Who Is Responsible for the Downfall of Oedipus Fate or Free Will?
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DOWNFALL OF OEDIPUS, IS IT FATE OR FREE WILL? In Oedipus the King by Sophocles, Oedipus is responsible for the tragedy of his downfall. Oedipus is presented with a series of choices throughout the play, and his arrogant and stubborn nature push him to impulsively make the wrong decisions, the decisions that ultimately lead him to his downfall. While Oedipus and those around him consider “fate” the source of Oedipus’ problems, Oedipus’ decisions show the audience that it is he who is responsible.
Oedipus is a man of constant action. When the priests come to ask for his help, he has already dispatched Creon to the oracle to find out what the gods suggest. When the chorus suggests that he consult Tiresias, Oedipus has already sent for him. Oedipus decides quickly and acts quickly—traits his audience would have seen as admirable and in the best tradition of Athenian leadership. But Oedipus’s tendency to decide and act quickly leads him down a path to his own destruction. “I have already done the only thing that came into my head for all my search.
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I have sent the son of Menoeceus, Creon, my wife’s brother, to the Pythian House of Phoebus…. ” Sophocles is able to drive his message about the pitfalls of human arrogance through Oedipus’ fatal flaws and the use of metaphorical and literal blindness. Sophocles’ motif of blindness throughout the play seems to be a direct reference to Oedipus’ flaws. From the very beginning when he declares, “I see- how could I fail to see… ” to the middle when he realizes, “how terrible- to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees! to the end when he laments, “dark horror of darkness, my darkness” sight and blindness, the absence of sight, are literal and figurative motifs in the play. Oedipus’ words while taunting the blindness of Tiresias: Night, endless night has covered you up so that you can neither hurt me nor any man that looks upon the sun. Tiresias’ dialogues that contribute are: … through you have your sight, you cannot see what misery you stand in…. Sophocles’ use of blindness in the play gives the reader/audience more insight into Oedipus’ flaws, and Oedipus’ flaws are what cause him to fulfill the prophecy.
Therefore, Sophocles, in a complexly roundabout way, does in fact hint at the possibility that Oedipus was simply careless. Oedipus has plenty of opportunities to make a better choice; he is just blind to those opportunities because of his flaws. He becomes convinced that Tiresias and Creon are plotting to overthrow him, though he has no evidence to prove it and thus insults the seer which was a great crime at that time because he let himself be ruled by his anger. When Teiresias announces to Oedipus that “the accursed polluter of this land is you”
A different man might well stop at this point, calm down, and ask Teiresias what he meant. That is to say, a different man might have stopped hanging onto his own certainties; confident that they were the truth, and have listened carefully to what someone else had to say but Oedipus is not that sort of person. In fact, rather than listen to Teiresias, Oedipus reminds everyone of his previous triumph over the Sphinx, stressing that Teiresias failed to help Thebes then.
Oedipus has spent all his life running from his fate. He has, we learn, been told that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. And he refused to accept that fate. He has spent much of his life moving around, so as to avoid his fate. It was a Greek belief that a man can never outrun his fate decided by the gods but Oedipus is so arrogant that he thinks that he can outrun a prophecy. Oedipus’ encounter with Laius at the crossroads reveals a great deal about Oedipus’ character and fatal flaws.
In this crucial scene, Oedipus reveals his temper and lack of self-control that sets him on the road to fulfilling the prophecy of his fate. Nothing forces Oedipus to kill Laius; there is no accident. The location of a crossroad for this scene is metaphorical of Oedipus’ choice. Oedipus could have chosen to ignore the dispute and end it peacefully, but he instead lashes out. The use of crossroads as a setting throughout literature is symbolic of the unknown outcomes of a group of choices. Sophocles utilizes that symbolism in this scene.
