Antigone: Metaphor Analysis

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The Garden of Purity

The purity of Antigone’s childish idealism is compared to a garden in the early morning. Antigone rushes in from burying her brother, and she is caught by the Nurse. She does not speak of the treasonous act she has just committed, which will condemn her to death. Instead she describes to the Nurse the ecstasy of seeing the early morning: “Have you ever thought how lovely a garden is when it is not yet thinking of men?” (p. 13) A garden before there are men recalls the Garden of Eden, or the way life is when it is unspoiled. The world is perfect before the day begins. She reports: “The whole world was breathless, waiting” (p. 13). At this moment, there is a pause between her crime and the consequence that will happen later in the day. Instead of contemplating her death or the cruelty of the world, she sees the freshness, the potential, and the beauty around her.

Antigone is passionate and responds to life with her whole being. When Ismene asks her if she wants to live, Antigone replies, “Who wept when she was little because there were too many grasses in the meadow, too many creatures in the field, for her to know and touch them all?” (p. 21) Creon dismisses her as morbid like her father, with a death wish that craves martyrdom. Antigone’s desire for life and her innocence, however, are described in her interactions with nature. She wants to be one with the flow of life, before there are people like Creon and other adults to destroy the innocence of the garden, with their schemes and laws. If she cannot always have access to the purity of the garden and “be the first girl out of doors” in the morning (p. 14), she will take death as second best. Like Adam and Eve, Antigone and Haemon are driven out of the pristine garden of life, though due to no fault of their own. Like Eve, however, Antigone is the one who triggers their expulsion.

The Beastliness of Mediocrity

Animal imagery is used to describe humans in their lower state of existence. Humans who live like they are one of a herd do not use their brains, hearts, or consciences to make choices. They follow the crowd. Ismene tries to frighten Antigone with a vision of their death at the hands of the mob: the Guards will have “idiot faces all bloated, their animal hands” will drag them to the scaffold (p. 20). Ismene fears the animal nature of the state enough to be obedient. Antigone scorns it.

Creon explains to her the beastlike condition of the men he has to rule: “Animals are good, simple, tough. They move in droves, nudging one another onwards” (p. 51). Antigone answers sarcastically, “What a king you could be if only men were animals!” (p. 51). She refuses to be nudged along. Antigone expects more of human beings. She wants more, everything there is, she explains. Creon and the crowd do not dare to want more; they will put up with “humdrum happiness” (p. 58). She taunts him: “You are all like dogs that lick everything they smell” (p. 58). Society merely sniffs at life, but Antigone wants a full taste. She rejects the mediocre life of compromise, of mere animal happiness. Antigone has spirit, soul, and a brain, and she wants to use them.

Tragedy as a Wound Spring and a Silent Movie

The Chorus interrupts the action of the play to explain the nature of tragedy just as the Guards tell Creon someone buried the body of Polynices. It is too late to turn back the clock now; events are in motion. Antigone will be discovered and executed. At this point the Chorus breaks the suspense and the illusion of reality by explaining that this is a play, a tragic play, not melodrama.

Melodrama keeps people in suspense by playing with their emotions. The audience wants the girl to be saved and the villain to be punished. Creon thinks Antigone is making up that kind of play for herself: “You have cast me for the villain in this little play of yours, and yourself for the heroine” (p. 47).  He tries to rescue her from death: “There is still a chance that I can save you” (p. 44). He tries to provide her with the melodramatic ending of a happy marriage with Haemon. She assures him, however, that she has something else in mind: “I never doubted for an instant that you would have me put to death” (p. 42). When she provokes him, he consents: “My part is not an heroic one, but I shall play my part” (p. 52).

The Chorus explains: “The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy” (p. 34). Action in a tragedy, according to Aristotle, has an orderly plot with a beginning, middle, and end. It describes one complete action from start to finish. It displays cause and effect over time. It is often pictured as the knotting and unknotting of a rope. The first part of the play develops the complications, and the last part works out the complications. At the point we are in this play with the discovery of the violation of Creon’s decree, the Chorus says it won’t take much to finish the job, and the audience doesn’t have to wonder about it. Therefore, it is peaceful to watch the “denouement” or unraveling, because it is inevitable. It is like watching a “film without a sound-track” (p. 34) where you see the characters shouting and carrying on, but you can’t hear them and are not caught up in it. The audience remains a mere witness of the action: “alone in the desert of your silence” (p. 34).

The two metaphors work together to create the impression of tragedy as the inevitable pattern of action that leads to a violent death, and restfulness, co-existing in one spectacle. One can witness “fate” or the playing out of cause and effect towards the undoing. It is clean, direct, without messy emotions clouding the issue. We see and understand how the spring unwinds.

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