Click this quilt piece to go to Litonline's home page.VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature
English 112 (English Composition II)
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Oedipus the Wreck

Is Oedipus a Free Man or a Fool of the Gods?

Temple of Apollo at DelphiIrony and coincidence also influence our view of Oedipus as a tragic protagonist. To what extent is Oedipus a fool of the gods, and to what extent is he free to choose his own way? In other words, do the gods simply know what Oedipus will do in a given  situation because they know human nature, or do they actually manipulate events beyond likelihood and mere coincidence? Mention several incidents or decision points for Oedipus in your answer.

Blame those who knew: Antonio Garcia said in 2001: "I believe that Oedipus was not responsible for his down fall. The things that people were saying about him, how could one believe in it. I know if I were in his shoes I wouldn't know what to believe. I feel that he knew nothing about his past; therefore he is not to blame. He lived his life not knowing his real past; that's why he married his own mother and killed his father. The people to blame are the ones who know: Jocasta to me is the one to blame for the down fall of Oedipus. She knew everything and did nothing to stop it. Even when her husband died, it seemed that she did not care and did nothing to investigate the murder. She knew what was going to happen and she took it as if none of it was going to happen. That's the reason why I don't blame Oedipus for his downfall."

Blame vs. fate: Da KaMiKaZe KiD said in 2001: "Why is it his fault that he wants to know his own history about such things as to who his real parents are. I am sure that you and everyone else would do the same if you were Oedipus. Personally, no one is to blame. A prophecy is the foretelling or prediction of what is to come. Therefore, whatever was going to happen is going to happen anyway and could not be prevented. Moms and pops tried to save their own hides by doing away with their baby. Even though the way they went about it was wrong, they were only trying to protect themselves. No one is to blame because your fate is your destiny. There is no what if. What if doesn't exist. Things are either are, or they are not."

Blame the parents: Catherine, a student of Madway, said in 2001: "I don't think it's Oedipus' fault at all. If anyone is to blame, it's his parents. Oedipus didn't know his own fate, he didn't even know who his real parents were. Oedipus was blind. He knew nothing except the fake life he was living. But, if someone honestly told you that you had no father, wouldn't you want to know what he meant? Oedipus did the right thing trying to figure out who he was.

Throughout the play, I think he was the only one sane. He knew nothing, and when he found his fate he tried to avoid killing who he thought was his father. King Lauis was scared, but he should have accepted Oedipus' fate too. If King Lauis and Jocasta really wanted Oedipus dead, they should have done it themselves. That would have been the only way to make sure it was at an end. If they had the kind of hearts to pin their own child's feet, they might as well have killed him themselves. Basically, I think this story is all about fate. To me, the lesson is to accept it and not try to get around it--or else others will suffer, such as the townspeople suffering the plague."

Only coincidence: Raymond Fong said in 2001 while taking European Literature: "In the story of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is said to be 'destined' to kill his father and sleep with his own mother. Everybody thinks that in some way, Apollo the Sun god created a pathway that leads Oedipus' mother and father (Jocasta and Laius) didn't believe in "fate" in the first place? What if they never tried to abandon their son Oedipus and just kept him instead It was just by coincidence that Oedipus did kill his father and sleep with his mother. If they didn't choose to believe in "destiny" and "fate", maybe none of this would ever have happened. If they kept Oedipus and cared for him until he was a grown man, I couldn't think of how the gods would make his path come out to be the path they originally planned for him. He and his parents have the power to control their own destiny and path, and what happened to Oedipus eventually was just a coincidence."

Both fate and free will: MMaCx 2k1  said in 2001: "I think we live our lives based on both free will and fate. In the play, Oedipus: The King, the main purpose of the story was based on whether free will or fate were influencing the characters' lives. It was actually fate and free will that led Oedipus' parents to see the prophet who told them their fate. As Oedipus' parents believed their fate, they tried everything to stop their fate from happening. Since fate defines that something that will happen, isn't it useless that Oedipus' parents tried to stop their fate from happening?

