What makes someone a hero or a heroine? As the question sinks in, a silence slowly permeates the classroom as we all ponder the answer. We have all heard of Superman, Wonder Woman, and even Captain Underpants, but they are all fictional characters; not real. So I can’t help but wonder, how do you explain what, or who, a hero is to someone who has never heard of these comic book characters? My English teacher interrupts my train of thought and asks: “Does death turn someone into a hero? Is Antigone heroic? Was she right to die?”
Antigone…a heroine? The question my teacher poses causes a frenzy as we all try to come up with what we hope is the “right” answer.
It is important to have a basic a synopsis of the tale of Antigone to comprehend the discussion that ensued in my English class that day. The original tragedy of Antigone was written by Sophocles and is the basis for Jean Anouilh’s version. It is set during a tremulous time in the land of Thebes. Oedipus’s two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, have slain each other in a battle for their father’s throne. Creon, their uncle, has been forced to step up to the throne and is the newly appointed king. Creon is presented as a man who duty-bound, someone who practices justice over mercy. Creon proclaims that the body of Polynices shall remain unburied and left to rot. Anyone who attempts to bury him will be put to death. Antigone, the sister of the late Polynices is caught by Creon’s guards attempting to bury her brother. The greater part of the play from there on focuses on the argument that takes place between Antigone and Creon. As Creon tries to convince Antigone to live, Antigone’s resolve to die is strengthened. Just as Antigone appears ready to succumb to the words of Creon, he makes the mistake of mentioning happiness and Antigone rebels.
The character of Antigone was the cause of much disagreement in my English class. She is seen as selfish and immature by everyone in class and no one seems to believe that she is a heroine. We all question her actions and behavior and side with Creon on his decision and his rationality. Mrs. Harper, our teacher, gradually becomes flustered and frustrated with us because we can’t seem to be able to look beyond Antigone’s “irrational” behavior and accept what she represents. She represent immature tantrums that’s what, I think in my mind. Once again confusion and skepticism crosses through everyone’s face and our argument continues.
Why can’t Mrs. Harper see that Antigone is just being selfish? She is merely throwing a tantrum and being prideful. Rather than admit to being wrong, she wants to die?! Mrs. Harper just has to see that we are right and she is wrong.
The irony of my thought doesn’t fully sink in until the bell rings and our discussion is cut short. As I am leaving the room a nagging thought in the back of my mind persists.
During our discussion I had raised my hand to reinforce and agree with the statement of a fellow classmate who had argued that Antigone was immature because she refuses to compromise her childish ideals of happiness and instead chooses death. To reinforce the statement I point out to Mrs. Harper a line from the play where Antigone says: “But I want everything, now! And to the full! I don’t want to be sensible, and satisfied with a scrap—if I behave myself!” I explain to Mrs. Harper that Antigone is selfish and will only accept happiness on her own terms; clearly she is not a hero.
Throughout the day that thought in the back of my mind nags at me until I remember what it was. Earlier in the school year Mrs. Harper had us all write an essay on what made us happy:“I know it may sound very selfish of me but I feel my happiest when I’m able to do what I want. To make my own choices and decide on the things I want to do. There is no light on this earth brighter than the sun and likewise there is no greater light for me than happiness. In a sense I could be called a ‘sun child.’ Happiness is whatever I make it to be. It can be a state of mind, a journey, or a choice, but in the end I want happiness on my own terms.”
Is that Antigone speaking? No, that was me! Selfish, child-like, and only wanting happiness on my terms, just call me Antigone.
My realization is further reinforced when Mrs. Harper confronts me later in the day and says, “Why don’t you like Antigone? I don’t understand why. To me you represent Antigone!”
Mrs. Harper expands and tells me that Antigone is someone who stands up for what she believes in, for what she wants. Selfish and childlike as she might seem, she will not submit herself to the expectations and roles those around her choose to assign to her. She is an extreme that every society needs in order to advance—as is Creon. Antigone represents something more than just a selfish young woman, and this is what Mrs. Harper understands in a way that my class does not.
Often we find ourselves drawn to characters and people so unlike ourselves, particularly in books and movies. We admire and praise those attributes and gradually begin to feel that we are similar to them. We see a parallel in their actions and thoughts to our own actions and thoughts. Yet, more often than we would like to admit, we see ourselves as we would like to be rather than how we truly are.
As much as we all claimed to relate to Creon that day in my English class, we are not all Creons. At least now I know I’m not. I, like Antigone, am someone who wants to make her own choices and do things as I like, not according to what others expect. If I don’t feel that something is right or I don’t fully agree with it, I am someone who will speak up. Antigone embodies my strengths and my weaknesses. She is outspoken, bold, and does not submit to what she feels would compromise her ideals, as childish and irrational as they might seem.
This makes her vulnerable to the reader and to Creon, but it is also what makes her complex. She is hard to figure out on paper and even harder to understand in person. She represents an idea and a concept—an idea and a concept that my teacher saw in me before I fully recognized it.
Antigone is not a heroine, and neither am I. She is a young girl with hopes and aspirations and although her motivation is a cause of debate in my English class, she did not settle for less than she felt she was worth.
That day in English I learned to understand a little more about myself and who I am. Antigone was someone who defied expectations and suffered the consequences. Unlike Creon she shows her fear and even says to him: “…I, with my broken nails and the bruises your guards have made on my arms and my stomach all knotted up with fear—I’m a queen.”
As self pompous as it might sound, I understand Antigone feeling like a queen. She is a queen by facing and acknowledging her fear, breaking free of labels, and voicing her opinion. So if Antigone is in this sense a queen, and I see myself in Antigone, by the transitive property I just might be a queen too.
(originally written in 2010; third place in the 2013 Elsie C. Carroll Writing Contest)