Sing me a lullaby daddy, so I can kill you: An exposition of the structure and development of the Oedipal conflict in the characters and plot of Blue Velvet.
In Blue Velvet, the 1986 film by director David Lynch, the theory of the Oedipal conflict performs well as an organizing and explanatory tool in an analysis of the progression of the protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont. The constitutional triad of the Oedipal conflict is revealed in the opening scenes: Following establishing shots of a white picket fence, waving firemen, and a crossing guard helping children across the street--all images of security in middle class America--the successive scenes are of Jeffrey's father outdoors, Jeffrey's mother indoors, and Jeffrey wandering in a field.
In the first scene, Jeffreys father is overcome by what seems to be a sting preceded by the entanglement of his (garden)hose in a bush which perhaps agitates a bee. In a successive scene he is immobilized in a hospital bed, an internment that brings Jeffrey home to help with his domestic and work responsibilities. Jeffreys experience begins with the incapacitation of his father. It is the vacancy of his fathers presence that draws him into his fathers place, at the hardware store and at home.
In the analysis of the film, as with a dream, the most useful Freudian interpretive concepts are those of decomposition (as the inverse of condensation) and displacement. The figure of the father, which functions synonymously as authority or senior male, can be decomposed into three major characters after the incapacitation of Jeffreys father: Frank Booth--the violent abductor; Detective Williams--the good cop; and Detective Gordon--the bad cop.
The decomposition has the following structure:
After, and because of, the incapacitation of Jeffreys father, Jeffrey finds a severed human ear--the (opening) clue that reveals a mystery in the sleepy town of Lumberton. The symbol of the ear could be associated with the ear of the analyst but being somewhat bug-nibbled and very detached from a head, it is easier to associate with a disassociated (detached) hearing, or less abstractly for Jeffrey, the realization that what he hears is similarly detached from, or not revealing of, a submerged reality. His first impulse is to take his find to Detective Williams both to reveal that he has discovered a mystery and to question him about it.
Detective Williams, the decomposition of the good father, responds to Jeffrey's interest much like a real parent, letting him know that there are some things which must not be discussed because they are dangerous.
Well, Jeffrey, you found something which is very
interesting to us. Very interesting. I know you must be
curious to know more. But. I'm afraid I'm going to have
to ask you not only not to tell anyone about your find,
but also not to ask more about the case. One day, when
it's all sewed up, I'll let you know all the details. Right
now, though. I can't.
I understand. I'm just real curious like you said.
I was the same way when I was your age.
The implication is that what Jeffrey is going through--his find and questioning of the significance of an organ, even showing it to people--is a stage, something he will grow out of. Jeffrey is not dissuaded by this admonishment. He feels drawn to examine this riddle and, aided by the detectives daughter, he finds out where he must go next--to a grown woman, a mother. This development follows the Oedipal progression of the initial object cathexis with the mother.
The mother can be decomposed into two figures: Dorothy Valens and Sandy Williams. The decomposition of the mother is presented both as simpler and far less dangerous than that of the father. Dorothy threatens and cuts him only to reveal who he is. Sandy is uncertain of her involvement for the same reason; she is not sure who he is. In both cases, after he reveals himself he is no longer threatened. Exposure to the (decomposed) father (figures) follows an inverted logic. The more he reveals of himself, of his intentions and relations, the greater the danger.
Sandy is a peer of Jeffrey and ultimately how he resolves the mystery/conflict will determine how their relationship develops. Sandy, the good Detectives daughter, has overheard her father talk about the case and is also curious to know more. Sandy reveals to Jeffrey the connection of Dorothy Valens to the case and shows him the location of her apartment. His curiosity piqued, he suggests investigating further.
There are opportunities in life for gaining
knowledge and experience. Sometimes, in
some cases, it's necessary to take a risk.
