Oedipus the Wreck
Oedipus Selfless or Self-Centered?
Look for indications of Oedipus' selflessness and self-centeredness in his words, such as in lines 58-59 vs. 61-64. To what extent is Oedipus acting as a savior, for the benefit of his people, in this play, and to what extent is he acting on his own behalf? Consider his reasons for fleeing Corinth and Delphi, his accusations against Creon, his reasons for wanting to talk to the survivor of the attack on Laius and other actions he has taken in his life.
Ambiguity in Oedipus's first speech: Melissa Irvin (1997) sees how the protagonist's opening lines could be taken two ways--and analyzes what he really feels bad about: "Oedipus did show signs of being self-centered for example in lines 61-64 when he told the townspeople that even though they have pain, it could not match the amount of pain he had. He said this was because the townspeople only felt pain for themselves and he had to bear pain not only for himself, but for the city and them. Although he is trying to show that he has compassion he at the same time implies that his feelings are more important. Maybe he did truly feel pain for the townspeople or maybe he was just feeling the shame of failure. If the city failed it would reflect on him and be his failure because he was king. So he appealed to the gods on behalf of the city and on behalf of himself.
"In trying to save the city he hurt himself even more. He made accusations against Creon because it is only human nature to shift the blame. I don't think the truth of his family hurt him as much as the public knowing of his failure."
Self first at the beginning and the end: Kara Harrod (1998) also looks at the opening speech of Oedipus, as well as his blinding, but she concludes that both indicate self-centeredness in the protagonist--but the alternative, at the beginning, is to believe that he is the threat to Thebes: "Throughout the play Oedipus displays conflicting feelings as to whether he's more concerned for his people, who are going through a terrible plague, or concern for his own past and future life. In the prologue, when Oedipus first enters the scene he notices his people are gathered around the altars and begins speaking to them with concern and states, 'Never doubt that I will help you in every way I can.' He then acknowledges the fact that the plague has taken its toll on the people and he has taken action to hopefully remedy the situation, but then turns his concern around to state that he understands that everyone is upset, but he bears more of the burden because his concern is not only for himself but for the whole city. With the plague causing everything in and around the city to die, it's ironic that Oedipus sends Creon to find the cure for the city, because this implies that he has trust in Creon to follow through on this important task. But as soon as Creon returns, Oedipus immediately turns on him and accuses him of treason, because the solution he found would lead to the admission of his own guilt.
"When the Choragos [leader of the chorus] is trying to convince him that he is being unfair to Creon without having proof of his guilt, Oedipus comes back and replies, 'You are aware, I hope, that what you say/ Means death for me, or exile at the least.' This further shows how Oedipus is more concerned with himself by unjustly accusing someone he once claimed to be his good friend with no evidence but his own suspicion. It also appears that after he hears the disturbing news from Tiresias, his concern for the city seemed to have been forgotten as he began his quest to find out the truth about himself. At the end of the play, when he takes his own vision and asks to be exiled from the city, I don't believe that his concern was for the end of the curse upon the people, but to punish himself for his crimes and sins."
Too Much Pride: cn_esson (2000) tried to inventory passages where Oedipus seemed to show an excess of pride--
Oedipus is concerned for his children and takes responsibility: Phillip Quick (1999; Northern Virginia CC) expressed surprise that Oedipus took so much blame on himself: "Feeling the pain that he seems to be feeling, he would not want any of his sons or daughters to have to go thru what he is going thru, the embarrassment and shame that he is feeling [for the incest and patricide].
"I find it interesting that he is taking so much of the blame; it seems to me that he tried everything in his power to avoid fulfilling his prophecy, but his wife/mother [among others] lied to him by covering up the facts and stating that her son died."
Blaming Others or Facing His Fate: Sarah Martin (1999) sees Oedipus is really trying to protect himself: "I think that in many respects Oedipus tried to convince himself he was being selfless when he was in fact being self-centered. Such as, when he ran away from Corinth to avoid fulfilling the prophecy, while he told himself it was to protect those he thought to be his mother and father, I believe he was trying to protect himself. [He admits to Jocasta that he was "running to a place where I would never see the disgrace in the oracle's words come true."] So he's fleeing disgrace--his own--rather than protecting his parents.
Another time when he did something selfish while claiming to be thinking of others was when he accused Creon of conspiring with the blind prophet against him, he tried to convince himself that he was protecting the people from the lies of a traitor when he was really trying to protect himself from the truth of what he had done. [Oedipus admits to the chorus in the "Kommos" that if he abandons his conspiracy theory, then he must face his own "death or banishment from the land" (line 663).] That is why I believe that while Oedipus tried to believe he was being selfless he was really being self-centered."
