A Comparative Tragedy Study of Fatalism and Determinism: Oedipus Rex and Thunderstorm Essay

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A Comparative Tragedy Study of Fatalism and Determinism: Oedipus Rex and Thunderstorm

The Thunderstorm and Oedipus Rex, the representatives of Chinese and Greek play, both tell tragic stories about incest and unexpected destiny. The two masterpieces reveal much about the literature patterns and philosophical implications of the different cultures. The exploration of the two plays could help further understand the oneness of world literature and the tragedy of unlike culture. This paper will compare two famous tragic dramas—Oedipus Rex and The Thunderstorm to analyze the similarities and differences in terms of the tragic themes—fatalism and determinism.

The process of textual analysis will be associated with the basic literature theory of tragedy and philosophy. Over the centuries, Oedipus Rex, which is a famous Greek drama written by one of three ancient Greek tragedians Sophocles, has come to be regarded as the Greek tragedy par excellence. It chronicles the story of Oedipus, a man who becomes the king of Thebes and was destined from birth to murder his father Laius and marry his mother Jocasta. The play is an example of a classic tragedy, noticeably containing an emphasis on the power of oracle on human destiny and how Oedipus’s own flaws contribute to the tragic hero’s downfall. The Thunderstorm is written by renowned Chinese playwright Cao Yu, often regarded as China’s most important play of the 20th century.

The subject matter of The Thunderstorm is the complex relationships between the members of two households, centering on the Zhou family’s psychological and physical destruction as a result of incest, as perpetrated at the hands of its morally depraved and corrupt patriarch. It is considered to be one of the most mature and popular plays in contemporary China. In this paper, the theory being used and the previous study of the two plays will be first presented in the literature review. In the main part of my analysis, I will compare the two plays from the perspective of the contraction between fatalism and determinism. From the analysis of two dramas, we could examine some similarities and differences in the tragic topics. Both Oedipus Rex and The Thunderstorm concern the fatalism and determinism in the tragedy themes; however, they lay different stress on the two topics. 2.


One of the most important studies of tragedy is Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle states that “A tragedy, then, is an artistic imitation of an action that is serious, complete in itself, and of an adequate magnitude.” (2) The magnificence of tragedy can be revealed in different aspects, and the tragic theme that considers fatalism and determinism of protagonists is one of the most important elements. The dispute between fatalism and determinism has been long lasting in the development of tragedy study. Fatalism is one of the most eternal themes of tragedy in general. It is the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable in person’s life. Determinism is the belief that all actions and events result from other actions, events, or situations, so people cannot in fact choose what to do, which is a creation of Hellenistic thought (Dodds 42).

Homeric heroes have their predetermined “portion of life” and they must die for some predetermined reason, but it never occurs to the poet or his audience that this prevents them from being free agents. As Bernard Knox put it, “the gods know the future, but they do not order it. (122)” Concerning fatalism and determinism, previous scholars have done many researches on the two plays. Martin Kallich (1966), in his article “Oedipus: From Man to Archetype,” interprets the philosophical theme of Sophocles’ play as a mild agnosticism or neutral fatalism. Oedipus, he declares, behaves normally, commits an error in ignorance, and brings suffering upon himself. However, he fails to include the religious belief in his essay to give a full view of the tragic spirit of Oedipus Rex.

From another perspective, E. Lefèvre and A. Schmitt (2007), in the article “Interpretation of Oedipus Rex” argues that the old and popular formula that Oedipus is “guiltlessly guilty” is untenable, and they propose instead that his fall results from his behavior—his wrong behavior—brought about by passion. However, they mainly discuss from their own understanding and fail to employ strong tragedy theory to support their viewpoints. Foreign scholars do not conduct many researches on The Thunderstorm. Nevertheless, Chinese scholars have looked deeply into this drama. Both Xin Xianxi (1981) and Wang Linlin (2009) argue that Cao Yu is strongly influenced by the traditional Greek tragedy and Christianity religious belief so that the play has mystical idea of fate, which adds to the impressiveness of the play. However, they fail to take the social background into account when analyzing the tragic spirit of The Thunderstorm.

