby. This Edenic existence is abruptly lost when his father returns home from the war. Suddenly, Larry finds that he has been demoted: His mother is attentive to his father and inattentive to him. He is repeatedly asked to be quiet while his father speaks and to be careful not to wake him up in the morning. In short, he finds that he must at all times play second fiddle to a rude and monstrous stranger whom his mother seems to favor for some reason mysteriously related, Larry concludes, to “that unhealthy habit of sleeping together.” Larry regrets his many prayers for his father’s safe return. “I couldn’t help feeling that if this was how God answered prayers, he couldn’t listen to them very attentively.”

One morning, when Larry awakens his father by screaming, his father tells him to shut up. Larry is so shocked by this presumptuousness that he yells back, whereupon his father slaps him. Thereafter, the two of them are “enemies, open and avowed.” They engage in a series of skirmishes: In one of these, Larry announces to his mother that he will one day marry her and they will have lots of babies. When she tells him that she will have one soon, he interprets her response as a sign of favor to him.

Just when Larry concludes that he has turned the tide, he is besieged by the noisy arrival of his brother, Sonny, who proves as much of a disappointment to him as his father was on his return. One day, his father overhears him muttering to himself that he plans to leave if another baby arrives. Thereafter, his father treats him more kindly. One evening, when Sonny is crying louder and longer than usual, his father seeks refuge in Larry’s bed. Larry understands that now it is his father’s turn to be dispossessed. “I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Father. I had been through it all myself, and even at that age I was magnanimous.” He attempts to comfort his father, asks him for a hug, and concludes that, it was “better than nothing.” Thus, in their common displacement, Larry and his father are reconciled.