The Oedipus play by Sophocles truly stood the test of time. The themes of fate and predestination revealed in the play are universal and have aroused interest centuries after they were first introduced in 429 BC. The mysteries of fate remain unsolved and continue to excite the imagination of contemporaries. However, the example of King Oedipus shows that sometimes these riddles can be cruel, and the truth, instead of giving liberation, can cause ruin. King Oedipus, despite his high birth, experiences more suffering than an ordinary person. He bears the responsibility of the king of Thebes and the duty of a son, husband, and father.
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The contradictions between these roles and the fatal cycle of events bring genuine chaos into the life of Oedipus and end in tragedy. But the tragedy of the exodus is also liberation for the protagonist, who can finally exercise free will by choosing atonement (Putra and Widayanti 1). Each of us is faced with a situation when it is necessary to show free will despite the circumstances. But not everyone has ever been a victim of destiny. In his struggle with fate, King Oedipus made the right and wrong decisions, but still, despite the surreal story that his life turned into, he managed to find meaning in it. His struggle and pursuit of the truth, looking for the killer of Laius, caused the dire truth to be revealed to Oedipus. However, by sacrificing himself to save the people of Thebes, King Oedipus fulfilled his destiny and freed himself from it.
The fate of Oedipus is a trap, but he does not know about it until he visits the oracle in Delphi, who predicts, “You are fated to couple with your mother, you will bring a breed of children into the light no man can bear to see you will kill your father, the one who gave your life” (Sophocles 205/846-875). Confident that this is about Polybius and Merope, the rulers of Corinth, who adopted him as a child, Oedipus leaves the city and goes on a journey. Having reached Thebes, he learns about the Sphinx, which devours people sacrificed to him because none of them can solve its riddles. Oedipus solves the mystery of the Sphinx and is declared king. However, on the way to Thebes, he accidentally kills Laius at the crossroads of three roads, not knowing that this is the king of Thebes or that Laius is his father.
Later, Oedipus curses fate and says that Apollo played a cruel joke with him because if the soothsayer told him that Polybius and Merope were not his parents, perhaps he would not have left this city. Although Oedipus must have had suspicions about this, since once at a feast a drunken man tried to convey the truth to him, “Some man at a banquet who had drunk too much shouted out-he was far gone, mind you that I am not my father’s son. Fighting words!” (Sophocles 205/846-875). Later, therefore, Oedipus seeks forgiveness, admitting that although he gouged out his eyes, his face resembles a joke of some savage power, and he is not responsible for it.
Oedipus’s Tragic Flaw
In his essay Fate in Sophocles, R.P. Winnington affirms that “character is destiny,” which means that an individual’s character determines his destiny. This idea is particularly true for Oedipus, who seems to attract misfortune into his destiny. However, if destiny is viewed as a journey, Oedipus exhibits noble traits worthy of a king. First, he shows himself as a compassionate king who is willing to save his people from the plague, “I’ll do anything. I would be blind to misery not to pity my people kneeling at my feet” (Sophocles 159/14-15). The people see Oedipus as the savior, “You freed us from the Sphinx… A god was with you, so they say, and we believe it you lifted our lives” (Sophocles 161 / 39-48). Therefore, although Oedipus cannot overcome his fate, his actions and the moments when he makes a free choice indicate that he does not deserve such severe suffering.
In the character of Oedipus, there is a tragic flaw that leads him to ruin. This flaw is a determination to pursue the truth, not only out of necessity, when Oedipus tries to find the murderer of the old king of Thebes but out of curiosity alone. When the messenger tells Oedipus that the shepherd who saved him was a servant of Laius, and Jocasta realizes that Oedipus, her husband, is also her son, she tries to stop him, but in vain: “Man of agony that is the only name I have for you, that, no other-ever, ever, ever!” (Sophocles 222/1269-1270). Oedipus intends to find out the truth, by all means, since he cannot live in darkness “That is my blood, my nature – I will never betray it, never fail to search and learn my birth” (Sophocles 222-224/1160-1194). He believes that Jocasta is afraid to find out that he is not from a noble family and refuses to stop the quest.
Free Will Versus Destiny
The whole life of Oedipus is built around the question of what directs his fate – destiny or free will. It is not easy for Oedipus to come to terms with the prophecies, from which he first tries to escape and then – pursues, despite the consequences. At the beginning of the story, the Delphic Oracle says that Oedipus will cause his troubles: “And all these curses I – no one but I brought down these piling curses on myself” (Sophocles 206-207/899-923). But Oedipus disagrees with the validity of the prophecy “But why, why? Wouldn’t a man of judgment say-and wouldn’t he be right some savage power has brought this down upon my head?” (Sophocles 206-207/899-923). These lines represent the conflict between destiny and free will.
