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Home Notes for Introduction to Literature
Notes for Introduction to Literature
~~ Oedipus the King ~~
Recall that plot is driven by conflict. What is the conflict at the heart of this play?
When we studied fiction, we learned that when opposing forces come up and press against one another, when conflict arises, that's when things happen. Not much would happen without conflict. When you think in larger terms about what happens in this play, you begin to realize that the forces driving events in this play really are deep, profound ones.
First, in a nutshell, what happens? Oedipus, proud and powerful king of Thebes, slowly discovers--irony of ironies--that his own corrupt behavior is the cause of the plague that's killing the city. By his own intelligence and commitment to learning the truth (his own goodness, we might say), he comes face to face with the facts about his parents, his birth, and the atrocities he's (unknowingly) committed, the taboos he's shattered. Oedipus' desperate attempt to use his own wits to avoid his fate, to outrun Delphi's terrifying prophecies, have come crashing around him. He has tried to be a free man, and, ironically, in the exercise of that very freedom, has found himself ensnared in that horrible destiny which the gods have ordained for him despite his innocence. Even as the catastrophe rains down upon him, Oedipus remains the emblem of our fundamental freedom--a breathing, bleeding exemplar of the pain of that freedom--as he rakes out his own eyes to avoid seeing his family in Hades. He will not go down to death on the gods' terms but on his own terms, inflicting upon himself a punishment in many ways worse than death, a punishment the polar opposite of Jocasta's suicide. Oedipus may be Thebe's scapegoat, paying with innocent blood for his his parents' sins, for the sins of humanity, but his martyrdom is truly unusual--he's still standing at the end of the play, undefeated, in some profoundly important way, unbroken.
What conflict causes these events to unfold in this way? On the one hand we have Oedipus' pride, which stems from his kingly power. He's won that status, he believes, by his own intelligence, his own strength of mind and body. Pride will not allow Oedipus to passively sit by while Thebes suffers from the plague. He wants to be its savior, to do everything in his power rescue it from the plague's grip. So one of the powerful forces in this play is the strong will of Oedipus. And he represents more than himself, I think. His will is human will, in general. It's the choices we make, the decisions we arrive at, the actions we take in order to feel that we are driving our own destinies, creating our own future, our own reality. We believe we have the freedom to make our own choices, shape our own destiny.
Isn't that the same problematic human truth that drives Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden? Because she can, Eve takes the apple. Because she can, she gives it to Adam. Because he can, he eats it. Humans are free. But they suffer the consequences of their freedom endlessly. That's the tragic observation in Genesis, and the tragedy of Oedipus. Of course, there's even more to Genesis than that.
What opposes Oedipus and his powerful free will? The major force opposing Oedipus throughout the play is the established order, the divine order, the gods, whom the Greeks believed were really in charge of our messy existence, and who expressed their will in the oracles at Delphi. The gods are under attack throughout the play, from its opening lines, when the priests of Thebes are praying to Oedipus rather than Apollo or Zeus, or any of the other appropriate forces. This tragedy, and all the others, remember, were performed at the City Dionysia, a religious festival; Greek tragedy, despite its cathartic representation of human suffering, is really still an affirmation of the religious order of its day. Human leaders cannot substitute for the gods; and Apollo's oracles cannot be ignored or escaped, or otherwise taken for granted. The gods do not "go down" (as the Chorus worries they will). Blasphemy, in the form of disrespect for prophecy, will be punished severely.
And so Oedipus' will comes up against the gods' will, and we can guess who loses. But the beauty of tragedy is the wisdom refracted through that prism of suffering, the dignity we acquire in the process. The cyclone whips him, the tidal wave crashes over him, but does Oedipus drown? Is he really a loser? At the end of the play, he's gained something valuable and immutable. He's learned who he is, and that knowledge can never be taken from him. Armed with it, he takes decisive action. He's no longer running. His vulnerability is now erased. Although his social stature is shattered, nothing can ever again puncture his personal dignity. The scapegoat has looked his executioner in the eye, and the executioner must now turn away, as if in shame. Now Oedipus knows who he is, and, what's more, he's now completely free. Albeit, it's a painful freedom, which he proves by taking out his eyes. On the other hand, did the gods really "win"? Yes, their oracles have come to pass. They've averted a spiritual crisis, recaptured a respect that perhaps had been flagging, but what human loves the gods which have dangled Oedipus over the abyss in this fashion? We respect them, we fear them like we might respect the force of a hurricane--their brutally violent justice makes us want to obey them, but do we love them?
In what sense is Oedipus the King a "tragedy" by Meyer's definition (p. 985)? In what sense is Oedipus a "tragic hero" by Aristotle's definition? Of what value is tragedy generally, in your opinion?
Oedipus is a tragedy in every sense of the definition offered by Meyer in the Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature (p. 985):
First, Oedipus is certainly a courageous individual. He shows his courage, first, by leaving Corinth, sacrificing his whole future in an effort to save his parents and himself from the terrible prophecies he received at Delphi. He is courageous when he defends himself against an entire party of royal soldiers who may have been trying to kill him for no reason. And lastly, he is most courageous in his refusal to hide from the truth about himself, even when he realizes how horrible it will be. Facing the horror of personal guilt, especially guilt so enormous, takes supreme courage. In the end, Oedipus has to face his own failure to outrun his fate, but the audience must realize that in fact he has had a hand in creating his own destiny, and his hand has been as influential as Apollo's.
Oedipus does "confront powerful forces"--he confronts the Sphinx, the gods, his own fear of the destiny they've handed him. And he confronts all of these forces with a strong will and a determination to uphold the truth and do what's right for the suffering people of Thebes. It's not for himself alone that he relentlessly hunts down the truth. He does it on behalf of Thebes, and when it becomes obvious that his own status is threatened, he doesn't back down from his mission, he pursues it all the more. He takes all the body blows and even the knock out punch but he lives on to see another day. Although his wealth and influence are destroyed, Thebes is relieved of its plague.
Aristotle believed in this play. In his mind, Oedipus the King is the quintessential tragedy, and Oedipus the quintessential tragic hero (see notes--"Aristotle's Tragic Hero").
Even in their day, some of the great tragedians of the classical era took heat for being "too depressing" (especially Euripedes). But there must be some deep-seated value to this so-called depressing stuff if we keep producing it. As long as there are humans alive to observe it, tragedy won't go away, and neither, it seems, will our desire to represent it artistically, meaningfully, truthfully. Some of the most psychologically incisive literature in existence is in the form of tragedy. Whether it's ancient Greek tragedy, Shakespearean tragedy, or modern day tragedy, the message is essentially the same: humans suffer terribly, pitifully, but there's so much wisdom to be gained from that suffering that to ignore it or cover it under a rug (or put a falsely happy face on it, like Hollywood) would be to blind ourselves to the great human strengths it engenders. To remove the tragedy would be to remove what is most noble about us, what is most resilient and inspiring. Tragedy doesn't depress or paralyze us--it does the opposite. It moves us, sometimes to tears. We cry, not merely from sadness or depression, but from an intensity of understanding. In that cry, in those tears, we become sharply, acutely aware of our feelings. Through this story we've been following, which seemed to be about someone else, we've strangely come to know ourselves. What value there is in that self-knowledge no one can say. I can only think it's priceless. And when we cry together, we become more acutely aware of each other's feelings as well. There's a kind of superglue running in those tears. They unite us, make us realize we care about the same things, share the same values, belong to the same community.
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