To what extent does Oedipus choose to be blind?

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The question of Oedipus’s freedom of choice in blinding himself is basically the same as that for his other decisions throughout the play. While ancient Greek religion most likely allocated a much stronger role to fate than do most contemporary belief systems, Sophocles in many ways anticipates modern debates about destiny versus free will.

Oedipus ends up in the dilemma he is in because various characters, notably his mother, deliberately tried to thwart the fates. Rejecting the prophecies about his murderous and incestuous activities, Jocasta believed she could circumvent the gods’s plan by abandoning her son. This in itself raises the question of whether she was being further punished for being a bad mother; had she kept her baby safe, perhaps the gods would have regarded her more favorably.

Once most phases of the prophecy are shown to have been fulfilled, Oedipus finds himself in another bind. Should he take his own life, ending his suffering? Or should he continue to live with the pain derived from all those wrong decisions and challenges to the fates? Oedipus apparently chooses the tortured life. A further decision is to use his mother’s dress pins to gouge out his eyes. The question remains open, however, whether either of those actions was actually his choice. If fate had intended his life to end then and there, Sophocles implies, it would be all over for him. A closely related question is likewise unanswerable: which was worse, life or death? Oedipus must live on with the knowledge of the terrible past and bear witness to those who would similarly challenge the fates.

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The best-known telling of the legend of Oedipus is that of Sophocles. It is told in a set of three plays:  Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and AntigoneIt is from this trilogy that we learn that Oedipus blinded himself out of grief.

As an infant, Oedipus had been sent to be abandoned, and certainly die, by his father. However, the order was not carried out and Oedipus attained adulthood without ever knowing the identity of his parents. This set the stage for him to actually kill his father and marry his mother. He fathered two daughters and two sons during this marriage.

Later, when this union - which had been prophesied - came to light, the mother hanged herself.  Having learned that he had killed his father, married and bedded his mother, and inclined his mother to take her own life, Oedipus, in his grief, very deliberately blinded himself. 

Even today, a rare form of self-harm, whereby a person causes severe injury to their own eyes, is referred to as oedipism.

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