Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rebel or Martyr?

Antigone is perhaps one of the most strong-willed women in Greek literature. Her unwavering self-confidence and spirited nature cannot be but admired. However, her single-minded commitment to burying her brother can be seen as either an honorable act of love for her family or a rebellious teenage act against authority. Is Antigone a rebel or a martyr? The evidence points both ways at first. When Creon decrees that Polyneices should not be buried because he died a traitorous death, there is never any sign that Antigone has faltered in her decision to disobey Creon. The play starts with Antigone trying to convince Ismene to join her in burying their brother. Either Antigone is extremely close to her brother or she has been waiting for a reason to defy Creon. The first sign that Antigone’s motives are perhaps rebellious is when she becomes angry with Ismene because she is too timid to break the law. Instead of forgiving Ismene or understanding her sister’s hesitant nature, Antigone accuses her of being a traitor to the family. On the other hand, if Antigone truly loves her brother as strongly as she professes, Ismene’s refusal to help her could have upset her deeply. Indeed Antigone insists, “I will bury him; and if I must die, / I say that this crime is holy; I shall lie down / With him in death, and I shall be as dear / To him as he to me” (1326).

However, when she is captured, she is more intent on lecturing Creon and criticizing his policies than professing her love for her brother. This Antigone is more concerned with becoming a martyr than the peace she supposedly wants to secure for her brother’s soul. Indeed Creon accuses her of this when he declares, “[t]he girl is guilty of a double insolence, breaking the given laws and boasting of it” (1334). And she reveals her real intention when she says, “I should have praise and honor for what I have done” (1334). If she really was breaking the law because of love for her brother, she would not want praise and honor and attention. Finally, when Ismene is brought in and accused by Creon of having a part in Antigone’s plan, Antigone refuses to allow Ismene to share in the blame. Ismene is now ready to share responsibility for Antigone’s actions because she realizes her duty to her brother and does not want to live if Antigone is dead. Antigone however refuses to let her be condemned to death as she does not want Ismene “to lessen [her] death by sharing it” (1336). These actions are a demonstration of Antigone’s self-centered motives. She will not allow Ismene to share her death, because she wants all the glory a martyr’s death will bring.

This arrogant and selfish Antigone is not representative of the traditional strong-willed martyr of Greek mythology. Yet her personality flaws make Antigone a more believable, if imperfect heroine. Regardless of her motives, Antigone still sacrifices herself for her family, and is able to give her brother peace in the Underworld. Indeed it is Antigone as the imperfect heroine that makes her one of the most fascinating women in Greek drama.


Matt Rosenzweig said...

I appreciate your article for its blatant honesty regarding the conspicuous “nobility” of Antigone’s position. When reading Antigone’s lines, I cannot help but imagine an extremely self-righteous female with an undeniable air of arrogance. Your argument concerning Antigone’s quest for self-glory and “praise and honor and attention” is well-developed and supported by ample quotations. However, an argument against your case that I do not believe you sufficiently resolve is that even if Antigone’s character is flawed in the manner you have described, such an element does not deny that Antigone’s cause is a just one if Creon’s law is such an egregious affront to the gods. In such a case, the two options of “rebel” and “martyr” are not mutually exclusive: Antigone is a rebel in the eyes of the laws of men, but a martyr in the eyes of the gods. Nevertheless, your article successfully “humanizes” Antigone, lifting her off the pedestal a reader may be inclined to place her upon initial read.

Isabel Hines said...

Wow my comment isn't going to sound as smart as his. I'm not even going to try.

Anyway, you completely convinced me Antigoine was a martyr! I had shortly contemplated the idea but your evidence finalized such a view. I especially enjoyed your comparing Antigoine to classic Greek martyrs and your humanization of Antigoine. You definetly allow the reader to understand her true humanity and therefore relate to her character. Overall, great stuff Ken!

E. Tiberius Fram said...

Well this is great, having The Honorable Matthew Rosenzweig get to your blog (Which you named the KKK... really? Nice one) before me.

What I will say is that you have too convinced me that Antigone can be reasonably accurately seen as a martyr. The humanization of her also serves to strengthen the message that your get across to your readers.

Good good.


Michael Silverman said...

I agree with Matt's post above in the fact that rebel and martyr are not mutual exclusive. Antigone is both. She is the rebel by definition because she "rebels" against the law of the day which was literally the law of the day. Creon decreed it, and as such, it is not truly a law that she feels she should obey, as a law is usually the result of time test knowledge and application. She is also a martyr in that, again, by definition she ends up dying for her cause. This makes her a martyr by default. However, I will agree with you that while she is doing it primarily for honor, there is some slight self interest that plays its part in Antigone's desire to be a martyr. She wants the honor, no doubt about it, but I still cannon fully believe she wanted it solely out of self interest, I would like to think that she has some semblance of brotherly love left. Great Post.

Richie Zitomer said...

Great job Kendra. This blog is very well-developed (I know Matt said that but I have a point to make about it so I'm going to repeat it). I like how you talk about how as the story unfolds it reveals Antigone to be a character with mixed motives and how you made your blog unfold in a similar way . The way each paragraph added a different layer to your debate about her motives made the blog a thought-provoking read. On the second to last paragraph, I was pretty much sold on the idea that she was mostly selfish, but the last paragraph convinced me that their was no clear-cut answer.

LCC said...

Kenda--The conclusion I'd draw, b oth from your excellent post and from the strong comments it elicited, is that pure motives are an oxymoron. The conscientious objector (rebel) cannot quite free herself of the desire to die for her cause (martyr). In Catcher in the Rye (have you read that?) one of Holden's teachers says that the mark of an immature mindis the desire to die nobly for a cause while maturity involves the willingness to live humbly for one. Your blog reminds me of that statement.