Q.6. Comment on the end of Oedipus the King with particular emphasis on the acts of contrition, the self-inflicted blindness, and the banishment.
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The Self-murder and the Self-blindingAfter learning the true facts, Jocasta and Oedipus are naturally in a distraught condition. Jocasta has made the discovery a little earlier than Oedipus and she has departed in a most unhappy frame of mind. The attendant informs the Chorus that Jocasta was in a state of “desperate passion” and that she cried aloud to the dead Laius, bewailing her fate as the wife of the man to whom she had given birth. A little later Oedipus arrived there with piercing cries, and called for a sword, asking where the Queen was. After forcing his way into the Queen’s chamber, Oedipus saw her hanging from a noose, dead. On seeing that gruesome sight, Oedipus uttered heart-rending groans, loosened the rope, and laid the dead body on the ground. Then he suddenly snatched the golden brooches with which Jocasta’s dress was pinned. He thrust the brooches into both his eyes, drawing a stream of blood from them and blinding himself. It was in this manner that Jocasta and Oedipus punished themselves for their sins. They were so overwhelmed by their feelings of remorse and repentance that they felt compelled to take recourse to such extreme steps. Their happiness of former times, happiness earned by meritorious deeds, had vanished, and the royal palace was now visited by calamity, death, ruin, tears, and shame. Even now Oedipus was shouting for someone to open the gates and let the people of Thebes see him, the man who had murdered his father and wedded his mother. Oedipus’s pain was unbearable and he wanted to quit the city in order to rid his house of the curse which he himself had uttered.
The Unbearable Torture in Body and Mind
When the attendant has completed his account of these events. Oedipus himself appears. He is now blind and suffering from indescribable agony, both physical and mental. The Chorus witnesses the horror of this sight and his “foul disfigurement”. Oedipus complains of a piercing torture in his mind as well as in his flesh. The Chorus says that such suffering as his must be borne twice: once in the body and once in the soul. The Chorus asks Oedipus who made him rob himself of his eyesight. Oedipus replies that, although Apollo had foretold the sins which have led to the present state of affairs, the act of self-blinding was Oedipus’s own. He had blinded himself because there was now no sight iri Thebes which he would like to see. He did not kill himself because he could not have faced his father and his mother in the realms of death. He had robbed himself of his eye-sight, and he would have liked to deprive himself of his power of hearing also.
Oedipus curses the benefactor who had saved his life as an infant instead of allowing him to die on Mt. Cithaeron. He deplores the fact that Mt. Cithaeron did not let him die when he had been taken there as an infant. He also bemoans the fact that Polybus had adopted him as his son and brought him up to suffer this evil. Oedipus recalls the incidents of his encounter with Laius’s party on the road and his unintentional murder of Laius. He recalls the incestuous relationship into which he had unknowingly entered with his mother, begetting children on a woman who had begotten him—father, brother and son; bride, wife and mother; all mixed up in a monstrous relationship, all human filthiness, resulting from the crimes he had committed. Oedipus would like to hide himself at some place or be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Oedipus’s Wish to be Banished
When Oedipus is thus lamenting his fate and accusing himself of unspeakable crimes, Creon enters. Oedipus humbly asks Creon, who is now the King in succession to Oedipus, to banish him from Thebes without delay. The instructions of the oracle are clear on this point, says Oedipus. He also entreats Creon to perform the appropriate funeral ceremonies in respect of the dead Queen who was Creon’s sister and who deserves a proper burial. As for himself, says Oedipus, he should be allowed to go to Mt. Cithaeron in order to die there. That was the place which his parents had chosen to be his death-bed, and he would go and die there in compliance with their desires. His life is not going to end in any natural manner; he has been preserved to endure some destiny even more awful than that which he is already enduring. He then appeals to Creon to look after his daughters who have nobody now to care for them.
His Grief Over the Sad Future of His DaughtersCreon has already arranged for Oedipus’s daughters to meet their father. Oedipus’s heart melts with love and pity when he hears his daughters sobbing close to him. He visualises the sorrowful future which is in store for the girls, the joyless days when nobody would show them any love or affection and nobody would marry them because of the scandal that will cling to their names because of their father’s misdeeds. Once again he asks Creon to look after his daughters, also repeating his request to Creon to banish him from Thebes.
