Major Themes in European Literature Term Paper

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  • Subject: Literature
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contemplated an individual's relationship with his or her environment. In Oedipus Rex and Antigone, Sophocles explores the relationship an individual has with the world and society. In each of these plays, Sophocles juxtaposes divinity and humanity and investigates the role of each within Theban society as well as looks into conflicts that arise when the laws of man conflict with divine laws. Through their narratives, Oedipus Rex and Antigone posit man is intended to serve others, including gods, and that they do not exist to be self-serving.

Oedipus Rex revolves around an eponymous anti-hero who by saving the city of Thebes from a Sphinx inadvertently and simultaneously brought forth a plague upon it. By defeating the Sphinx, Oedipus secured his place upon the Theban throne and as such was not only responsible for ensuring laws were abided, but was also responsible for protecting Thebes' citizens. Because of the plague that has befallen Thebes, its citizens turn to Oedipus for help as they contend he is a champion of the city and the gods. The citizens argue, "We have not come as suppliants to this altar/because we thought of you as God,/but rather judging you the first of men/in all the chances of this life and when/we mortals have to do with more than man" (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, p. 12). It is clear the citizens of Thebes regard Oedipus as a person of great power, divine and political, and that they hold him responsible for their overall well-being. Moreover, the citizens argue, "[You] are held/with God's assistance to have saved our lives," which further emphasizes how they look upon Oedipus and consider him to be someone that is not only their leader, but also as someone who has been graced by the gods (12).

Likewise, Oedipus accepts the responsibilities of a leader and protector of Thebes and does everything in his power to restore order. In order to figure out the best way to help Thebes, Oedipus dispatches his brother-in-law Creon "to Apollo/to his Pythian temple,/that he may learn there by what act or word / I could save this city" (13). By sending Creon to Apollo's temple, he recognizes that like all other men, he is subservient to the gods and he trusts they will be able to help him in his latest quest. While Oedipus does not recognize it at this point, his initial and failed attempt to circumvent a prophecy about himself and his father, further highlights the subservience of man to gods and demonstrates that divine power and supernatural machinations triumph over free will.

Additionally, Oedipus acknowledges that despite his past triumphs, he is not fully qualified to interpret Creon's message, thus prompting him to seek the advice of Tiresias, who like Oedipus, has demonstrated is a conduit for the gods. Oedipus implores, "My lord, in you alone we find a champion/in you alone one that can rescue us…We are in your hands; pains are most nobly taken/to help another when you have means and power" (22, 23). By pleading to Tiresias for help in deciphering Apollo's message, Oedipus demonstrates that men are not only subservient to gods, but that they are also subservient to other men based on status and ability.

By recognizing the importance and necessity of putting the needs of others before his own, Oedipus is transformed into a hero. Moreover, he is willing to sacrifice his well-being for the well-being of Thebes, and although it emotionally, psychologically, and physically pains him to correct his past wrongs, he does the right thing and leaves Thebes so that it can be restored to its former glory.

While Oedipus Rex looks into the subservient relationship of man and the gods, Antigone examines the repercussions of ignoring this relationship between man and the gods and of putting self-interest above the interests of others. In Antigone, three different power dynamics are presented. Like Oedipus Rex, Antigone explores the power dynamic between man and gods as well as the power dynamic between men based on their socio-political status. Additionally, a third power dynamic is introduced: the power dynamic between men and women. As Antigone discusses her intentions with Ismene, her sister, Ismene attempts to dissuade her by arguing, "You ought to realize we are only women/not meant in nature to fight against men,/and that we are ruled, by those who are stronger,/to obedience in this and even more painful matters" (Sophocles, Antigone, 163). Ismene's argument is interesting for a number of reasons. For instance, Ismene argues people should not do what is right, but rather holds individuals should do as they are told. Additionally, Ismene's argument introduces the concept that women are subservient to men because it is unnatural for women and men to be equal and because women are supposed to be subservient to those who are stronger than they are. The introduction of sex as a factor in determining an individual's role and position in the world allows the reader to understand power did not only come from gods or rulers, but was also based on sex.

However, because "[the] savage spirit of a savage father" showed itself in Antigone, she was adamant about doing what was right regardless of strength, whether bestowed by sex or social status (179). Also, Antigone is unwilling to accept that strength is a contributing factor in determining what is right and what is wrong. She contends that what is right is not always lawful, yet she is willing to risk her life to make sure both her brothers are given proper burials. Antigone claims, "I myself shall bury [Polynieces]. It will be good/to die, so doing…I shall be a criminal -- but a religious one" (163-164). Additionally, because of her family's past and what happened to her father, Oedipus, Antigone knows the consequences of attempting to defy the gods and the devastating ramifications that will be faced in the afterlife if certain divine rights are not performed and thus is possibly more willing to face the consequences of disobeying man's laws than face the consequences of disobeying divine law. This is further supported through her argument with Ismene as she states, "It is not for him to keep me from my own," which further asserts how Antigone views her place in the world (163). By claiming Creon does not have the power to keep her from her own, Antigone establishes that there is a higher power that must be obeyed.

Furthermore, when she is confronted by Creon about her disregard for his laws, Antigone expounds her position by stating, "[It] was not Zeus that made the proclamation;/nor did Justice, which lives with those below, enact/such laws as that for mankind. I did not believe/your proclamation had such power to enable/one who will someday die to override/God's ordinances, unwritten and secure" (178). Unlike Creon, Antigone understands that man is subservient to the gods above all else and it is not man's place, or in this case Creon's, to attempt to overthrow what is regarded as sacred. Antigone holds that man's laws only affect individuals while they are alive, whereas divine laws will affect an individual for eternity.

In Antigone, Creon, who has subsequently ascended the Theban throne, is more concerned with people submitting to him and his laws than the repercussions of him forcing Thebes to put aside long revered divine laws and traditions. Ultimately, Creon's manmade mandates, and the pressure put on Antigone to submit to them, cost Creon everything he has. His son Haemon commits suicide after Antigone hangs herself and Queen Eurydice also kills herself upon finding out Creon had the power to prevent these tragedies but refused to do so.

Through the analysis of power dynamics and the relationships between man and gods, the reader is able to understand how individuals viewed themselves in their society in relation to those that governed them and in relation to their religious beliefs. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is willing to do what is right even if it costs him his life, which is likewise echoed by Antigone in Antigone; unfortunately, Creon is unwilling to look beyond his desires to fully realize that what is needed is not necessarily what is wanted.

Part II

Anne Sexton's "Where I Live in This Honorable House of the Laurel Tree," although written in the 20th century, echoes themes found in Classical and Romantic poetry. In "Where I Live in This Honorable House of the Laurel Tree," Sexton attempts to provide a voice for Daphne, a nymph who in attempt to escape Apollo, was transformed into a laurel tree. Through the poem's narrative, Sexton incorporates the concepts of Eros, myth, and metamorphosis, in addition to transcendence to allow Daphne, the poem's inferred narrator, to voice her discontents.

The sorrow and lamentation felt by the unnamed Daphne in "Where I Live in This Honorable House of the Laurel Tree" is a consequence of being transformed from a free roaming nymph who was relentlessly pursued by Apollo, who, like many of the characters in Ovid's Metamorphoses,…

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