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Antigone

Part II

Summary Part II

Analysis

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.

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.

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.