Sight and Blindness as Symbols in Oedipus Rex
Oedipus was too well known a character to the masses when Sophocles wrote ‘Oedipus Rex’. But what made the audience sit through and watch the play with intrigue as if they had never known the events unfolding before them? It was Sophocles’ sheer craftsmanship of employing symbols for creating irony that lent a dramatic twist to the tragic events unraveling before the spectators and created a lasting impact on them. Sophocles had used various symbols like fate and freewill, confidence and uncertainty, intelligence and foolishness, etc to create the fabric of irony to hold plot together. However, among these, the most prominent and effective were the symbols of sight and blindness.
The tragic story has Oedipus, a self-confident, intelligent, and strong-willed king, as the hero. Ironically, it is these sterling characteristic traits that bring him his doom. One of the main underlying themes in the play is the struggle of sight versus blindness. Unfortunately, Oedipus’s ability to see confines a physical sphere only and he lacks intellectual insight. Thus Sophocles makes two distinct components to convey the theory of sight. One is Oedipus’ physical ability to view things, and the other is his inability to perceive what is not visual. Similarly, Sophocles gives an equal treatment to the concept of blindness. He employs Teiresias’ physical blindness as a contrast to Oedipus’s physical power of vision. The irony becomes most tangible when we consider Teiresias’ intellectual vision in juxtaposition with Oedipus’s lack of it.
The plot is impregnated with irony from the beginning till end. When Oedipus hears the prophecy that the murderer of king Laius must be punished by banishment, in despair he curses the murderer. Paradoxically, he is cursing himself into exile and does not know that he himself is responsible for the plague that haunted the city in the first place. The blind character, Teiresias, possesses inner vision and knows the horrible truth about Oedipus. Despite the foreknowledge, he is hesitant to reveal Oedipus’s tragic fate but is not afraid of the mighty king. Oedipus enters the city of Thebes as a mentally and physically strong man but ends up as a crippled wanderer, a mental and physical wreck, who needs the help of a cane to walk.
Sophocles demonstrates the imagery of sight against blindness through the manner in which the intricacies of ignorance on Oedipus’s part result in the tragic end to his life. Jacosta, the very first person responsible for inflicting the wound on Oedipus, overlooks the swollen foot of her new husband which precludes her from preventing the incestuous relation. In spite of having the power of vision she is blinded to remember the prophecy, and fails to identify her own offspring. Oedipus is ignorant of his parents’ identity. His search for them ironically ends up in killing his own father, and entering into wed-lock with his mother. Teiresias, on the other hand, through his godly vision, declares that Oedipus is the murderer of Laius. Blinded by his hubris Oedipus rebukes him calling him blind whereas Teiresias tries to enlighten Oedipus by stating that he was the very man he was looking for and forewarns him that he should not live in the endless darkness of the night. He further adds, “You have your eye sight and you do not see how miserable you are.” [Dear Customer, please make the in-text citation by quoting the page number of the textbook you are using].
Oedipus is obsessed with finding the truth of his own bearing and investigating the crime but fails to muse at the accidental killing he has committed, and to look at his own swollen foot in order to correlate the prophecy, with the situation he is in. A sighted man for all his excellence and success fails to know what fate has really in store for him because of his lack of vision; whereas in contrast the blind prophet without sight envisions everything about him. Thus the symbols of sight and blindness within this plot make the play interesting, and evoke a sense of awe at the irony and its role that culminates in the tragedy. The effective use of the symbols of sight and blindness to create irony makes ‘Oedipus Rex’ unique.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Publication information. New York: Penguin Books. 2001