Every action is selfish: Carla Schaaf (J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College 1998) suggested that Oedipus's only motive was to make himself look good: "Oedipus portrays himself to his people as the selfless king wanting to put a 'plagued' kingdom back together again. All of his acts are self-centered, although the people see him as the man who can save them from horrible things to come.
"In the beginning of the play the Priest says, 'Oedipus, king, we bend to you, your power--we implore you, all of us on our knees: find us strength, rescue!' This is an introduction for a self-centered power play on Oedipus's behalf. Oedipus can gain respect and win over the people of Thebes, if he can 'fix' all the people's problems in the kingdom. The Priest goes on to say, 'Your country calls you savior now.' That is a pretty powerful statement, Oedipus has now become a savior before he has even done anything.
"Oedipus responds with, 'Well I know you are sick to death, all of you, but as sick as you are, not one is sick as I... But my spirit grieves for the city, for myself and all of you.' Now our 'savior' is poor pitiful me. In plain English he is saying you might be in pretty bad shape, but no one is in as bad a shape as I am. He is now looking for sympathy for himself to solve the problems of his people. If he is such a great man why is Thebes in such horrible condition? Only Oedipus can be blamed for that, but if he gains sympathy he can win them over.
"The savior aspect comes to light when Creon returns with the information of Laius' death, the unsolved murder. Apollo says the killers must be paid back, Oedipus responds with 'I'll start again--I'll bring it all to light myself!' Oedipus thinks if he can solve the murder of Laius he can end the problems that 'plague' Thebes and gain more respect. He calls for the people to, 'Banish this man.' He curses the murderer as well as himself.
"When Tiresias is finally persuaded, by Oedipus' insistence, on telling what happened to Laius Oedipus turns to Creon and accuses him of a 'conspiracy.' He can't handle the truth; therefore, he makes an accusation to make himself look good and not guilty of the deed that was done.
"The motives are presented to the people as if they were for their benefit, but they are all self-centered for Oedipus' own benefit. His own selfishness at trying to become the hero and savior have now become his own downfall.
"He fled Corinth and Delphi to save himself from the 'curse of the Gods.' This act of selfishness as we all know backfired. His fleeing caused the curse of the Gods to eventually come true. In the instant he cursed the killer, as well as himself, he became his own victim. As he recalls the events of the murder and realizes, he is the killer. As he later learns that his wife is his mother, due to his own insistence of questioning the Shepherd, Jocasta, his wife, commits suicide. Upon finding all of the facts true, Oedipus can take no more, and blinds himself.
"If Oedipus had truly been the selfless king, he portrayed to his people, instead of the self-centered man he really was, the kingdom of Thebes could have thrived. But a selfish man brought about his own downfall as well as ruining others."
Arrogant Oedipus--People Agree: Kristin Nonnemacher (1999; Northern Va. CC) uses quotations effectively to document that several statements by Oedipus reveal his pride to all: "To me, Oedipus is very self-centered. Although I have some pity on him because his life was toyed with so much by the gods, I found his character somewhat deplorable. He seems more concerned that his image will be damage by the accusations he murdered Kings Laius than whether they may be true. He seems appalled at the thought that he may have actually done something wrong. Oedipus believes that he can do no wrong. There are many examples in the story of his messiah-complex. In the beginning, he claims to act for King Laius in his own self interest. He associates himself with the oracle, boasting about that he was the only to be able to solve the Sphinx's riddle. In Scene 1, line 164 he exclaims 'Wealth, power, craft of statesmanship! Kingly position, everywhere admired!' Although he was speaking to Creon, accusing him of coveting the throne, Oedipus clearly states that he holds the position everyone admires and wishes to obtain. Oedipus also wants to keep his throne and save himself, even if he is a bad ruler. Even the Chorus is aware of his overwhelming pride. In Ode 2, line 11 the Antistrophe 1 announces 'The tyrant is a child of Pride, Who drinks from his great sickening cup, Recklessness and vanity.' The chorus is aware that Oedipus' big ego is part of his undoing. They hint that perhaps [people and gods] have been so cruel to him because of his pride."
Persistent Oedipus: Chewgl (2000) weighed persistence vs. pride as O's tragic flaw: "If Oedipus' fault was his pride rather than his persistence, what about the incident regarding the shepherd, when Oedipus, already suspected of murdering Laius, still called in the shepherd who witnessed everything? one cannot exactly say that he was too proud at that point in time to think that he couldn't be the murderer, for too much pride has to have a little stupidity in it, which was something that wise king Oedipus did not have."
