Themes in Literature

Literary Fate


Fate, according to modern usage, is an agency or power that orders and predetermines a future course of events. In the ancient world, the often inexplicable and unavoidable in the affairs of human beings were attributed to fate. In Greek mythology, the goddesses known as the Fates, or Moirae, spun out the destinies of men and women. With the resurgence of confidence in human agency in fifth-century Athens, the Greeks began to develop more subtle conceptions of the relationship between fate and free will, especially through the tragedies of their theater, which were grounded in religious ritual. Sophocles’s Oedipus the King presents the classical treatment of human action as determined by fate or free will, or a convergence of the two. Such a convergence is understandable through a thought of the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “Man’s character is his fate [daimon]” (Fragment 119), or the more familiar “Character is destiny.” Since demon (Gr. daimon) means both “supernatural being” and “ministering, or indwelling spirit” (Oxford English Dictionary), the statement allows a convergence of superhuman and human agency, fate and free will. In other words, the guidance of our actions derives from ourselves, our own character.

Sophocles’ tragedy supremely illustrates this idea. Oedipus, a prince of Corinth who is led to doubts about his parentage by a stray comment from a drunken man, goes to Delphi, where he consults the oracle, which tells him that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Shocked by this prophecy, Oedipus immediately flees Corinth to evade the oracle, the illogic and inconsistency of his actions never occurring to him. Regarding the unresolved question of parentage, he is fleeing the king and queen of Corinth, who might not be his parents. Regarding his contradictory attitude toward the oracle, he believes in the oracle enough to react to its admonition but not enough to realize that he cannot evade his foreknown destiny. His destiny, however, is not necessarily predetermined by the powers above. Rather, his foreknowledge makes him act irrationally to fulfill his destiny. This irrational conduct is part and parcel of his hubris (the overstepping of the bounds of human conduct), as exhibited often in his killing of an older man (his real father) in a fit of alpha male rage and his angry browbeating of both Creon, his trustworthy brother-in-law, and Teiresias, the revered seer, when they tell him that he himself is the murderer of the former king of Thebes—to him preposterous but, nonetheless, the truth. Ironically, Oedipus’s foreknowledge drove him to fulfill the very prophecy that he was trying so hard to evade. He broke the two cardinal rules of Greek ethics that would guide one toward good destiny: “Know thyself ” and “Nothing in excess.” In his version of Oedipus, Sophocles turns the standard story of the futility of trying to evade an inevitable fate dictated by the gods and transforms it into a veritable tragedy of a human agent through his own character flaws and actions.

In a further exploration of fate and autonomy, human action, expanded to a wide sphere of civic enterprise in Virgil’s The Aeneid, translates itself into a founding myth, whereby personal good yields to the greater good of nation formation. It is Aeneas, fleeing to Italy after the fall of Troy, who, according to prophecy, will there found a noble and courageous race, which in time will surpass all other nations. At the same time, the fate of Aeneas and his descendants, the Romans, is influenced by the gods’ actions, particularly in the conflict between Venus and Juno, who respectively support and hinder the Roman enterprise for reasons that go back to Priam’s son Paris choosing Venus, goddess of love, as the most beautiful over Hera, goddess of marriage, and Athena, goddess of wisdom. Thus, in this nationalistic epic, divine agency and human aspiration—both personal and civic—constitute fate. Aeneas is the epitome of Roman piety—loyalty and devotion toward one’s homeland, family, and father—and his fate is synonymous with the future of Rome. In his wanderings, Aeneas finds shelter in Africa with the sympathetic Dido, the queen of Carthage. Later, the two fall in love and consummate their union. Aeneas is torn between his desire for a woman and his patriotic love: “hic amor, haec patria est” (“There is my love, there my country” [4.537]). Ultimately, both divine pressure and a sense of duty, as solemnized by prophecy, compel Aeneas to leave Dido, choosing Roma and its implicit amor (Roma spelled backwards) of patria—love of country—as his destiny.Virgil wrote his epic during a period of civil war and political and moral chaos in Rome after the fall of the Republic. Accordingly, The Aeneid reflects an attempt to revive Roman greatness by appealing to its mythic history and its basic moral values of piety, virtue, and constancy. At the same time, it sets out a political ideology that could be used beyond Virgil’s moral aims to justify imperialistic ambitions in the aggrandizement of the Roman Empire. In more modern times, the concept of manifest destiny, in the history of American expansion, worked in similar fashion to appropriate Native American land and to exploit indigenous people, in a “divinely ordained” mission to spread democracy.

Both examples show how human beings have exploited “divine agency” and otherwise manipulated fate and destiny toward self-interest. As in the previously discussed works, the classical trope of superhuman prophecy figures importantly in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to advance plot and human intention. Unlike Oedipus the King and The Aeneid, both of which revolve around a single, defining prophecy, Shakespeare’s tragedy operates with two, one propelling the rise and the other underwriting the fall. The prophecy of the three witches (a spin-off of the Fates) incites the protagonist into evil in the first half of the play; then, symmetrically in the second half, the suddenly unveiled prophecy regarding Macduff seals Macbeth’s defeat and death. In act 1, Macbeth, thane of Glamis, and his companion, Banquo, come upon three witches on the heath who respectively address Macbeth as thane of Glamis, thane of Cawdor, and “king hereafter” (1.3.50). To Banquo they enounce the following occult prophecy: “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. / Not so happy, yet much happier. / Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” (1.3.67–68). With the partial fulfillment of the prophecy, his becoming thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is tempted against his better reason by the further fruits of “vaulting ambition” (1.7.27): kingship. When the she-man, Lady Macbeth, accuses him of unmanly cowardice in her infamous speech (of how she’d “[pluck her] nipple from [her baby’s] boneless gums, /And dash’d the brains out” [1.7.57–58]), she gives Macbeth the courage to kill the king. Though Macbeth chidingly affirms the moral position “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none” (1.7.46–47), he goes along with the plan of regicide nonetheless, crossing from honor to villainy.

