Antigone: A Feminist Heroine or Just a Dutiful Sister?
The question of whether Antigone, the title character of the third tragedy within Sophocles' Theban trilogy, is indeed a feminist heroine is a debatable one. Considering the literal definitions of words like, "feminism" ("the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes") (Webster's New American Dictionary, p. 191) and "heroine" ("1. A woman admired for her achievements and qualities 2. The chief female character in a literary or dramatic work") (p. 243), it seems that Antigone herself is not so much a feminist heroine, in particular, as she is merely the loyal (and deeply indignant) grieving sister of a fallen, if ignoble prince, Polynices. Despite Polynices' treachery in life, Antigone wishes for her brother to be buried with honor, just like her other brother, Eteocles. Antigone's reputation as a "feminist heroine" springs from the fact that she defies patriarchy in order to accomplish that goal. However, Antigone, given her determination to properly bury Polynices, would also likely have defied any other authority trying to prevent her doing so. Therefore, Antigone defies Creon's order not so much as a gesture toward "political, economic, and social equality of the sexes," but rather, as one of sisterly duty and loyalty.
As Winterer points out, "The heroine of Sophocles' eponymous Greek tragedy, Antigone was a dutiful sister who defied the state to attend to her family and religious conscience" (p. 70). Antigone, convinced of what is right, stubbornly disobeys Creon in order to bury her brother, although not necessarily to make any particular feminist point, vis-a-vis either Creon or the other men who mock her. Ultimately, her defiance of Creon's patriarchal authority leads to Antigone's slow and (at least) equally improper execution. As Stange notes, in respect to that outcome, however: "The sobering problem with reading Antigone as a proto-feminist heroine, of course, is that her defiance of the patriarchal order proves fatal for her" ("Women's Roles").
True, Antigone exhibits admirable family loyalty; personal independence, and enormous bravery in defiance of Creon, and by association all patriarchy. However, Antigone's bravery and defiance of authority, on her dead brother's behalf, still does not truly spring from any feminist purpose. As Butler (qtd. In Fleisher, p. 42) observes: "The legacy of Antigone's defiance appeared to be lost in the contemporary efforts to recast political opposition as legal plaint and to seek the legitimacy of the state in the espousal of feminist claims." Therefore it is my opinion that Antigone, although she is undoubtedly a heroine, is not a feminist one in particular.
As Antigone tells her sister Ismene, after Ismene expresses fear and reluctance to defy Creon's order not to bury Polynices:
I will bury him myself.
And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory. (Lines 85-86).
What makes Antigone a heroic character is in fact her fearless rebellion against authority. Butler argues that:
Antigone, the renowned insurgent from Sophocles's Oedipus, has long been a feminist icon of defiance. But what has remained unclear is whether she escapes from the forms of power that she opposes. Antigone proves to be a more ambivalent figure for feminism than has been acknowledged, since the form of defiance she exemplifies also leads to her death . . . Antigone represents a form of feminist and sexual agency that is fraught with risk. Moreover, Antigone shows how the constraints of normative kinship unfairly decide what will and will not be a livable life. (p. 16)
Others in the play mock her, but Antigone alone will stand up to Creon, whatever the cost. Creon's authority happens to be a patriarchal one, but Antigone would most likely defy any authority whatsoever, in order to see her brother properly buried. Antigone, then, might more correctly be called a radical play, considering Antigone's rebellion against authority, although still not an especially feminist one.
Another aspect of Antigone's heroism, near the end of the play, becomes apparent when Ismene offers to die beside Antigone, when Creon sentences Antigone to death. Antigone, however, will not let Ismene die, since Ismene herself, unlike her condemned sister, has lacked the courage to challenge Creon's authority. As Ismene states:
If only she consents -- I share the guilt,
The consequences too (Lines 603-604)
But to that, Antigone replies:
Justice will never suffer that -- not you,
You were unwilling, I never brought you in. (Lines 605-607)
At Creon's decree, the body of Polynices remains above-ground, and decaying steadily, following his death. Creon, though, is not concerned with how the decaying body will offend both the gods and Theban burial traditions (not to mention the dead man's surviving relatives). As the current ruler of Thebes, Creon considers himself entirely above reproach for his refusal to properly bury Polynices, and instead let him rot for all to see. After all, Creon reasons, Polynices was a traitor to Thebes; the protection of Thebes must come ahead of other considerations.
Antigone's own disagreement with Creon's premise, however, is not so much a feminist one as it is simply a human (and humane) one: that is, all human beings, regardless of their acts or circumstances, deserve to be buried rather than left exposed. Burial is a basic human right. And, as the blind prophet Tiresias tries to tell Creon, in vain, as Creon continues insisting that he will not bury Polynices:
. . . A sense of judgment, wisdom is the greatest gift we have [?] (Lines 1166-1167)
After Antigone defies Creon's order and buries Polynices anyway, Creon, not content to simply execute Antigone for her defiance, condemns her to entombment while still alive. Creon's plan is that Antigone will slowly starve inside her tomb, thus making her death inevitable, but bloodless. That way, Creon reasons, Thebes will still have no blood on its hands following Antigone's death.
Symbolically, Antigone is joining the dead (e.g., her brother, and her father, the eponymous Oedipus of Sophocles' previous plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonnus), in a sort of "twilight zone" between life and death. This underscores the extent to which Creon believes that Antigone, when still alive, has been entirely too focused on the fate of the dead (and Polynices' fate in particular) and not sufficiently focused (at least for Creon's taste) on life and the living.
But Antigone's cruel imprisonment, leading to a slow and painful death, further demonstrates Creon's blindness to his own considerable lack of understanding of proper and dignified ways to treat other human beings, living or dead (blindness of one sort or another is a dominant, much repeated theme within Sophocles' Theban trilogy). So determined is Creon to make examples of Polynices and then Antigone, that that same determination blinds him to the extent to which both acts of vengeance and indignity insult the gods. As Stange points out: ". . . The deeply ironic fact that the play that bears her [Antigone's] name is not in the end her tragedy: It is Creon's. All of the action leads to his downfall, and Antigone is ultimately a player in that larger scheme" ("Women's Roles").
Later the prophet Tiresias points out to Creon that he commits a horrible sin in trapping Antigone alive within her tomb, a counterpoint, in fact, to the way Creon keeps Polynices' dead, decaying body above-ground and exposed instead of buried. Both Creon's premature entombment of Antigone, and his disrespect for Polynices' dead body, show us that Creon's "having his way" is more important to him than his severely offending the gods, in both instances. As Tiresias also tries to warn Creon, to no avail, about his ongoing abuse of Polynices' dead body:
Never stab a fighter when he's down.
Where's the glory, killing the dead twice over? (Lines 1140-1141)
In terms of Creon's later mistreatment of Antigone,…