Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The poignancy and humor of this story turn on Larry’s personal and individual struggle with a universal dilemma. In the course of the narrative, Larry learns that, in family life, every son is ousted and every king deposed. As a result, he learns to feel compassion for his father, his former rival, and to enter the fraternity of males in which membership derives from exclusion. Although there is a gain in this awareness, there is also much loss. Larry wryly notes of his early childhood, before his father’s return, “The war was the most peaceful period of my life. . . . Life never seemed so simple and clear and full of possibilities as then.”

Like many of Frank O’Connor’s finest stories, “My Oedipus Complex” centers on a key experience in the childhood development of Larry Delaney, O’Connor’s semi-autobiographical protagonist. Much of the power of the story derives from the dual awareness that it provides of the immediate experience of the child and the larger, more distanced perspective of the adult. Although the adult Larry Delaney recalls himself as a child first struggling with his feelings of rivalry and jealousy toward his father and then toward his baby brother, the reader also shares the perspective and resignation of the adult who has come to terms with the material he presents. However, the reader always has the poignant awareness that the child and the adult are the same person, that the laughter of the adult modifies but does not eradicate the pain of the child. The story also confirms with understanding and compassion the universal struggle of sons with fathers and maintains that each son must reenact in the particular circumstances of his own life this age-old struggle. Only then can he also claim the experience as uniquely his own—thus the meaning of the title: “My Oedipus Complex.”