Escapism and power as entwined themes in Anouilhs Antigone and Ibsens A Dolls House.
World Literature essay
Escapism and power as entwined themes in Anouilh’s Antigone and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
Escapism is the ability of a person to leave his or her physical surroundings, and transcend into a world of their own, in order to flee the harsh truth of reality. This ability can give an individual power, or make them lose it. This concept is highlighted in Anouilh’s Antigone and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, through the subtle use of symbols, foreshadowing, and imagery. In this light, escapism and power can be seen as themes with a linked purpose; to drive the play forward by building up emotions that culminate in acts of rebellion at the end of each play. With reference to this, escapism as a means to gain and lose power, and power as a trigger for escapism will be analyzed in this essay.
Escapism as a means to gain power is portrayed in Anouilh’s play Antigone through his protagonist. Although mentioned only once, the ‘grey world’ that Antigone is so fascinated with serves as a symbol for her escapist persona. She says ‘It was beautiful. The whole world was grey when I went out. And now – you wouldn’t recognize it. It is like a post card: all pink, green, and yellow.’ The colour grey alludes to bleakness, imagery of a world without colour, which could connote to a world without men or human interference. Her dislike for the world with colour suggests that she is not content with the mortal world of man, and wishes to go beyond it. This idea is perpetuated when she says ‘Have you ever thought how lovely a garden is when it is not yet thinking of men?’
This is a preview of the whole essay
Hence, her longing to leave the world of men is one of the motivating factors towards her decision to defy her uncle Creon, bury her brother and thus make her uncle sentence her to death. Her strong will to die, indicated by her vehement assertion, ‘I want to die!’ gives her power over Creon, as he is helpless to change her decision. Indirectly, she brings about the death of Haemon and Eurydice, as her suicide causes Haemon to join her in death, which causes his mother Eurydice to commit suicide in turn. Thus, Antigone’s escapism defines and strengthens her will to die, which gives her considerable power over other characters in the play.
However, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora is seen to create an idealistic world which is filled with activity, colour and gaiety. This is her form of escapism, which contrasts to Antigone’s, as hers is grey, dull and empty. Nevertheless, both these forms of escapism serve to drive the play forward, although in different ways. Antigone’s escapist nature propels her power, while Nora’s escapism hampers her power.
Escapism as a means to lose power is depicted in both Antigone and A Doll’s House, although in strikingly different ways. In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora’s escapism hinders her ability to accept the truth of her situation and achieve self liberation, and thus power. She envisions an idealist world of marital bliss, and in all but the end of the play, she constantly strives to uphold this facade. This is evident when she says ‘… so snug and happy here in our peaceful home, and have no cares …’ in Act II, during a conflict between herself and Torvald. She is trying to maintain her unrealistic world, as she is aware that this conflict is close to shattering it. This prevents her from gaining any sort of influence over her husband, as she is not able to assert her independence by breaking free of her idealistic, although restrictive world.
Thus, by attempting to conform to the expectations of the rigid post war society that the play is situated in, Nora hampers her ability to gain power. This is similar to the loss of power in Antigone; however, it is brought on by Antigone’s absorption in the past which leads her to reject her maturity, and thus her power as an adult in society. This brings to light a minor, although significant undercurrent in both plays; the theme of childhood. This is linked to escapism, as it is a technique that Anouilh and Ibsen use to further their protagonists’ escapist natures, and thus restrict their ability to gain power.
Both female protagonists are depicted as child women, although Antigone’s child like character stems from her reluctance to emerge from the past, Nora’s is imposed upon her by her domineering husband, Torvald. For both women, this image causes them to lose power by fueling their escapist tendencies.
For Nora, it is part of the character she plays for Torvald, and thus a part of her unrealistic world. Hence, it is not her true character. Thus, she is able to overcome it to gain power, by abandoning her sense of idealism, and consequently the childlike image that her husband created for her. However, for Antigone, it is part of her innate persona, for she was never meant to be feminine, or adult –like. This is seen when she is described at the very beginning of the play, as a ‘thin little creature’. This aspect of her character is developed through the play, particularly significant during her conversation with her Nurse. The nurse addresses her as ‘my sparrow, my lamb’ and other such names appropriate to a child. This makes her yearn for her childhood even more. Her reminiscence makes her reluctant to die, and thus momentarily vulnerable.
In stark contrast to this, escapism and power have a different function when manifested in the male characters of each play. Rather than escapism giving rise to or hindering power, power is seen to be a trigger for escapism. In A Doll’s House, Torvald is a man in a patriarchal society with considerable social standing. Despite this, he indulges in an idealistic world in which he denies his failing marriage, and at the very end of the play, struggles to hold on to it, even after being shattered by his wife’s departure. This is clear in his disbelief when he says ‘But to part! – to part from you! No, no, Nora, I can’t understand that idea.’ He fails to grasp the fact that the reality of his and Nora’s marriage has been finally revealed, as he has spent so much time absorbed in his unrealistic version of it, he has convinced himself it is real. Thus, his escapist world is shattered; this renders him powerless to cope with Nora’s departure.
Although Torvald seems to enjoy his power, Creon does not. He makes an analogy of his role as King to the role of a manual laborer, someone who uses their physical strength for work that he describes as ‘dirty’. He deems it as something he is compelled to do, as he is responsible to the state by the power vested in him as a member of the royal family. His reluctant acceptance of power indicated by the line ‘God knows, there were other things I loved in life more than power’ leads him to advise his page ‘Never grow up if you can help it.’ This suggests a certain attachment to the past, when life was simpler and free of the constraints of responsibility. The page himself is a symbol of this attachment, as he represents Creon as a young boy. Additionally, he is always by Creon’s side, reinforcing his subtle connection with the past. Thus, he exhibits a minor form of escapism induced by the weighty responsibility of having the power of the state.
The themes of escapism and power, when linked, can prove to be a powerful tool to convey thoughts, and foreshadow character development. When combined with hints of childhood as a sub theme, these two motifs are revealed to be effective literary techniques in both plays, unveiling aspects of character that would at first glance pass undetected. Ibsen and Anouilh have shown escapism to moderate and amplify power, and in relation to this, power as a trigger for escapism. It is this interweaving of themes through symbols and imagery that truly enhances a piece of literary work, and gives it layers of depth.
Antigone by Jean Anouilh adapted and translated by Lewis Galantière, page 6