Wan Ping (2010) classifies the tragic spirit of The Thunderstorm into three different categories: the tragedy of love, fate and personality and all the tree aspects of the play make it an intense plot and dramatic artistic effect. Also, he doesn’t consider the social background, which is important part of the play. From the above, we could see that the two plays are well studied by western and eastern scholars. Yet, not so many researchers discuss the similarities and differences between this specific two plays or even the Greek and Chinese drama in general. 3. ANALYSIS OF TRAGIC THEMES: FATALISM AND DETERMINISM

The conflicts between fatalism and determinism are fully presented in the two plays, which can also be called the god-made tragedy and human-made tragedy. However, the two holds different proportion of two elements—Oedipus Rex putting more emphasis on fate, while The Thunderstorm underlining the importance of human factors. 3.1 Analysis on Oedipus Rex

3.1.1 The Voice of Fate
Oedipus Rex has been almost universally regarded as the classic example of the “tragedy of fate.” Sir Maurice Bowra’s idea that the gods force on Oedipus the knowledge of what he has done strongly supports the idea of fatalism (390).Through his priests at Delphi, Apollo told Laius that he would be killed by his own son, and later told Oedipus that he would kill his father and marry his mother. At the beginning of the play Apollo tells Creon that Thebes will be saved from the plague only when the murderer of Laius is found and expelled. Although everyone in this play try to do something to avoid the realization of the oracle, in the end, everything comes true. Its power was based on a widespread, indeed in early time’s universal belief in the efficacy of divine prophecy. Sophocles himself also believes in this point: Unless these prophecies all come true

for all mankind to point toward in wonder…
They are dying, the old oracles sent to Laius,
Now our masters strike them off the rolls.
Nowhere Apollo’s golden glory now—
The gods, the gods go down. (Sophocles 989-97)

When chose as the subject of his story about a man who tried to avoid the fulfillment of a prophecy of Apollo, Oedipus believes he had succeeded and casts scorn on all the oracles, only to find out that he had fulfilled that prophecy long ago. The voice of destiny in the play is the oracle of Apollo and Oedipus, to some extent, is the innocent victim of a doom which he cannot avoid. 3.1.2 Hamartia and Loyalty

To the rationalist critics of the eighteenth century and still more to the firm believers in human progress of the nineteenth, this aspect of the play was a historical curiosity, to be discounted; in Oedipus Rex, although the fate is God-made to a great degree, it must be clarified that he has his own free will and he is not mere a puppet in the hands of the gods who pull the strings that make him dance.

This is a crucial idea of further development of determinism, on which we could give two varied explanations—hamartia and loyalty. The single Greek word, hamartia, lays the emphasis upon the want of insight within a man. The human frailty which is said to bring sufferings beyond the ordinary lot of men is represented in translation by “blindness of heart”. The conception in the Poetics of an ideal tragic person with his imperfect insight, proper for tragedy, can be constructed in the personality of Oedipus (39). He turns upon a certain blindness of impulse, which at length is recognized the man himself—whereupon he puts out his own eyes.

On the other hand, Oedipus’ loyalty to truth and to Thebes leads him to seek the truth tirelessly. Even though Creon, Jocasta, and the prophet try to stop him all the way, Oedipus, who is struggling in the pursuit of truth, insists on reading the last riddle, the riddle of his own life. The immediate cause of Oedipus’ ruin is not just “Fate”—no oracle said that he must discover the truth—and still less does it lie in his own weakness; sometimes it is suggested that Oedipus would not have avoided his misery by having been a better man, but he could have remained prosperous and happy if he had been a less good man. What cause his ruin are his own strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes, and his loyalty to truth. 3. 2. Analysis on The Thunderstorm

3.2.1 Destiny or Coincidences
Similarly, in traditional Chinese literature, destiny, which often translated into Tian [天], also has a deep implication in the formation of tragedy. Famous critic Li Jiangwu said, “This play has the most potent but invisible power—destiny, which we feel all the time. (48)” And Cao Yu writes in the preface of The Thunderstorm, “I am a spiritually poor man, but I invited my audiences to be god of my play to look sympathetically on ‘those moving creatures’ on the stage, to look how they argue with each other blindly, how they helplessly struggle in the battle of love. (2)” Two families’ destinies fall into tragedy because of some unexpected coincidences. If Sifeng does not go to the Zhou’s family to work as a servant or if Lu Dahai does not come to visit Zhou Puyuan, or if any detail in the play changes, the whole story may not happen. The fate plays an important part in the development of the plot and contributes much to the tragic effect. 3.2.2 Social Tragedy

Although there is the fate that works in the play, what the characters have done is the main pusher of the plot. Cao Yu also states that this play is not about retribution or karma (3). While, in The Thunderstorm, the determinism presents in a different direction. Zhou Pin cannot endure the suppression of his father, but he does not show it and bear it inside. He feels repent and wants to get out of the secret relationship with his stepmother, but he only chooses to escape the reality, so that he falls in love with Sifeng, which is also a person that he cannot love. Similar as Oedipus, what he tries to avoid finally leads him to destruction. From what the play presents, Zhou Pin is more like a coward escaping the tragic results of his life. His evasion contributes to the tragic ending. Zhou Fanyi, who is also a tragic character in the play, marries Zhou Puyuan, but she is not able to feel love until she loses her heart to Zhou Pin.

