Comparison/Contrast “Oedipus-Rex” and the “Metamorphosis”
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In dramatic irony, the audience is more aware of the character’s situation than the character himself. It involves a naive hero whose understanding of his surroundings is opposed to what is truly happening to him or her. What makes this ironic is that the author is creating a deluded main character in order to make the audience more aware of his reality. In both Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis this method is used in order to create an ironic world for their hero, where neither Oedipus nor Gregor are fully informed of their tragic standing in their world. The use of dramatic irony in both of these works of literature is what leads to the main character’s tragic end. In the Metamorphosis, Gregor never finds out the truth, arousing pity for the audience, while Oedipus does, which makes Frank Kafka’s novel even more tragic and ironic than Oedipus-Rex.
In order to state that Gregor Samsa’s story is more tragic than Oedipus’, one has to define what tragedy means. According to the official Online Dictionary tragedy is a “drama where the protagonist is overcome by some superior force or circumstance; excites terror or pity” (http://onlinedictionary.datasegment.com/word/tragedy). The story of Gregor “excites” in the reader, dread, horror, and a sense of misfortune due to his circumstance. Gregor Samsa was at first a spineless salesman who was exploited by his family and one morning, turns into a vermin. Although Gregor feels shame for being a burden, he does not realize the reality of his situation: he does not realize that his family hates him. In Gregor’s last breaths, he reflects upon his life and “thought back on his family with deep emotion and love” (Kafka, 54). Gregor has the illusion that his family still loves him regardless of his state, when in reality it is the opposite. Even the family member he most admires, his sister Grete, despises him, “It has to go…this animal persecutes us, drives the roomers way, obviously wants to occupy the whole apartment and for us to sleep in the gutter” (Kafka, 52)
The irony of Grete’s statement is that Gregor is utterly alone in his world: the person he loves the most from his family is disgusted by him. Oedipus the King also suffers a tragic downfall: at first he is a loved and respected king who finds out he has committed two treacherous crimes; he has killed his father and has married his mother. While Gregor was never loved by his family, Oedipus was cherished by his people and was claimed to be the savior of Thebes. When Oedipus realizes his sins, he still has the support of the city of Thebes, “He solved the famous riddle with his brilliance, he rose to power, a man beyond all power.”(Sophocles, 251). Even though the Chorus knows what Oedipus did, they still admire his wit for solving the Sphinx’ riddle. Oedipus receives help and reassurance from the Chorus, while Gregor is unable to have a mutual loving relationship with anyone in his life.
The story of Oedipus and Gregor begin at their downfall, where Oedipus has already committed his crimes, and Gregor has already “metamorphosized” into an insect. Gregor Samsa leads a tragic life throughout the novel, since his family’s behavior rapidly changes from indifference to disgust. Gregor’s answers are very obvious but he is unable to decipher the clues. He has the means to wake up and realize his family does not want him and does not care about him. Even in the beginning of the novel, one is shown a family who only worries about Gregor because he is not working and making money for them, “Gregor…the manager has come and wants to be informed why you didn’t catch the early train” (Kafka, 10). Gregor Samsa does have the brains and tools to find out the truth about the circumstances of his life and what revolves around it, but he does not mostly out of forced denial. This would show ultimate irony, since Gregor’s truth is facing right in front of him, and yet he does not realize it.
On the other hand, Oedipus does not have the tools to find out himself the truth about his life since he was uninformed since birth. He thought he had a different mother and father which is what makes him unable to prevent his actions. Oedipus’ situation is also ironic; he curses the man who killed Laius while he was the one who did the deed in the end. He does though; find out that he cursed himself at the end of the play. Although Oedipus cannot find out by himself his sins, he gets help from the Chorus and other characters in the play to find out that he killed his father and married his mother. On the other hand, Samsa does not awaken from his delusion, where his situation worsens as the days pass by. Although Gregor can find out himself, Kafka chooses to never let him know the truth, making it a more tragic work of literature. Oedipus never ceases to have love and respect from his people even after they find out about his deeds. What differs Oedipus’ situation from Gregor’s is that Oedipus the King uses other people as tools to find out that he killed his father and married his mother, while Gregor is an isolated figure.
In literature, there is always an audience, whether it is the reader him/herself or represented with a Chorus. Sophocles uses the Chorus as the audience, or the people of Thebes, while in Franz Kafka’s novel, the reader is the audience. Although the Chorus is biased towards Oedipus and admires him, they are aware of Oedipus’s actions. The Leader of the Chorus is the one who knows even more than the people of Thebes, who try to lead his King to the path of enlightenment. When Oedipus makes the irrational assumption that Creon is a traitor, the Leader of the Chorus advises Oedipus to be more level-headed, “Those who jump to conclusion may go wrong” (Sophocles, 194). The Leader is leading Oedipus to the truth by advising him to be ponderous and patient. Gregor Samsa is not lucky enough to have someone advise him; he has to find out about the awful truth by himself, which he never does find out about.