After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth becomes king in his place, but the more he tries, like Oedipus, to adhere to the prophecy, the more it eludes him. Hence, one murder leads to further: He has Banquo killed to ensure the crown for his progeny rather than Banquo’s as the witches foretold. Again like Oedipus, Macbeth both acts upon and acts against the prophecy in ardent contradiction, incited by momentary megalomania, sealed by the murderous deed and, thereafter, the will never to submit in the downward spiral of violence and death. The fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy drives the events of further carnage fatefully and fatally with a peculiar vitality of their own—a concatenation of one violent act igniting the next. Ultimately, Macbeth’s final end comes in a showdown in act 5, scene 8 with Macduff, the man “of no woman born” (5.8.13), the only man whom, according to the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth must fear. Presenting itself as the fulfillment of fate, the duel between Macbeth and Macduff can also be seen, like the other preceding cases, as an example of self-fulfilling prophecy. The event materializes not so much through the agency of higher powers but more often through a human being’s reactions to his foreknowledge of the event. In Macbeth’s case, it is less a superhuman agency that controls the outcome and more a wearied Macbeth himself, who, finally facing his nemesis, is taunted by Macduff, who fights him with invincible fury to avenge the deaths of his wife and children. In Romeo and Juliet, fate again plays a defining role to induce tragedy, working as a force of fortuity to obstruct the best intentions of human beings.

In Shakespeare’s early tragedy about star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet’s problems lie in that they have been born into two families engaged in an age-old feud. The deaths of the young lovers might have been prevented had there not been a plague, which kept Friar John from informing Romeo that Juliet was under a spell of faked death. They might have succeeded in living peacefully apart from their families, but such an outcome probably would not have effected an end to the feud that the chastening deaths of the two lovers apparently induced. Despite the role of fortuity in the tragic outcome, the more defining accountability rests in the human agents themselves. To this effect, the plague, seemingly fortuitous, precisely symbolizes the feud’s moral rottenness. In all these works, with the exception of The Aeneid, fate presents divine agency as muted, passively present, or altogether absent in the affairs of human beings. The emphasis, rather, is that events emerge through deliberate human action, not through chance. Such a conception prefigures the 20th-century philosophy of existentialism, which affirms a human being’s freedom to act and accountability for choices made, despite the nihilism to which random, meaningless, absurd events may lend themselves. Suzan-Lori Parks’s 21st-century Pulitzer Prize– winning play Topdog/Underdog further explores the themes of fate and free will through the experience of two African-American brothers struggling to get by and get ahead, the tragicomic absurdity of their underclass existence deftly balanced with the burdens placed by mythology and history on their autonomy.

Their father, in a whim, named the brothers Lincoln and Booth, foreshadowing the antagonism that will plague their interactions within their instinctive alliance to assist each other in the plight of the African-American man: dearth of opportunity. Thus, they wrestle in the age-old struggle of Cain and Abel, representing the eternal clash between the topdog and underdog as both individuals and subgroups of society. Lincoln (Link) emancipates himself from his former lucrative but dangerous life as a three-card monte hustler and instead, ludicrously, becomes a black impersonator of Lincoln in an amusement park game, whereby he gets repeatedly “assassinated” by all the Booths in the world who have an “axe tuh grind” (46). Like President Lincoln, who single-handedly freed the slaves, Link tries to free his younger brother from the enthrallment of three-card monte—unsuccessfully because, like his namesake, he cannot offer Booth viable opportunities of gainful employment. His efforts to protect Booth only appear as actions of a rival and inexorably lead the two into a fatal face-off in the three-card monte. Again, as with all the works previously discussed, in Topdog/Underdog it is individual action based on characteristic disposition, induced by the psychological, emotional, and economic urgencies of the dramatic moment, that bring Lincoln and Booth to the self-fulfilling prophecy presaged by fate, myth, and history.

See also Bellow, Saul: Adventures of Augie March, The; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor: “Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The”; Conrad, Joseph: Lord Jim; Dickens, Charles: Tale of Two Cities, A; Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan: Hound of the Baskervilles, The; Dreiser, Theodore: American Tragedy, An; Edwards, Jonathan: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”; Erdrich, Louise: Bingo Palace, The; Flaubert, Gustave: Madame Bovary; García Márquez, Gabriel: One Hundred Years of Solitude; Harte, Bret: “Outcasts of Poker Flats, The”; Homer: Iliad, The; Lowry, Lois: Giver, The; McCarthy, Cormac: All the Pretty Horses; Naipaul, V. S.: Bend in the River, A; Shakespeare, William: Twelfth Night; Tolkien, J. R. R.: Lord of the Rings, The; Wilde, Oscar: Importance of Being Earnest, The.

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