Storytelling as a Medium For Communicating Social Roles

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Storytelling is a device of narrative drama used to move the plot along, announcing action that takes place offstage, skipping over time, and revealing intrigues. Anouilh makes efficient use of storytelling from the very start, when his chorus-narrator relates the story of Oedipus and his sons, whose deaths brought Creon to the throne. In this case storytelling informs the audience, allowing the action of the play to jump in at the moment of Antigone’s act of defiance against Creon’s law.

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He also uses storytelling as prophecy and warning, inspiration, and persuading. In these cases, storytelling serves to remind the characters—and the audience—of social roles and the social consequences of ways of enacting those roles. This has been the function of storytelling since its age-old inception, a purpose that predates literature, but that lives on in stories told today, orally around the office coffee machine, or written in the newspapers, in the work of Nobel prize-winning authors, and in every form of human drama.

For Anouilh, however, stories may assign roles, but they fail to reassure that these roles matter. His play about Antigone demonstrates the ruinous delusion of storytelling.

Although storytelling in Antigone begins with a simple aim to inform, it quickly takes on more complex purposes and becomes a tool for persuasion. For example, Ismene relates to Antigone how it will feel to be hounded by the mob after they get caught burying their brother, with ‘‘a thousand arms’’ seizing their arms and ‘‘a thousand breaths’’ breathing in their faces.

Ismene’s vivid story resembles the mood of the story Antigone tells when trying to convince the nurse to care for her dog in her absence, painting a pathetic picture of the dog moaning and pining for her missing owner. These ‘‘horror’’ stories are designed to alarm and convince their listeners. They exaggerate the future as a way of avoiding it. However, because the Nurse does not fully comprehend why Antigone tells her the story, the full potential of the warning is lost.

Antigone informs her loved ones—the Nurse and Haemon—that she will leave them, without telling them why. Instead, she relates wistful stories of a future that she herself will destroy. To Haemon she describes the child they might have had, the mother she might have been; she uses the past subjunctive, as though this choice had already passed them by, even though their marriage is set for the future. Her narrative of the traditional family, loving mother with her child, presents a story that will never come to fruition.

When she tells Haemon her story, she does not arrange a surrogate as she did for her dog, but simply destroys the vision forever by immediately announcing she can never marry him. Thus her story can only haunt him as her true intentions are revealed.

The family narrative usually serves as a model for human behavior, assigning roles and behavior patterns to parents and children, so that they can conform their actions to society’s structure and expectations. Ismene accepts this, and so she understands Creon’s desire to set a good example for his people; she accepts the ban against Polynices as a necessary measure to keep peace in Thebes.

For her part, Antigone objects to Ismene’s type of ‘‘understanding,’’ which entails accepting Creon’s narrative as truth. The sisters disagree over which stories to follow. Antigone, as Ismene chides her, wants her ‘‘own stubborn way in everything.’’ Ismene prefers to accept her fate and leave heroics to men, because ‘‘It’s all very well for men to believe in ideas and die for them. But you are a girl!’’

The female narrative only requires a woman to be beautiful, to marry, and to bear children. Creon tells Antigone ‘‘You’re going to marry Haemon; and I want you to fatten...

(The entire section contains 14927 words.)

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