Selfishness Justified: Mechelle of San Francisco stipulated (1999) that royals can react to their own pain first. Considering the burden of prophecy hanging over him, he had every right to be rude, to act arrogantly. He seems "temperamental," but he is "a man of agony." "Oedipus to me put people into categories, and that's how he looked at people, [feeling] either distrust and hate or love and guidance."
Kill a King?: Fargo2 (1998) pointed out, by referring to appropriate lines in the play, that Oedipus is concerned for his own origin and life: "From the moment Oedipus heard of a possible connection to his birth all thoughts of the plague and the murder were forgotten in his search for his own history. We also have his own words to go by proving his selfishness, 'Whoever killed King Laius might - who knows? - Lay violent hands even on me - and soon. I act for the murdered king in my own interest.' From the moment he learned of the former king's death he was acting not as a king concerned for his people, but as a king concerned for his own life."
Hindsight? Judy Castle (1999; Southside/Southwestern Virginia Community College) pointed to crucial questions that a more prudent man should have wondered about: "First, if I had been warned that I would marry one of my parents and murder the other, I think I would have been quite suspicious of marrying and having children with a much older person, i.e. someone old enough to be my parent. Second, I think Oedipus should have stopped and at least wondered who the old man was that he killed at the place where three roads met. Actually, Oedipus seemed happy enough to jump in and be king of Thebes without questioning the "why" of the situation. I reiterate my opinion that there are several points in Oedipus' life where I feel he should have stopped and thoroughly considered the situation."
Writing His Own Destiny: Mike (1999; SVCC), responding to the post above, noted that Oedipus did NOT examine his actions from the perspective of the prophecy but instead from what he expected his fate to be, namely, ruler of a city--if not Corinth, then Thebes, which he had just saved from the carnivorous sphinx. Mark (1999; SVCC) agreed, suggesting that Oedipus had a "superman complex" when he set out to save the city from the plague--and be savior of the town again. Rachel (1999: SVCC) added the power of wishful thinking: How could Oedipus accept such a horrible fate and not resist it by fleeing Corinth?
Oedipus of Corinth: Abby DC (1999) questioned whether Oedipus should have known that he was fulfilling the prophecy: "Why should he stop and consider who he was killing or marrying? He KNEW who his parents were he had no reason to doubt that his parents were safe from him. If you were never told you were adopted you would never just assume that anyone 15-20 years older than you is your mother. Maybe if he knew that Merope and Polybus were not his real parents he would have been more cautious but you can't live your life not ever marrying or being successful because of what MIGHT happen."
Oedipus's Greatness: Thanayi Anderson (J. Sargeant Reynolds CC, 1998) urges readers to put themselves into Oedipus's place. For instance, could you tell your beloved children that you were their brother?
Contradictions: Simon, student of a teacher named Madway, said in 2001: "Oedipus the king, his personality? Quite simple at one point but yet hard to figure out at another. First he seems to be born innocent but with an oracle to his parents, left him half dead and scared for life. I tried to understand what Oedipus felt when his city started to be plagued. I feel that Oedipus was very concerned for his people. Oedipus may be good at solving riddles but the murder of King Laius totally got him thinking. To sum it all up, this oracle had him in a road that there would be no happiness but only misery. He is a person who won't settle for anything less than justice, the truth, and the reason why he can't save his city from that terrible plague. Oedipus was also a strong, bold man, who has a lot of courage and perseverance."
Confused Oedipus: Daniel L. Owens (1999; Northern Va. CC) sees motives for Oedipus to be a bit on edge: "I think Oedipus had more going on mentally than just confirming if he killed the king/his father. Yes that certainly was a huge driving factor in his situation but he was also dealing with a variety of ironies that faced him. Was the original prophecy correct that he would kill his father? How could the prophecy be correct since he had intentionally left his family and homeland to avoid this from occurring? If he did kill the king that meant the man that he knew as his father really wasn't, nor was his mother. If the king was his father than he was married to, sleeping with and had children by his mother. This doesn't even begin to touch on the aspects of his responsibility to the town and people, his oath to vanquish the slayer of the king on and on. So while he was rude, abrasive and arrogant I think there was certainly a lot driving him and eating away at him."
