Sophocles’s Oedipus is one of the most well-known and influential fictional figure in the history of literature primarily because of the fact that Oedipus symbolizes many things – as a hero, as a son, as a leader and as an example of the conflicting issues affecting morality. This particular hero is the center of the story. It’s about a boy who was thrown to the woods and was expected to meet his end there in the hopes that his death would render a prophecy unfulfilled. He would later find himself crossing paths once again with his true biological father whom he kills without knowing the true identity of the person he slew, thus, making the first prophecy a reality. When he later married his own biological mother upon his entry in his place of birth, he would make another prophecy realized. Oedipius’ life was tragic because he always ends up suffering various misfortunes even when his actions are fueled by the best of intentions on his part, a reversal known as peripeteia (Osborne, p. 69). It was his lack of knowledge and awareness that has doomed him to do the things he wanted to stay away from, which makes him the suitable individual to represent the concept of the ‘tragic hero’. Philosophical thinkers like Aristotle wrote about the idea of the tragic hero, explaining the characteristics of such an individual. Placing the predicament of Oedipus vis a vis, the characteristics of the tragic hero reinforces the idea that Sophocles’ Oedipus is the ideal man to exemplify Aristotle’s idea of the tragic hero based on several characteristics focused on the major flaw of Oedipus as an individual character and based on the actions Oedipus took that shaped his fortune and future.
There are several characteristics that define the tragic hero, as per Aristotle’s understanding of the concept, and the life and characteristics of Sophocles’ Oedipus fit perfectly in this framework. First, there is the idea of evoking two important emotions: fear and pity. The life of the tragic hero should make the audience feel fear as well as pity. The feeling of pity should be a result of the audience empathizing to the misfortune that has befallen the hero in the story, while the feeling of fear should be a result of the realization of the audience that such misfortune could happen to them. Here, the role of the hero is to represent the human nature and the innate weakness and futility of the human endeavor to counteract or go against the perceived path that destiny and the universe has set for an individual. These are two of the strongest characteristics of Oedipus and two of the most important facets of the overall story of Oedipus’ life.
The audience feels pity over Oedipus because of what Oedipus has to go through, and how he was powerless to fight a prophecy because he feels that it is the moral thing to do. First, Oedipus, as a baby, was cursed to die in the forest because his father believed that if Oedipus lives, it is by his hands that King Laius would receive his end. There is reason to celebrate and be happy because Oedipus somehow managed to get out of the forest alive as he was discovered by chance by some peasant farmers who eventually ended up handing them over to the king and queen of Corinth. However, what was thought to be the start of a better life for Oedipus was actually the opposite. On the contrary, it will be the start of a life that would have a grim ending not only for Oedipus but also for his mother and father.
The feeling of pity among the audience continues as the audience witness how Oedipus unknowingly slays his father (Booker, p. 521), and then marries his mother, and it then becomes the reason for his mother’s intense feeling of guilt and confusion that led her to kill herself. Finally, the feeling of pity ends with Oedipus making himself blind and then throwing himself in exile. He allowed all of these things happen to him in pursuit of saving the lives of those whom he thought were his parents. Despite Oedipus’ moral and righteous goals, he nonetheless ends up doing what is wrong, illustrating the futility of the human being versus the power of destiny which is believed to be out of the control of human beings.
As the audience ponders about the life and predicament of Oedipus, he – as the epitome of the tragic hero – then becomes the symbol of the inability of a human being to run away from his destiny, and for that, the audience feel fear. Oedipus then represents every human being (Felski, p.134). They feel fear because in their everyday lives, they make conscious choices and efforts in order to keep them from harm’s way or to keep them from doing bad things or being subjected to bad experiences. They protect themselves and they do everything they can to be morally upright and to guarantee self-preservation. But Oedipus’ life and the lessons from it will become a deeply ingrained realization upon the audience that they, like Oedipus, are after all helpless versus their destiny, especially once it is revealed to them.
Another important characteristic of the tragic hero is the fact that the predicament that has led towards this destiny of the hero/protagonist is a road that is not paved with moral or virtuous steps, but should be characterized by the mercurial shift from a life of prosperity transforming towards the life of adversity. Aristotle does this to paint the tragic hero as imperfect, both in traits as well as in personal experiences. The tragic hero for Aristotle is a man whose knowledge and self awareness was a product of introspection resulting from strong and negative experiences.
When Oedipus was born, he has in his hands the prospect of a prosperous life being the son of the King and the Queen. But this prosperity turns to adversity as a result of the response of King Laius to the prophecy. When he was growing up in Corinth, again he was presented by a life of prosperity to which he turned his back against because he does not want to murder his own father and marry his own mother, leading to a path that will saw him murder his true father, marry his own mother who would soon take her own life while Oedipus makes himself blind and them puts himself in exile – clearly a life filled with adversity and not prosperity.
