Why Does Oedipus Blind Himself

Explain the motivation of Oedipus blinding himself and its symbolism.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Confronted with the horrific truth on many levels, Oedipus is placed in an impossible reality.  He acquires a sense of the pathetic because he is exposed to be a frail human being.  He understands that the truth and his role in it are both horrific.  He has married his mother and killed his father. Oedipus has also recognized that he has experienced a painful reversal.  From the king who swore to go to the ends of the earth to find the source responsible for the plague that has besieged his people, he has realized that he is the source of their pain.  Oedipus as both man and ruler has been exposed as a frail human on both professional and personal levels.  This instant, a threshold of painful revelation, is a reality from which he cannot escape:

For he removed from her garment the golden
brooches which she was wearing; he lifted them
and struck the sockets of his own eyes,
shouting that they would not see either the evils
he had suffered or the evils he had done,
now only in darkness could they see those whom
they must not see, in darkness could they mistake
those whom they wanted to recognize.

The act of Oedipus blinding himself is reflective of both the magnitude of his transgression as well as his acceptance of responsibility.  Oedipus is not able to live without taking some significant action.  Since "the evils he had done" were committed with full eyesight, it is symbolic that he blinds himself. Being devoid of physical sight, the implication is that Oedipus has gained a sense of internal sight that represents wisdom.  The myopia that he possessed when he had sight has now been replaced with a new type of sight that is not physical, but transcendent.  Oedipus' acknowledgement of his condition is evident in his addressing the Chorus as well as the audience:  "For why must I see, /I for whom no sight is sweet?"  Oedipus has the understanding that physicality and temporality is not as important as that which is transcendent and universal. The actions of the human being have to be seen in a larger context.  Reflective of Teiresias' words, in blinding himself Oedipus recognizes that wisdom must be worthwhile to the wise. This extends to the symbolic relevance of Oedipus blinding himself.  

Another reason why Oedipus' act of blinding himself is so symbolic is that it causes him to see that which is important.  After blinding himself, Oedipus is no longer interested in claims of power and discovering temporal notions of human truth.  Rather, he clearly sees that which is important in his devotion to his daughters.  He finally "sees" that which is meaningful:

My children, where are you? Come here, come
to these hands of mine that are siblings to yours,
hands that brought to this sad state the once
bright eyes of your begetting father,
who, children, neither seeing nor knowing was
proved your father from the same place he himself sprang.
And I weep for you, although I cannot see you;
contemplating the bitterness of your lives,
the sort of life men will force you to live.

While "the bright eyes" are gone, there is a new sight which has emerged.  This sight recognizes the universal elements that defines consciousness.  It took Oedipus losing his physical sight to gain this metaphysical one.  Due to this, Oedipus' actions are symbolic to understanding in human consciousness.  The suffering that comes as a result of knowledge enables a new, symbolic form of sight to emerge.