One of the most important questions surrounding Oedipus Rex’s tragic ending is whether or not the prophecy could have been averted. In the story, Teiresias, the blind prophet of the god Apollo, suggests that the prophecy is preordained and therefore inevitable. Indeed, all attempts to escape the prophecy only serve to bring it to fruition. Laius and Jocasta send their infant son away, only for him to be adopted by the Corinthian king and queen. When he grows up, Oedipus receives the same prophecy and flees from Corinth in the belief that Polybus and Merope truly are his parents. He ends up in Thebes, where he unwittingly kills his real father and marries his real mother. No matter what the characters do, their actions only propel the prophecy forward, even when those actions are intended to avert the prophecy.

The tragic themes of fatalism and determinism are one of the most important elements of Oedipus Rex. Fatalism is the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable in people’s lives; no matter what people do, the end result will be the same. In contrast, determinism is the belief that all actions and events result from past actions or events; people choose what they do based on what has already happened, but what they do affect what will happen. Is the unfolding of events in the story fatalistic or deterministic? Read one way, the story seems fatalistic because no mortals can defy fate, which can be defined as the will of the gods, an unopposable decree ritually revealed by the oracle at Delphi, who speaks for Apollo himself in mysterious pronouncements. Read another way, the story seems deterministic because the characters’ actions play necessary roles in fulfilling the prophecy, even if their actions are influenced by past actions and events. However, whether the story is fatalistic or deterministic, it seems that the tragedy cannot be avoided. In the former case, whatever the characters do, the end result will remain the same; in the latter case, what the characters do will contribute to the same end result.  Given that the story is fatalistic or deterministic, do the characters possess free will and are they morally responsible for their wrongdoings? It seems not, since there is nothing the characters can do to avert the prophecy; they are just victims of fate.

Another possible interpretation is that the characters in Oedipus Rex meet their tragic end because they exhibit the tragic flaw of hubris in challenging fate or attempting to subvert the will of the gods, suggesting that it is in principle possible for the characters to avert the prophecy. Upon receiving the prophecy, Laius, Jocasta, and later Oedipus exhibit hubris in attempting to change their fates. Despite the gods having decreed the damning prophecy, Oedipus might have been saved if he had believed that the will of the gods was absolute. Had Laius and Jocasta not attempted to defy Apollo’s prophecy, Oedipus would have been aware of his parentage. Armed with the truth, he might have prevented himself from committing the transgressions that he tried so hard to avoid. In this interpretation, the prophecy is a test of piety that Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus fail. The characters seem to have exercised their free will in their attempts to subvert fate and defy the will of the gods, and hence are deserving of punishment. This interpretation raises a paradox, however. Suppose the characters followed the will of the gods to the letter and allowed the prophecy to unfold. Would the prophecy be fulfilled or not? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the prophecy could not be averted even if the characters were pious. If the answer is ‘no’, then it would mean that the prophecy was false and the Delphi Oracle lied, which is unpalatable if not impossible. So, pious or not, the characters would still suffer the same fate. Hence, it is unreasonable to suppose that the characters possess free will and are morally responsible for their wrongdoings.

In yet another interpretation, it can be said that the prophecy inspired its own fulfillment or that Teiresias issued a self-fulfilling prophecy. Had Laius and Jocasta never been told about their son’s destined future, they likely would not have sent him away. Instead, Oedipus would have been raised with the full knowledge of his parentage. Whether this would have fully mitigated the prophecy or not is difficult to say. However, Oedipus would not have been able to fulfill it unknowingly, as he did in the story. Instead of solving the problem, this interpretation seems to push the paradox even further. Instead of asking whether Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus are free, morally responsible, or pious, these questions should be directed towards Teiresias instead. Even if the prophecy were a self-fulfilling one, Teiresias had to set it in motion in the first place. Interpreted this way, the prophecy is a deterministic rather than fatalistic one, since the characters’ actions are necessary for its fulfillment. The question now becomes: Was Teiresias free in issuing the prophecy or not? Would he be deemed impious in the eyes of Apollo if he chose not to issue the prophecy? Given his piety and knowledge that the prophecy must be set in motion, could Teiresias have acted otherwise? Once again, it seems inevitable that Teiresias should plant the seed of the prophecy and the other characters follow it through.

Is there any room for free will in Oedipus Rex? Perhaps there is some, but not much, definitely not enough to avert the prophecy. In the story, Oedipus fulfilled his terrible prophecy long ago, but unknowingly. His fate was sealed. It can be argued that Oedipus exercises free will in his decision to pursue the facts about his past, despite suggestions that he should not. Thus argued, Oedipus’ ruin comes not from his deeds but from his persistent efforts to uncover the truth, which reveals the true nature of those terrible deeds. Oedipus himself makes a different argument at the story’s end, when he says that his terrible deeds are fated, but that it is he alone who chose to blind himself. His argument is that while it is impossible to avoid one’s fate, how one responds to his fate is a matter of free will. Yet, one may still ask if Oedipus is indeed free to decide his actions. If Apollo possesses omnipotent knowledge, he should already know that Oedipus would blind himself. It is not too hard then to conceive of Apollo withholding this piece of information out of pity for Oedipus by preventing Teiresias from revealing that Oedipus’ act of blinding himself – like the act of killing his father and marrying his mother – is merely a part of an on-going prophecy.


To cite this article:
George Wong, "Fatalism, Determinism and Free Will in Oedipus Rex," in Paradigm, May 13, 2019, https://paradigm.suss.edu.sg/fatalism-determinism-and-free-will-in-oedipus-rex/.

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