Click this quilt piece to go to Litonline's home page.VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature
English 112 (English Composition II)
Click on the sphinx to read the play.

Oedipus the Wreck


Check the last statements of the chorus and of Creon to see if they tell the theme of this tragedy. Is this a story of personal tragedy? Is it a religious story, justifying the gods?

In 1998, a Malaysian student was tasked with analyzing the "significance" of the last choral comment, a common assignment from teachers of the play.  Here is the passage with the translation she was reading in English, followed by my answer to her plea for help, which includes a paraphrase of the chorus at the end of the play:

 Discuss the significance of this extract to the play as a whole:


Men of Thebes: look upon Oedipus.

This is the king who solved the famous riddle

And towered up, most powerful of men.

No mortal eyes but looked on him with envy,

Yet in the end ruin swept over him.

Let every man in mankind's frailty

Consider his last day; and let none he find

Life, at his death, a memory with pain.


Dear Student, [Name withheld.]

Your teacher, as I often do, is asking whether the final comment by the chorus (sort of like the people or elders of Thebes) is stating the theme of the play in these words.  If you know Oedipus's sad story, you can judge if these words sum it up and comment on it.  Being bystanders, though, the chorus can not always be trusted as spokespersons for the gods or the playwright, Sophocles.

        Basically, the chorus is saying something like this--

Look at what happened to this guy!

This is our king. We made him king because he alone knew how to answer the Sphinx that was terrorizing our town [they thought the gods told him the answer, so that the gods spoke to Oedipus].

He was the most powerful of everyone we knew.

Everybody envied this guy.

BUT his downfall ruined him [and scared everyone about how tricky life can be].

Life is so fragile, so look out--

Not until you are on your deathbed can you

Look back at your life and count it blessed [because until then something you did earlier can come back at you and mess you up].

Good luck; I hope this helps.  Notice that your teacher wants you to COMMENT on the ideas in these lines, not just to paraphrase them as I have done.  I didn't write your answer for you, but I hope the meaning and context of the lines are clear enough so that you can comment on this sad play.

Basically, is this the "lesson" we readers are to draw from what happened to Oedipus, or are the town elders to short-sighted to see a valid meaning in their king's fate?

Here are some theme statement suggestions from contributors to the Litonline Oedipus Forum--

  1. Fate is inevitable; you can't change it.--Sydney, 2002

  2. "You are in charge of your own fate."--Em, 2002

  3. Temperament influences how your life turns out.--Em, 2002

  4. "If we can learn to control our reactions, and not believe everything that everyone tells us, we can change our 'fate' (if you will) and ultimately live a better life."--Em

  5. "Sophocles was probably making the point to citizens and church hierarchy that life does not go well if you are a hypocrite. You can not preach one thing and then, on the other hand, over-react with out thinking"--DKJ, 2002

  6. "Knowing certain things is good, but having to know everything is not always a good thing. And sometimes I think that society encourages us in knowing everything about everyone and exploring the unknown...even if it leads to our own destruction."--Sydney, 2002

  7. "If you try to outsmart the gods, you will be punished."--Jeff, 2001

  8. "An indictment of a universe governed by cruel, malicious gods"--Calahan, 2001

  9. "A celebration of nobility of the human drive to assert oneself"--Calahan, 2001

  10. Wanting to know your fate/destiny/fortune is dangerous.--based on suggestion by Sophie in 2001

  11. Hye Young Kim of Korea in 2001 points to the chorus's final statement that "no one can judge one's fate until the very last day of one's life."

Oedipus's message for modern people: Diana Estipona said in 2001: "Oedipus the King is important to contemporary society because it makes us realize there is only a certain amount of our lives we can control and the rest is just 'meant to happen.' As we continue to live and adapt to a more modern and technological society, and a nation where religion does not play a huge role in the structure of government, nor in the way many Americans structure their beliefs, more and more people continue to believe that we are more capable to control our destinies and fates, rather than live our lives and believe that what is meant to be will happen to us eventually.

A lot of Greek culture is centralized around the gods, and the belief that the gods will foretell the future and we must believe that our fate is coming to us and there is nothing we could do to stop our fate because it is our fate. In contemporary society, there are people we turn to, such as psychics, to play the same role Apollo did to Oedipus. Whether the psychic tells the truth or fibs, many of us might tend to believe and will expect it to happen. But maybe at the same time, the lesson from Oedipus is that knowing the future can only bring out the worst in you; if we all knew what bad things would come about in our lives, no one would want to continue to live till that day."

The gods' will be done: In 1998, Becky Dorsett suggested that Oedipus tried to set himself on the level of the gods: "I think this is a religious story justifying the gods' actions. Although Oedipus was an impetuous and proud man, he was basically good-hearted; but his innocent motives were not enough to absolve him. He could have thought more carefully about the meaning of the oracle and been more cautious about the presence of people old enough to be his parents. He could have researched his
parentage more thoroughly or looked into the death of Laius when he first became King. Instead, Oedipus made the mistake of not paying heed to Apollo's oracle and trying to raise himself to the level of the gods. I think this story shows that man can change his fate to a certain degree, but to go too far trying to be like the gods means certain destruction.
"  Fargo added (1998): "Even kings can be brought low by the actions of the gods, no matter how great they are. Oedipus's life was basically an object lesson in humility."

Oedipus Gump:  Brendan Sheppard (1999; Northern Va. CC) drew an analogy between Oedipus and Forest Gump to explain his view of Sophocles' theme in the play: "The story of Oedipus existed long before Sophocles got ahold of it. I believe that his Oedipus Rex was written with one purpose- to prove that the gods do control us, and we do each have an inescapable destiny, no matter how much our actions seem like our own free will. When their child is doomed to fulfill a terrible destiny, Laius takes all necessary precautions to prevent the child's destiny, binding his feet and sending him off to die. He is thwarted. Presented with his own awful destiny, Oedipus does what he can to avoid contact with his beloved 'father,' Polybus, and 'mother,' Merope. He is also thwarted. . . .  I believe that this story is paralleled by the movie Forest Gump. Although Forest Gump is a sappy story of human triumph--of a man of limited means and intellect succeeding--it has at its heart the same poignant theme as Oedipus Rex. At the end of Forest Gump, Forest asks the question: Are we all destined to live certain lives, or are we all just 'floating around, accidental like, on a breeze?' He decides that, 'maybe it's a little bit of both.' Sophocles does not leave the question so open. While he does not outright say it, we are left with only one choice in the framework that he has set for us--you can't change fate."


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