While Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Rita Dove’s ‘The Darker Face of the Earth’ share themes, such as, abandonment, fate, struggle, incest, and death, Dove goes even further and explores the themes of slavery and racial tensions in pre-Civil War South Carolina. Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth retells the Oedipus drama in the context of an African American slave.
While, through its emphasis on Greek motifs and themes it gives the impression of being a Greek tragedy Dove uses it as an avenue to discuss a more complex aspect of American history. Sophocles’ main character, Oedipus is a compassionate leader, who wants to help rid his people of the despair that they are enduring. While Dove’s main character, Augustus, embodies the role of Oedipus very well, his character is more complex in that he is not free like Oedipus and must overcome the issues of race, and slavery.
The tragedy in the original Oedipus play results from the Gods prophesying that Oedipus would kill his father and bed his mother. Oedipus could avoid such a fate if he had not blindly ignored the signs presented to him. This ignorance resulted in Oedipus fulfilling his fate. However, the tragedy in Dove’s play is vastly different in that it was not prophesized to Augustus that he would kill his father and bed his mother.
The circumstances that lead to the outcome Augustus experienced was, instead, created due to external forces such as the ethnocentric view slave owners had regarding their superiority over and ability to choose the fate of their slaves. Ultimately, this contrast in themes allows the reader to label The Darker Face of the Earth as more than just a Greek tragedy. Despite the primary themes, which Dove borrows from Oedipus, this, in conjunction with the theme of slavery, makes it undeniable that the play is in fact more than a Greek tragedy. In fact, it is a slave narrative.