Cynicism vs. Compassion in Reading about Oedipus: Two students disagreed about how cold Oedipus might have been--
Todd Lurker (1998) reacts cynically (skeptically?) to Oedipus: "Perhaps Sophocles creates a self-centered ruler for amusement, because openly criticizing an aristocrat in those days could result in spontaneous execution or dismemberment. A fallible man and absolute ruler, such as Swollen-Foot is, can easily fall into a behavior of acting as if his royal concerns about a plague are a more serious affliction than the actual sufferings of his minions."
Richard Senior (1998) disagrees, seeing Oedipus as a compassionate man:
"I believe the pain Oedipus felt was part of the burden he carried as the leader, as described by his uncle/brother-in-law starting in line 583 (Web version). A caring person feels this way, an uncaring person would not have carried such a burden because of selflessness. As the leader of the people, feelings are important because it reflects what the people feel and influences decisions, lines 60-70. (How do we look and feel as a nation with all that is going on with President Clinton?) I believe Oedipus was brought up a caring person and wanted to live a good life and could not bare the pain of a sinful failure.
"I believe Oedipus also left home, to protect his Mom and Dad, not knowing he was adopted; his was an action of love. Notice the thought of shared love in line 970 and 1000. Oedipus was an honorable man and that is why he followed through on his own sentencing of banishment. I wont even get started on the concern and love expressed for his family in the closing scene. Why was Oedipus so hard on himself?"
Honest Oedipus: One student of a teacher named Madway said in 2001: "Few of the students say that Oedipus did not hide that he killed Laius. I totally agree with this response. We tend to hide something that we had done if it will affect our lives in a bad way. But Oedipus was honest. He laid down his reign and himself. When the truth was revealed, he was willing to take the punishments that he assigned to whoever had killed Laius. Oedipus is truthful and fair. He doesn't change the rules if he is the one who have to face it.
Yet Oedipus also has a temper. His tone of voice when Tiresias refused to speak was unnecessary. But this temper is normal. Of course, all of us tend to get mad when we desperately need to find out information and we finally have someone that knows something but refuses to speak."
Slow Gods Hit the Wrong Target: Laura Whitehead (1998) asked some interesting questions--if Oedipus doesn't care about his people, then why do the gods punish them instead of him?: "If the plague is the result of the Gods’ displeasure at the mockery Oedipus has made of sacred decrees, than why has he ruled for ten years? Why has this taken so long to develop? Another thing that puzzled me was that it seemed that the townspeople were the only ones suffering (physically, that is) the effects of the plague. If the nature of this plague is a symbol of the seed of incest present in Thebes, than why doesn’t it strike at the cause of the problem, Oedipus? If the Gods were so displeased, why didn’t they just strike him down and get it over with, instead of making the townspeople suffer?"
Blind, Proud, Disciplined Oedipus: cheriboo811 said in 2001: "Blindness is a big theme of the story that added a lot of character to Oedipus. The representation was both mental and physical. He was blind to see the truth of his birth, being destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Throughout a big part of his life, he was also blind to see who his real parents were and the whole situation with Laius and his disputes with Tiresias.
Later on, Oedipus blinds himself, which gives him the physical blindness, not being able to see anything around him. All he saw from then on was darkness, which could represent his earlier days when he walked through the “darkness” of his own destined fate (killing his father and sleeping with his mother). I think Oedipus was too proud of who he was to just commit suicide (not proud to be a murderer or have an affair with his mother, but proud of who he was as a person himself). He rather had suffered throughout his whole life with the lack of an important sense of sight than to end everything, his whole life, all at once. This way, with his blindness, he will punish himself forever. It was an act of discipline that was followed by difficult circumstances afterwards, which gave an interest to the whole story."
Blinding is Selfless: Becky (1998) claims that Oedipus may sometimes look selfish but that he's actually selfless, as his actions show: "I think that the first assumption is to believe that Oedipus is selfish, especially when you read lines 61-64. But when you realize the responsibility that a King carries for an entire country, then yes it definitely shows compassion when he feels pain for everyone. A king must suffer for everyone. If he didn't care, he wouldn't have taken the extraordinary steps to save his kingdom including sacrificing his own eyesight. How much more selfless can you get?"
O's Blinding vs. Jocasta's Suicide: Chelsea Spence (1998) contrasted the outcomes of Oedipus and Jocasta in the play: "Oedipus didn't kill himself because gouging out his eyes and living with the guilt of what fate did to him was a punishment worse than death. To kill himself would be the easy way out, and also he would have had to face his parents (biological and adoptive) in the afterlife. Facing his parents would have been hard, although I suppose he eventually did have to.