I got to thinking. I'll bet a person could
learn a lot by getting into that woman's
apartment. You know, sneak in and hide
I don't know if you're a detective or a
That's for me to know and for you to find
His response also works to express her uncertainty for himself, he may himself not yet know. (Jeffrey could also stand for Freud in this exchange especially in relation to Sandys comment.) His experience is that of being in the midst of a mystery, his intention is discovery (or resolution), and his initial action is voyeurism. The viewer will find out what he is, or how he resolves this conflict, no sooner than he does.
His gains access to Dorothy by pretending to be someone he is not. While in her apartment disguised as an exterminator, he steals a key with which he can return later. While there, he sees Detective Gordon for the first time. This detective, a partner both of Frank and Detective Williams, wants what Frank has but is unwilling to become Frank. Jeffrey watches as Dorothy rejects his advances by reminding him of Franks immanent return. Detective Gordons intermediate and duplicitous relation between the world of Frank and the world of Detective Williams reflects Jeffreys presentation of himself as someone he is not. If Jeffrey does not resolve the conflict he will remain as he is now, as Detective Gordon is.
Jeffrey chooses to investigate further and, using the key he stole to access Dorothys apartment while she is out, begins to know her through her possessions. She returns while he is still there and, to avoid discovery, he hides in the closet behind louvered doors through which he can see. Freud suggests the experience of immobility in a dream indicates ambivalence. Here the ambivalence is representative of the conflict between the law of the father, as given by the figure of Detective Williams, not to know the mystery (or the mother), and Jeffreys contradictory impulse to know her. His solution is to look but to try to conceal this from the parental figures.
He succeeds in seeing Dorothy almost nude but reveals his presence by a noise against the door. He is instantly in danger as she threatens him at knife-point to reveal who sent him. She cuts him when he is reluctant to reveal his last name--the name of his father. She then forces him to expose himself as she was unwittingly exposed to him. She is seduced by her power and finds the situation erotic, leading to sexual contact with Jeffrey. The progression of their sexual intensity is interrupted by the arrival of Frank Booth.
Dorothy is afraid Frank will kill Jeffrey if he finds them together. To prevent this she hides Jeffrey in the closet, the same closet she found him in (Jeffreys return to ambivalence) where he continues to watch everything that happens. What he sees between Dorothy and Frank is the nature of their sexual relation. Frank relates to Dorothy sexually first as her "baby" (and she as his mommy) and then as her "daddy" (her possessor). His shift between these states coincides with the shift from passive predator to active. When he is engaging her sexually, despite which role he is playing, she is prohibited from looking at him. Only Jeffrey, hidden in the dark closet, (and the viewer in the dark theater) can watch him.
Jeffreys first exposure to sexuality in the film is as a voyeur, and it is as a voyeur that he experiences the final decomposition of the father in the figure of Frank Booth as he (Frank) sexually assaults Dorothy. It is here that the decomposition of the father develops from the primacy of an obstacle, in the figure of Detective Williams and his forbidding of Jeffreys questioning, to rival in the figure of Frank Booth as sexual/sadistic predator.
The progression of the decomposition of the father then is from no recognition of father, to recognition of the place of the father, to idealized father in the figure of Detective Williams, to the duplicitous father in the figure of Detective Gordon and finally to the figure of Frank Booth as the primal father. The detectives are authority figures by virtue of their jobs, or place, in society. Franks authority derives from his lack of compliance. Like the primal father in Freuds horde, he does not restrain his desire to possess or kill.
Jeffreys sexual engagement with Dorothy and his affection for, and curiosity about her brings him to watch her perform at the Slow Club. In this scene Jeffrey is at the club watching Dorothy and, with both interest and horror, notices that Frank is likewise watching her. This is the beginning of the identification that releases his sexuality and facilitates his taking the role of the father. In Jeffrey's first encounter with Dorothy he is scared/compassionate and though Dorothy is interested by his compassion, she is unwilling to submit to him. Franks sexuality, the converse of Jeffreys, is so completely dominating and sadistic that its aim is fulfilled before he takes his pants off. It is only after Jeffrey begins following Frank (the decomposed father) instead of just Dorothy (the decomposed mother) that he is able to incorporate an aggressive element and fully relate to Dorothy sexually.
