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.
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