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On the one hand, Oedipus must control his life, so he is ready to accept responsibility for his destiny. On the other hand, the burden is unbearable, and he seeks forgiveness and reassurance, placing blame for his fate on some external force. In part, Oedipus is guilty of his troubles, since, for example, when he killed an innocent unknown older man at the intersection of three roads, he chose his destiny. At the same time, it is clear that this murder was a fatal accident, as was the marriage to Jocasta. Persistent inquiry of truth can hardly be considered a sin since the thirst for knowledge and curiosity are natural human qualities.
Resolving the Conflict of Free Will versus Destiny
The conflict between free will and destiny is eternal and often at the heart of various literary works; it can be resolved using two approaches. First, the difference between free will and purpose can be defined by introducing the concept of life as a journey. If the journey, not destiny, is of paramount importance, the hero can exercise free will, even being shackled by the predicted fate. If the journey is central, then Oedipus should rely more on himself than on external forces, which he does. Logically, Oedipus’ excessive interest in absolute truth ruins him in such a case.
The conflict between purpose and free will can also be resolved by introducing the concept of linear and nonlinear time. In linear time, events take place in turn and depend on the free will of the participants. In nonlinear time, or from the gods’ perspective, everything that should happen has already happened. The participants are frozen in a picture full of actions, motionless for the observer’s eye. Taking this view allows assessing the consequences of the heroes’ choices objectively. In addition, the heroes’ actions can be evaluated outside their natural environment.
According to scholars, Oedipus is not guilty of his suffering but becomes a victim of other people’s judgment and aspirations. Dimopoulos notices that Oedipus “is gradually becoming a victim of the entire social system; he enters into complex aspects of the collective subconscious; he recreates conventional urban worldviews and destroys crystallized structures” (20). The scholar recognizes that Oedipus is “deeply aware of his imminent catastrophe” and becomes the subject of “a violent liberation from the historical context and a radical redefinition of the physical order” (Asimopoulos 20). In other words, the scientist believes that not Oedipus but the society is the cause of the catastrophe.
The Tragedy of Oedipus
The tragedy of Oedipus is that he is destined to kill his father and enter into an incestuous relationship with his mother. But considering other circumstances, the main one of which is Oedipus’s ignorance that his fate has already happened, the real tragedy for him is discovering the truth. Nevertheless, he strives for the truth since he cannot live in blindness and does not consider his ignorance to be blessed. Oedipus distinguishes between his fate that he could not change and the space of free choice in which he acts. However, this space was eventually defined by his tragic flaw – the quest for truth.
Therefore, for Oedipus, his truth needed to benefit the city since exile allowed him to atone for his guilt for discovering the truth. Oedipus may blame himself for learning the truth and not for committing actions that he could not have foreseen. In this context, the symmetry of the symbolic and actual blindness of Oedipus is fascinating. At first, he lives in ignorance, being mentally blind; having learned the truth, he cannot stand the sight of its terrible face and blinds himself physically.
The story about Oedipus Rex echoes with the story of humankind remarkably. The search for the truth, including scientific discoveries, often ended tragically, for example, when Oppenheim created an atomic bomb, which led to decades of the Cold War and the threat of destruction that has since hung over humanity. The invention of the internal combustion engine and manufacturing development led to the beginning of global warming. At the same time, the search for the truth led to finding cures for diseases that were previously considered fatal, and the pursuit of political justice and truth allows to maintain life on earth in relative balance.
The story of Oedipus likewise demonstrates both the destructive and the healing aspects of truth. Thanks to the knowledge of the facts, Oedipus was freed from his destiny, which was more like a curse. Knowing the truth allowed him to save Thebes and end his relationship with Jocasta. At the same time, Oedipus paid a high price for knowledge – he became an exile on his land, and subsequently, his children suffered a tragic fate.
Asimopoulos, Panagiotis. “Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” at Pasolini” Journal of Communication and Behavioural Sciences 1.2 (2020): 20-29.
Putra, Madha Dwi Aji, and Maria Johana Ari Widayanti. “Victory in Tragic Ending: Analysis of Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King.” Rainbow: Journal of Literature, Linguistics and Cultural Studies 8.1 (2019): 1-7.
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays, Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by Robert Fagles. Introduction and Notes by Bernhard Knox. Viking Press 1982. Print.
Winnington-Ingram, R.P. “Fate in Sophocles.” Modern Critical Views Sophocles. Edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom. Chelsea House Publishers, a division of Main Line Book Co. 1990. Print.