Integrity in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone

Integrity in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone

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Integrity in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone  

The distinctions between young and old, naïve and wise are very clear. There is a fiery passion for life often embedded in the young, and a sense of bittersweet reflection set in the aged. The age gap between the two is often a cause for conflict. The young want to hurry up and live only to eventually die; the old want to slow down their rate of living and postpone death. With such divergent circumstances, conflicts are almost impossible to avoid. The question of how one can grow old while keeping youthful idealism and integrity seems to be the source of most conflicts. Jean Anouilh, in his version of the Greek classic play Antigone, firmly captures and reflects the disparity between old and young through the use of the characters of Antigone and Creon.

           The play opens, after the introduction by Chorus, with Antigone rushing in from a night that the audience can take only to be a night of living fully. She describes her nocturnal adventures with detail, proclaiming excitedly that she had been out enjoying the world as it lay untouched before morning. "The whole world was breathless, waiting," she tells the Nurse (7). She evades the questions put to her by the Nurse, and it becomes apparent to the audience that she has been out doing something she should not have been. This in itself immediately presents Antigone as a girl who wants to live at all costs. It seems that living, to her, means breaking rules and seeking out danger. When Antigone's sister Ismene enters the play, the audience is given the explanation for Antigone's breathless nighttime escapades. The Nurse exits, allowing the girls to talk, and Ismene begins to speak of the possibility of a death sentence being issued for the two of them.

           Creon, the king and their uncle, issued an edict to the people of Thebes that the rebel Polynices, brother to Ismene and Antigone, should not be buried on pain of death. Antigone explains in what seems to be a rational tone that she and Ismene are bound, as by duty, to bury Polynices and face the execution. She makes it clear to Ismene that there are no two ways about it. "That's the way it is. What do you think we can do to change it?" she says (11). She also tells Ismene that she is not eager to die, but it seems to the audience otherwise throughout the progression of the play.

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Antigone argues with Ismene that she does not want to die, but that there are no choices to be made save for those that lead to death. She makes rash decisions based on her innocence and naiveté, as young people are often prone to do. Ismene - a little older and perhaps wiser as some might say - argues that a compromise with Creon is the best solution, while Antigone argues that she has no desire to see his point of view. Ismene tells her, "I pity Polynices just as much as you do. But all the same, I sort of see what Uncle Creon means" (11). Antigone's retort is a simple statement: "I don't want to 'sort of see' anything" (11). Antigone speaks with the rashness of youth that causes the young to believe that compromise is not necessary. She wants things to be her own way, and she will not accept alternatives. She tells Ismene, "There will be time enough to understand when I'm old… If I ever am old. But not now," (12). With that statement, she implies that she knows what happens to people as they age - she sees that wisdom and compromise come as one grows.

           Antigone also often speaks with a sort of calm, rehearsed wisdom of her own. The wisdom she speaks with is false; it is caused by the results of her rash decision-making. In facing her own impending doom - as she believes she will be sentenced to death - she has come to find a sense of resignation to destiny. She begs her Nurse to take care of her dog and speaks to Haemon as though she wants to tie up loose ends. She explains her behavior from their most recent encounter, and she apologizes for not having been kinder to him. She clearly loves him, but even her love is not enough to prevent her from fulfilling her own self-imposed fate. She sends him away, adding heartbreak to the melodrama of her situation.

           In a sense, it seems Antigone greatly reflects the common notions surrounding teenagers. It is often said that teenagers are compelled to behave with a sense of melodrama and rebellion, no matter their age or maturity level. With the burial of her brother Polynices and the way she broods over her choices, she makes it obvious that she is living up to these ideas. She even gets into a fierce debate with Creon, backing him into a corner despite his desire to try to help her. He gives her the option of avoiding the death sentence all together - he offers to remove from the equation the guards that caught Antigone, and simply pretend the whole thing had never happened. Antigone refuses this proposal, telling Creon that she will go out to bury her brother no matter how he may try to stop her. It is in this manner that the seriousness of Antigone's melodrama is revealed to the audience. Antigone explains to Creon that she owed it to Polynices to bury him, for "those who are not buried wander eternally and find no rest" (29). Despite her search for recognition as a teenager finding her way in the world, she also is behaving out of sisterly love for a deceased brother. It is in this one respect that she sets her behavior apart from the histrionic actions of the average teenager. Although she is somewhat different, the end result is the same: she continues to refuse the aid of Creon, and furthermore permanently resigns herself to what she sees as her fate.

           Antigone hints continuously that she wishes only to perform her duty, speaking as if she knows she is merely a character in a play, but that she can not hold onto this conviction long. She is living within the realm of her ideals and does not wish to have her idealism upset. When Creon tells her the truth about her brother Polynices, as well as her brother Eteocles - the truth being that they were both irresponsible ruffians - her idealism is shattered and the force of her melodrama wanes. She finds a new source for her drive toward destiny, however, in the decision that she does not want to learn to compromise. Creon tells her that she must learn that it is easier to say no than to agree to do something one does not want to do. Antigone sees this compromise as a rejection of her ideals - it is a concession of her innocent ethics. In another rare moment of true wisdom, Antigone tells Creon, "You with your promise of a humdrum happiness - provided a person doesn't ask too much of life," (42). Behind her exaggerated rebellion lies a single grain of truth, and that grain is both Antigone's source of motivation and her eventual downfall. Her desire for genuine happiness pushes her forward, but at the same time she finds the lack of such happiness in the real world to be disturbing. In the end, Antigone hangs herself - fulfilling her death wish, and epitomizing her misguided idealism.

