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The Nurse shudders to think of what Creon and Haemon will think, and certainly Antigone's mother will reproach her in the underworld. Antigone bids the Nurse not to cry: she was only teasing. She embraces her "sweet red apple" and swears to her purity. The Nurse must not cry as it turns Antigone into a little girl, and she cannot be a girl today.
Suddenly a sleepless Ismene enters, also asking where Antigone has been. The Nurse chastises them both for rising so early. Antigone sends her away for coffee. She tells Ismene she should not forgo her beauty sleep. She recalls how she was such a beastly sister, flinging mud and worms at her, tying her to a tree and cutting off her hair. How easy it must be to never be unreasonable with all that "smooth silken hair" set around her head.
Ismene abruptly interrupts Antigone, saying they cannot bury Polynices, as Creon will put them to death. But Antigone is unmoved, and replies that it is his purpose, just as theirs is to bury their brother. Ismene insists that she behaves too impulsively. She sort of sees what Creon intends with his edict, and that he must set an example. Antigone rejoins that she, the nasty, willful brat, does not understand. The family has always told her to understand, to not play with water or earth, to not eat from every dish at once, to not run in the wind, or give empty one's pockets for beggars. Ismene warns that Creon has the mob with him, a mob of thousands arms and eyes that will drag them to the scaffold.
Antigone pushes Ismene off. Ismene enjoins her to be sensible, since only men die for ideas. Ismene tells Antigone that Antigone is a young and beautiful girl engaged to be married. Antigone retorts that she is not beautiful. Ismene disagrees, saying that she always gives the little boys and girls pause in the streets. Antigone bids her to go back to bed; the sun is up, and she can do nothing today. Ismene retires.
The Nurse reappears, calling Antigone to breakfast. Antigone asks the Nurse to keep her warm and safe as she always has, explaining that she is too young for what she must endure. The Nurse is stronger than fever, nightmare, shadow, and night. Her powerful hand, which Antigone presses to her check, wards off all evil. The Nurse implores her to explain. Antigone makes a request that the Nurse must never scold her dog Puff again and talk to her as she does, especially if, for whatever reason, she can no longer. If she gets too unhappy, she should put her to sleep. Indignant and perplexed, the Nurse agrees.
Suddenly Haemon enters and the Nurse departs. The betrothed embrace, and Antigone begs his forgiveness. Smiling, Haemon replies that he already had when she stormed out. He wonders from whom she stole the perfume, rouge, powder, and frock. Antigone admits that she filched them from Ismene. She was a fool to waste an evening, especially when they may not have many more. She asks Haemon to hold her with all his strength.
As with Sophocles's sistes, Ismene and Antigone appear as foils and rivals. Ismene is reasonable, timid, and obedient, full-figured and beautiful in being a good girl. In contrast, Antigone is recalcitrant, impulsive, and moody, sallow, thin, and decidedly resistant to being a girl like the rest. Though the Chorus will later emphasize the play's distance from conventional melodrama, it is interesting to note how, in revising the opposition in Sophocles's version, it imports the good girl/bad girl structure typical of this genre, not to mention a number of rather sentimentally melodramatic scenes. Here, Ismene advises moderation, understanding, and capitulation to difficult sister. They must both take Creon's obligations into account. In any case, women do not die for ideas, only men do. Ismene also conjures the specter of the howling mob, the mob that would stare them down with its thousands of eyes become one, and the guards that would defile them with their beastly hands. A number of critics have underlined this mob as central to the anti-fascist polemic mounted in the play. Strangely, in this nightmare, the spectator perhaps hears the cowardly Ismene's attraction to this fantasy of martyrdom. The sisters' humiliation appears in erotic terms, involving fantasies of looking and touching that culminate in their ecstatic scream of pain. This fantasy indicates that Ismene knows all too well that women do die for ideas. Ismene's attraction to martyrdom perhaps explains her ultimate conversion to Antigone's cause.
Read more about the sisters’ rivalry as a theme.
As we will see later, Antigone has little interest in playing the public martyr. Her agenda belongs to her alone. Interestingly, in contrast to conventional readings of the Antigone legend, here Anouilh's Antigone does not defend her act of rebellion in the name of filial or religious loyalty. Instead, she casts her act in terms of her desire. Just as she always played with water, ate from all the plates at once, or went swimming at dawn, she will bury Polynices. Throughout the play, we will follow the tension that occurs between Antigone's insistence on her desire and her political heroism. Refusing to understand those around her, she will follow her desire to the point of death. In this sense, Antigone departs from the human and becomes a tragic heroine. Thus, as Ismene notes, her beauty as such a heroine is somehow not of this world, the kind of beauty that turns the heads of small children—in fear, awe, and otherwise.
Read more about Antigone’s tragic beauty as a motif.
With Antigone's beauty in mind, Anouilh develops another form of rivalry between the sisters with regards to femininity. Antigone curses her girlhood. She manifests her hatred for the ideal of femininity Ismene incarnates in their childhood, brutally binding her sister to a tree to stage her mutilation. This reminiscence of torture is perhaps related Ismene's own vision of being defiled by the mob and guards. In any case, Anouilh attributes Antigone's hate and envy in Ismene's capacity to figure as an object of desire, as the woman men want. Thus, in attempting to seduce Haemon and become "his woman," Antigone steals Ismene's goods—lipstick, rouge, perfume, powder, and frock—in another act of sisterly dismemberment. Through Ismene, Antigone could be a woman. But as we will see, such human pleasures are not meant for her.
Antigone's exchange with Ismene is followed by another exchange with the Nurse, in which she desperately seeks solace from the fate that has been set in motion. For Antigone, the Nurse assumes an apotrophaic, that which wards off evil, capacity. Note how Antigone's speech on the Nurse's strength ("Stronger than all fever") reads like an incantation. For Antigone, the Nurse is stronger even than death; her callused hand wards off evil like an amulet. Antigone's pleas for protection echo the promises she will later make to Haemon—that she would have been a "real mother" to their son and kept him safe from all. Antigone poses the world as something to be afraid of, conjuring the fevers, nightmares, silences, beasts, and other unknown forces that menace her from the darkness.
Read more about the gray world that Antigone tells the nurse about as a symbol.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Antigone!