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Oedipus the King and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: Choice or Destiny This paper argues that themes and characters in Oedipus the King by Sophocles and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson represent the exercise of free will and conscious choices, rather than gods’ will or destiny that guards protagonists in these works. This particular topic was chosen because many people in the ancient times and modernity believed that destiny rather individual choice and free will determined the outcome of one’s life. This theme has been referred to in many plays and stories. Oedipus the King and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone are the works that best illustrate these notions as they existed in the Greek times and how they are portrayed in the present world. By comparing the above works, one develops a clear understanding that choice and free will but not destiny are the most crucial factors in one’s life and being. In Sophocles’ time the Greeks believed that the fate of an individual was bound up with one’s divinity who presides over the happiness or misery of that person’s life. The Greeks believed that a person so blessed is divinely and perhaps permanently protected. But this divine presence could just as often devastate an individual or an entire family. In Oedipus the King the intimate and personal divinity who strikes Oedipus blow after deadly blow is a kind of executioner who does Fate’s order. At the same time, the theme of finding one’s song, which permeates Joe Turner, is simultaneously a personal and collective ambition for Wilson and for all of black America. The author shows that the progress achieved by blacks is a direct result of their free will and their conscious choice rather than the result of the mysterious deeds of divine presence or destiny. For Wilson as poet and playwright, finding his song (which is also associated with exerting himself and making concrete and conscious steps towards reaching his dream) means finding an individual artistic voice despite the anxiety of influence.
For Wilson as a black man in America, finding his song means going back to the forgotten regions of his African past, bypassing the influence of his father’s German ancestry to confront head-on the painful elements of his mother’s history as an African woman who lives in America. Hers is the history he claims, but it is a history drawn to the forefront in his work by a selective process of gathering and piecing together images from both imagined and actual experiences. He explains: It was my song. It had come from way deep inside me. I looked way back in my memory and gathered up pieces and snatches of things to make that song. I was making it up out of myself. And that song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn’t bite back at me. (Wilson 126) Wilson’s odyssey to find his song is the basis for a larger strategy to help all black Americans to do the same. He invites them to acknowledge their African beginnings via a journey of symbolic healing, one play at a time. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is such a play. At the same time, Oedipus’ actions and deeds are very similar to those of Wilson’s characters as Oedipus shows clear signs that he, but not his destiny, has the greatest influence on his life. Our modern skepticism—that an intelligent, arbitrary Fate controls anyone’s life—leads us to ask in what sense it is true, as the events of Oedipus’ life strongly suggest, that his actions have been shaped by a harmful divinity. However, our first and overwhelming impression prevails: the gods have not willed Oedipus to do what he did. Oedipus and all the other characters come to this conclusion; the design and verbal texture of the play confirm it. Although an ancient audience would know of Oedipus’ background fully and familiarly from other plays and mythical sources, a modern one might know only its bare outlines. The following summary fills in the details. Laios, the king of Thebes, has learned from an oracle that his own son will kill him.
When his wife, Jokasta, bears a son, Laios entrusts the infant to one of his herdsmen with orders that he leave the baby to die on Mt. Kithairon, exposed with its ankles pierced and pinned together. Out of pity, the herdsman gives the child to his friend, a shepherd from Korinth, who returns with the child to his city and presents it to Polybos the king. Polybos raises the child, whose swollen ankles cause him to be named Oedipus, as his son and heir (3-5). On his arrival in Thebes Oedipus finds the city terrorized by the Sphinx—a monster with a lion’s body, a bird’s wings and a woman’s head—who kills all those who fail to solve her riddle. But Oedipus solves it, and the Sphinx dies. Thebes rewards him with the throne and marriage to the recently widowed Queen Jokasta, by whom in time he has four children. When the play opens, Oedipus has been living in prosperity for about fifteen years. With this information, the audience should be able to grasp the famous web of double meanings that pervades the dialogue of Oedipus the King. The play opens with an appeal by a delegation of Thebans who beg Oedipus to find a cure for the plague now killing his people, their crops, and their livestock. While Oedipus pursues Laios’ killers, he repeatedly alters his immediate objective as new information and circumstances influence him. He makes each alteration on rational grounds, but each twist reveals one more instance of the divinity’s continuous intervention. Modern audiences resist the conclusion that a great play can possess such a totally fated hero, one who seems a puppet at the mercy of gods. What is more, we assume that characters are compelling only when doing and saying things for which they are morally responsible. To continue, the image of a storm endangering a city, a familiar Greek metaphor, embodies the power the daimon possesses in Oedipus the King, but Sophokles’ use of it in this play is particularly resonant.
