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  • The Female Oedipal Complex in Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There
  • Michael D. Reed

Generally regarded as the final volume in a trilogy of children's books written by Maurice Sendak, Outside Over There has been greeted with as mixed reactions as were the other two volumes, Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. There was among the reviewers little concern that the book would produce nightmares, as it was supposed Where The Wild Things Are would, nor did librarians find it necessary to paint diapers on the nude babies as they once did on the nude Mickey of In The Night Kitchen. Instead, the reactions to Outside Over There are less clear and straightforward and are often ambivalent. While the reviewers and Sendak agree that Outside Over There continues the basic theme of the trilogy, "how children master various feelings—anger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy—and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives" (Heins 288), there is no clear agreement about the specific meaning of the story.

One reviewer commented that the "ecstatic death dance, and a number of other things, remain inexplicable: the wedding, the egg shells, Ida's going out the window backwards" (McNulty 220); she goes on to say, "The resolution. . .fizzles, because I don't understand it. Why is Ida reconciled to her sister?" and finally concludes that "the story is so filled with ambiguous suggestions that the emotional message is blurred. . ." (McNulty 220). This sense of the ambiguous and unexplainable finds expression in other reviews. John Gardner writes that "Both words and pictures give endless cause for musings" (33), and still another reviewer has questioned whether or not this book is a children's book at all (Clemons 102). While Outside Over There has produced the controversy that we expect to accompany one of Maurice Sendak's books, this time the controversy takes the form of ambivalence towards the story and its meaning—a quizzical puzzlement about the book's apparently unanswered questions.

There are, of course, reviewers who try to explain the book's mystery. These generally conclude that Outside Over There deals with the issue of sibling rivalry. According to one reviewer, "Outside Over There is about jealousy and sibling rivalry" (Griswold 674) while another remarks that Ida wants her sister sent back to "that limbo of the unborn" (Clemons 102). But this explanation does not provide answers for the more obvious central focus of the book, which is the relationship between Ida and her father; he is the dominant figure in most of the book even though he has gone out to sea. Nor does the assumption that the book is about sibling rivalry allow for a clear accounting of other elements in the story or for the masterful relationship between the words and the illustrations. For example, it does not help to explain why Ida's going out the window backwards is a "serious mistake," why her mother is such a passive creature, why Ida dons her mother's cloak when she goes "into outside over there," or why the important wedding in the story is not really a wedding at all.

One clue, which seems to provide the most likely basis for a complete explanation of Outside Over There, is found in John Gardner's remark that in Outside Over There, Sendak "examines with great accuracy and tenderness, the archetypal older girl-child's longing-filled love for her father. . ." which gives the greater emphasis to the father required by his dominant presence in the plot (64). In other words, the psychoanalytic content of Ouside Over There is a female Oedipal fantasy.

Since the psychoanalytic content of literature relates primarily to the personality of its author, this raises an interesting question. How can a male author write a story that expresses a female psychoanalytic fantasy? In a way, this is an age old question, for male and female writers have always written convincingly of the opposite sex. But our case here is different, for it involves subconscious mental processes which are brought to the conscious level only through sublimation. Thus, we wonder, how could Sendak express through his story this unconscious fantasy...


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pp. 176-180
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