Is Oedipus a victim of fate or a victim of his own actions?

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mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oedipus is set-up to suffer.  There's no way around it.  After all, this is a tragedy, not a comedy, romance, or myth.  Oedipus must suffer.

Here is the only reason, I think, why he was "destined to suffer":

His parents, Laius and Jocasta, believed in the gods' prophesy more than human choice.  As a result, they tried to commit infanticide by crippling Oedipus' feet and leaving him for dead. This is Oedipus' only fate, as far as I'm concerned.  This is a heinous and cowardly act that results in Oedipus' life-long suffering first as a cripple and then as a parentless child who does not know his true identity.  His search for the truth (his father's murderer) is necessary to understand himself even though it leads to his blinding.

So, Oedipus has two strikes against him throughout life.  The fact that he overcomes these cruel fates and becomes twice crowned prince and king is remarkable.

Fate, I think, is controlled by humans, not the gods.  In the end, And, I think, humans can overcome this fate through suffering.  Oedipus overcomes his cruel family history and chooses life instead of death, unlike his mother/wife.


Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oedipus is in control of his own fate, though not until the point at which he seeks out the oracles to ask about his past.  As already mentioned, he could then have gone and talked to Polybus and Merope.  Instead, he takes action on his own which entirely changes his fate.  Oedipus decides to circumvent the fate the gods have laid out for him; in doing so, he puts himself in the direct path of that very fate.  I know, he had a really traumatic beginning, but he became a prince and has, presumably, overcome that earlier deficit. 

This is always where the debate between free will and fate comes into play; however, the choices he makes to turn away from those he believes to be his parents, to murder anyone, and to marry anyone are his and his alone.  The curse on the town was for harboring a murderer, and Oedipus' curses were for the murderer; he thought the punishment was fit for a murderer, so there is little doubt it's apt for him.  He suffers, I know, but he only recieves the same punishment he would have given any other person; therefore, it's just.

teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly this is debatable--in my interpretation of the play, Oedipus may be a victim of fate; however, he is not innocent and does bear responsibility in the outcome of his life.  The role of prophecy is important in older plays, and it mimics the beliefs of people who held fast to idea that fate and destiny could not be avoided.  If this is true, then Oedipus could never have hoped to escape the prophecy of the oracle.  However, Oedipus is in control of how he handles the prophecy.  Rather than nobly accepting his fate, Oedipus attempts to run from his destiny.  He believes that his mortal intelligence and cunning will be enough to thwart his destiny, hence he runs away from the home of Polybus and Merope.  When he meets Teiresias and learns more of what is in store for him, he calls Teiresias a fool and chooses to believe that he can escape his fate.  So Oedipus's ignorance and cowardice causes his downfall and demise.

ajmchugh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Generally speaking, audiences often sympathize with Oedipus at the end of the play.  He is portrayed as a great man, and it's clear at the play's opening that the citizens of Thebes love and respect him.  It's true that Oedipus does not knowingly kill his father and marry his mother, which is why we feel sorry for him and feel that he doesn't deserve  the suffering he experiences at the end of the play.  However, as the previous posters note, Oedipus is a victim of fate.  He has a tragic flaw (his pride/arrogance) that is responsible for his downfall, and it's this type of flaw that Aristotle identified as being a key characteristic of a tragic figure. 

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Oedipus first learns of the prophecy, he never asks his then mother and father about it.  Had he done so, he would have known that he was living with adopted parents and that there was no reason whatsoever to leave his home.  He also believes in the power of the prophecy more than human free will since he chooses to flee without discussing the issue with his parents in the hope that he would avoid the dreadful "fate" altogether.  In doing so, he is led right into the belly of the beast.  His pride and anger put in him line with the predictions...even so, he demands that the soothsayer tell him the truth and that the man who killed Jocasta's husband be found. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In accord with the previous post, the hubris of Oedipus is what is responsible for his downfall and tragic experiences.  It is, indeed, his arrogance that prohibits him from inquiring into situations.  First, the one mentioned, he does not ask his parents about the prophesy.  Secondly, his arrogance controls him in his unknowing murder of his father (apparently an inherited trait).  And, finally, he arrogantly refuses to be attentive to the loving suggestions of Jocasta, who tries desperately to avert what she realizes will be disaster.

clairewait eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You could argue that none of the events that unfolded against Oedipus were actually his fault.

Everything was decreed from his birth - the whole, marrying his mom and killing his dad, I mean.  And if it weren't for that prophesy - his parents would likely not have gone to the measures they went to in order to avoid it, and likely it would not have happened.

