What's the Matter With You?

Ask a college freshman to define tragic flaw and he will likely tell you it's the Thing That's Wrong With You. It's the mistake you make. The Giant Oops from which there is no return. For many of us, it's the defect, the unforgivable aspect of a person that is our ticket to unbridled contempt for a fallen big guy.

But it doesn't have to be like this. Fatal flaw--hamartia--simply means limited vision. You don't know everything. Your story is missing pieces. It's an observation of what it means to be human, not a value judgment. But who doesn't love to watch a giant fall and then figure out why it was all the giant's fault anyway? Such is life in this western world full of morose, judgmental, and small-minded narcissists who feel threatened by genuine character.

I'm teaching Oedipus Rex right now, and today I asked my students to identify Oedipus's tragic flaw as they understood both Oedipus and the concept of tragic flaw. They concluded he is an egomaniac out to cheat fate. An inflated politician up to no good....

Their response intrigued me. They looked right past the prologue in which Sophocles sets up the good, compassionate nature of this king. Oedipus is a genuinely good and compassionate ruler who all his life tries to do what is best for the people around him. His flaw--his big mistake--is surrendering to the fear and self-pity that cause him to doubt the integrity and loyalty of Creon. His mistake is not his erotic passion for Jocasta or his attempt to save his adoptive parents the pain of a fulfilled prophecy.

Jocasta's suicide is wholly unnecessary. So is the gouging out of the eyes with brooches. All we can say to that is Yuck. Oedipus's mistake is his failing to think clearly. His limited vision makes him excessively emotional, so reason goes out the window. The real sorrow here is the failure to see Creon as the great man he is. Blindness is not an antidote to limited vision. Trust is.

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