Jennifer taught 9th grade ELA and AP Literature for over 8 years. She has a dual master's in English Literature and Teaching Secondary Ed from Simmons University and a BS in Psychology. She is also a contracted freelance writer and certified AP Test Reader.
What Is Conflict?
In literature, a conflict is a problem or struggle that a character deals with in a story. But of course, like characters, we deal with the same challenges in the real world. While real-life conflicts may not necessarily be as dramatic as fictional conflicts, as readers we can connect to the plight of our characters through personality traits and similar emotional experiences. Let's take a look at the conflicts in the play Antigone by Sophocles and analyze the importance of each through the characters' perspectives.
The play opens with two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, discussing the death of their brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles. Their father, the infamous Oedipus, exiled himself and left the two brothers to take over the throne. Disagreements caused Polyneices and Eteocles to fight, and eventually Polyneices was banished from Thebes. He returned with an army to fight his brother for the throne, but both men ended up dying. This tragedy left the throne to their Uncle Creon, whose son Haemon happened to be engaged to Antigone. Talk about family drama...
Creon was close with Eteocles and felt that, since he remained in Thebes, Eteocles was true to his city. So, Creon buried his body with military honors. But Polyneices fought against Thebes, and Creon felt he was a traitor. He left his body to rot in the street and ordered that anyone who buried the body be stoned to death.
Conflicts in Antigone
Antigone is heartbroken at the news of her brothers' deaths and decides she must bury the body to honor the laws of the gods. But when Antigone buries the body, she's going against the law of the newly appointed King, who happens to be her uncle. Creon, attempting to keep control over the people, must decide what to do with his niece. He decides to follow through with his stated punishment of death so he does not look weak.
Through these two overarching conflicts, the characters in the play are presented with many choices regarding loyalty, honor and integrity. Let's take a look at each character and analyze their internal conflicts, or person versus self, and external conflicts, or person versus person.
Let's start by look at the internal and external conflicts experienced by Antigone in the play.
- Person vs. person: Antigone asks her sister, Ismene, to help her bury Polyneices' body. Ismene is shocked that Antigone would even suggest she break the law and cannot see past authority to realize her brother's body cannot get to the Underworld without a proper burial. Their conflict is never fully resolved because Ismene only has a change of heart after Antigone buries the body and is sentenced to death.
- Person vs. person: Antigone spends the majority of the play fighting with Creon and held captive due to his orders. Antigone and Creon are both unable to see past their pride and communicate with one another, eventually leading to the tragedy of Antigone's death at the end of the play.
- Person vs. self: Antigone is a strong woman who wants to honor her brother's death as her culture and religion dictates, but she is also unable to combat her pride, which eventually leads to her downfall. She welcomes her punishment of death with open arms and sarcastic comments. Even though Creon changes her punishment from death to imprisonment, Antigone resolves her internal conflict by taking her own life.
Now, let's look at Creon's conflicts.
- Person vs. self: Creon's downfall stems from the fact that he cannot get out of his own way, something I believe most of us can relate to. He's so afraid of losing control that he ends up hurting the people he loves instead of helping them. It's hard to tell ourselves we are wrong, but in this case, his stubborn ways lead to the deaths of his son, his niece, and his wife, Eurydice.
- Person vs. person: Creon fights with several people along the way, not just Antigone. He fights with the sentry about his message and threatens to kill him if he does not find the culprit that buried Polyneices' body, he fights with his son Haemon about punishing Antigone, and he refuses to accept Teiresias' prophecy about his downfall. It seems his internal conflict is so great that it projects onto all that he encounters, pushing away reason, friendship, and family.
Finally, let's take a look at some of Haemon's conflicts.
- Person vs. person: Haemon is a rational and compassionate individual who tries his hardest to convince his father to change his ways. Never provoking or insulting Creon, Haemon tries to use logic and reason to show his father that he is wrong, and that if he doesn't free Antigone, the people may rebel. But the real conflict here stems from the fact that Antigone is his fiancée! Not only is he trying to fight for what is right, he is also stuck in the middle of a conflict between his father and his bride to be.
- Person vs. self: Haemon has a difficult internal struggle to battle. Whose side should he take? His father's—his blood that has taken care of him his entire life? Or should he side with his soon to be wife? Not only does he love her, but he agrees with her choice of burying the body. He resolves his conflict by taking his own life.
All right, let's take a moment to recap the important information we just covered. As we learned, a conflict is a problem or struggle that a character deals with in a story, and the play Antigone has a lot of conflicts. And as we also learned, this play has both internal conflicts, or person versus self, and external conflicts, or person versus person.
Because of these conflicts, many characters in the play end up resolving their conflicts by taking their own lives. It seems power and control cause several characters to change their loving and compassionate ways, unable to see past the heat of the moment and realize how their actions could affect others on top of their own futures.
Antigone is unable to see beyond her pride, and along with Creon, suffers the consequences of stubborn ways. Ironically, both are fighting for family loyalty and unable to realize how similar they truly were, losing everything and everyone they care for in the process. Their conflict costs the lives of two others, Haemon and his mother, leaving the stage a bloody mess.
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