A brief discussion of morality in Manchester by the Sea and Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex” is probably not the first thing that will come to mind when someone watches the 2016 award-winning film “Manchester by the Sea” on a chill night during spring break. The bar brawls initially remind me of how Fyodor Dostoevsky’s paradoxical “Underground Man” bumped into the officer with the hope that he would notice him, while Lee’s nonchalance bears resemblance to Albert Camus’ Meursault from his renowned “L’etranger.” So where’s the link between Sophocles’s Oedipus and Kenneth Lonergan’s Lee? Neither is Lee Chandler a tragic hero who aimed for a noble pursuit of truth nor is Oedipus set in modern day Massachusetts. Ironies, the inevitability of fate — there are for sure similarities in their stylistic compositions. For instance, just as how Oedipus ran away from Corinth only to find himself fulfilling it, we later realise that the subtly positioned irony, where Lee joked about a much better life alone, forebodes the death of his children. 

But there is something deeper that the two share, a motif, or better put, a hard-pressed question that binds and transcends the duet: when you are morally innocent, but the deed or “pollution” that you have committed is an absolute horror to even watch, how do you live on? In Oedipus’ case, unknowingly he committed parricide and procreated with his mother. Putting this into the real life context of the 5th Century B.C. Athenian society, though he could have been acquitted by the court for the former, the absolute horror of the latter nonetheless would have still rendered him as “untouchable.” One could argue that perhaps Lee Chandler is not completely, morally innocent after all, but the same questions arise for Oedipus if you are a believer of free will. Nonetheless, what is undeniable is that Lee’s action, as the police deemed it, was at most a horrible, careless mistake. His lack of intentionality eventually rendered him not guilty.

“Look, Lee, you made a horrible mistake. Like a million other people did last night. Not gonna crucify you. It’s not a crime to forget to put the screen on the fireplace.”

Summarised well by the police, this is perhaps the starkest reason why both “Manchester By the Sea” and “Oedipus Rex” were so emotionally appealing to me: they are each an everyman’s play. What happened to Lee Chandler or Oedipus could well happen to any of us. An atrocity so unimaginable but yet so tangible. A deed that simply cannot fall under any structural, legal penalisation, thus making it a stigma that can neither be held accountable nor forgiven. It hangs the audience over a moral blackhole, compelling all those who are watching to rethink about their own moral responsibilities.

What Lee did continues to haunt him in different forms and means. I remember well the scene where he dreamt about the death of his daughters.

“Daddy, can’t you see we’re burning?”

Burning is a key theme in Greek tragedies. It is an action often associated with The Furies, the living personification of retribution. In Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus would later stumble upon the grove of the Furies near Colonus. No longer persecuted by the Furies, Oedipus seems to be at peace at their grove. Though the stigma will never go away, Oedipus paid his debt for what he committed: he lost his kingship and went blind after stabbing his eyes. Moreover, he was able to alleviate the pain by speaking out. However, Lee received no punishment for his action. He tried to commit suicide but failed, and he even got the life that he supposedly wanted in the first place. One could argue that Lee is more pitiable. The moral crevice of the law means that any retribution must come from the self anyway, rather than an external judicial agency, but being deprived of even the slightest chance to redeem, he has to endure all sufferings and guilts – in whatever forms it manifests itself – without the possibility of a way out.

The death of Joe and Lee’s guardianship over his nephew Patrick is a turning point and the ultimate question that the plot attempts to resolve. Just like how Fate decided to take away everything without premonition, the transferral of Patrick’s guardianship to Lee was also equally unplanned, but this time he was left with a choice in which he decided to accept Patrick into his life. Many see this as the remedy to Lee’s depression and sufferings, but I find it hard to fully concur. The word “remedy” suggests a binary relationship in which it assumes a good as opposed to a bad life and moral. However, living in an oxymoron, Lee shows what it looks like to transcend moral boundaries, or in another word, to go beyond good and evil in life. There is no one definite answer, and this is certainly crude in how it is expressed, but to me the epiphany here instead lies in his realisation to live the somewhat “individual things” as they come rather than pursuing the idea of a supposedly happy life that is fundamentally dictated by moral standards. 

I would like to conclude by returning to our discussion in the beginning of its impact as an everyman’s play. The problem of a paradoxical moral boundary appears frequently if not ubiquitous in life, and although “Manchester by the Sea” and “Oedipus Rex” are two extreme situations of the dilemma, perhaps we could still learn something from them in how to deal with our own moral uncertainties.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading