Antigone: Theme Analysis
The Heroic vs. Mediocre Life
Antigone and Creon represent for Anouilh two types of people in the world: the people with integrity who think for themselves, and those who do what they are told. Antigone refers to this difference first in her debate with her sister Ismene and then with her long debate with her uncle, Creon.
Ismene tells Antigone that they are mere women without power. They must conform to the wishes of men and of the state. They must obey the law, no matter how bad it seems to them. Ismene accuses Antigone of wanting her “own stubborn way in everything” (p. 19). Antigone argues that from the time she was small she was told what to do: she must not play with water, or with the earth, because they are messy. She must not run in the wind, or share her food with beggars or go swimming at the wrong time of the day. Antigone, the idealist, insists on consulting no one but herself: “I am not listening to you” (p. 20). She will not have standards outside her own desire to live life to the fullest. Ismene, the realist, concludes: “He [Creon] is stronger than we are, Antigone” (p. 20).
When Creon complains about the dirtiness of politics to justify his cruel behavior, Antigone asks him why he agreed to be king: “you should have said no” (p. 48). He says that he is doing his duty. Antigone prefers the heroic high ground: “I didn’t say yes. I can say no to anything I think vile, and I don’t have to count the cost” (p. 49). Because Creon said yes to the way the world is, he “will never stop paying” (p. 50). He seems the respectable one, but he has taken the coward’s way, doing what is expected of him. Once he takes that path, he has compromised and has no ground to make moral judgments. He has to control the other sheep to make sure they don’t get out of line.
Antigone says she speaks to Creon “from a kingdom [he] can’t get into” because of his “hollow heart” (p. 57). His idea of life is to sell out for a little happiness, but Antigone will not settle for the mediocre, “a hum-drum happiness” (p. 58). “I want everything of life . . . I want it total, complete: otherwise, I reject it” (p. 58). Far from feeling powerless as Ismene tells her they are, she taunts Creon with her power over him, for she can act from her sovereign self. When Creon tells her that her action will be meaningless, she says that “what a person can do, a person ought to do” (p. 45). She must act on her conviction or yield the power of self-determination to another. She points out that though he is the king, he does not have the power to save her or stop her. After her death, the Chorus comments, “we shall never know the name of the fever that consumed her” (p. 71). The fever might be called “heroism.” Critic Alba Della Fazia points out that “the serenity of the mediocre race is denied the frenzied heroes and heroines who . . . reject the maxim that physical, political, and military might makes right” (Sophocles 39).
Society is Perverted and Cannot Tolerate Purity
Included in the many images of Antigone’s sneaking out of the palace in the early morning, is the notion of original purity. Purity is associated with the beginning of the day, with the innocence of the garden before people have spoiled it. It is the joy of being the first girl out in the morning to smell the freshness. It is the joy of appreciating air on bare skin and “black, beautiful flowing water” (p. 19). In Anouilh’s plays, it is usually the young who are still innocent and full of life. As they age, they cannot hold onto the ideal; they give in to what is expedient. They become dull and let other forces control their lives. Creon admits he was once young and full of ideals, like Antigone. He was “a lad called Creon,” (p. 56) who loved music and art. Antigone fears that Haemon will grow old and worn like Creon. She says, “The Haemon I love is hard and young, faithful and difficult to satisfy” (p. 57). Haemon himself is horrified at the change that has come over his father since he became king: “You are not yourself” (p. 62). What happened, he asks Creon in anguish, to his beloved father who was “That giant strength . . . that massive god who used to pick me up in his arms”(62)? He is shocked that his own father could kill the woman he loves, his own niece.
Creon is the example of what happens to most people who are not able to hold on to their integrity. Sooner or later they feel the pressure of conformity and give up youthful ideals. They become part of the mindless crowd that Creon compares to animals nudging one another along on the road. Creon, once good and tender, becomes capable of justifying evil acts and carrying them out. He tells Antigone that “Life flows like water” (p. 56), and she should grab it and hold it. Antigone knows that life is not to be contained but must be free and enjoyed. Creon accuses her of coming “of people for whom the human vestment is a kind of straightjacket: it cracks at the seams” (p. 43). He thinks she asks for too much, but Haemon understands what Antigone wants, and when his father denies them their right to life, he cracks at the seams too. The Chorus warns Creon, “the boy is wounded to death” (p. 63). Creon does not heed this remark because he has already explained to Haemon that he has to grow up, and watching Antigone die for her crime will make a man of him. Creon says, “We are all wounded to death” (p. 63). He accepts that wound as a normal part of life. Even the death of his whole family does not make him change. He tells the page at the end, “They say it’s dirty work. But if we didn’t do it, who would?” (p. 70).
Anouilh, however, makes it clear that society is perverted and cruel. It does not foster life but makes everyone into a slave. Creon has become a killer in the name of justice. He sees the rebellion like a snake that he cut in two, but he fears it is coming back together again, and he must continue to kill the snake (p. 32). He tells Antigone that he lives in “the back room, in the kitchen of politics” (p. 54). Antigone is not impressed by his excuses and taunts him as being not a king, but only a “cook” in his kitchen (p. 60). She and Haemon keep the purity of their youth only by dying.
Although the cards are stacked against anyone trying to be an individual in modern society, Anouilh’s plays celebrate the attempt of the few to try. Something of the charisma of a Joan of Arc or Antigone or Becket appeals to us, even though their heroism is doomed. Antigone says she is proud to be “of the tribe that asks questions, and we ask them to the bitter end” (p. 58). When Creon disillusions her about her brothers being mere thugs in hopes of showing her that her sacrifice will mean nothing, she still chooses to stay in rebellion “for myself” (p. 46). She does it so she can live with her own conscience. Creon tempts her with the idea of a happy life with Haemon, with children, and a comfortable old age. She asks the price of all this: “to whom shall I have to lie? . . . “To whom must I sell myself?”(p. 57). She sees that in order to buy this life for herself, she would have to subscribe to the inhumane values of society: “Whom do you want me to leave dying, while I turn away my eyes?” (p. 57).
The last question brings up the life of the Guards, whom Anouilh takes some effort to depict as the eternal policemen of the state. Mere animals or automatons, they avoid seeing other people as fellow humans. Antigone tries to make friends with Jonas, the prison Guard, the last person she will see. He gives in a little but is clearly uncomfortable when she asks about his children. He asks, “What’s that got to do with you?” (p. 64) Instead, he brags about the life of a Guard: “if you’re a guard, everybody knows you’re something special . . . . You get a house, coal, rations, extras for the wife and kids” (p. 64). He has paid his price for security and status. Antigone asks if it hurts to die, and he replies, “How would I know?” (p. 65). He does not want to know these things. He is a machine of the state.
Ismene tries everything she knows to frighten Antigone back into her place, including envisioning what it would be like to be executed. Antigone is more frightened of conforming than of dying. She says contemptuously, “They’ve made up your mind for you. Is that it?” Ismene agrees, “Yes” (p. 21). Haemon, however, shows individual integrity by refusing to “grow up” and be a man like his father. When he sees what that means, he runs off half mad to embrace Antigone and death. Eurydice, the ever quiet, knitting docile queen, joins their rebellion by slitting her throat. Individual integrity is often proved in Anouilh’s plays by the extreme measure of giving up one’s life to remain oneself.