While Oedipus thought that he just killed a man, who is actually his father, was it actually his fate or free will that killed his father? The prophet predicted that Oedipus would kill his own father, but it was Oedipus' free will to use his weapon, and at the time, it was also his fate to kill his father. Free will is actually created by the person, but it is the person's fate to have the free will that he or she created. Before Oedipus actually killed his father, before Oedipus' parents went to see the prophet, before Oedipus was born, everything was fate to begin with. At the top of a person's life, is it free will or fate that he or she was born? Since everyone will eventually die, isn't everyone's fate to die?  At the same time, could it be your parent's free will to have you? As fate and free will seem to stack on top of each other, my most probable answer is that both fate and free will happen at the same time."

Stephanie (1999), agreeing that Oedipus was both free and fooled noted that "Apollo was the worst offender. He did not give a direct answer to Oedipus's question."

Angie (2000) from Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia, agreed in her way to a mixture of fate and free will, influenced by O's tragic flaw(s): "I don't think Oedipus knew he was the murderer when he summoned Tiresias. I don't think he actually realizes it until after he talks to Jocasta about what supposedly happened during Laius' murder. I think he was in denial and was blind to what was going on in his life until it was too late. His temper and his arrogance, which are his tragic flaws, caused him to make poor decisions that led to his own downfall."

Free Will Rules: The Attic Bee (1999) cites a critic to stipulate that Oedipus was a free-thinking man, while the gods are mere spectators: "Oedipus was in fact a free man, not merely a fool of the gods. The dramatic critic Francis Ferguson described Oedipus as being guided by forces unknown and not fully understood, yet he intelligently wills and intends his every move. Oedipus is free to make decisions which later come back to haunt him. the gods acted more like the Athenian audience who viewed the play, mere spectators watching from a distance who know the end of the play yet watch in awe at the events leading to the ending. The gods in no way influence Oedipus to act as he did. They very possibly based their conclusions on their knowledge of human nature. The fact that one will attempt to flee their own destiny if it be known to them, much like Oedipus did, and also the lying by the servant of Lauis, who was merely attempting to hide his own mistakes. In conclusion Oedipus is not a puppet of the gods cruel means by which to preserve the order of the universe but rather an intelligent being who by faulty decision making caused his own fate to be manifested."

All Fate: Donna in 2001 said: "I think fate is the reason why everything happened the way it did. When Lauis tried to kill his son, that has fate also. It was destined that he would try to kill his son after hearing the oracle. And it would be fate leading the baby Oedipus to Corinth. Everything including the man who had called Oedipus a bastard (no father) was fate that would lead Oedipus to the killing of his real father and the throne of Thebes. It was not the choices they made that lead them to where they were. Naturally, a father would feel threatened to hear that his son would grow up to kill him and marry his wife. If they were not so scared, they would not try to kill the baby and still Oedipus would somehow kill his dad and marry his mom, but fate was that they would try to kill Oedipus."

Fate is the point of the play: Greg Berlin in 1999 likened Oedipus's fate to today's modern medical fate, knowing you have the gene for a disease: "I believe that in this book, Sophocles tries to explain that fate is completely unavoidable and that it's going to happen no matter what you try to do. The oracle said that he was going to kill his father and marry his mother. The oracle doesn't tell Oedipus what to do, the oracle just says that it's going to happen no matter what you do. For example, it's almost like a doctor diagnosing you with a disease at birth because it's in your genes and you're going to dies from it no matter what you. You could eat well and exercise to avoid getting the disease, but you're still going to die from the disease no matter what you do to try to avoid it."

Don't believe in Fate clyde_ruy said in 2001: "The tragedy, the sadness, the violence, and death, what caused all these? Fate? Were all these things planned for Oedipus and his family? Most people think that it is Oedipus's fate that everything happened to him as it did. Would the end turn out the way the story goes if King Laius and Jocasta hadn't pinned Oedipus's feet? If King Laius wasn't so gullible, then he would live on with his life and raise his precious son, Oedipus. Yes, Oedipus would be the king because he would take over his father's place. But would he kill his father and marry to his mother? I think not. 

