Oedipus the Wreck
The Riddle of the Sphinx as a Metaphor for the Life of Oedipus
Before Oedipus came to Thebes, a “stern songstress”, the Sphinx, plagued the city asking passersby her dark riddle, “What creature walks on four legs in the morning, on two at noon, and on three in the evening?” When Oedipus solved the riddle, the Sphinx destroyed herself, and he was given the hand of Jocasta and the throne. Little did the Thebans know, their deliverer was the one who would bring them to ruin.*
In Oedipus’ life, there are phases in which he realizes his identity. The riddle of the Sphinx is a metaphor for these phases. In the morning of his life, he is unaware of his lineage. It is shrouded in mystery, much like the Sphinx. As he approaches middle age, he stands proudly as king of Thebes, in denial of any mark on his ancestry. He is crippled in the later part of his life when he learns of his sins. His fate represents man’s fate according to the fatalism of the play. Oedipus reflects the trials and tribulations of man on the road to self-discovery. The riddle is about the stages of man, too. Both reflect man as being subject to determinism outside of one's control.
Oedipus arrived in Thebes much like the Sphinx. He was mysterious and brought death and destruction. At the opening of the play, one is introduced to the sufferings of the people of Thebes:
For the city, as you yourself see,/ Is now sorely vexed, and can no longer/ Lift her head from beneath the angry waves of death./ A blight has fallen on the fruitful blossoms of the land,/ The herds among the pastures, the barren pangs of women./ And the flaming god, the malign plague,/ Has swooped upon us, and ravages the town:/ He lays waste to the house of Cadmus/ But enriches Hades with groans and tears. (Oedipus l. 25-30)
Oedipus found the reason for their suffering when he sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle at Delphi. He returned with word of the request of Apollo. The killer of King Laios was to be found in order for the land to be purified of the plague. In yet another ironic twist, Oedipus vows to find the murderer as if he were Laius’s son, which he actually is. By doing this, Oedipus sentences himself to a horrible fate, exile.
Irony can be found in the fact that Oedipus solved the riddle. By this action, he creates what he thinks is his ultimate purpose in life, to rule and be prosperous. He does set the stage for his final determination but not in the way he had thought. Unbeknownst to him, he puts himself on a throne which he gained my killing his father and marrying his own mother.
Until Oedipus realizes this, his pride continues to grow, blurring his perception even further. The "tragic sense of life" is in essence the intimation of a greater reality through self-awareness which is limited and sometimes defeated by necessity. That is all those forces of nature and outside influences which encircle and sometimes defeat one, but one still has the grandeur of one’s awareness. Yet, according to Plato, we are the people in the cave, mankind, watching reality as a shadow on the wall of the cave. So, one’s perception is only the reflection of a reflection. In Oedipus’s case, his perception is further blurred by his hubris, therefore making his life seem even more in vain. What makes him the archetypal tragic man is his striving for greatness only to be cut down, falling from the height of prosperity to the depths of misfortune.
[Editor's Note. This essay was submitted to the Oedipus Forum in Litonline in 1999 by a contributor called Brigid.]
* Was the prophecy known outside the royal family? Didn't Tiresias know? If the seer knew who Oedipus was, was he barred by the gods from revealing his identity when Oedipus first returned to Thebes? For that matter, was the blind prophet barred from telling Laius not to get drunk and beget the baby or that tying his feet wouldn't be effective enough?
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