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American Oedipus: Blindness and Fate in Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark
By Julian Drury
*Editor's Note: Spoiler alert
Cormac McCarthy’s novel Outer Dark is an oedipal work, a haunting and seminal tale of mankind’s blindness, set against a bleak backdrop. The novel’s greatest theme is connected to a sense of unwilling blindness, which points strongly to themes related to the Greek Tragedy of Oedipus. It seems, in a way, McCarthy’s novel is an American Oedipus, a journey through the dark lands of rural Appalachia in search of the dark truth.
Outer Dark is McCarthy’s second novel, first published in 1968. It is also one of the few of McCarthy’s novels that feature a central female protagonist, though she is constantly shadowed by her brother. Culla and Rinthy are almost exactly alike in every way, mirror of each other.
The protagonists (brother and sister) Culla and Rinthy Holme, are among the clearest allusion in oedipal themes. Incest, being a somewhat taboo against the Southern United States, is a measure of one’s own blindness. In a way, the novel is almost Oedipus inverted.
The novel starts off with Rinthy giving birth to her “chap”, the offspring of her incestuous relationship with Culla. Much like Oedipus, the baby is immediately taken and abandoned in the woods, left to the elements. Also, like Oedipus, a poor commoner (the tinker) comes along to save the infant from nature.
Culla clearly wanted to erase and forget the product of his incestuous relationship with his sister, Rinthy. Though, Rinthy wanted to know the truth of what ultimately happened to her child, and she defied her brother. The bond of a mother to her child overcomes all in many circumstances.
Immediately, we are left with Rinthy and Culla in the depths of twisted journeys. Rinthy wants to know what has become of her child, despite sickness and months of searching. Her quest to uncover “the truth” is out of a mother’s attachment to their children, rather than uncovering a horror of her past.
The tale plays out like a Greek tragedy. To the very end, McCarthy deprives the reader of solace and comfort, especially when Rinthy discovers what ultimately happened to her child.
Another oedipal theme is blindness, which we see recur in the novel. There is the literal representation of this, in the blind seer at the novel’s end. He could possibly stand as an allusion to the blind prophet Tiresias, from Oedipus the King. Much like Tiresias, the blind seer is telling Culla directions, perhaps an allegory of directing one’s fate, the way Tiresias did for Oedipus.
Though, McCarthy puts his own take perhaps on the idea of “fate” in the novel. The novel seems to be fairly critical of religion’s role in society. It’s not an attack or critique, more like an observation on the roles religious leaders and belief serves, and it never seems to fully serve as a benefit to anyone. While the blind seer is telling Culla what he says is the correct path on the road, the blind man is walking in the direction of a swamp.
This could also be a subtle mockery of the “blind prophet” motif. The blind prophet of Oedipus was portrayed as the typical wise-man, speaker of the god’s will. His predictions were ultimately correct, and his warnings justified. McCarthy seems to mock this in some way, the idea of pre-set chain of events destined to happen, with the wise blind prophet revealing truth to those who refuse to accept it, or feel they can change it. The moral of Oedipus was clear; nothing can challenge the will of the divine. Nothing can change fate. If fate exists in McCarthy’s novel, it is ironic and cruel at best.
The world is indiscriminate in McCarthy’s universe. Good people and bad people are dealt similar fates, and often these events are random and don’t seem based on how good or bad a character was. Also, many of the characters that Culla and Rinthy encounter are never given names. To name a character gives them a place, an importance. Perhaps it makes it harder for them to be harmed so easily. Like raw nature; prey never has a name.
These characters are present, though subject to random brutality at any moment, whether or not it seems they deserve it. This is especially true with the people that Culla meets, most of whom seem to die under bad circumstances. The snake handler, the squire, and others all randomly meeting their end. It is alluded that the “murderous trio” shadowing Culla are possibly responsible, yet it is not clear for sure. One way or another, these are not planned deaths, as well as seeming random and needlessly cruel.
This is Cormac McCarthy in his raw and most brilliant form; a dark, random world where bad things happen all the time, mostly without purpose. The End. Many of his novels detail this story construction of bleak existences with random cruelty, including Child of God, Blood Meridian, and his most well-known novel The Road.
This stands contrary to the purpose of Oedipus the King, while the novel seems heavily indebted to these oedipal themes. Sophocles’ play had a central message to it, a moral lesson; man cannot change or defy his fate, a fate handed to him by the divine. Outer Dark is opposite of this. The novel is probably the best representation of an American Tragedy, a post-modern Oedipus of Appalachia. Rather than fate being the deciding factor, randomness plays the main role. Nothing is ever certain, and no prophecy is left to be fulfilled.
I hate doing Spoiler Alerts, but this info is on the web anyway. Rinthy discovers her child, dead with its throat cut, and the tinker hanging from a nearby tree. The imagery is reminiscent of Queen Jocasta hanging herself after the revelation that she married her son (Oedipus). Yet, the ending is not connected to any sense of purpose or fate.
There was no reason for the child to die, or the tinker. It is unclear who killed the child. It is implied the murderous trio was behind this act, perhaps symbolizing further McCarthy's intent of cruel randomness.
Another interpretation is that Culla himself might have been responsible, and that the "trio" are merely psychological extensions of him. It is convenient that the trio seem to kill those who Culla comes in contact with. This especially goes for the death of the tinker and the baby. Subconsciously, Culla finally got what he wanted. Though, what we are left with are more unanswered questions.
The dark and blind in McCarthy’s novel are plays upon the modern sense of “fate”, and whether or not life is just random events that can happen without reason. Poor Rinthy certainly learns this lesson hard, and perhaps even her shadowy brother Culla as well. Neither of them come to any ultimate completion of “fate”, and instead they are left to grapple with the un-ordered reality.
Like Sophocles, McCarthy has created a powerful and lasting epic connected to the darkness that surrounds the minds and actions of men. Unlike Sophocles, McCarthy holds no ultimate moral or spiritual truth to learn from. Instead, Outer Dark leaves the reader where it began; blind and without comfort.
For further reading on Outer Dark:
#Real #Review #McCarthy #Oedipus
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