"Also, Jocasta didn't realize Oedipus was her son when she married him. When he was born, if they named him, they probably didn't name him 'Oedipus' [since 'Swollen Feet' seems to be a nickname based on his pierced ankles]. In Greek civilization at that time, suicide was sometimes accepted. To kill oneself was more noble than living without honor. Many generals killed themselves just because they lost a battle."
Oedipus Tries to Escape Blame: In 1997, Ro Jimy1 suggested: "Oedipus is obviously a two-sided character who shows time and time again all he truly cares about is himself. Oedipus knows some of the truth but puts on a show for his people, calling in the prophet, Tiresias, in a sorry attempt to comfort his people. In lines 370-375 Tiresias says, 'I fail to see that your own words are so well timed. I'd rather not have the same thing said of me...' In response the rather irritated Oedipus pleads, 'For the love of God, don't turn away, not if you know something. We beg you, all of us on our knees.' The ancient prophet sums it all up when he says, 'None of you knows- and I will never reveal my dreadful secrets, not to say your own.' Oedipus left Corinth to avoid his horrid fate, but ironically enough he was only fleeing straight towards that very thing. Although it is not clear to me if Oedipus knew he had actually killed his real father, it seems evident that he had to know he killed a man named Laius. He tried to push the blame onto someone else. It seems Oedipus is a failing attempt at a would-be savior, if it were not for such dynamic circumstances."
For What Is Oedipus to be Blamed?: Ruth Kabel (1998) finds Oedipus may not be entirely culpable for some things that happened to him, but he is to blame for his conspiracy theories: "When Oedipus heard what Tiresias had to say about him (340-360) he immediately sought to blame Creon his loyal trusted friend (378-403) and starting thinking the worst of Creon. He blasted him publicly before finding out if there was any truth to Tiresias's words. Later on Jocasta, the leader and the chorus all pleaded with Oedipus to think carefully before banishing Creon.(630-666) He would not. As the truth unfolds Tiresias turns out to be right and Oedipus is left with the mess of his life. Not only is he faced with the horror of being the murderer of his father, having an incestuous relationship with his mother, and children that are his siblings, he turns on his friend Creon. While the first three problems are not viewed as entirely his fault, his turning on Creon is and I think that's one of the reasons he had to hate himself so much."
Heroism vs. Persistence: Rajinder Balaraman (1998) sees Oedipus as a benevolent ruler but also as a man obsessed: "I feel that Oedipus should be considered as a hero for the very fact that he ruled his kingdom with love for his people. According to the laws of Greek tragedies and tragic heroes , he fits in perfectly as a tragic hero . . . . His discovery of his deeds might have been his fault, and this is where I feel his fault lies because he was persistent that everything be done in public. despite repeated warnings by Tiresias he still wanted to know everything about his past, and even when Jocasta pleaded with him to stop his quest he refused. If he is wrong for anything then it is these fault's of his and not the fact that he killed his father or shared a bed with his mother."
O's Selfishness Caused the Prophecy to Come True Through Road Rage, and the Thebans Were a Duty: Laura Whitehead (1998): "I believe Oedipus was a very selfish man. He was a very powerful leader, but a very arrogant one. He did care for his subjects, but not at all out of human compassion. It was his duty, as the chosen ruler and greatest man in the kingdom, to protect his people. After all, if he had no people in his kingdom, he wouldnt be much of a ruler, would he? His selfishness is actually what caused the prophecy to come true. Insulted at being forced off the road to make way for King Lauis progression, he proceeded to murder those who had brought no harm to him. This doesnt sound at all like an act of a selfless man!"
O's Sorrow Indicates His Compassion, Which Is Selfless. Kadir Muslu (1998; Northern Virginia CC) points to the idea that Oedipus fled Corinth to spare his parents as an indication that he doesn't want to hurt anyone else. Also, at the end, Oedipus feels sorry for what he had done, but especially sorry for his children because "no one would ever want his daughters and they would not have a normal life." If he were only self-centered, he wouldn't feel sorry about anything.
Pity for Oedipus: Angela (1998) pitied Oedipus because--
Ignorant Oedipus: JKotula515 (1999) claimed that Oedipus's ignorance increases the tragic force of the play: "Oedipus can only be seen as self-centered if he knows the extent of his own guilt at the beginning of the play. It seems to me that Sophocles wanted the audience to say that Oedipus should have known better than to do the things he did after he left Thebes. But that is the tragedy of his life; he should have known better. To me his tragedy is compounded by the fact that it results not from some malevolent scheme but from good intentions executed in ignorance."
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