           If Antigone is the literary embodiment of youthful vitality and idealism, then Creon is the written incarnation of age, wisdom, and bitterness. He says that he "woke up one morning and found [himself] King of Thebes," (35) and that he did not want the responsibility that came with the title. He also says that he was able to compromise and put his own idealism on hold for the sake of the kingdom. He implies that it was wisdom and maturity that allowed him to make these decisions. When he supposedly crushed the rebellion that Polynices had formed, he laid Polynices' corpse out in the fields and denied it burial. In his bitterness, he wanted the kingdom to know who the true ruler was, and used the stench of a rotting carcass as a reminder. "Isn't your brother's corpse, rotting there under my windows, payment enough for peace and order in Thebes?" he asks Antigone (36). He puts on the façade that he made his choices based on the good of the people of Thebes, and not based on the fear of losing his power. His compromise, he says, was selfless: "There had to be one man who said yes. Somebody had to agree to captain the ship" (36). He is a variant of the "yes-man" personality - going along with the wishes of others for the purpose of saving face - as he agreed to take over the throne because he thought no one else was truly able. At surface value, this was a wise choice because it prevented the kingdom from entering a state of chaos and conflict without a ruler.

           Antigone mocks Creon for his readiness to agree to anything if it means avoiding conflict, but his response redeems him. She says that he has lost all of the passion and innocence of youth that she still possesses. Antigone tells him that he lost those characteristics the day he learned to say 'yes' when he really meant 'no.' She tells him, "I didn't say yes. I can say no to anything I think vile, and I don't have to count the cost" (35). She throws back in his face all that he has learned to be over the years - the man to compromise his values as a means of getting along. Antigone's words hurt Creon's pride, forcing him to face the monstrosity he has become. He defends his acceptance of the crown - and therefore his acceptance of denying his ethics - when he says, "I should have been like a workman who turns down a job that has to be done. So I said yes" (35). Creon's redemption from the evil of compromising his ethics lies in the fact that he learned the true value of responsibility.

           Despite being the epitome of a crotchety old man who has forgotten what youthful idealism feels like, Creon has wisdom, of a sort, on his side. Over the years, he came to realize that there comes a time when one must accept responsibility despite the desire to return to youthful innocence. He has a greater sense of responsibility than he was ever able to instill in Antigone. Antigone wants life to be a perpetual state of childhood - free of responsibility - and Creon sees that one must grow up at some point. He tells Haemon, "Sooner or later there comes a day of sorrow in each man's life when he must cease to be a child and take up the burden of manhood" (46). He uses this statement to point out the distinct line between maturity and childishness. The wisdom there is obvious; Creon sees the value in taking responsibility for the choices one must make in adulthood, whether king or commoner.

           Creon, of course, was never completely accurate in his observations of the value of responsibility. He compromised too much and therefore went too far in his sense of his own maturity. He never understood that the real compromise to be made in life is not one of values or ideals, but rather it is when one realizes the line between maturity and immaturity, and learns to behave in one way or another depending on circumstance. If Creon had listened to Antigone a bit more - or vice versa - a compromise of real value may have been reached, allowing both of them to learn and grow beyond their standard behavior.

           Neither Antigone nor Creon is entirely accurate in his or her viewpoint. Antigone, despite being right in thinking that one should not compromise one's ideals, does not realize that compromise is necessary somewhere along the line. Creon is also wrong because he seeks out compromise too much - he has forgotten what it is like to simply do what he, as an individual, feels is right. He has been corrupted by the politics of being king, as well as by his age. His wisdom lies solely in the fact that he has experience, and his wisdom is essentially useless because he does not use it for the power of good. His compromises are full of bitterness, rather than the desire to find a suitable solution to problems. Antigone is wrong because she throws to the wind everything that does not agree with her sense of idealism. She has seen in the example of her uncle that she will eventually grow old and learn to compromise when necessary. Again, she sees giving ground to be a conciliation of her childlike values. Eventually, this inability to attempt to meet the needs of others led to her suicide. She could not bear the weight of growing older, of compromise, and ended her life prematurely.

           Where Creon's ethical choices led him to eventually die completely alone as an old man, Antigone's choices led her to die alone and at an all too young age. Each of them had options outside of the set behavior he or she had chosen as his or her own. Had the stubbornness of both youth and old age not been in the way, things might have been different on either end. Anoiulh made it clear that there were other paths to take and that those paths might have led to other courses of events in life. Antigone thought she was maintaining her integrity by denying cooperation with those that would give way to compromises. Creon believed that his integrity was spared because he saved the kingdom from its own chaos when he assumed the throne. Jean Anouilh used the extremes of both characters to comment on the choices one can make to maintain one's integrity and innocence in the face of compromise and corruption. Anoiulh also made it clear that he understood the value of making the one true compromise of life - choosing to accept responsibility when necessary, while keeping the childlike stirrings of youth. It is only in this manner that one can maintain one's true integrity at any age.

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