What is more tragic is that Zhou Pin cannot love her wholeheartedly either. She mistakenly put the happiness of her whole life to a person that cannot company and care for her aboveboard. Her tragedy is the social tragedy, at which time women’s social status is low and they do not have the ability to pursue their felicities on their own. Fanyi’s personal flaws and the social environment lead to the tragedy of herself. While writing this play, Cao Yu underlines the social background, in order to further reveal the social problems, which offer people no freedom of choice. That’s why everyone’s wrong choice results in the destruction of the whole family. 5. Conclusion

Different from the previous study, as we could examine from the analysis, this paper regards the tragedy as a combination of fatalism and determinism. What is similar between Oedipus Rex and The Thunderstorm is that they both stress the necessity the factor of destiny in the plot of a tragedy. Destiny is a universal theme of all tragedies in the history and all around the world. What is different about the two plays is that the determinism is presented in distinct way. Oedipus Rex embeds the tragic elements into the “tragic flaws” of Oedipus.

Through building the downfall of Oedipus as a hero but somewhat ignorant person, readers may feel more regret and grieved. While in The Thunderstorm, the social background, in which the story was carried on and which people who are unable to avoid and revolt, contributes more to the happening of tragedy. This difference shows the different concerns in Chinese and western culture: Chinese literature works tend to focus on the social problems through revealing the personal life, while the western literature puts the emphasis on the image of the whole person. (Word Counting: 2190 words)

Works Cited
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Lane Cooper. New York: Cornell University Press, 1947. Print. Bowra, Maurice. “Dance, Drama, and the Spoken Word” The Royal Society: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 251.772, (1966): 390. ProQuest. Web. 15 May 2013. Cao Yu. The Thunderstorm. Beijing: People’s Literature Publishing House, 1994. Print. Dodds, E.R. “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex.”

Cambridge University Press: Greece & Rome, Second Series13.1 (1966): 42. Jstor. Web. 26 April 2012. E. Lefèvre and A. Schmitt. Interpretation of “Oedipus Rex”[Die Suche nach der Schuld. Sophokles’ “Oedipus Rex”, Aristoteles’ “Poetik” und das Tragödienverständnis der Neuzeit] The Classical Review 57.1(2007):18-20. Jstor. Web. 1 May 2013. Kallich, Martin. “Oedipus: From Man to Archetype.” Comparative Literature Studies 3.1 (1966): 33-35. Rpt. in Drama for Students. Ed. David M. Galens and Lynn M. Spampinato. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 Apr. 2013. Knox, Bernard. “Introduction to Oedipus the King.” Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House.

2007. 71-90. Print. Li Jianwu. “The characteristics of drama” [Xiju De Tezheng] Beijing: Literary Criticism: 3(1963): 42-52. CNKI. Web. 2 May 2013. Ma Xiaozhao. The Entanglement between History and Human Relation: the comparison between the aesthetics meaning of western and Chinese tragedy. [Lishi Yu Renlun De Tongku Jiuchan: Bijiao Yanjiu Zhongxi Beiju De Shengmei Yiyun] Beijing: China Social Sciences Publishing House, 2008. Print. Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Print. Wang Linlin.

“The Unavoidable destiny tragedy—the textual analysis on The Thunderstorm.” [Nanyi Duobi De Mingyun Beiju—Leiyu Wenben Fenxi] Taiyuan: Masterpieces Review: 14 (2009): 85-88. CNKI. Web. 1 May 2013. Wan Ping. “A tentative study on the tragic essence of The Thunderstorm” [Shilun Leiyu De Beiju Yiyun] Beijing: Literary Criticism: 3 (2010): 134. CNKI. Web. 1 May 2013. Xin Xianxi. “A Discussion on several questions of The Thunderstorm.” [Guanyu Leiyu Ruogan Wenti De Tantao] Beijing: Studies on Modern Chinese Literature: 1(1981). CNKI. Web. 1 May 2013.

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