Granted, Oedipus was prideful - but everyone on Earth suffers bouts of pride from time to time.  Does everyone deserve the same fate Oedipus received?  Arguably not.

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oedipus does not seem to have been capable of changing his fate. Though we may be able to argue that he is complicit in the fulfillment of the prophecy outlining his fate, it seems that we cannot make him completely responsible for that fate. After all, his decisions are largely shaped by his unwillingness to accept his fate - and we can't blame him for that when his foreseen fate was no horrendous. 

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
Oedipus was not a bad guy at first. If he had never visited the oracle, he may never have ended up following the crazy train of events that led to making him into a murderer and well, the other things he did. It's a good reason to not try to interfere with math.
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You will receive many different and distinctive answers to such a question.  I would say that an equally compelling case can be made for both options.  Such complexity is testament to Sophocles' genius and greatness in the construction of his play.  On one hand, Oedipus' fate cannot be overcome.  He tries with the best of intentions and the highest use of his freedom to supplant his fate with a different outcome.  It comes to no avail, as he becomes fate's instrument.  At the same time, some uses of his freedom causes him to be victimized by his own hand.  His scornful treatment of Tiresias and his prophecies as well as his unwillingness to heed the role of fate in his own life helps to move him closer to accomplishing that which he seeks to avoid.  I think that Oedipus becomes the type of figure that Greek and modern audiences can examine and see parts of their own sensibility and understand how "not to behave."  Oedipus might be the best example of a literary cautionary tale, a character pitted between being doomed by fate and undermined by his own hand.

Here is a video to help further your understanding of Oedipus:

zumba96 | Student

Oedipus is a victim of his own actions, but also he is a victim of his fate. He does his best to leave Corinth and get away from his prophecy that was given to him by the Oracle. He does his best to escape the horrible fate given to him, but he fails. He is bound by his fate and not his free will. Some could say because he went to change his fate, with his own actions was the cause of his downfall, but many would argue the opposite. Many believe that because the inevitable nature of fate, that in fact was his downfall. 

kostaglatov | Student


I posted an answer to your question last night,but for some reason it does not appear here. I will give a somewhat condensed response . We  address this question in rather  absolute terms, that is we believe in one or the other- The contemporary mind cannot accomodate both concepts . The Greek mind however differed from us in that regard and saw no incompatibility there. We see evidence of this in Homer where Athena decends and convinces Achilles to break off battle with Agamemnon. Achilles could have killed Agamemnon there but chose not to for hope of greater glory. So keep that in mind. You must be mindful of what a tragedy is. Simply put, it is this. Classical Greek society is charicterized , among other things , by moderation. A tragedy is an example of what happens when there is an exess. Frequently this excess comes in the form of pride or hubris. While iskabibbel is correct in pointing out the audience was aware of the surrounding myth, she fails to point out ,more importantly, that the Greek audience would recognize the fatal flaw in Oedipus . It is in our recognition of this flaw that Oedipus becomes a tragic figure.  The excessive pride, demonstrated by Oedipus in his belief that he could outrun or outwit the prophesy , this hubris , manifests itself in the  actions whch precipitate his fall.  It is for you to decide if he was a victim of fate, or of his own free will. An argument may be supported either way.  I would simply say this.  A character becomes a tragic figure for us because however responsible the protagonist may be for the actions which precipitate his fall, we somehow feel he is not wholly to blame.

good luck

iskabibbel | Student

To answer this question one must look at the role of theater in ancient Greek society.  Theater was not something that was created purely for entertainment value; it was a means of promoting the cultural values and, more specifically, the religious beliefs that governed Greek life.  One of these beliefs was that the destiny of each individual was decided upon by the Fates. These three beings decided a person’s nature (good or evil), what will happen in the person’s lifetime, and when that lifetime will come to an end.  In Oedipus, we clearly see that the Fates have laid out his path from the moment of his birth.

Sophocles' audience would have been familiar with the myths surrounding ancient Thebes.  They would have known about the prophecy that Oedipus' parents received when he was born.  The ancient Greeks took their faith in the gods, Fates, and prophecy quite seriously.  It is not unreasonable to assume that Socrates' audience would have expected Oedipus to be confronted with all the trials and the consequences thereof that Socrates so eloquently describes.  Anything else would have been heretical.

Did Oedipus' actions bring about his downfall? Yes. Those actions, however, were based on faulty information, the truth having been carefully hidden from him so that he would have no other logical path to follow but the one which the Fates had created.