Vision and Blindness in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex

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Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King, is rightfully known as one of the most significant tragedies of the classical literature of ancient Greece. Dealing with the topics of responsibility for one’s actions and the mortals’ ability to discern the often mysterious will of the gods, the tragedy follows the fate of the titular ruler of Thebes. As Oedipus uncovers the dreadful truth of his patricide and the resulting divine punishments, the symbolism of vision and blindness comes up more and more. The blind prophet Teiresias, who launches the sequence of the events that lead to the king’s self-mutilation and banishment, proves to be capable of seeing the true nature of the events. In contrast, the perfectly healthy Oedipus cannot see the chain of events leading to the gods’ disfavor until it is too late. It demonstrates that, within the course of the tragedy, vision is more than just a physical attribute. It symbolizes the ability to see the truth, which is more important than intact eyes, and the absence of which serves as Oedipus’ tragic flaw that makes his fate a fitting punishment for his transgressions.

The issue of vision and blindness appears first in the titular hero’s conversation with Teiresias, a blind prophet hired to explain why the Olympian gods are looking at Thebes in disfavor. The angry king mocks the old man by highlighting his blindness as a sign of weakness and claiming he “can never injure [Oedipus] or any man / who can glimpse daylight” (Sophocles, n.d., lines 450-451). Yet, by that point, the prophet has already stated the source of his strength, which has nothing to do with physical attributes. When the king becomes engaged after Teiresias’ accusation of being the reason for the divine punishment, the latter does not flinch at the sight of royal anger. On the contrary, he remains calm and composed and proclaims: “The truth / within me makes me strong” (Sophocles, n.d., lines 424-425). This passage is crucial because it highlights the difference between vision as a physical attribute and the ability to see things clearly in a metaphysical sense. Teiresias has no eyesight but possesses the knowledge of the truth, and this alone makes him far more aware of the situation than the clear-eyed Oedipus.

In contrast, the king of Thebes, while fully endowed with all human senses, proves unable to understand what is clear to the blind Teiresias. While he mocks the old prophet for being unable to injure, the latter is quick to answer that Oedipus, for all his physical perfection, cannot grasp even the basic truths about himself and his household. It is expressed with the greatest clarity in the lines “you have your eyesight, and you do not see / how miserable you are, or where you live” (Sophocles, n.d., lines 496-497). Once again, the ability to see is more than a physical vision usually understood under the term – rather, it is the capability to discern and understand important truths. After that, Teiresias’ prophecy about Oedipus losing the eyesight that he now boasts is based on a solid foundation (Sophocles, n.d.). In this scene, Oedipus is blind despite having the gift of sight, which Teiresias sorely lacks. The inability to see the truth that is right before his eyes – and, thus, properly understand the will of gods – is his blindness.

The second episode, when the theme of blindness arises, is the scene when Oedipus, blinded himself, bemoans his lot as he prepares to leave his city and his children. On a surface level, his act may seem like a purely emotional drive to inflict physical suffering upon himself in order to atone, at least to a degree, for his deeds. This, for example, may be seen in the passage where the character cries in anguish: “why should I have eyes / when nothing I could see would bring me joy?” (Sophocles, n.d., lines 1585-1586). Since Oedipus committed a grave crime, he does not deserve joy in his life, which is why he deprives himself of his kingship and political community and his eyesight. However, this explanation does not answer a fairly obvious question of why the accursed king does not simply kill himself. Even the chorus suggests that it is “better to be dead than alive and blind” (Sophocles, n.d., line 1614). This is most certainly an option, as demonstrated by Jocasta, but Oedipus does not opt for it.

The answer is that blinding oneself is more than just an attempt to inflict suffering and pain – it is a punishment that is symbolically appropriate for Oedipus’ lack of acuity. Like any character in a Greek tragedy, the king of Thebes has a tragic flaw that, with logical inevitability, leads him to his sorry fate. As mentioned above, Oedipus’ flaw is failing to perceive and understand the dreadful nature of his situation, even though he could have easily done so by talking to several key witnesses, including Jocasta. The latter herself unintentionally highlights that discerning the truth is not particularly hard because “Whatever gods intend to bring about, / they themselves make known quite easily” (Sophocles, n.d., lines 872-873). With this in mind, Oedipus’s self-inflicted punishment becomes symbolically fitting. If his goal was to make himself suffer, he could injure himself in any way, but he removes the organ that corresponds to his tragic flaw – the inability to see what is right in front of him. At the end of the tragedy, the king, whose downfall was the lack of foresight, pays for it with his sight.

Thus, the theme of blindness and sight permeates Oedipus Rex and signifies that the actual ‘sight’ is not a physical capacity but the ability to see the truth, which the titular character proves unable to. It is the first time that Oedipus summons the prophet Teiresias to consult the latter about the problems befalling Thebes. While the old prophet is literally blind, he has a better understanding of things because he can see the truth, which gives him strength. In contrast, Oedipus, whose eyesight is as good as ever and who even mocks the visually impaired old man, is unable to see the writing on the wall. It ultimately backfires on him when he learns the dreadful truth of his father’s death and his own marriage, after which the accursed king pokes his eyes out. This self-mutilation is not merely an attempt to inflict suffering on oneself but a symbolically fitting punishment for blindness as the inability to see the truth that was right before Oedipus’s eyes.


Sophocles. (n. d.). Oedipus the King. Saint Louis Public Schools. Web.