The Antigone Complex
In formulating his theory of the Oedipus complex, Freud first noticed a parallel between a theme in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and the attitudes children commonly hold toward their parents—intense love for the parent of the opposite sex and jealousy of and hostility toward the parent of the same sex. Freud thus interpreted Oedipus’ unwitting perpetration of patricide and mother-incest as the fulfillment of the unconscious wish among all boys to replace their fathers as the love-objects of their mothers. One of Oedipus’ two daughters, Antigone, also inspired a Sophoclean play which bears her name, seemingly a tale of a young woman’s defiance of civil law in favor of a higher moral law. As we will see, however, the events of Antigone’s life, including her purportedly moral burial of her brother, Polyneices, represent normal stages of the evolution of the female psyche.
The play opens with conversation between Antigone and Ismene, the daughters of Oedipus, regarding the dishonorable mortuary treatment of their recently deceased brother, Polyneices. Antigone decides to perform for Polyneices proper burial rites and in so doing violate a prohibition of Creon, the king of Thebes. Around this premise the plot unfolds, resulting ultimately in the suicides of Antigone and Creon’s wife and son. Though Antigone is superficially a moralizing play, as it implicitly advises its audience to adhere to internal rather than imposed morals, its true psychological significance emerges only in the context of the entire Oedipus legend. Only upon analyzing the events of Antigone’s life which preceded the action of Antigone will her moral obstinacy become comprehensible.
Early in her life Antigone suffered the loss of her mother and the utter debilitation of her father. As the only willing candidate, she tended to her blind father for the many years before his death. Her sexual inexperience, to which the dialogue of Antigone often refers, seemed unavoidable, as she was occupied constantly by the needs of her father. Antigone’s careful treatment of her father, however, admits of a symbolic interpretation which sheds light upon the subsequent events of her life.
According to Freud, as the mother is the first love-object of the little boy, the father is the first love-object of the little girl. The little girl is envious of the affection which the mother displays toward the father and wishes that instead she were the one to whom the father looked for care. Perhaps then, Oedipus, the ostensible obstacle to Antigone’s love life, in reality composed the whole of Antigone’s love life; Antigone had in fact succeeded in replacing her mother as the caretaker of her father, thereby fulfilling the primary sexual wish of the female unconscious.
One may here object that Antigone was forced to assume the role of Oedipus’ caretaker by external circumstance—that Antigone’s situation was a product of the inadvertent misdeeds of Oedipus, his subsequent self-blinding, and the suicide of Jocasta, in all of which Antigone played no part. This apparent predetermination of the course of Antigone’s life, however, provides no contradiction to our assertion that her tending to Oedipus reflects the little girl’s wish to replace the mother. Oedipus’ crimes were similarly fated, yet Freud devised an ingenious explanation for the seeming predetermination: Oedipus’ ignorance of his misdeeds represents the unconscious nature of the little boy’s desires; the little boy has an inherent, perhaps fated tendency, as did Oedipus, to desire the position of the father. And as the course of Antigone’s life, like that of Oedipus, represents the realization of unconscious wishes, it is unreasonable that the fulfillment of those wishes could be attained through conscious action.
At the outset of Antigone, her father now dead, Antigone devotes herself to the proscribed burial of her recently deceased brother, Polyneices. Though a manifestly moral endeavor, her wish to bury her brother also was rooted in primitive unconscious drives.
Freud observed that the little girl’s primary love for the father, invariably fruitless, is often deflected upon a brother: “A little girl finds in her older brother a substitute for her father, who no longer acts towards her with the same affection as in former years.” Thus the irrational zeal with which Antigone pursued the burial of Polyneices represents not familial but sexual love, and Creon’s edict prohibiting the burial of Polyneices truly symbolized the societal proscription of sibling-incest. Though this seems a valid psychoanalytic inference, one may question the connection between burial and sexual love, which to this point remains obscure.
In Greek mythology—and Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy is but a dramatization of the Oedipus myth—Earth was an animate being, Gaia. Hence when Ouranos stuffed his newborn children into the Earth, he was literally returning them to the womb of their mother, Gaia; he was essentially undoing their births. Antigone’s wish to bury Polyneices in the Earth may accordingly be considered a symbolic wish to envelop him in a womb, the sexual nature of which is made clear by the psychology of Otto Rank.
In The Trauma of Birth, Rank proposed that the shock of being born leaves indelible impressions upon the human psyche, “that man never gives up the lost happiness of pre-natal life and that he seeks to reestablish this former state, not only in all his cultural strivings, but also in the act of procreation.” Rank views the sexual act as an attempt to restore the primal intra-uterine pleasure—physically direct for the male, physically vicarious for the female. Accordingly, Antigone’s burial of Polyneices, her father-surrogate, may unconsciously signify his entry into her womb and the attainment of the sexual love which she had hoped to receive originally from Oedipus.
