Antigone | Study Guide

Jean Anouilh

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Antigone | Themes



Anouilh's Antigone is determined to adhere to her convictions at all costs. Her convictions drive her to bury her brother Polynices in defiance of Creon's edict. In so doing she seems to be a paragon of integrity; not even the prospect of being sealed alive in a cave deters her. Yet the principles underlying her conviction seem shaky and changeable. At first she claims burying her brother is a religious duty, but this claim crumbles under Creon's interrogation. Finally she agrees with Creon that her stance is absurd, but she remains defiant, determined to play the role she feels is her fate.

The idea of defiance resulting in meaningless sacrifice seems to be taken straight from Albert Camus, whose essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1942) uses another classical figure to outline his theory of the absurd. Sisyphus is forever pushing a boulder up a hill; when the boulder falls back he starts over again. Sisyphus's fate may be hopeless, but it is his fate; to continue struggling is his choice. Like Sisyphus, Antigone embraces her fate, which is "to reject life and to die." Yet central to the philosophy of Camus and other existentialists is the idea of choice: his Sisyphus makes a choice, but it's not clear Antigone does. She believes "inhuman forces" drive her to act out her fate; the Chorus tells us that from the beginning. Antigone seems to be more a symbol of integrity than a representative of an actual, struggling human being.

Freedom versus Constraint

Antigone and Creon personify the tension between the desire to follow one's ideals versus the need to operate within an imperfect world. Creon assumed the leadership of the kingdom reluctantly. He feels a duty to make personal compromises for the good of the kingdom, and he expects others to do the same. In making an example of Polynices, he's trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Antigone feels no such constraint. She is young, and she has a fiancé but not a husband. She is little more than a child herself and has no children of her own to worry about, much less an entire kingdom. A picture of youthful idealism, she is free to follow her conscience. The purity of her passion, her defiant no, is transfixing for the audience, but it galls Creon. He believes saying yes to life and all its complications is the more courageous choice.

Political Expediency

Anouilh's play explores causes and effects of political expediency through Creon. The king of Thebes makes it clear he doesn't think Eteocles has any more right to a state funeral than Polynices: both brothers, he says, were unworthy of this honor. However, honoring one corpse while desecrating the other serves Creon's political ends. He believes it is the only way to preserve order in a kingdom reeling from civil war. While his strategy does seem effective—the play ends without a renewed rebellion—the consequences for Creon's loved ones are dire. Creon's choice resonated strongly in France, which was still under Nazi control when the play opened early in 1944. Many French saw Creon as a stand-in for Marshal Pétain, who surrendered to the Nazis early in the war and became the authoritarian leader of southern France. Members of the resistance and their sympathizers despised the character. They felt Pétain's capitulation to the Nazis brought great shame on the nation. These audience members preferred Antigone's defiance to Creon's compromises.

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