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Antigone | Study Guide

Jean Anouilh

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Antigone | Motifs


Card Playing

In Antigone images of the three guards playing cards serve as bookends to the main action of the play. The drop of the cards echoes like a drip, drip, drip of everyday life going on amid the epic, life-or-death, philosophical struggle between Antigone and Creon. Anouilh seems to be saying that, no matter the outcome of the conflict between these two royal characters, life will go on with all of its banality. The guards, as the Chorus points out in the play's opening, "are not a bad lot"; but then, as if to undercut this judgment, he says they are "policemen ... they are quite prepared to arrest anyone at all, including Creon himself, should the order be given by a new leader."

The card-playing guards reveal the ugly underbelly of political expediency. Creon's actions, however effective, also involve a wrenching sacrifice. He really does not want to put a family member to death, but he wants to avoid deepening civil unrest. His expediency, however, seems like high idealism compared to the guards', whose only thought is their own survival. For them doing what is expedient is all about avoiding sacrifice so they can go on living their mediocre lives. "None of this matters to them," says the Chorus in the play's final scene; "they go on playing cards," an activity based on random chance and with no consequence. Their own lives, Anouilh suggests, are just that meaningless.

Burying Polynices

Nothing reinforces Anouilh's theme about integrity better than the motif of Antigone burying Polynices. Her repeated attempts to bury her brother represent the struggle to maintain purity of purpose in an absurd universe. The first attempt occurs before the action of the play begins; the guards discover someone has used a rusty toy shovel to cover the body. Her second attempt also occurs offstage, after Creon has learned someone has defied his edict. When the guards catch her in the act and bring her to Creon, she vows to continue her struggle even after being forced to admit neither religious duty nor family loyalty compels her to do so. Her seemingly meaningless struggle resembles Camus's Sisyphus, condemned to push his rock up a hill for all eternity. To bury Polynices and to die are her fate, and she embraces her destiny.


The idea of happiness recurs throughout the play and is central to the way Anouilh develops the themes of integrity and freedom versus constraint. Creon claims the purpose of life is to grasp whatever happiness one can from it—and he defines happiness as domestic comfort: a child, a comfortable bench, a garden. Whatever constraints life puts on you are bearable if you can grasp a few moments of happiness. To Antigone this idea is repulsive; this pale version of happiness is nothing compared to the bright, beautiful world she envisioned as a child. She would rather die than have to settle for Creon's kind of happiness.

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