Rationalist and Fatalist view in Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex can be considered from two opposing perspectives, the rationalist and the fatalist. To the rationalist, it looks as if there is nothing to do with fate, and to the fatalist, it looks as if there is nothing of human will in the drama because everything is done by fate. It is true that the play is to a great extent a tragedy of fate.


The crucial events in the play seem to have been predetermined by fate or the gods. Human beings seem rather helpless in the face of the circumstances, which mold their destiny.

The saying "Character is fate" suggests that the events, success and happiness of our lives happen due to the type of our individual characters. This means that if we are corrupt, our destiny will be corrupt and if we are good our careers will most likely be good. In the case of king Oedipus, he suffers because he was proud, skeptical of fate, over-confident in his knowledge and actions, and in short, has the hamartia of "error of judgment" about himself and his fate.

The opponents of this view claim that 'Fate is character': they suggest that our success and happiness, and even our character, are all predetermined (fixed in advance) and therefore whatever type of 'character' we become (to use the dramatic term), we are made so by our predetermined destiny. This traditional idea of determinism was put into dramatic criticism by critics who would also like to view our real lives as controlled and decided by fate. They are fatalists, and in the eyes of their opponents, conservative and irrational. But, to those who read Oedipus Rex, the issue is not as simple as any cock-sure rationalist (people who believe that everything has a scientific explanation) might want to conclude without a second thought.

If we believe in the realistic or at least the probable nature of the myth of Laius and Oedipus, we will belong to the fatalist group of the arguers. If we believe in the forecasting of the destinies of King Laius and the forecasting of his son Oedipus as they are presented by the play, we must believe in the primary role of fate as the agent that controls and determines their lives, and thus their character is nothing but the unfolding of their respective destinies, and so is ours. According to the myth of Laius and his son Oedipus, the oracles of Delphi had told Laius that he would have a son who would kill him and marry his wife. But Laius begot a child anyway; perhaps fate had to have it that way. And even when Laius threw the child in the forest, the child grew up in another country, somehow came back, killed him and married his mother. And in the case of Oedipus, fate made him do what it had to, despite all his lifelong efforts to escape from that fate. Like his parents, Oedipus tried his utmost to avert a terrible fate. He fled from Corinth, determined never again to set eyes on his supposed father and mother as long as they lived. His wanderings took him to Thebes, the people of which were facing a great misfortune. King Laius had been killed by an unknown traveler (who was none other than Oedipus himself) at a spot where three roads met; the city was in the grip of a frightful monster, the Sphinx, who was causing a lot of destruction because nobody was able to solve the riddle which she had propounded. Oedipus was able to solve the riddle and thus put an end to the monster. As a reward for the service he had rendered to the city, Oedipus was joyfully received by the people as their King and was given Laius's widow as his wife. Thus, in complete ignorance of the identity of both his parents, he killed his father and married his mother. He performed these disastrous acts not only unknowingly and unintentionally, but also as a direct result of his efforts to escape the cruel fate which the oracle at Delphi had communicated to him. It is evident, then, that the occurrences which bring about the tragedy in the life of Laius, Oedipus, and Jokasta are the work of that mysterious supernatural power which may be called fate or destiny or be given the name of Apollo. This supernatural power had pre-determined certain catastrophic events in the life of these human beings. These human beings are even informed in advance that they will become the victims of certain shocking events; they take, whatever measures they can think of to avert those events; and yet things turn out exactly as the oracles had foretold them. Oedipus, the greatest sufferer in the play, has done nothing at all to deserve the fate which overtakes him. Nor do Laius and Iokaste deserve the fate they meet.

But if we think that the myth is an anthropomorphic construction of a fantastic story, and that the drama is Sophocles' imitation of that too faintly likely story, we will belong to the rationalist side of the dispute. This party of the disputants would say that all the circumstances of Oedipus's life are nothing but coincidences. It is very logical that a loyal servant gives a royal child to another shepherd, and it is also very likely that the shepherd offers it to his childless king. It is very likely that the child runs away when he hears rumors about his being born evil. And it is not unlikely that he happened to kill his own father and married his own mother out of sheer coincidence. Life is to a great extent influenced by chances, and mere chances cannot be taken to formulate theories. The case of Oedipus is one among millions of possibilities in the matrix of mathematical probability; even the fact that the prophecy came out to be true is due to coincidence. There are infinite cases of prophecies coming out to be false.

