Study Guide

Oedipus the King Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Sophocles

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Eyes, Vision, and Blindness

Sophocles certainly wasn't shy about the motif of sight vs. blindness. If you've got way too much time on your hands, go through the play and highlight words like "see," "sight," "vision," "eyes," and "blind." Since this motif is symbolic of the pursuit of "knowledge," you can go ahead add that word, along with terms like "oracle," "truth," "prophecy," and "Apollo," since he's the god that represents all these ideas. The Oracle of Shmoop predicts that your highlighter will run out of ink, and your script will end up looking like a neon patchwork quilt.

Though this motif of seeing and not seeing is laced throughout the beginning of the play, it first becomes crystal clear when the prophet Teiresias hobbles on stage. If one of Sophocles' ancient audience members missed the irony in this episode, he must've visited the wine stand a few to many times. Teiresias is literally blind, but he can see clearly the horror that is Oedipus' past, present, and future. Oedipus' eyes work just fine, but unfortunately he's completely blind to the dreadful fate the gods have placed upon him. The doomed king's ignorance on this key matter is made even more ironic by the fact that he was made famous for his keen insight, by solving the riddle of the Sphinx.

When Oedipus finally sees the terrible truth of his life, Sophocles hammers home his metaphor by having the king stab out his own eyes. Oedipus says he does this because he can no longer look on the horrors that his unwitting actions have created. With this most famous of gougings, Oedipus literally becomes the thing he's always metaphorically been: blind. At the end of the play, Oedipus becomes symbolic of all of humanity, stumbling forward through a dark and unknowable universe.

The Scars on Oedipus’ Feet

When Oedipus was three days old, his parents received a prophecy saying that he would one day kill his father. So, they pierced and bound his feet and sent him off to be abandoned on a mountainside. Oedipus survived the incident, but was left with scars on his feet. In fact, his name in Greek translates to "swollen foot."

Oedipus' scarred feet are more than a little symbolic. They highlight the fact that he has been marked for suffering from the moment of his birth. This expounds upon Sophocles' idea that humans have no power in face of the gods. For some mysterious reason, Oedipus has always been damned, and there's not much he can do about it.

The scars also highlight the irony of Oedipus' ignorance. Although his name blatantly points attention to his scarred feet (which are the keys to discovering his identity), Oedipus doesn’t realize his true identity until it’s too late. This one's on Jocasta as well. You'd think she might she might have clued in to Oedipus' name long ago and asked him how he got it.

The Crossroads

Oedipus killed his father, Laius, at a place where three roads meet. A fateful decision made at a crossroads, huh? We detect symbolism. Oedipus could've run into his father anywhere along the Theban Way, but instead Sophocles specifically places the confrontation at a three-way intersection.

Crossroads are a traditional symbol of choice in literature. Makes sense, right? You come to an intersection and you have to decide which way to go. It's probably pretty easy to see how such a place could represent all the moments of choice in our life. In a way, every second in one's life is a tiny little crossroad. Every small choice we make affects our future in someway.

Of course, Oedipus' fate has been predetermined from birth. For their own mysterious reasons the gods have decided that it's necessary for Oedipus to have a tragic life. Oedipus does make a fateful choice at the crossroads, but it is one that he was predestined to make. Perhaps the highly religious Sophocles is trying to show how all the seemingly free choices we make in life are really programmed into us by higher powers.

It's interesting that Sophocles makes it specifically a three-way crossroads. (Why not four or five?) The fact that it's three is reiterated several times in the play, so there's a good chance it has some larger significance. There's not a lot of scholarship on this particular detail, but we have a theory: the three roads represent past, present, and future.

The Greek goddess of the crossroads, Hecate, was said to have three heads. Each head looked down a different path – one saw the past, one the present, and one the future. Though Hecate isn't mentioned in the play, perhaps the three-way crossroads in Oedipus the King has a similar symbolism. This idea is pretty darn consistent with themes of fate in the play. Oedipus is being pushed along by the irreversible flow of time.

Also, note that Oedipus was three days old when his parents abandoned him. Is there some connection between this and the junction of three roads? What do you think?