It is said that the truth will set you free, but in the case of Sophocles Oedipus, the truth drives a man to imprison himself in a world of darkness by gouging out his eyes. As he scours the city for truth, Oedipus ruin is ironically mentioned and foreshadowed in the narrative. With these and other devices Sophocles illuminates the kings tragic realization and creates a firm emotional bond with the audience. Oedipus quest is revealed to him early on in the play, though it undergoes a number of transformations before he is actually examining his own life and heritage.
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He begins with the reasonable search for the motive behind the wave of death and destruction that has overcome Thebes. This leads into his search for the man who murdered Laius, and finally to Oedipus questioning his own innocence and origin. The final stage of his search is where he becomes most fervent, regretfully not considering the magnitude of the effect his discovery will have on him. In order to assess Oedipus search for truth, one must first look at each transformation separately before tying them together.
Oedipus first investigation, as previously mentioned, relates to the terrible condition of Thebes. His attention is brought to this matter by a throng of suppliants praying at his steps. Oedipus characterizes himself as a father figure to his people, addressing them as such: “My children” (Prologue. 1). As father to his people, he sees the importance of relieving their suffering, and thus sends Creon to the Oracle at Delphi. This vague stage of Oedipus search quickly loses its cryptic nature, however, with the return of said messenger.
Oedipus pursuit experiences its first conversion when Creon brings him this charge from the Delphic Oracle: “expel from the land of Thebes / An old defilement we are sheltering” (Prologue. 99-100). It is quickly determined between the two men that the defilement to which the prophecy refers is the murderer of Laius. Oedipus sees it as his duty to rid the city of the villain, who the audience knows to be the king himself. Seeking out the man who slew Laius leads Oedipus to question his own innocence, and leads into the final metamorphosis of Oedipus quest.
Prompted by a messenger heralding the death of Polybus, he is beginning to dig into his past, going deeper than the possibility of his murdering Laius. He has become obsessed with his hunt for truth to the point where he is a worry to those around him: “He will listen to any voice that speaks disaster” (III. 7). He finally draws parallels between Laius and himself, realizing the horrible truth of his very existence; he has murdered his father and married his mother. This prompts him to gouge out his eyes, ending his search.
These three stages, with respect to literary devices, can be traced accurately and effectively throughout the play. Sometimes highlighting Oedipus character, other times hinting at his fate, the author creates an intricate web of ironies and images to captivate his audience. Each layer compounds the suffering of Oedipus when the truth is revealed. While presenting the plea of all Thebans in the prologue, the priest says, “We rose but later fell” (52). He, of course, is referring to the city, but the audience sees the irony in the line.
Oedipus “rose” to the throne when the city was released from the horror of the Sphinx, but he is the one who will “fall” in trying to save the city once more. Oedipus goes full circle in this respect; he begins by searching for a way to prevent the downfall of Thebes, and ends by provoking his own downfall with the revelation of his personal truths. Oedipus believes the truth will bring relief to both him and Thebes: “you shall have relief from all these evils” (I. 3). Once again, the irony is apparent in the fact that when Oedipus knows the truth he blinds himself yet lives on in agony.
When his attention is turned to finding the murderer of Laius, Oedipus makes a vow that surpasses irony: “I say I take the sons part, just as though / I were his son” (I. 48-49). He is saying that he will avenge Laius as he would his own father. Irony exists on two levels here. On one level, he will press on as diligently as a son would, inevitably incriminating himself in this situation. On another, more obvious level, he is, in fact, the son whose part he his figuratively assuming.
Irony is beautifully expressed in the first scene, depicting the clairvoyant Tiresias hurling damning prophecies at the king, the following quotation in particular: “I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind” (195). The irony comes from the fact that, despite being physically blind, Tiresias sees the truth and the harm it will do to Oedipus when it is revealed. Oedipus, on the other hand, cannot conceive of any reason why the truth would hurt him. This confrontation between the figuratively and literally blind proves to be a clever example of peripety as well as irony.
Oedipus goes from having physical sight but being ignorant and blind to reality to being physically blind but quite knowledgeable about his situation. The coming of Oedipus literal blindness is divined by Tiresias, foreshadowing the kings reaction to the truth he seeks so passionately. Tiresias says, when provoked, that “the double lash of your parents curse will whip you / Out of this land some day, with only night / Upon your precious eyes” (I. 203-205). This depicts Oedipus blinding himself and exiling himself from Thebes.
The journey he goes on leaves the play with an indeterminate ending; the audience does not know where Oedipus goes afterward. By not incorporating the details of his excursion the author elucidates Oedipus depravity and hopelessness. Night, representing Oedipus blindness, foreshadows the nature of Oedipus discovery. The Chorus is the first to make this symbolic reference: “For the day ravages what the night spares” (Parodos. 40). “Day” is substituted for truth here. For Oedipus, ignorance would have been bliss had he been able to avoid overcoming his blindness.
Later, following Oedipus reversal, Creon sympathetically says to Oedipus, “Your misery, you are not blind to that. Would God you had never found it out! ” (Exodos. 124-125). This passage emphasizes the above theory as the king has, in essence, bartered his physical well-being for his knowledge. Light and darkness is a repeated image in the play, enforcing the devastating nature of the truth Oedipus reveals. Upon embarking on his quest, Oedipus says, “once again I must bring what is dark to light” (Prologue. 134). When he achieves this, however, he finds that reality is blacker than he could have imagined.
Another example of this occurs near the end of the play when Oedipus refers to his blindness: “O cloud of night, / Never to be turned away” (Exodos. 90-91). This darkness, in contrast to the first, is real and cannot be overcome. He removes the offending part of himself; the eyes that failed him as well as his ignorance of reality. Oedipus sets out to discover the truth despite his possible ruin. He realizes a danger to himself in scene two: “You are aware, I hope, that what you say / Means death for me, or exile at the least” (138-139).
While he does not consider the severity of his future suffering, he still risks a great deal by continuing his search once he is insinuated in Laius murder. This shows the extent of his desire for truth and prosperity for his people. The continuing agony experienced by Oedipus is apparent when, after blinding himself, Oedipus refers to the fact that despite being blind he sees the truth: “The flooding pain of memory, never to be gouged out” (Exodos. 95-96). By ruining his eyes Oedipus has merely deprived himself of physical sight.
The knowledge of his wretchedness lives on in his mind, and will live on despite the removal of his eyesight. Oedipus shame is highlighted when, explaining his self-mutilation, he says that he will not be able to “bear the sight / Of my father, when I came to the house of death” (Exodos. 143-144). He is ashamed to have caused his fate to come around, thus causing the deaths of his parents. Had the truth been know to him from the beginning, before he even left Corinth, this suffering could have been avoided.
Sophocles Oedipus is the tragedy of tragedies. An honorable king is deceived and manipulated by the gods to the point of his ruination. In the face of ugly consequences Oedipus pursues the truth for the good of his city, finally exiling himself to restore order. Sophocles establishes emotional attachment between the king and the audience, holding them in captivated sympathy as Oedipus draws near his catastrophic discovery. Oedipus draws the audience into a world between a rock and a hard place, where sacrifice must be made for the greater good.