The Problem with Antigone: A Martyr’s Motivations

Written by Emily Ogden

For fairly obvious reasons (he committed both patricide and incest), I could have written this segment of our Problematic Literary Faves column on Oedipus. But instead I decided to focus on his kids, who have just as many problems. Oedipus and his mother bore two sons and two daughters: Polyneices, Eteocles, Antigone, and Ismene. In the beginning of Sophocles’ Antigone, both brothers have died on opposing sides of a civil war. Creon, Antigone’s uncle and the king since Oedipus gouged out his eyes and exiled himself (see reasons above), has decided to deny his nephew Polyneices’ body proper burial rights as punishment for the side he chose. (This is actually quite a big deal, because it means Polyneices will not proceed into the afterlife.) Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother. Tragically, she is caught and left to die in a cave, where she hangs herself before poor Haemon, her fiancé and Creon’s son, finds her. He also commits suicide, which finally makes Creon wish he had handled this a bit differently, but of course this all came just a little too late.

Antigone is a classic martyr who nobly tries to serve the gods and help her kin, but her actions and motivations are riddled with complications. Antigone’s sister, Ismene, who like Creon decides that her duty is to the city, points out that Antigone’s actions will not only result in more death in the family, but also that they are virtually impossible anyway, because of the guards posted around the body. To this, Antigone quite literally tells her sister to go to hell. When Ismene gives up and promises she will not tell anyone of Antigone’s involvement, Antigone instead tells her to “shout it out,” because she is doing the godly thing and does not want to share this credit with anyone (line 86). Then, Antigone actually does the impossible: she successfully buries Polyneices. But when the guards discover what has happened under their very noses, she pops back out of hiding for no apparent reason and throws herself onto his body, thus basically arresting herself. When she is brought before Creon she doesn’t even try to evade execution, instead asking, “so what are you waiting for?” (line 499).

Which brings me to my next point: not only does Antigone want glory, but she also pretty much wants to die. She knows that Oedipus isn’t winning any Father-of-the-Year awards, and almost everyone else is dead. She believes in the gods and values what happens to her in the afterlife much more than what happens to her in her terrible current one. So was the burial selfless justice, or a really complicated suicide with a bonus reward tacked on? She does end up hanging herself. I’ll wrap this up with a last, insane reason Antigone gives:

for a husband who had died there would be another for me, and a child from another man…but with mother and father covered over, in Hades, there is no brother who could ever grow up. (lines 909-911)

In other words, she couldn’t care less if her husband or child dies, but there’s no way for her to have another brother, so that is what’s important. Hmm.

Of course, there are many people who respect Antigone’s actions despite her possible motivations. She was, after all, extremely brave in the face of danger, and pious (to a fault, I’d say). No matter one’s opinion of Antigone as a person, analyzing her as a problematic hero leaves readers with the important question: is a noble act still noble if one does it for the wrong reasons? Perhaps the only one who knows the answer is Antigone herself.

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