Comparing Oedipus several times to a helmsman facing trouble in a storm, the playwright suggests the power by which human resourcefulness and freedom of action can resist a threatening divinity or an indifferent Nature. Indeed, Oedipus and all the characters except Tiresias believe Oedipus’ problems are like a storm that a gifted and courageous sailor can weather. One has to note that the greatest similarity between Oedipus the King and Joe Turner is that both of the plays focus upon cultural fragmentation, that is, the emotional and physical effects associated with cultural upheaval and physical relocation. In Joe Turner, Herald Loomis, the play’s protagonist, is one of many lost souls in this environment. As the play opens, he and his young daughter, Zonia, come upon a boardinghouse where he seeks clues as to the whereabouts of his estranged wife, Martha. Seven years earlier, Loomis had become one of the numerous kidnapped farmhands of legendary Joe Turner, who notoriously tricked freed black men into extended periods of forced labor. Now, finally released, he tries to locate his family only to find his family. Yet when the family does finally meet, only a partial reunion takes place. Martha reclaims her daughter, yet cannot accept the uncivilized Loomis. To scare him away from what she sees as his life of sin, she launches into a sermon whose text involves being “washed in the blood of the lamb” (Wilson 93). Loomis, having finally “found his song” -- having exercised his free will of seeking his family and his soul -- responds by slashing his chest in a heavily symbolic denunciation of her God and affirmation of himself: “I don’t need nobody to bleed for me! I can bleed for myself” (Wilson 93). Performing such horrible deed was not a destiny’s provision (even though many critics may suggest that it was society and oppression that made Loomis slash his chest), but a conscious choice of this character: he would rather kill himself than accept God in his heart.
Similarly, Oedipus’ superior intelligence is of no ultimate use in riding out the storm. Sophocles reveals this truth with an opposing series of images in which the divinity leaps, strikes, and plunges directly at its target. His consistent use of certain Greek words suggests that the blow Oedipus struck at Laios, the sexual mounting of Jokasta by her son, and the plunging of the pins into Oedipus’ eyes are all physical aspects of one single metaphysical action: the blow that Oedipus declares Apollo “struck” at him. The audience feels the divinity’s effect again when Oedipus tells his people that though each of them is sick, none is so sick as he is, and again when Kreon talks about Laios’ disappearance: While Joe Turner’s typical theme of search recalls the quest in Wilson’s later work, the play’s emphasis upon facing demons of one’s past parallels a play by Sophocles. Both works feature tormented protagonists who go to great lengths to atone for a terrible past; and both Oedipus and Loomis come to acknowledge that in order to go forward, they must revisit those pasts--no matter how horrifying. Although Oedipus faces a hell arguably of his own making, Loomis is apparently the chosen medium for thousands of tormented slaves whose stories for centuries remain untold. The thematic similarities are not identical, though Joe Turner’s choices and exercising of his free will is very similar to that of Oedipus. Finally, the conclusions in both of the plays are twofold: Oedipus and Lomis are fully responsible for their actions because they continuously exercise the power of their free will. On the other hand, their actions fail and are often presented as ironic as gods (in Oedipus) and people or various events (in Joe Turner) interfere and place obstacles before them.