For supporting our arguments on the rational side of the debate, we can take a closer look at the character of Oedipus, the tragic hero of the play. Aristotle has expressed the view that the tragic hero is a man highly esteemed and prosperous who falls into misfortune because of some serious defect of character, or hamartia. Of course, there is no doubt at all about the essential goodness of Oedipus. He is an able ruler, a father of his people, an honest and great administrator, and an outstanding intellectual. His chief care is not for himself, but for the people of the state. The people look upon him as their savior, a man only short of being a god itself. He is adored and worshipped by them. He is also a religious man in the orthodox sense; he believes in oracles; he respects the bonds of family; and he hates impurity as well as impunity. Indeed, in the prologue of the play we get the feeling that Oedipus is an ideal king. That such a man should meet the sad fate which he does meet is, indeed, unbearably painful to us. Oedipus is, however, not a perfect man or even a perfect king. He does suffer from a hamartia that makes him liable to bring about the anger of the gods. He is hot-tempered, rash, and hasty in forming judgments. He is easily provoked, and even somewhat arbitrary. Even though in the beginning his attitude towards Teiresias is one of respect, he quickly loses his temper and speaks to the prophet in a highly insulting manner accusing both him and Creon of treason. His sentencing Creon to death shows his rashness and arbitrariness. All this shows that Oedipus is not a man of a flawless character, not a man completely free from faults, not an embodiment of all the virtues. His pride in his own wisdom is one of his glaring faults. His success in solving the riddle of the Sphinx seems to have further developed his inherent feeling of pride. No seer or prophet found the solution: this is Oedipus's boast. Pride and self-confidence induce him to feel almost superior to the gods. That is why, he tells the chorus that their prayer will be granted, when he enters at the end of the Parodos, without even realizing that they were praying to the gods. Moreover, under the Influence of Jokasta, he grows more skeptical of the oracles. Thus, there is in him a lack of true wisdom, and a failure of piety, and this lack and failure is an essential feature that brings about his own ruin. Now, it may be said that if Oedipus had not been hot-tempered, he might not have got entangled in a fight on the road and might not have been guilty of murdering his father. Similarly, if he had been a little more cautious, he might have hesitated to marry a woman old enough to be his mother. After all, there was no compulsion either in the fight that he picked up during his journey or in the act of his marriage with Jokasta. Both his killing his father and his marrying his mother may, thus, be attributed to his own defects of character. At the same time it has to be recognized that the pronouncements of the oracles were inescapable. What was foretold by the oracle must inevitably happen. Even if Oedipus had taken the precautions above hinted at, the prophecy was to be fulfilled. The oracle's prediction was unconditional; it did not say that if Oedipus did such and such a thing he would kill his father and marry his mother. The oracle simply said that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. What the oracle said, was bound to happen.

From the dramatist's point of view from the way he makes several characters emphasize in the dialogue, Oedipus is guilty of presumption and arrogance, disbelief and disregard of the gods and their oracles. From our modem point of view, Oedipus is a hit too careless of possibilities. He is not just a puppet but a free agent in his actions on the stage. Some of Oedipus's actions were fate-bound, but everything that he does on the stage, from first to last, he does as a free agent — his condemnation of Teiresias and Creon, his conversation with Jokasta leading him to reveal the facts of his life to her and to his learning from her the circumstances of the death of Laius, his pursuing his investigation despite the efforts of Jokasta and the Theban shepherd to stop him, and so on.

In short, both sides of the debate are equally strong. In spite of the evidence to prove Oedipus a free agent in most of his actions as depicted in the play, we cannot forget that the most tragic events of his life, like the murder of his father and his marriage with his mother, had inevitably to happen. Here the responsibility of fate cannot be denied. But the discovery by Oedipus of his crimes or sins is the result of the compulsions of his own nature. The real tragedy lies in this discovery, which is due to the traits of his own character. If he had not discovered the truth, he would have continued to live in a state of blissful ignorance and there would have been no tragedy. The character of Oedipus is the cause of his destiny from a rational point of view as well as Sophocles' ideas of punishment for the arrogant against the gods.