Aristotle believes that this is essential to the tragic hero because this will augur self-awareness as well as reinforce pity from the audience. It is perfect for a tragic hero because in the end, there is no happy ending for a man doomed to experience tragedy. The tragedy and misfortune will remove the tragic hero from an important trait of the tragic hero according to Aristotle, which is pedigree. The tragic hero is expected to be coming from a blood line of nobilities, which is symbolic of the expected role of leadership from which the righteousness or morality of the actions of the tragic hero are to be seen and gauged by the audience.
Another important aspect of a tragic hero as presented by Aristotle is the presence of both the flaw and the state of being virtuous. This puts the tragic hero in a balanced human form – there is the presence of innate good enough to inspire moral actions but not so much that the individual is saintly and incapable of doing wrong, while on the side there is also the tendency of the tragic hero to demonstrate his frailty or weakness which will result in his error. In the story, Oedipus is the epitome of the tragic hero because he is virtuous.
He was a good son to his surrogate parents and his being virtuous was demonstrated in two important events in his life. The first one was during the time he discovered that he was doomed to kill his father. It broke his heart to leave his parents behind but he knew that even though this is a very painful step for him, this was the only way that he could keep the prophecy from becoming true, saving the life of his father and saving his mother from shame that will result in the marriage of a son to his own mother.
The other event which showed Oedipus innate characteristic of being virtuous is during the time he took it upon himself to punish his own self for his wrong doings. When he discovered his own crime and accepted his own shame, he was the one who took his very own eye sight, symbolizing how he was blinded and how his punishment means, not allowing him to visually enjoy life because of what he did. He also threw himself in exile as part of the punishment he himself embraced, knowing that this is the right and moral thing to do.
But despite these moral actions, Oedipus is not perfect. He is also flawed and is a man who is characterized with errors. One of his flaws is his temper. It is because of his anger that has led to his killing his father. Another flaw of Oedipus is his belief that he is more powerful than destiny and fate. He believed that he could change the course of his life based on his own actions. This belief has sent him towards the path which he was trying to avoid. He believed that he can outrun destiny and change it over time, and this sense of overconfidence in what he can do doomed him. Had he been humble enough to allow destiny to reveal itself without any effort to change it, things would have been different. Of course, Oedipus cannot be blamed here. Any one would risk doing anything and everything hoping that things turn out for the best.
Lastly, the most important aspect of the tragic hero is death. Tragedy pertains to a sad ending to a story or a life. The tragic hero’s life is a tragedy not because of death per se. Every human being dies, but the essence of tragedy is seen in the details leading towards the death of the hero, a life characterized by misfortune that the tragic hero has to carry with him to his grave. This is a tragedy because even in his own death, Oedipus knew that there is nothing he can do to redeem himself from his sins. He is a hero because he tried to do the right thing but he only ends up doing the wrong things nonetheless. He was a tragic hero because while the audience praise him for his values, he is also forever stained by the reality that he can never be redeemed from his errors brought about by his flaws and weaknesses as a man who is powerless against the power of destiny and fate, which is a very significant ideal during the time of Sophocles.
Aristotle’s concept of the tragic hero puts in perspective the characteristics of the life of a person who tries to do good things but eventually ends up doing the wrong things anyway. The tragic hero paradigm explains a lot about the complex nature of life and destiny, and provides an excellent insight and commentary with regards on how society sees and judges the morality of a person. The tragic hero does not adhere to the idea regarding the means being justified by the end because even when the hero goes for what the people can consider as a moral end through acceptable means, the tragic hero veers away from this philosophical structure and opens up an entirely new schemata on how actions are decided, justified and later on adjudged for its morality and for its virtue.
The tragic hero’s flaw will result in death and not in success. The tragic hero suffers misfortune not because of a particular vice or any form of depravity in the part of the hero, rather, this is caused by an error or fault in his part. In the end, the tragic hero’s actions result to self awareness and more knowledge about one’s self in retrospect of all that has happened to him. Oedipus, the quintessential tragic hero, is seen by the audience with pity for what he has to go through despite his good and noble intentions. Through Oedipus and the tragic hero paradigm, the audience is given the chance to examine the complexities of human life and to redefine the idea of moral actions depending on the reason for the action or the resulting consequences from an action.
Booker, Christopher. (2004). The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004
Felski, Rita. (2008). Rethinking Tragedy. Maryland: JHU Press
Kennedy, X. J. and Gioia, Dana. (2006). An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Pearson/Longman
Osborne, Elizabeth. (2005). Oedipus Rex: Literary Touchstone Edition. Delaware: Prestwick House Inc.