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Oedipus Wrecks

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on January 19, 2017
This article was updated on February 8, 2017

We all know the story of Oedipus Rex, sort of. The mythic Greek king who inadvertently kills his father, in an act of road rage, and marries his mother. None of this would’ve happened if they hadn’t tried to kill him first because an “entity” in a cave told them to. Sometimes there’s a fine line between classic literature and The Maury Show.

The name "Oedipus" comes from the Ancient Greek "Oidipous" meaning “swollen foot.” The story is best known from Sophocles’ tragic Theban plays—Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. Oedipus’ father, King Laius of Thebes, is scared of a prophesy that says he will be murdered by his son, so he leaves Oedipus to die on a mountainside. However, a shepherd finds the boy and raises him as his own. Oedipus later runs into his father, literally, and the rest is history. When he gets to Thebes, Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphynx, marries the queen (his mother Jocasta), who of course is now a widow. Later, he hunts for the person who murdered the old King. Oedipus eventually discovers that he is the guilty party he’s been seeking and, because the truth is too horrible to witness, he plucks out his own eyes. Sophocles is telling us that we can’t escape our fate, that we are often the cause of our own troubles, and that knowledge isn’t always liberating or pleasant.

Oedipus was such a compelling figure that Sophocles brought him to the stage for three separate plays. Aeschylus and Euripides explored this character as well. Julius Caesar composed a drama about Oedipus, Ovid gives him a walk-on in his Metamorphoses, and Seneca the Younger wrote a much different version of the story. English poet John Dryden appropriated the character for a drama in the 17th century, Oedipus was the name of Voltaire’s debut play, and contemporary Irish writer Frank McGuiness staged his own adaptation of the myth. In 1968 Ola Rotimi produced The Gods Are to Blame, transplanting the play to West Africa. He later published the work as a novel. Aside from the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of novels, stories and plays directly retelling Sophocles’ ur-myth, there are countless other narratives that reconfigure the story by exploring its central ideas. 

Here are eight of the best:

1. Hamlet (c. 1600)

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Shakespeare’s celebrated Scandinavian prince is twice-unoriginal. First, the name and story of Hamlet is based on Amleth, a character from the Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus in his 12th-century “heroic history” of the Danes. Second, Shakespeare superimposed much of Oedipus (and other sources) upon his tragedy. 

Fortunately, literary merit isn’t always judged on uniqueness; in fact, many of our greatest artworks build upon one another. So, the play begins with a dead father, a king. Hamlet—a prince, like Oedipus—doesn’t kill him, but he does want to kill his stepfather, the new king. He is, like Oedipus, both detective and guilty party. He also spends a lot of time prancing around his mother’s bedroom and frolicking in her bed. Denmark, like Thebes, is under siege. There’s no oracle in Hamlet, but Polonius acts like one, dispensing advice and prognostications every chance he gets. Hamlet can’t come to terms with everything he knows—wisdom is blinding and painful—especially his own role in the events. He doesn’t gouge his eyes, but he does consider suicide. Both plays end in a bloodbath and the main character’s uncle assuming the throne.

2. The Joy Luck Club (1989)

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Amy Tan’s first novel concerns mothers and daughters. The women of four Chinese-American families start a club dedicated to food, mahjong and story-telling. As the mothers and daughters play, gamble and eat, they tell stories about their life in China and America. These are tales of family, identity, hardship, joy, transformation, suffering and loss. One of the principal themes—typical of modern Oedipus stories—is the desire of young people to both break away from the past (history, family, traditional values) while also feeling inextricably bound to that past. 

Thus, Tan’s young women symbolically desire to murder their fathers but, like Hamlet, they cannot. They want to be individuals yet feel as if they must remain part of a family, society and culture. These women can neither escape the past nor move forward. The truth, they discover, is more complex than they’d imagined: none of us can be entirely individual or completely isolated.

3. Fathers and Sons (1862)

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From mothers and daughters to, well, you get the point. Turgenev’s novel is about Arkady, a nice middle-class boy who comes home from college with his friend Bazarov. Like many recent graduates today, Bazarov is self-righteous, didactic and annoying, but he’s not preaching weed, recycling or vegetarianism. He’s been converted to nihilism. Like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Fathers and Sons explores the progressive ideas percolating in late-19th-century Russia. 

The conflict here is between father and son, old beliefs and new ideas. Arkady and his father, Nikolai, disagree about politics, economics and the future of Russia. Nikolai has also married a servant girl, Fenechka. She’s young—Arkady’s age—which creates oedipal tension. Arkady wants to be a hip radical like Bazarov, who rejects bourgeois society, but he can’t forsake conventional ideas and thereby “kill” his father. In the end, Bazarov dies and Arkady becomes a nobleman. Like Oedipus, he can’t evade his destiny.

