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Literary Motif in Oedipus Rex

Literary Motif in Oedipus Rex

M. H. Abrams defines a literary motif as a “conspicuous element, such as a type of incident, device, reference, or formula, which occurs frequently in works of literature” (169). It is the purpose of this essay to expose the main literary motif present in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

Richard Lattimore in “Oedipus Tyrannus” makes the revelation concerning the most apparent motif in the tragedy:

. . . the drama belongs to the general story pattern of the lost one found. The lost one may be a lost husband, wife, brother, sister, or any close “philos,” thought dead far away but discovered to be present, unknown. A particularly popular variant has been the one that makes the lost one the lost baby or the foundling: the type to which Oedipus belongs (41).

This motif of the foundling is usually accompanied by certain features:

1. The child is noble

2. The child is unwanted and is put away

3. The child is rescued, and sometimes nursed by animals

4. The child grows up in the wilds

5. The child is finally recognized

6. The child is restored to its proper station (41)

Oedipus Rex, through a series of encounters, reveals one by one, most of the episodes included in the above elaboration of the motif. But rather than building up to a climax of good fortunes for the protagonist, there is a reversal toward catastrophe. In Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge, Charles Segal explains the decline of the protagonist:

The first three tests are, respectively, Oedipus’ meetings with Creon, Teiresias, and then Creon again. In each case he is pursuing the killer as someone whom he ass…

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…ises his brother-in-law for continuing to be masterly even in his blinded state: “Crave not mastery in all, /For the mastery that raised thee was thy bane and wrought thy fall.”


Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.

Benardete, Seth. “Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.” In Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Woodard. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.

Lattimore, Richard. “Oedipus Tyrannus.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex, edited by Michael J. O’Brien. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Transl. by F. Storr. no pag. new?tag=public

Tragic Flaws in Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King, Sophocles’ classical Greek tragedy, presents tragic flaw(s) as the cause of the near-total destruction of the life of the protagonist. This essay examines that flaw.

In his essay “Sophoclean Tragedy” Friedrich Nietzsche agrees that there is an “error” within the protagonist, but refrains from specifying exactly what it is:

The most pathetic figure of the Greek theatre, the unfortunate Oedipus, Sophocles takes to be a noble man called to error and alienation in spite of his wisdom, yet called too, in the end, through monstrous suffering, to radiate a magic power rich in a blessing which works even after he passes on. . . . these very actions attract a higher, magical circle of influences which ground a new world upon the rubble of the old (16-17).

Not all critics believe that there was “error” within the protagonist. Some critics, like Herbert J. Muller in his essay “How Sophocles Viewed and Portrayed the Gods,” believe that Oedipus had no tragic flaw, that he was an innocent victim of the gods:

Nor is there in Oedipus the King the deep sense of outrage that modern readers may feel. None of the characters, including the chorus, complains that Thebans are suffering for no fault of their own, in this plague sent by the gods; they simply assume that Thebes must be properly purified of its defilement. Although technically innocent, Oedipus accepts his “guilt”. . . .(56)

This reader, however, disagrees with the above critic, and agrees with Aristotle’s analysis. In his essay “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus the King,” E. R. Dodds takes the reader back to Aristotle in his consideration of this question of the flaw:

I shall take Aristotle as my starting point. . . . From the thirteenth chapter of…

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…clean Tragedy.” In Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Woodard. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Sophoclean Tragedy.” In Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Woodard. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.

Segal, Charles. Oedipus Tyrannus: Tragic Heroism and the Limits of Knowledge. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

“Sophocles” In Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. NewYork: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1984.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Transl. by F. Storr. no pag. new?tag=public

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