When Jeffrey (partially) reveals to Sandy what he has learned about Dorothys relation with Frank, she replies:
I can't believe what you are finding out.
Are you going to continue with this? Are
you going back to her apartment?
I'm seeing something that was always hidden.
I'm involved in a mystery. I'm learning.
And it's all secret.
You like mysteries that much?
Yeah. You're a mystery. I like you.
This suggests that the mystery of Dorothy is not so far removed from the mystery of Sandy--both of whom are feminine--revealing that part of the mystery is the relation of the masculine to the feminine, or, in Jeffrey's case, how he will ultimately relate to Sandy.
After Frank discovers that Dorothy has a meaningful relationship with Jeffrey--a relationship which threatens his control of her--he both threatens and attacks Jeffrey. This is still the admonition of the good father--to keep away--but now restated by the primal father in the most aggressive and threatening way.
Don't be a good neighbor to her or I'm
gonna send you a love letter. Straight
from my heart, fucker. You know what a
love letter is? It's a bullet. Straight
from my gun, fucker. Once you get a love
letter from me, you're fucked forever.
I'll send you straight to hell, Fuck!
(Frank takes a small square of blue velvet out of his pocket and begins feeling Jeffrey's face with it.)
(continuing; breathing heavily)
You feel good. Feel my muscles.
(Raymond makes Jeffrey raise his arm and Jeffrey feels Frank's biceps.)
You like that?
(to Raymond and Paul)
Hold him tight for me.
(Suddenly Frank starts hitting Jeffrey in the face. Dorothy screams through the car window.)
Just before beating Jeffrey into unconsciousness, Frank speaks a part of the song the Candy Colored Clown: In dreams I walk with you/ In dreams I talk to you/ In dreams youre mine all the time/ [forever in dreams]. This suggests both a wish and a prophecy. Frank transforms a suitors words of wishful longing into a curse of remembrance.
The holographic nature of these lyrics allows them to reflect various aspects of the themes of ambivalence in the film. At the most superficial level they reflect the dependence of words on context for meaning. They also reflect the primary visual theme of the contrast between the appearance of a safe suburbia and the sociopathic desires within.
More relevant to the oedipal conflict is the reference to the primal scene of the horde myth where the remembrance of the absolute power of the senior male becomes internalized after he is killed, eaten and supplanted by the bonded males. The primal father had no use for dreams because he experienced no inhibited desire. The subordination of desire to the preservation of a social organization that shares power leads to the inhibition of desire to dreams (the virtual) but the continued necessity of inhibition reveals the (now virtual) existence of the father. The lyrics are the dying words of the father spoken as a prophecy to the sons who in turn repeat it as a love song. In the car just before singing the dram song to Jeffrey, Frank says to him: "you are just like me." Namely that, at the level of desire, they are identical.
The confrontation that forces a resolution occurs in Dorothys apartment. Frank finds Jeffrey hiding in the same closet that he was hiding in when he first saw Frank. The difference now is that Jeffrey is prepared to come out from a state of immobility (or ambivalence) in a decisive way. After shooting Frank, Jeffreys sexual attraction shifts from Dorothy, the mother figure, to Sandy.
The end of the film repeats the same scenes of middle class security as at the beginning, but now it is Jeffrey who is watering the lawn in the same way his father was at the beginning of the film. He has resolved both the mystery and the conflict.
With the help of Freuds concept of the Oedipal conflict, the story can be read as a mystery not of the who-dunnit type but of one which concerns who the characters are and how they relate and develop their relation to one another. The film reveals itself as an exposition of the emotional intensity surrounding the resolution of the Oedipal conflict, wrapped in a narrative of a violent and sadistic psychopath and his death at the hands of a young college student. As Detective Williams counsels Jeffrey when it seems he cannot prevent himself from revealing what he knows: "Easy does it Jeffrey, dont blow it." The stability of social ties rests on the necessary concealment of the known--unconsciousness.