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Antigone | Study Guide

Jean Anouilh

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Antigone | Part 1 (Early Morning) | Summary

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Summary

In the early morning, as suggested by the lighting, the action of the play begins. Antigone tries to sneak inside past the nurse. When caught, she talks about how beautiful the gray world is, as if it were "breathless, waiting." But the nurse is having none of it: she suspects Antigone of coming back from meeting a lover and frets about keeping her "little girl pure." Antigone tries to convince her nurse she is still "pure" and tells her to save her tears because she may need them later: "When you cry like that, I become a little girl again."

The nurse exits as Ismene enters, determined to dissuade Antigone from burying Polynices. Ismene doesn't want to die. Antigone responds, "He is bound to put us to death. We are bound to ... bury our brother." Ismene argues that she herself is reasonable while Antigone is impulsive. Antigone doesn't disagree—she doubles down on her impulsive, unreasonable, willful decisions. Finally Ismene admits her biggest fear is being caught and then exposed to the angry mob, "the smell of them and their cruel roaring laughter." This argument gives Antigone pause. Then Ismene tells Antigone she can be happy: "All you have to do is reach out for it."

Ismene leaves with a promise from Antigone they'll talk again, and the nurse returns. Antigone makes the nurse promise to take care of her dog, Puff—or put the dog to sleep if it becomes too lonely.

Analysis

There is dramatic irony in what Antigone knows and what the audience might suspect: unbeknownst to the nurse, Antigone has been out burying her brother. Much of their talk is at cross purposes: when the nurse says she wants to keep Antigone pure, she means she doesn't want her to lose her virginity; when Antigone protests she is pure, she's referring to her essential purity, the character trait that sets her at odds with the corrupt world.

The touching scene between Antigone and the nurse is not part of Sophocles's original. The interaction reveals how young Antigone is; yet she also senses her youthful idealism is incompatible with approaching adulthood. The transition from predawn to morning from which she has just emerged symbolizes the border between childhood and adulthood. She revels in the "gray" predawn world; the world of adults is false, "like a postcard: all pink, and green, and yellow." When she asks her nurse if every morning "it would be just as thrilling ... to be the first girl out of doors," she already knows it can't be.

Antigone reveals her youth in other ways. Her argument with Ismene is full of childish contrariness: "I don't want to 'sort of see' anything," "I don't want to be right!" and "I don't want to understand!" she tells her sister. Ismene stands for the kind of ordinary happiness that holds no interest for her, but she does share her older sister's fear of the "mob," of being exposed to the cruel, vulgar judgment of others. This aversion will return to her when she is in a cell awaiting death. Finally, Antigone's concern for her dog, Puff, reminds the audience that this girl on the verge of a grueling ordeal is still a child. At the same time her thoughtfulness about the dog's fate reveals her compassion.

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