Oedipus’ Ruin Sophocles is perhaps one of the greatest tragedians ever. Sophocles said that a man should never consider himself fortunate unless he can look back on his life and remember that life without pain. For Oedipus Rex, looking back is impossible to do without pain. This pain stems from his prideful life. Oedipus is aware that he alone is responsible for his actions.
Oedipus freely chooses to pursue and accept his own life’s destruction. Even though fate victimizes Oedipus, he is a tragic figure since his own heroic qualities, his loyalty to Thebes, and his fidelity to the truth ruin him. Oedipus pride, strung from his own heroic qualities, is one factor that ruined him. A hero prizes above all else his honor and the excellence of his life. When his honor is at stake, all other considerations become irrelevant.
The hero “valued strength and skill, courage and determination, for these attributes enabled the person who possessed them to achieve glory and honor, both in his lifetime and after he died” (Rosenburg 38). Oedipus was certainly a hero who was exceptionally intelligent though one can argue that killing four men at Phokis single-handedly more than qualified him as a physical force of reckoning. He obviously knew his heroic status when he greeted the supplicating citizens of Thebes before the palace doors saying, “I would not have you speak through messengers, and therefore I have come myself to hear you – I, Oedipus, who bear the famous name”(Sophocles 1088). Oedipus is “guilty of Hubris- that is, that he is too sure of himself, too confident in his own powers [and] a little undermindful of the gods” (Brooks 573). Oedipus, a hero of superior intelligence, also displays this uncompromising attitude in his fealty to Thebes.
Oedipus’ loyalty to Thebes is another factor that led to the tragic figure’s ruin. Aristotle explains that a tragic character is just and good, but his misfortune is brought about not by wickedness or depravity but by error, pride, or frailty. Oedipus fits this description perfectly. “The story of Oedipus fascinates us because of the spectacle of a man freely choosing, from the highest motives, a series of actions which lead to his ruin.” (Dodds 23). Oedipus could leave the city of Thebes and let the plague take its course “but pity for the sufferings of his people compelled him to consult Delphi” (Dodds 23).
When Apollo’s word comes back, he could leave the murder of Laius uninvestigated, but pride and justice cause him to act. Oedipus can not let a murder investigation go by without solving the riddle of who killed King Laius because his pride overpowers him. Oedipus’ pride reveals itself again in his loyalty to the truth. Oedipus’ constant struggle to discover the truth for the sake of his people ruined him most in the end. Even though he is warned many times to stop seeking the truth, he keeps on searching. Oedipus has to choose between his doom and an alternative “which if accepted would betray the hero’s own conception of himself, his rights, his duties,” but in the end the hero “refused to yield; he remains true to himself, to his physis” (Knox 8). Therefore, one can see Oedipus’ need to uncover the truth about Laius and then about himself as proof of his commitment to uphold his own nature, pride.
Oedipus’ quest for the truth fits his self image as “a man of action,” “the revealer of truth,” and the “solver of riddles”(Knox 28). He cannot live with a lie, and therefore must learn the truth behind the illusion he has lived for so long. Teiresias, Iokaste, and the herdsman all try to stop Oedipus, but he must read the last riddle, that of his own life. As the truth unfolds, the people of Thebes see Oedipus “as prideful and overweening,” and they “call on Zeus to correct his pride” (Sewall 36). The hero’s conscious choice to pursue and accept his doom makes him a tragic figure.
Oedipus Rex single-handedly ruined his own life through his overweening pride. Oedipus’ pride as a hero, a loyal King, and a truth seeker turned him into a tragic figure. He is a victim of fate, but not a puppet because he freely sought his doom though warned not to pursue it. Fate may have determined his past actions, but what he did at Thebes he did as a free individual. It was his own choice to kill the men at Phokis, his own choice to seek an answer to heal his people and his own choice to learn the truth. He claimed full responsibility, as a hero would, when Choragos asked what god drove him to blind himself. Oedipus’ pride stood in the way of a life full of happiness.
Sophocles ends this tragic story by warning his audience not to take anything for granted lest they suffer like Oedipus, a lesson many should take heed in. Bibliography Brooks, Cleanth. Understanding Drama. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1948. 573-585.
Dodds, E.R. “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Michael J. O’Brien. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968.
17-29. Knox, Bernard M.W. The Heroic Temper: Studied in Sophocean Tragedy. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1964. Rosenberg, Donna. World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics.
Illinois: Passport Books, 1988. Sewall, Richard B. The Vision of Tragedy. London: Yale University Press, 1959. 25- 43.
Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex.” Perrines’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 7th ed. Ed. Thomas R. Arp.
Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1998. 948-953.