The Presence of the Oedipus Complex in Paul Auster’s City of Glass
Throughout history literature has had several themes or ideas that have persisted though all of its different movements. One of these ideas is that of the Oedipus complex. The Story of Oedipus was originally written by Sophocles in the fifth century BC. Sigmund Freud conceived the actual idea of the “Oedipus Complex” as it pertains to society and modern literature. A definition Oedipus complex or theory states that,
A boy’s sexual wishes in regard to his mother become more intense and his father is perceived as an obstacle to them; from this the Oedipus complex originates. His identification with his father then takes on a hostile coloring and changes into a wish to get rid of his father in order to take his place with his mother (Borch-Jacobsen 268).
This definition is saying in simple terms that the Oedipus complex is a desire to marry one’s mother and kill, destroy or remove one’s father. Upon examination of Paul Auster’s City of Glass one sees the Oedipus complex at work. The cast of characters in this oedipal drama are Stillman Jr. as the son, Virginia Stillman as the mother figure, and Stillman Sr. and Daniel Quinn as Stillman Jr.’s father figures.
In the novel, the father figure to Stillman Jr. is played by predominately by Stillman Sr., but also in some cases by Quinn. According to the
Oedipus complex Stillman Jr. would seek to destroy both of these men because they pose a threat to his relationship with his mother or mother figure. While Quinn poses a more typical oedipal threat, Stillman also fits in to the Oedipus equation.
Therefore, what role does Daniel Quinn play in Stillman Jr.’s Oedipus tragedy? Well his role is both atypical and typical at the same time. The oddity of Quinn’s role comes from the fact that he is not even related to Stillman Jr. However, Quinn does play the role of Stillman’s father figure. He is hired to protect and serve Stillman Jr., and therefore fills the role of the father figure. Because he acts as father figure, Quinn becomes a part of the Oedipus complex. Since Stillman Jr. views Quinn as a threat to his relationship with his mother, he follows Freud’s thoughts on the complex and aims his, “feelings of intense rivalry toward the same-sex parent,” (Bower 248). Why, however would Stillman Jr. feel like this? Stillman Jr. himself admits that his wife hires prostitutes for him. According to the theory, this makes sense. If the theory holds true, Virginia’s motive in doing this is because she is Stillman’s mother figure, and therefore acknowledges his desire for her, but chooses to give him an alternate outlet for it.
The actions of Stillman Jr. and Virginia in this situation perfectly demonstrate oedipal desires. If Stillman Jr. had a desire to destroy Quinn for posing a threat to his relationship, how did he accomplish it? The most logical explanation is the fact the he knew Quinn was obsessed with his case and the death of it would ruin him. This is apparently what happens in the story. Quinn is effectively ruined by Stillman’s case. His destruction is what fulfills Stillman Jr.’s oedipal desires in regards to the father figure he had in Quinn.
As much like a father figure Quinn may act like to Stillman Jr., Stillman Sr. is nonetheless his biological father. Well, according to psychologists oedipal desires, “may arise again when one or the other parent dies. Patients who have not negotiated these rites of passage have unresolved Oedipal problems,” (Young). Because Stillman Jr. was locked in the dark room during the so called oedipal years and because his mother was dead, he never had a chance to resolved his oedipal conflicts. Therefore, when Stillman Sr. reemerges, Stillman Jr.’s conflicts resurface. His original desires can now be filled. Granted his mother is dead, and he does not ask Quinn to kill his father. The Stilmans never really say what they will do to Stillman Sr. if they find that he had a plot to harm Stillman Jr.
One can safely assume however that if they would go to such great and costly lengths to have Stillman Sr. followed, that having him assassinated is not beyond them. This contention is further reinforced by their departure immediately following Stillman Sr.’s apparent suicide. It is as if their desires have been fulfilled; they have again reduced the oedipal triangle from three to two. Stillman Jr.’s hiring of Quinn caused Stillman to commit suicide and that is how he fulfilled his desires to kill his father.
According to Oedipus, Stillman must have a sexual attraction for his mother figure. In the oedipal drama in the novel, Virginia Stillman plays this role. She fits into the mother figure role because of desire to protect Stillman, although she has no physical attraction to him. Virginia even admits that her marriage is, “not something I want for myself anymore. At least with Peter there’s a purpose to my life,” (Auster 33). She is the woman that Stillman loves. Stillman has an obvious unattainable lust for Virginia. According to the theory, Stillman should love Virginia. This is very obviously true. Stillman Jr. says to Quinn of Virginia, “I even have a wife. . . . She is beautiful, is she not?” (Auster 24). Of all the parts of the Oedipus complex that appear in City of Glass Stillman Jr.’s sexual desire for his mother figure Virginia Stillman is the most obvious and easiest to explain.
If one looks hard enough you can discover almost anything that you want in a novel. The only problem with this theory is the so-called, “burden of proof.” You can assert anything, but you must back it up. In Paul Auster’s City of Glass you can assert many theories as to the cause of the actions of the characters. One theory that has a substantial amount of proof to support it is the Oedipus complex. As previously explained, the typical roles of son, mother figure, and father figure are filled by the characters in the story. An examination the novel reveals the Oedipus complex is a valid, provable explanation for the actions of the novel.