If the answer to the Sphinx's riddle is not just man but Oedipus himself, may the answer to Oedipus's question "Who am I?" pertain not only to Oedipus but also to man, or at least to civilized...

If the answer to the Sphinx's riddle is not just man but Oedipus himself, may the answer to Oedipus's question "Who am I?" pertain not only to Oedipus but also to man, or at least to civilized Western man? What characteristics of Oedipus as an individual are also characteristics of man in the Western world? Is Sophocles writing only about Oedipus the king, or is he saying something about man's presumed place and his real place in the universe?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The answer that Oedipus gives to the Sphinx is indeed a universal one. All humans start out as babies completely dependent upon their elders for their very survival, mature and develop strength and independence, and then age and become more feeble, reduced again to the state of dependence. 

This generic account of humanity is even more pertinent to Oedipus than to most people. As an infant, he was condemned to be exposed on a mountain and his feet pierced. Through the kindness of a servant, he was placed in a loving and nurturing household and grew into a strong and powerful man. After he blinds himself, he is instantly reduced again to a state of dependency. 

This cycle of human life applies to all of us to a degree, as does our having some special relationships with our parents that form us. The notion of a curse suggests that we are brought into a world in which much of our fate is determined by things external to us. Sophocles seems to be suggesting that we cannot escape our fate no matter how much we struggle. Oedipus only finds peace in another play by Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, after he has embraced his fate and seen how even his curse can be turned to something beneficial. 

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Oedipus Rex

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