Back to the Future and the Oedipus Complex in Frye’s ‘New Cinema’ (Stewart Clark)

In Northrop Frye’s The Argument of Comedy, he states that there are two comedies: ‘Old Comedy’ and ‘New Comedy’. He argues that “New Comedy unfolds from what may be described as a comic Oedipus situation.” [1] He continues by stating that this situation follows the “successful effort of a young man to outwit an opponent and possess the girl of his choice. The opponent is usually the father, and the psychological descent of the heroine from the mother is also sometimes hinted at.” [2] Although I can agree with Frye’s beliefs with ‘New Comedy’ throughout the majority of cinematic narratives, a film that escapes this theory is Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985).

In Back to the Future, the main protagonist Marty McFly is sent back in time accidentally to 1955. He spends the course of the film not only attempting to get back to 1985 but to prevent his own mother from falling in love with him. Marty has to help his father get together with his mother in order for his timeline not to be erased. In the clip attached, Marty wakes up in his mother’s room and is shocked to see her flirtatious demeanour.


Although Back to the Future contains conventional Hollywood themes throughout, it does not strictly align with Frye’s central arguments. While there is certainly an Oedipus complex at play here: the film features the young man trying to manipulate a woman into a romantic relationship. The structure differs in this film because the young man, Marty, is trying to outwit his own mother into dating someone else, his own father.

Back to the Future is a good example of a film that does not align with Frye’s ‘New Comedy’ argument. Although this may be the case, it suggests that perhaps we have seen an even ‘newer’ brand of comedy since Frye’s writing. From films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller, 2008) as well as Back to the Future, perhaps comedy has evolved further.


[1] Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia, 1949), p. 58.

[2] Ibid., p. 58.


  1. Is the application of the comic Oedipus situation flexible at all? For example, could it be applied to another character in the film? For example, perhaps Marty’s dad could be seen as the ‘young man trying to outwit and opponent and possess the girl of his choice (Marty’s mum)?

  2. Another example of the Oedipus situation in Back to the Future is the storyline with Biff. Biff and Marty fight over Lorraine in the lunchroom and throughout the film. In the second film Biff becomes Marty’s stepfather. This comic Oedipus situation follows Frye’s analysis more clearly.

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