Eye Am Blind
There is an old clich? which remarks that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Eyes convey meaning and emotion. They reflect happiness, love, fear, and pain. They hold secrets, reveal lies, and leak emotion. They allow us to see the world around us. Eye contact is the most important component in human interaction because it establishes a connection. This is why in literature eyes are used so frequently as symbols and motifs. Dating back all the way to 429 BC with Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, eyes and the concept of sight have proved important themes in many novels and plays both in the past and presently. One such novel is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which relies on eye imagery to demonstrate humanity and the character’s blindness of consequences. In both texts, symbolic eye imagery is essential to the development of them through both figurative and literal, purposeful and accidental blindness of the characters within and the consequences faced because of it. Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex serves as the fundamental text for the use of different themes in many works, especially Frankenstein: a Modern Prometheus which mirrors its use of eyes and eye imagery throughout to better illustrate the humanity and actions of the characters.
The employment of this eye motif is plainly visible throughout the entirety of Oedipus Rex. The two most notable uses are that of Tiresias the blind prophet and Oedipus himself at the end of the play, when he gouges his eyes out after learning the truth of his situation. In the beginning of the play when we first learn about the plague on the city of Thebes, amid the caterwauls of the suffering citizens, Oedipus seeks the help of Tiresias who “sees with the eyes of Lord Apollo,” (Sophocles l. 324). The irony of this is that Tiresias is blind, however he sees the truth more clearly than anyone else, especially prideful Oedipus who denies his involvement in any of the chaos. Tiresias knows that Oedipus slayed his father and married his mother, but refuses to tell him because of the pain it would cause. After Oedipus continuously insults Tiresias, Tiresias finally tells him, “You with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life,” (ll. 470-471). Here Sophocles uses the motif of vision and blindness in an ironic way to show that just because physically sight is lost, figuratively no one recognizes the truth clearer than Tiresias. Similarly, at the end of the play when Oedipus discovers what he had done, he gouges out his eyes and finally sees the truth. Furthermore, the eye motif functions as a symbol for human connection as Oedipus exclaims, “How could I look into [my children’s] eyes? No, not with these eyes of mine, never,” (ll. 1506-1507). His guilt ridden profession demonstrated his repentance for his sin which was him trying to avoid the prophecy and being oblivious (blind) to his circumstances. Furthermore, by giving up his eye sight he sacrificed what he thought was most important: seeing his children. Eyes and the concept of blindness is prominent throughout Oedipus Rex and serves to highlight the irony of Oedipus’ situation and his sacrifice at the end of the play.
Like in Oedipus Rex, Mary Shelley employs the use of eye motifs and imagery throughout her novel Frankenstein to show humanity and judgment. From the moment the monster opens his eyes, eye imagery and symbolism litters the pages of this novel. Victor Frankenstein was like an artist, crafting his monster from the best parts he could acquire, spending countless days perfecting every last piece of what was destined to be his greatest work of art. Upon completing his masterpiece, however, Victor elucidates, “I beheld the wretch—the miserable wretch whom I had created… his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me,” (Shelley 35). Victor, in his rapacity for notoriety, unwittingly crafts a soulless being, apparent the second the creature opens his watery eyes. Shelley uses the notion that eyes are linked to humanity throughout the novel, and this is one of the best examples. The creature was formed of dead pieces sewn together in an attempt to cheat the natural order of life and death. For this, Victor suffers immensely as he quickly learns that what he created was not human, but a beast void of a soul and many human characteristics, as evident in his eyes. By using eyes, Shelley also weaves the theme of judgment into her work, mainly through the old man who the monster lived next to for years. The creature only faces abuse and fear from the few people he encounters in the novel, and he observes, “a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster,” (95). With the old man, however, the creature sees the opportunity to make a friend, a human connection, and cure his loneliness because the old man is blind and therefore cannot see his ghastly appearance. Once the creature gets the courage to approach the old man, at first all goes well and the old man is refreshingly kind to him, saying “I am blind and cannot judge of your countenance, but there is something in your words which persuades me that you are sincere,” (96). This small act of trust demonstrates that even though he is blind, the old man can see the humanity and true character of the creature clearer than anyone with eyes. Shelley uses his blindness to show the unfair judgment of the monster from all of the villagers and even his creator, his father, Victor, which drove him to unbearable loneliness causing him to lash out. Frankenstein is riddled with eye imagery symbolizing humanity and the theme of blindness to emphasize Shelley’s theme of judgment and the creature’s motivation to commit his horrible sins.
In the aspect of eye motifs, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex both are very similar. In both texts there is a pivotal character who is blind yet sees the clearest of everyone. In Oedipus Rex this character is Tiresias who knows all along that Oedipus was the catalyst of all of Thebes’ suffering, and in Frankenstein the old man is the only one who gives the creature a chance and treats him with kindness This is a play on Tiresias because in both cases, the blind man are not influenced by others and are wiser than the rest of the characters. According to Aristotle’s essay “On Tragic Character”, a tragic character “does not fall into misfortune through vice or depravity, but falls because of some mistake,” (Aristotle). Oedipus serves as the quintessential tragic character because he falls from grace due to his avoidance of the inevitable prophecy, not some horrific sin that he purposefully committed. Similarly, Victor Frankenstein fits with this tragic character image because his fall is because of his mistake of trying to cheat death, instead creating a monster that caused him so much suffering. In both cases, the main character, the tragic character, is blind to their mistakes until they are forced to see them once they face the consequences and atone for their sins. They are both so hidebound in their ways that they are unaware of the havoc they wreak on the world around them. Oedipus serves as the foundation to this tragic character that Victor Frankenstein resembles. In the end, they both suffer through eyes, which represent humanity. Oedipus gouges out his eyes, preventing himself the pleasure of seeing his children and connecting to them that way again. Victor Frankenstein is haunted by eyes, “sometimes they were the expressive eyes of Henry, languishing in death… sometimes it was the watery, clouded eyes of the monster,” (Shelley 134). The juxtaposition of the different characters’ eyes illustrates that the eyes show the soul or lack thereof of the people in the novel, their connection to the human race, and their own humanity. This was built off of Sophocles’ allusion to the fact that eyes are the most important form of human connection as he used them in Oedipus Rex. Both texts effectively use eye imagery and motifs to represent human connection and obliviousness to the world around these tragic characters and their avoidance of the truth.
Oedipus Rex is one of the pioneers of eye imagery and the theme of blindness, which modern texts today reflect especially Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. In both texts, eyes are used to symbolize human connection and humanity, as shown by Oedipus gouging out his own eyes to punish himself and Frankenstein abandoning his creation once he opened his soulless eyes. Both title characters were also blind to their own mistakes and paid dearly for these sins. They also both featured a blind character who was wiser and, ironically, could see better than any other character. The similarities between these texts, written more than one thousand years apart, are striking because of the consistent use of eyes. Eyes helped develop the stories and give a deeper meaning to these timeless tales. As the saying goes, eyes are the windows to the soul, and both texts used this idea through the symbolism of eye imagery. Eyes convey meaning and emotion. They reflect happiness, love, fear, and pain. They allow us to see the world around us, but sometimes they fail us and leave us blind until it’s too late. We see what we want to see, and as it happened for Victor Frankenstein and Oedipus, this can cause mass destruction and suffering.
Aristotle. “On Tragic Character.” The Compact Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer.
8th Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 1092-1093.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Dover Thrift ed. London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831. Print.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King. The Compact Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 8th Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 1092-1093.
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