Damning and Redemptive
Aristotle famously said that “A man doesn't become a hero until he sees the route of his own downfall.” The tragic hero archetype is a fundamental concept in many of the most important literary works throughout history. This brand of hero possesses conflicting personality traits that are both damning and redemptive. This dynamic personality contrast within a single protagonist is presented remarkably well in Oedipus the King by Sophocles. Oedipus’s blinding hubris, error in judgement and potential to recognize such follies make him the ideal tragic hero.
The defining characteristic of Oedipus as a tragic hero is hubris. This foolish confidence is presented throughout his life as he fights against fate. In an attempt to defy the prophecy that he is destined to kill his parents, Oedipus leaves Corinth to spare the lives of Polybus and Merope. Ironically, this drives him toward Thebes and directly into the path of his true parents Laius and Jocasta. Oedipus’s intentions here are morally sound. His mistake is assuming that he has the capacity to change prophecy. He is too arrogant to understand that some circumstances may be beyond his control. Sophocles uses irony here to illuminate how Oedipus foolishly overestimates his own ability to alter the future. Oedipus’s character is meant to walk the fine line between lovable and loathsome to create empathy for him. His unhealthy self esteem is forgivable because his intentions are pure. This theme of Oedipus’s good intentions being overshadowed by blind arrogance is demonstrated once more in the scene where he attempts to summon the murderer of Laius. His intentions are to save the city of Thebes from a plague that ravages it. Oedipus claims that he suffers with the city. He truly empathizes with his people. But his ego has been further heightened after defeating the sphinx and becoming king. Ego will not allow him to comprehend that he has caused this suffering by killing Laius.
Error in judgement is one of the critical criteria which identifies Oedipus as a tragic hero. Within the tragic hero framework error in judgement always leads to a fall from grace for the hero. In the story of Oedipus every decision that he makes seems to be the incorrect choice. Although there are many terrible choices made leading up to it, perhaps Oedipus’s most fatal error in judgement is when he seeks to track down and decide the fate of Laius's murderer. Of course Oedipus is Laius’s murderer. Oedipus is cautioned by both the blind prophet and Jocasta to stop his inquiries but his arrogance will not allow him to heed these warnings. This leads to an unraveling of the truth behind Oedipus’s abandonment as a child and who his true parents are. At the climax of the story the shepherd reveals the true origins of Oedipus. Jocasta commits suicide upon hearing that Oedipus is her son. In that moment of revelation Oedipus goes from having the power of a king to having nothing. The final error in judgement of trying to find Laius's murderer completes the prophecy which Oedipus had tried so desperately to alter. This tragic mistake is made because of Oedipus’s hubris. It is necessary for him to experience the consequences in order to truly know himself. He has to hit rock bottom before he can transcend the ignorant vantage of himself and achieve self knowledge.
Oedipus’s ability to recognize his past flaws confirms that he is the ideal tragic hero. In the end of this play Oedipus finally redeems himself by acknowledging the error in his ways and exhibiting humility. “It was Apollo, friends, Apollo, that brought this bitter bitterness, my sorrows to completion. But the hand that struck me was none but my own. Why should I see whose vision showed me nothing sweet to see?” Here Oedipus submits to his new reality of shame and literal blindness. He does not blame the gods for his fate. He takes responsibility for what he has done when he says that he was struck by his own hand. He blinds himself with pins because now he knows that he was blind all along. He was blind to the truth of himself. It would seem that this moment of anagnorisis is tragic in that it happened too late for him or his parents to be saved. Instead, this moment, where Oedipus is apparently at his lowest, offers catharsis. Oedipus’s ability to convert to a wise and almost monk-like state with understanding of his past crimes is a redeeming quality that cements his position as a tragic hero.
The subtle contrasts within Oedipus’s character are what make him a timeless tragic hero.
The reader or watcher of this play is meant to relate to his flaws while he tip toes on the balance between right and wrong. This is what makes the tragic hero so moving. It is a relatable construct with which Sophocles hopes to impart the wisdom and importance of self knowledge. Oedipus is the perfect vehicle for conveying this message. His blind arrogance, poor decisions and eventual self recognition make him the ideal model of a tragic hero.