What does Ismene's refusal reveal about her?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To a great extent, Ismene's actions the condition of women at the time.  Ismene is more steeped in the traditional notion of women.  Ismene cannot embrace the path that Antigone takes.  Part of this rests in her understanding of how women are viewed in the social condition in which both sisters live:  

Rather, consider that we
were born women, proving we should not fight with men,
and that we are ruled by more powerful people
and must obey them, even in more painful things.

Ismene's actions reflect an understanding of the world in which both women live.  Ismene understands that to be a woman in this social setting is to be subjugated by the will of men.  In her actions, Ismene reflects an understanding of the condition in which women live and a need to appropriate it into one's own understanding.

Ismene's actions also reflect a desire to simply live life.  Ismene does not forget her legacy. As the daughter of Oedipus, Ismene understands that the deaths that have preceded both women have to weigh upon them.  In the desire to avoid such pain and heartache, Ismene's actions reveal a flight from the pain of death and suffering:

Think, my sister, how our father
died hated and infamous from offenses
self-detected, smiting both his eyes with
his very own hands. His wife and mother—
both words at once!—took her life with twisted noose;
then, third, our two brothers in just one day
slew each other, poor wretches, achieving
a common doom at one another's hands.
And now the two of us, left all alone—
think how very horribly we will die
if we go against the king's decree and strength
outside the law.

The pain of the past is a significant weight on Ismene.  To a great extent, Antigone sees herself as being able to transcend such a condition.  Ismene does not.  Ismene understands with an extreme sense of clarity that being able to avoid such a condition is a part of her identity.  She pleads with her sister to understand such a reality and join her in embracing the life of simply living, one where pain and suffering are both minimized.

When Antigone is captured, Ismene pledges her loyalty to her captured sister.  Yet, in the end, one recognizes that Ismene lacks the simplistic understanding that Antigone possesses.  For Antigone, action is understood.  Creon's law is unjust, family honor is just, and thus action needs to be taken.  Ismene reflects the challenges that a woman must face.  She is able to recognize that being a woman creates challenging conditions that must be navigated.  At the same time, Ismene's actions help to illuminate someone who simply wants to alleviate the suffering that has been her lot in life to witness and experience.  Her actions represent a desire to simply live without the pain of mortal consciousness that has defined her family history. While the actions of both sisters can come to represent the different path choices for women, they might also come to represent how an individual might wish to do great things or simply wish to be left alone. 

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