19 pages 38 minutes read

Seamus Heaney

Act of Union

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1975

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Symbols & Motifs

Oedipal Complex

At the level of the pregnancy narrative, the male figure appears apprehensive about the coming birth of the baby he has fathered. He states: “His parasitical / And ignorant little fists already / Beat at your borders and I know they're cocked/ At me across the water” (Lines 22-25). The man’s hostility suggests he is aware of what in psychoanalytic theory is called the Oedipal complex, in which a young boy feels sexual attraction toward the mother and aggression toward the father, who is seen as a rival. Thus the “ignorant little fists” (Line 23) are poised to pound away at the father.


An allegory is a narrative poem that possesses more than one meaning. The first level can be understood in a literal manner, while the second level represents something different but which can be correlated with the first. That second level might, for example, represent different characters and events or abstract concepts. Thus, one thing is presented under the appearance of another.

In “Act of Union,” the literal level of meaning is a man contemplating and describing his wife or lover’s developing pregnancy. At the allegorical level, the man stands for England and the woman for Ireland; the allegory presents their historical relationship and its consequences.