Then at least we would be responsible for our own doom, instead of someone else deciding it for us. And really, isn't that the most any of us can hope for?
One of my most frustrating university discussions happened over a reading of Antigone. I don’t even remember now what literature class it was, who the professor was, or even what year I was in, but I still remember the other student’s face, her pale-red hair and floral dress.
I hadn’t read Sophocles before that class, but Antigone blew me away. We also read Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Thebes but it was Antigone that hit me the hardest. Her loyalty to her brother and her determination to do what she felt was right; I even dreamed about her burial.
(Twenty-five years later it is still my favorite classic piece of literature.)
In a classroom conversation, we were asked who the hero of the story is. I think it is obvious: Antigone, of course. She is the hero because she doesn’t allow fear to determine her choices. She remains true to her ideals.
But the other student insisted I was wrong. Ismene is the hero, in her mind, because Ismene survives. Doesn’t she, in the end, try to stand up for her sister? Even if it’s too late, she does try. And by staying alive she makes sure someone exists to carry on Oedipus’s family line.
I didn’t know enough about so many things back then to explain why I thought she was wrong. I could have an excellent discussion of it now, from many perspectives (literary, religious, women’s rights…) And I certainly couldn’t, back then, have framed the story within a concept of sisters actually betraying each other, as I can now, so I couldn’t imagine, actually, how Ismene’s lack of courage hurt her sister, and in ways that had nothing to do with her horrific death.
At any rate, I absolutely had to read Veronica Roth’s novella, Arch Conspirator, when I found out it is a futuristic, dystopian retelling of Antigone. I was so excited to read it that I put it off for a few months, because I worried I’d be disappointed.
But I was not disappointed.
The way that Roth takes the main points of Sophocles’ tales and reimagines them on the last city on a dying earth is just—well, the only word for it is “clever.” She builds a fully-imagined world with very few words, then sets her characters to interact inside of it, playing out their parts. THe story is told from several perspectives, Antigone (who is called “Tig” by her siblings, a little tidbit that sums up exactly what I mean by “clever”), Ismene, Haemon, Eurydice.
I loved it so much.
I couldn’t help contrasting the Amy who read Antigone all of those years ago with myself reading this retelling of it. I’m almost not the same person at all. I am no longer afraid to use my voice as I was during those days at BYU, when I intrinsically knew I did not fit in or agree with the ways many of my classmates viewed the world, but I didn’t know how to put it into words yet. But we share our strong opinions about books, still, and are both still moved by Antigone.
In Arch Conspirator, the ending is different: Ismene still goes to her sister too late, but she goes anyway, and asks Antigone if she can go with her. (Instead of being buried alive, Antigone is to be sent to space on the last functional spaceship on earth, which is kind of the same thing.)
And Antigone says yes.
Ismene realizes that her relationship with her sister is the thing that gives meaning to her life, and she takes action on that decision.
I honestly would likely not have read this book if I had realized that, at its core, Antigone is a story about sisters. I don’t think it hit me in that light when I read it at 27, but now? After all that has happened, I can’t see it any other way: the beating heart of the story is sisterhood.
That Antigone relents and doesn’t go into darkness alone as a defense mechanism, and that Ismene realizes her mistake before it’s too late, and then ACTS on that knowledge?
I don’t know that that is a thing that could happen in real life. But it both broke my heart and gave me…what? Not hope, actually. Not that my own Ismene would ever again act on our relationship mattering to her. But just…a little glimmer that maybe I don’t know the ending of this story yet.