The literal setting of a crossroad serves also as a figurative crossroad in Oedipus’ life, the point in which Oedipus can veer away from the fateful prophecy or begin fulfilling it. When he knew about the prophecy about him killing his father he should have restrained himself from killing anyone especially an old man. But he gives in to his quick, impulsive temper, Oedipus chooses the latter. One murder is the murder of humanity let alone four; he murdered four people in a minor dispute of who pass the crossroad first! And tells Jocasta all about hearing the prophecy and committing murders in a single monologue. …Phoebus sent me forth disappointed of the knowledge for which I had come, but in his response set forth other things, full of sorrow and terror and woe: that I was fated to defile my mother’s bed, that I would reveal to men a brood which they could not endure to behold, and that I would slay the father that sired me. When I heard this, I turned in flight from the land of Corinth, from then on thinking of it only by its position under the stars, to some spot where I should never see fulfillment of the infamies foretold in my evil fate. And on my way I came to the land in which you say that this prince perished.
When on my journey I was near those three roads, there I met a herald, and a man in a carriage drawn by colts, as you have described. The leader and the old man himself tried to thrust me rudely from the path. Then, in anger, I struck the one pushing me aside, the driver, and the old man, when he saw this, watched for the moment I was passing, and from his carriage, brought his double goad straight down on my head. Yet he was paid back with interest: with one swift blow from the staff in this hand he rolled right out of the carriage onto his back.
I slew every one of them…. ” When Oedipus arrives at Thebes, he is presented with yet another choice: to become the king and to wed the queen, or to move on. Once again, Oedipus’ choice puts him one step closer to fulfilling the prophecy. Oedipus is not forced into marrying Jocasta, this is simply his decision. Fate is not responsible. He should have been careful and should have thought better than to marry an old lady. His temper and his arrogance, which are his tragic flaws, caused him to make poor decisions that led to his own downfall.
At several stages where he might have paused to reflect on the outcome of his actions—where he might have sifted through the evidence before him and decided not to pursue the question further, or not in such a public way—he forges onward, even threatening to torture the reluctant shepherd to make him speak. Even when Jocasta herself pleads Oedipus to stop the investigation he does not pay heed to her implores. He thinks that Jocasta does not want him to investigate because if he does he might find himself the offspring of a common man which will be shameful and he himself oes not believe that. He has an enormous ego—the central purpose of his life is to assert that sense of himself. With this powerful ego comes a certain narrowness of vision, which has no room for alternative opinions or dissenting views. He is often seen to be using a very powerfully assertive voice, by the pronouns I and me. To fully understand Sophocles’ message, the play must be analyzed objectively as well as textually. What is Sophocles trying to say to the audience about human nature?
If it truly is an inescapable fate that gets Oedipus where he is, then no point can be made about the danger of arrogance, hubris, and temper. If Oedipus really had no way out of his “fate”, if he truly was on some sort of rail, then his flaws are essentially rendered obsolete. If it is solely fate that takes care of Oedipus’ life, then the subtext of Sophocles’ point through Oedipus is that no man really has free choice; no man can learn from his mistakes because he is trapped inside of a one-track life, a life that is governed by something other than himself.
Instead of leaving the reader with this message, Sophocles leaves the argument of fate versus free will far more ambiguous. By the end of the play, two facts remain: Oedipus’ downfall is prophesized, and Oedipus does fulfill the prophecy. The truth of the matter is that Oedipus’ choices are what led him to fulfill the prophecy. If the play is viewed in this light, then Oedipus’ hubris becomes far more consequential, thus giving the play further meaning.
While Sophocles never blatantly states, “What happens to Oedipus is a result of his own choices,” the subtext of the play is rife with evidence that nobody is more responsible for Oedipus than Oedipus. Through Oedipus, Sophocles shows the audience the consequences of carelessness in decision-making and the adversity that is often spawned from inflated ego. I will end my essay with a quotation from Sopholes himself: “The keenest sorrow is to recognize ourselves as the sole cause of all our adversities. ” -Sophocles (“Michael Moncur’s Quotations”)