After being seized by a sentry at the site of Polyneices’ burial, Antigone is forced to discuss with Creon the nature of her crime. Though he affords her ample opportunities to express remorse or even confusion regarding the illegality of her deed, she obdurately asserts her guilt and, unfearing, even embraces the imminent punishment; she proclaims even that her “husband is to be the Lord of Death.” Creon then sentences Antigone to be immured in a cave but is soon persuaded by Teiresias to liberate her, though not before she hangs herself. The somewhat mysterious suicides of Haemon, Antigone’s prospective husband, and Eurydice, Haemon’s mother and Creon’s wife, follow soon thereafter, leaving only Creon to regret his tragic decision.
As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that Antigone does not fear but anxiously awaits death. But what compels her to seek death? A closer analysis of her suicide elucidates the unconscious forces at play.
Throughout mythology and dreams, the cave frequently symbolizes the womb. Therefore hanging in a cave, as Antigone does, symbolizes inhabiting a womb, in which one hangs by the umbilical cord. So perhaps Antigone’s evident wish for death was in fact a wish for a pre-birth state, a desire encompassed in Thanatos, Freud’s death instinct.
Freud supposed that human life was motivated by two fundamental drives: Eros, the life instinct, and Thanatos, the death instinct. While Eros seeks proliferation and activity, Thanatos seeks homeostasis and inactivity; the Death instinct strives toward nonexistence, the state preceding birth. But why was Antigone so anxious to meet death, or rather return to pre-birth? Why was her life governed by Thanatos? Could returning to her mother’s womb satisfy either her primary love for her father or her secondary love for Polyneices, her father-substitute?
Gestation, the period of primal pleasure, is the predecessor to coitus. Hence by returning to the symbolic womb of her mother in which she, Polyneices, and Oedipus were conceived, she at last achieves the intimate union with Oedipus and Polyneices which she had so long desired. Antigone unconsciously experiences a pleasure with her father and brother beyond that of sexual intercourse, for gestation is the primary experience from which sex derives its secondary pleasurable character.
The discovery of Antigone’s dead body is followed immediately by the suicides of Haemon and Eurydice. Though these subsequent deaths contribute to the play’s tragic effect, they seem utterly impulsive, perhaps even gratuitous. Are these deaths affective simply because of their shocking nature or do they symbolically enhance the scene of Antigone’s suicide?
In answer, first we are tempted to pursue the obvious parallels between Haemon and Polyneices; they were both sons of kings, and Haemon loved Antigone as she loved Polyneices. Thus the death of Haemon, a practical Polyneices-surrogate, beside Antigone incarnates her unconscious reunification with her brother, the Oedipus-surrogate. Similarly, Eurydice and Jocasta are analogous characters; both women were the wives of kings, and Eurydice birthed Haemon, the Polyneices-substitute. Consequently Eurydice’s suicide beside Haemon and Antigone emphasizes the cave’s symbolic significance as Jocasta’s womb.
Although we have outlined already how the pleasures of pre-birth and coitus are associated with burial and death, there remains a deeper, more abstract meaning of the play’s series of deaths. Among the men in Antigone’s life, Oedipus is the first to expire, her brothers Polyneices and Eteocles second, and Haemon the last. This sequence is not arbitrary; each successive death represents a phase of female sexuality. A girl’s love is directed first toward her father, then displaced upon familial father-surrogates, such as brothers, and finally deflected upon a seemingly unrelated love-object, such as Haemon. The three male deaths in Antigone then signify the extinction of various stages of female sexuality, the love-object of each a substitute for that of the preceding stage. Antigone, however, hangs herself before displacing her sexual love onto an unrelated object, such as Haemon; any gratification arising from such a relationship, she understands unconsciously, would be merely substitutive and she opts instead for the primal pleasure of the symbolic womb.
One may now object that the correspondence here posited between the events of Antigone’s life and the phases of female sexuality is perhaps applicable only to neurotics if not specious altogether. To this we can respond only that Freud took the same liberty—that of generalizing phenomena among neurotics to healthy individuals—in his interpretation of the Oedipus myth. Furthermore, this essay proposes no amendments of or supplements to psychoanalytic sexual theory; it constitutes only a mythological confirmation of the psychoanalytic theory of female sexuality Freud first established through empirical observation.
“Antigone” literally means “against birth,” or “contrary birth,” which most have interpreted to indicate Antigone’s status as the product of incest, a perverse or “contrary” union. However, a literal interpretation of “against birth” is perhaps more significant. Antigone unconsciously wished to return to the womb, to pre-birth; she truly wished to undo her birth throughout the action of Antigone. Antigone embodies the human predicament: the forced renunciation of primary and secondary love-objects, the subsequent substitute-gratifications, the perpetual conflict between social demands and instinctual aims, and the clash between the two irresolvable fundamental drives—one seeking life and pleasure, the other wishing to undo life altogether.
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