The irony in Gregor’s situation is that the Samsa family’s attitude towards their son and brother worsens throughout the novel, which Gregor is unable to become conscious of. Sophocles and Franz Kafka create this deluded character, which is far too naive to see that he is either a sinner or disliked by his family. The audience is being flattered by these authors since they intend to show the reality of the characters and purposely hide it from protagonists. In a tragedy, the heroes are pitied by the audience. In the Metamorphosis, one cannot help but feel sorry for this man who was dehumanized by his work and family, loses his job, produces disgust to his family, and later dies with no remorse from the Samsa family. The reader feels sorrow for this dehumanized man who is incapable of having any type of normal life, “There he stayed the whole night, which he spent partly in a sleepy trance, from which hunger pangs kept waking him with a start, partly in worries and vague hopes”(Kafka, 23).
In Sophocles’ play, the hero is a respected king where one focuses primarily on his sins and his preordained destiny. In the Metamorphosis one feels helpless just like Gregor since one is unable to enlighten and inform him of his reality. One feels pity for him because his family is abominable. In Oedipus-Rex, one already knows the future of Oedipus and is aware that he will find out about his sins yet one does not empathize with him as much because he is not alone; he has the chorus. When he leaves the city of Thebes, filled with shame, he still has the respect of his people “Pitiful, you suffer so, you understand so much…I wish you had never known”. (Sophocles, 241) The city of Thebes understands and sympathizes with Oedipus, while Gregor receives no sympathy at all.
One asks oneself, after reading Metamorphosis and Oedipus-Rex, whether it is better to live in ignorance or with the knowledge of what one’s actions have meant. In Oedipus-Rex, Sophocles claims is better to “die than be alive and blind”. (p. 242). Gregor dies as he lived; blind, making his death irrelevant. On the other hand, Oedipus goes on living informed about what he has done and chooses to leave his previous life. What is so tragic about Gregor’s death is that he simply dies, “without his consent” (Kafka, 54) for a false cause. He does not die because he finds out that his family dislikes him, but because he feels sorry for them and the burden he is causing them. In Oedipus-Rex, although the main character goes through a horrible shame, killing his father and marrying his mother, he find out about his deeds in the end of the last act. Many may argue that it is his realization that makes it more tragic, but by knowing his situation, Oedipus is portrayed as a hero. Kafka does not change Gregor’s destiny and never lets him find out about the actuality of his life.
What makes Gregor’s story so tragic is the aftermath of his death. His family leaves the apartment he worked so hard to maintain, and get into a car to enjoy a day together as a family. The Samsa’s realize after closer examination, “that they weren’t bad at all” (Kafka, 58). Gregor’s death has unified the family and has made them realize that now they are able to start a normal life again. This is the ultimate use of dramatic irony: Gregor will never know about his family’s reflection since he is dead. In Sophocles’s play, Oedipus never kills himself, but in the end blinds himself with the buttons of his wife and mother’s dress, Jocasta, and banishes himself from Thebes. Although his end is quite tragic, Sophocles portrays him as the ultimate hero: he takes action and punishes himself for the sins he committed, “I have been saved for something great and terrible, something strange”. (Sophocles, 247). What Oedipus is saying is he was saved from a life of complete ignorance but at the same time saved from a great life where he would have continued reigning as a respected, yet blinded man.
Sophocles uses dramatic irony until the last scene, when Oedipus finds out about his preordained destiny, while Kafka never lets Gregor find out the truth of his family’s feelings towards him. Gregor suffers throughout the entire novel, where he is transformed into a vermin due to the exploitation of his life, which leads to his tragic end: blinded death. Gregor Samsa dies as a vermin, alone and in agony, with an altered perception of his family. Therefore, Gregor’s heartbreaking end produces profound pity for the reader, making it a quintessential ironic and tragic work of literature. In Oedipus-Rex, the king of Thebes is unaware of one of the greatest shames to man: he is the murderer of his father and husband of his mother.
Oedipus realizes and accepts his sinful actions, with the help of various characters in the play, including the Chorus. Oedipus is portrayed as a courageous hero who assumes his role as a sinner, blinds himself, and leaves his city. He is a king who takes action for his faults since he does not want to cause pain for anyone else except himself. Sophocles and Franz Kafka use an uninformed hero, their main character, as an example of tragedy. Both of the works of literature contain dramatic irony, which is when the audience is more aware of the hero’s situation than the main character himself. Oedipus and Gregor lead a life of ignorance, where one ultimately learns and accepts his reality, while the other dies in the dark.