Fatalism in Oedipus Rex

I read this lecture-turned-web-essay on the play Oedipus Rex** by a professor at Vancouver Island University. I was taking a class on Greek Tragedy, at the time, that was fairly light, academically, and I found the essay while I was milling about after further Oedipal commentary. It's not the most astoundingly written essay, but the ideas in it are great (which is what I hope you'll end up saying about this blog post). 

[**Oedipus Rex, in brief: 

* King and Queen of Thebes receive prophecy that their newborn son will one day kill his father and marry his mother. They, therefore, give the baby to a shepherd and instruct the shepherd to leave the baby on a hillside to die.

* The shepherd has pity on the baby, and instead, he gives him to another shepherd to take him far away.

* This other shepherd is from Corinth and, luckily (sort of), the King and Queen of Corinth haven't been able to have children. So the shepherd gives the baby to the King and Queen of Corinth. They name him Oedipus because the baby's feet had been bound by K. & Q. of Thebes. Oedipus means "sore feet."

* Oedipus grows up and receives a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Believing that the K. & Q. of Corinth are his parents, he flees in order to subvert the prophecy. 

* While on the road, he gets in a tussle with some other travelers, and he kills all of them (except for one guy). The travelers happened to be K. of Thebes, Oedipus's father, and his men. Whoops. 

* Oedipus arrives at Thebes! Where they have a pestilence brought on by a sphinx asking riddles. Oedipus answers the riddle, and the people of Thebes are so happy that they make him king. He marries the Queen of Thebes who is also his mother. (In all the film clips that I saw in class, Queen Jocasta (of Thebes) was a babe. So really, who could blame our guy?)

* Eventually, there's another pestilence, and this time it's brought on because nobody has been brought to justice for the murder of the King of Thebes. Oedipus is so confident and so upset and such a good king in general, that he promises that the murderer of King Laius will be found out and either killed or exiled. 

* So then Oedipus uncovers that he himself is actually the murderer and finds out who his real parents are, and Queen Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus takes the broaches from the dress of her hanging body and gouges out his eyes. Then he wanders in the wilderness with his daughter. 

* The end.]   

When we read the play in my high school English class, the take-away message from it was that Oedipus was too proud and therefore fell from greatness. I didn't like the play because it felt pointlessly unfair. There was interesting irony, sure, and there was supposedly some catharsis I was supposed to feel and benefit from, but Oedipus was such a mistreated character. And we have the saying "pride comes before a fall," so why go through all the effort of writing a play and then centuries later teaching it to ninth graders? Plus, Oedipus's situation was too unique for it to effectively warn me away from head-puffing. 

But, here's the thing: Sophocles wrote and set the play in a time where people believed in a fatalistic universe.  A fatalistic universe is one in which "fates" or superhuman personalities control the rules and events of our lives according to their own principles. Depending on the culture or story, the fates may or may not have human forms or attributes. So, for example, in a lot of Greek myths the fates do have human forms and attributes and are presented as the gods Zeus,  Athena, Apollo, and so forth. In Sophocles's tragedies, fate tends to be nameless and faceless. 

Another example(s) of a fatalistic universe would be the Old Testament; fate in this context is God, who, depending on the story might be so human-like that he walks on Earth, or he might, very adamantly, not be described with any human characteristics. 

Actually, according to this lecture/essay pretty much every story up until the eighteenth century holds a fatalistic view of life. 

This is markedly different than how we think (mostly) anymore. Contemporary Western-Civ Americans believe that an individual's choices and actions determine the events in his or her life. (I say mostly because I think sometimes American Christians (and I mean some American Christians, not everybody) get stuck on the fatalistic vs. self-deterministic fence. They set a lot of store in the fatalist-'verse Bible, but can be very linked in to 'Merica. So, they believe that God has control of all the events in their lives, down to the parking spot they find in front of their work in the morning, and they also believe that they have to make certain choices because they determine whether or not they go to heaven.)

This understanding, that we as individuals are largely in control of the outcome and events of our lives, can lead to more didactic story-telling and story-reading, I think. Because if something bad happens to a character, we believe that we should be able to trace back into his history to find where he made a mistake or be able to point to a quality within him that caused his external suffering. Reading Oedipus like this makes it a really dull play. 

But - but! - what about accepting a basic premise of the play, that no one can escape his fate? The lecture/essay points out that if it weren't for Oedipus's pride and temper, he wouldn't have a height to fall from. The things we point to as his modern "flaws" are what make him such a great king in the first place - he's very confident; he has strength of purpose; he's unwilling to compromise himself or his people. (I think he's a great guy.)

He suffers because he pits his will against fate. He refuses to compromise and change; he stands out and is isolated from society even while he is very successful in its context. He's a hero because in his suffering we recognize the strength of humanity, especially because he isn't rewarded, especially because he doesn't win. In a fatalistic culture, there was never a chance of his winning against fate, and yet in his suffering and death he becomes sort of immortal (hence, the teaching his story to twenty-first century teens), and maybe ranks as high as fate itself. So while everything, plot-wise, goes to absolute pot, there's a sense of triumph buried under all that suffering. 

[A note on comedies (in the Shakespearian sense): the inverse of the suffering/triumph tension in tragedies is the happiness/loss tension in comedies. Comedies, those ones that start in conflict and end in marriage, are about affirming communities more than elevating individuals. (Example: the names of Shakespeare's comedies are things like "Much Ado About Nothing," "Midsummer Night's Dream," "Twelfth Night," "Love's Labor's Lost" while his tragedies are: "Macbeth," "Hamlet," "Julius Caesar," "Romeo and Juliet.") But while everybody tends to wind up in relative comfort, they have changed and made compromises over the course of the story. In order to thrive within the community, they have had to accept their fate. They have had to compromise some or most of their individuality. I attribute this as the reason, at the end of RomComs, I feel a little empty or sad even though all of the characters seem happy.]

It's got me thinking about our ideas about a self-deterministic universe in the first place. I mean, I was told as a kid that I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up; I was encouraged to think about the kind of man I'd like to marry. But even though we choose the college we go to, the profession we want, or the person we marry (if we actually get the opportunity to make that choice at all), we have no idea, really, of where that choice is going to lead us. I think our life plans, our American self-determination, might be the cover-up for us wildly shooting in the dark. 

And while I don't think we all need to go back to believing that superhuman personalities orchestrate the events of our lives, I think the fatalistic understanding might be more accurate in describing the amount of control we actually have.


  1. Thanks for the post, Amy. It's not the most astoundingly written essay, but the ideas in it are great. (You're welcome.)

    If I'm reading you right, it sounds like you prefer the story of the uncompromising tragic individual over the story of the compromising individual who finds community. Does the uncompromising individual story seem to you to have a "happier" (or perhaps "better") ending? Is the uncompromising life more rewarding (or perhaps has a higher value) than the compromising one, would you say?

  2. I don't necessarily prefer the tragic story, but I don't usually find comedies (you know, end-in-marriage stuff) 100% satisfying, and the happiness/loss tension helped explain that.

    The compromising life is way more rewarding. That's why the compromise. Rewards.