4. Things Fall Apart (1958)

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Chinua Achebe’s debut, written in English, was one of the first African novels to find a worldwide audience. Set at the turn of the century, Things Fall Apart serves as a history of modern Nigeria, an examination of the Igbo people, and an attack on colonialism. The novel’s hero, Okonkwo, is primarily concerned with one thing, to be better than his father—who, he assumes, was nothing but a weak, cowardly, idle debtor. Okonkwo gains wealth, status and strength, but, like Oedipus, he’s not as smart as he thinks he is. 

Achebe’s story is so oedipal it even has a cave-dwelling oracle! In a reversal of Sophocles’ myth, Okonkwo, the son, represents traditional ideas. He rebels against the new ways—Europe, Christianity, and imperialism. He not only slays his father, by renouncing him, but literally kills a white man, one of his new colonial “fathers.” Eventually, Okonkwo has an epiphany about how misguided he’s been. Rather than poke his eyes out, he hangs himself (like Oedipus’ mother and Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia). Because of this, he’s considered an abomination, even worse than his father. No matter how hard he tried to escape his fate, Okonkwo ended up just like his old man.

5. “Barn Burning” (1939)

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Like Things Fall Apart, Faulkner’s short story was composed at midcentury, but set 50 years earlier. The main character is a young boy, Sarty, whose father Abner is a shiftless, violent man who burns down barns. Faulkner makes the oedipal textures clear—Sarty is the protagonist and Abner is the bad-guy. Sarty knows that his father’s behavior is wrong, but he’s reluctant to tell the authorities. The truth is too painful to bear. When he tries, Sarty feels the “pull of blood”—the fact that he’s his father’s son makes it almost impossible to transgress his authority. 

In the conclusion, however, Sarty warns someone that his father is barn-burning, which leads to Abner getting shot. Faulkner’s twist on the oedipal story: after indirectly killing his father, Sarty actually feels better.

6. The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

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Holden Caulfield is an oedipal Olympian. He doesn’t want to metaphorically kill his father; he wants to get rid of all the grown-ups. He rejects everything about the adult world—responsibility, compromise, the past, family, society. School, work, status, rules. As with Peanuts, we never actually see the parents. This is a novel of solipsism, solitude, soliloquy and asides, Hamlet in Manhattan. 

Everyone’s a criminal, according to Holden, a phony and a faker. He’s obsessed with discovering the truth and has no sympathy for liars, but he’s constantly lying. Holden wanders through the city looking for answers, haunted by the ghost, not of his father, but of his dead brother Ally. He gets advice from an old teacher, Mr. Antoloni, who’s the novel’s oracle/Polonius figure. In the dénouement, Holden is at a mental facility, disturbed by the realities of life. We don’t know what he’s done to get here, but a suicide attempt is a good bet.

7. “Daddy” (1960)

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Many of Plath’s poems are oedipal, but we’ll deal with just one. In “Daddy” the oedipal textures are hardly covert. The title, first of all. The obsessive repetition of shoe, foot, toe, dancing, stamping—remember, Oedipus means “swollen foot.” The line “Daddy, I have had to kill you”—that’s a dead giveaway. 

There’s also a reference to self-harm. And just like the tragic Greek hero, Plath “adores” her father despite the fear and anger. This is a classic oedipal conflict; you want to honor the father and murder him at the same time. She also compares him to Frankenstein and a Nazi: the Plaths could’ve used family counseling.

8. Star Wars (1977)

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This one’s pretty self-evident, too. Luke Skywalker literally kills his father and fools around with his sister. Obi-Wan is, like Tiresias from Oedipus, a blind man who “sees,” providing help and insight. Luke is raised by simple rural people who aren’t his parents. He has riddles to work out, thanks to Yoda. There are mythological creatures. And as far as I recall, they both feature wookiees co-piloting spaceships. Star Wars is a movie, I know, but maybe it was based on a book. If not, I’m sure there’s a serialization.

The basic elements of the oedipal conflict are simple and universal. That’s why we find them in so many stories, regardless of time period, culture, gender, language, genre or artistic style. And it’s why Freud used the story to illustrate one of the seminal issues of human development. We are all inseparably attached to family and history but, at the same time, we long to break free and forge our own identities. Since this paradox cannot be resolved in our lives, it must be played out within the confines of art. The oedipal struggle is pivotal to human beings people and, therefore, to story-telling.  

Freelance writer (food, drinks, books, travel, music, film) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, ... Show More