The Painful Account of the Suicide and the Self-blindingThe account of Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’s self-blinding is extremely painful. There would hardly be a member of the audience witnessing this play in a theatre who can control his tears while listening to this sad account. The dramatist has done well in not presenting these two scenes of horror on the stage and in conveying this information to us through the speech of an attendant. These scenes would have been intolerable on the stage and would have made the play unduly melodramatic.
The Reason for the Self-blindingOedipus’s explanation as to why he has blinded himself is quite convincing. He would not like to see any sight in the city of Thebes, neither the people nor the buildings nor the happenings. This self- blinding seems, from one point of view, to be a punishment for the evil deeds committed by Oedipus even though the evil deeds were committed unintentionally and unknowingly. However innocent Oedipus may be so far as intentions are concerned, he is yet guilty so far as deeds are concerned. Two monstrous crimes have been committed by him, though in complete ignorance of the facts and in spite of every possible precaution taken by him to avoid committing them. Such deeds cannot go unpunished just because they were committed unknowingly. Ignorance of the implications of one’s deeds is only an extenuating circumstance, and no argument for a complete pardon. But the blinding serves one more purpose. The riddle of the Sphinx spoke of man feeble as a baby, man strong as a grown-up individual walking on two feet, and man feeble in old age. We have had Oedipus as a baby, and Oedipus as a grown-up man, a strong traveller walking on his two feet. We now need Oedipus old and enfeebled, but Oedipus is still a man in his prime and very strong. Only such a disastrous self-punishment can break him so that, within moments, he has turned into an old man who needs someone to lead him. So Oedipus has lived the three stages. The riddle of the Sphinx was the mystery of man. But it was specially the private mystery of Oedipus. In this sense, and perhaps in this sense only, Oedipus is Everyman. Another view may also be taken of this self- blinding. According to this view this blinding stands for the only logical self-punishment which in this case is tantamount to castration. The eyes are as precious to man as are the genitals. The man who committed incest with his mother deserved to be castrated. The blinding is a symbolic form of castration.
Various Factors in the Act of Self-blindingIn Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus tells his son that he blinded himself in a moment of frenzy and not from a sense of guilt. Perhaps no one reason for the self-blinding suffices, nor all of them put together. The action seems compounded of opposite elements:egotism and altruism, self-loathing and self-glorification. As an act of destruction, it shows man at his worst. To the extent that it was predetermined, it shows the gods at their worst. But as an act of freedom it shows man at his best, as an assertion of man’s ability to act independently of any god, oracle, or prophecy. Oedipus’s blindness was not required by the prophecy of Apollo. Nor was it demanded in the oracle’s instructions.
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Oedipus’s Heroic Dimensions as Depicted at the EndIn his final conversation both with the Chorus and with Creon, Oedipus shows some of those traits of his strong character with which he became acquainted in the earlier scenes of the play. For instance, when the Chorus scolds him for having made a bad decision in blinding himself, he replies with the old impatience and a touch of the old anger. He tells them not to preach a lesson to him or to give him any suggestion to the effect that he has not done the best thing. And he goes on to describe in detail the reasoning by which he arrived at the decision. Again, he insists, in the face of Creon’s opposition, that he be put to death or exiled from Thebes. He tells Creon that his own curse calls for his banishment or death and he sees no point in prolonging the matter. Creon finally does what Oedipus wanted to be done sooner: he exiles Oedipus from Thebes. Oedipus analyses in painful detail his own situation and that of his children. The old confidence in his own intelligence is very much there, although the extravagant hopefulness is gone. After his initial wish for death, he becomes sure that he is destined to live. He feels that he is in some sense too strong to be destroyed. His devotion to the interests of the city is still very keen. He is anxious that the terms of his own curse and the demand of the oracle be immediately and exactly fulfilled. This anxiety arises purely from his sense of the city’s need of release from the plague. The release can come only through the punishment of the murderer of Laius. It is in terms of the interest of the city that he states his desire for banishment. Oedipus shows also a great capacity to adapt himself to the change in his circumstances, and the process of his rapid adjustment to his blindness is well depicted. The adjustment is so successful that we find him arguing stubbornly with Creon. In short, Oedipus makes a remarkable and swift recovery in the last scene from the position of a non-entity to which he had been reduced by his discovery of his past sins. This recovery is autonomous, and it is the expression of a great personality. Thus the play ends with a fresh insistence on the heroic nature of Oedipus. The play ends as it began, with the greatness of the hero. But it is a different kind of greatness. This greatness is based on knowledge and not on ignorance as previously.