But King Laius believed in fate, and he wanted to change his fate-- that's why all these tragedies happened to him and his family. I think the moral of this story,  Oedipus the King, is don't believe in fate. Although it was originally King Laius's fault for trying to change his fate, it wasn't all his fault. Oedipus was also at fault for all those tragedies. When Oedipus was in Corinth, he could have lived a happy life there. But when an old man told him something about him killing his own mother and his own father, he ran away. It was good to see that tried to avoid killing his parents. However, it was a stupid thing that Oedipus did for believing what the old man said. I guess Oedipus believed in fate. Oedipus and King Laius--they both had a perfect life but they tried to change it because they believed in fate. So we learned from the story that fate is not real, don't believe in it."

Manipulative gods: Molly (2000) said: "Oedipus is a pawn of the gods. any 'decisions' that he may believe he is making as a free man are really just predetermined actions dictated by fate. The gods, when determining his fate, took into consideration Oedipus's rash temperament. They implemented his own personality imperfections in order to send him to his tragic downfall. The gods anticipated his responses to certain events, and in that way, crafted a path to his tragic end that complemented Oedipus's characteristics. So, Oedipus was truly a fool of the gods, to be played with like a toy."

O's choices:  Kevin K of Glasgow University listed in 1999 many of Oedipus's decision points:  "How can we say that the fate of Oedipus was etched in stone? It was his own heroic nature that uncovered the truth about his past. Perhaps lesser equipped men would have given up trying to reveal the truth and save Thebes, or stayed in Corinth to await their destiny. Oedipus chose to go to the Delphic oracle, to learn his destiny, to flee, to kill Laius and although there was perhaps a guiding hand by the gods (such as how did Laius leave the city, when the sphinx would let none enter or leave?). Oedipus seals his own fate not because of interference by the gods, but because, unlike us mortals, they have insight into the very soul of Oedipus and know how he is going to behave."

Oedipus and Nietzsche:  Paul McNamara of Australia (2000) offered this enthusiastic assessment of Oedipus as a "sovereign individual," in Nietzschean terms.

Comments that follow need to be read in conjunction with Friedrich Nietzsche: Genealogy of Morals, especially the second essay as it concerns the 'sovereign individual'.

Too much attention is focused on Oedipus' fate in killing Lauis and marrying Jocasta. Oedipus' actions in blinding himself and his self-banishment from Thebes has got little, if anything, to do with his 'fate' as prophesied by the gods. Rather his actions are the outcome of his will. Consider line 88: Oedipus states his duty as he sees it: "I'll be a traitor if I do not do all the god makes clear". When Creon returns, line 108, he states 'Apollo commands us - he was quite clear - "Drive the corruption from the land, don't harbour it any longer, past all cure, don't nurse it in your soul - root it out!" Line 113: "Banish the man, or pay back blood with blood. Murder sets the plague-storm on the city".

Now consider Nietzsche's description of the 'sovereign individual' (second essay, section 2) as "the owner of an enduring, indestructible will...who confers distinction when he trusts, who gives his word as something which can be relied on, because he knows himself to be strong enough to uphold it even against accidents, even 'against fate'. Go to Oedipus Line 1467: "Apollo, friends, Apollo - he ordained my agonies - these, my pains on pains! But the hand that struck my eyes was mine, mine alone - no one else - I did it all myself".

Why did Oedipus strike himself with his own hand, why did he banish himself from Thebes? Because he gave his word as a 'sovereign individual' to do as the gods commanded. Line 1575 makes clear in his response to Creon, that, for Oedipus, keeping his word is paramount above all else: "The god? His command was clear, every word, death for the father killer, the curse - he said destroy me." Oedipus' destruction is not the result of fate, or meant as atonement for his sins (for which he is unquestionably innocent - see Oedipus at Colonus) but rather, the result of keeping his word - for which alone he takes responsibility for. Oedipus remains true to his word as a man, true to his character - strong and courageous - true to his culture for which he serves as an exemplar. He keeps his word against accidents, even 'fate' itself.

Scapegoat Oedipus: "Another clueless English student" offered this not-so-clueless thesis, akin to the Nietzschean argument, just above.  Can you defend it with reference to events and statements from the play?  "I not only believe that Oedipus was innocent, but that he knowingly sacrificed himself as a scapegoat for his people."

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