Sacrifice is a powerful theme that pervades these two plays, and expresses itself through its characters as well as its plot. However, the manner in which it is portrayed to the reader varies between these two plays. While sacrifice was depicted as combined with surrender in A Doll’s House, in Antigone, it came merged with insurgence. There is sacrifice of love, hate, and morals and ultimately, sacrifice of self. Not only was this integrated into its protagonists’ lives, but it also came from its supporting characters as well. In this essay, I aim to explore the different ways in which Sophocles and Ibsen incorporated the theme of ‘Sacrifice’ in their respective works.
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In A Doll’s House, the sacrificial role of women was expressed exhaustively by Ibsen. The portrayal of women, beyond economic and social borders, sacrificing their love, children, morals and dignity touches a nerve among its readers. The picture where women were consistently giving up what were important to them just so they could please those around them was so universal and relatable to in this classic novel.
In A Doll’s House, Nora, while she was of a better social class and status than Mrs. Linde or her maid, was no different from them when it came to giving up those important to her. She renounced her own father when he was in his death bed just so she could save her husband and Mrs. Linde chose to give up her true love, Krogstad, when she was obliged to save her family from poverty. Even the maid in their home had to forgo bringing up her own children just so she could bring up someone else’s and earn the money to support hers. This shows unconditional sacrifice for someone else.
In Antigone, the situation is no different. Antigone sacrifices her love, Haemon, so she can fight for justice. Although she prioritizes justice over Haemon, she still makes a big sacrifice in her life to go through with her fight. On the other hand, at the very end of the play, Eurydice kills herself for she could not continue living without her son. This shows that she was willing to do anything for someone she loved, including killing herself.
While the women in both plays portray unconditional sacrifice to those near and dear to them, the men completely represent the opposite. Torvald, Nora’s oppressive and condescending husband makes it clear that he would give up anything but his integrity. His status and prestige matter so much to him that he is willing to go to any lengths to show off his house as perfect and flawless to the society, including forcing Nora to stay at home even though he renounces her. He prioritizes his reputation over his own wife and states “â€¦no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves.”
This situation is recreated in Antigone when Creon is contemplating his reaction to finding his own niece, Antigone, doing the one thing he forbids, burying Polynices. He is willing to save his niece from the cruel fate that was promised to anyone who disobeyed his law, but he is unable to let her go free in front of the public eyes. He too, like Helmer, prioritizes his repute over his own niece and sentences her to die. He refuses to bend his laws to save his own kith and kin at the fear of losing his name.
Another form of sacrifice is the sacrifice of ego and recognition. Nora performs this form of sacrifice throughout the story until up to the very end. All her value and abilities are suppressed by Torvald and she bears his condescending, and patronizing attitude with humility and meekness. She belittles herself and resigns to accept her place as inferior to Torvald. Ibsen’s usage of metaphors and imageries of birds which symbolize the weak, feeble and vulnerable, represent Nora’s position in her family. She is powerless and susceptible to her husband’s every whim. Nora hides the fact that she had single-handedly saved her husband’s life as she was hesitant to tell him that he owed a woman his life. She is proud of her achievements, but she is forced to keep it a secret, thus sacrificing recognition. Yet again, she was protecting Torvald’s ego by sacrificing hers. She continuously boosts her husband’s pride by saying things like “Everything you do is quite right, Torvald” while welcoming him to “â€¦criticize [her] and correct [her]”.
Then there is sacrifice of love. Mrs. Linde chooses to leave her one true love, Krogstad when she was obliged to save her family by marrying another, richer, man. While she never stops loving Krogstad, she is bound by her duties as a daughter. While Nora does the opposite, they are both similar in the fact that they give up someone close to the good of another and they have had to make tough choices.
In Antigone, Antigone sacrifices her love, Haemon, so she can protect him. Although she still loves him, she chooses to hurt him in order to protect him from the consequences of her actions. This act of selflessness was noble and just like Nora and Mrs. Linde, it was for someone she loved.
Another form of sacrifice that is most vivid and poignant is the works is the sacrifice of one’s happiness. Nora does outrageous, sometimes ridiculous, things just to make her husband happy at the expense of her own. She indulges Torvald’s craze and dances the tarantella just so she could play up to Torvald’s desires. She hides her stealthy eating of the macaroons and knitting so she could “â€¦have everything just as Torvald likes it”. She also goes without buying a Christmas present for herself so she can save it repay the money she borrowed for Torvald. Nora hardly seems to listen to her heart or her head and blindly follows what she knows would make Torvald happy. Most times, Torvald’s happiness “â€¦comes out of [her] own necessaries of life”. Sadly, Torvald never seems to notice “â€¦it was often very hard on [her]”
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In Antigone, Creon repeatedly tries to convince Antigone that it was not worth sacrificing herself for her brother. However, Antigone refuses saying “I want everything of life , I do; and I want it total, complete; otherwise I reject it! I will not be moderateâ€¦. If not, I want to die!” When Creon proceeds to tell Antigone that she could not afford to be so demanding and she had to accept life with all its complexities, Antigone explodes furiously. She claims that happiness was nothing if she had to compensate her perfect ideals and she decides that she would have “all or nothing”. Thus she sacrifices the happiness she could have had by choosing to ignore Creon’s words. She wants to live in a surreal utopia or die. This inability to adjust and cope with life’s tirades eventually brings about her demise.
Lastly, the ultimate act of sacrifice is when Nora does is when she decides to leave her children in the end when she opts to leave her “doll’s” house and go see the world. She obviously loves them deeply, as seen in Act One by the way she interacts with them. But she believes that she makes a worse and a “corruptive” parent than her maid and her husband and she makes the heart-wrenching decision to leave her children. This concern and love she has for her children makes her want to give them the best she can and she does that by leaving them.
Finally, in Antigone, Antigone performs the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of herself. She hangs herself before she could be killed by Creon’s guards and by doing that, she takes the last stand before Creon. Thus, Antigone stages her last act of revolt for Creon’s laws and decrees. What Antigone does is reflective of many societies where many women take such rash and impetuous actions to demonstrate their mutiny. While it was a self-less act of sacrifice and for the betterment of her society, it was also reckless and damaging. Haemon, too, sacrifices himself, but his was for love while Antigones’ was for justice.
In conclusion, while contexts, settings, time period and surroundings varies between the two plays, the theme of sacrifice unites them beyond social and cultural barriers. The act of giving up something or someone was connected them both. However, certain disparity occurs when the extent of sacrifice is delved into. The Greek era, the era in which Antigone was set in, showcases a time of extremes where perfection and power were the baseline to the lives of the people, thus sacrifice of one’s self for a petty reason was not a terrible, horrendous issue as it would have been in the more modern times. While a Norwegian play set in the ‘modern realistic’ times (A Doll’s House) brought about slightly more acceptable sacrifices such as the sacrifice women make, it also brings about issues of extreme societal boundaries and excessive expectations of certain behavior from the man and woman of the household. Today, in the modern realist perspective, those requirements would be far more uncommon and unusual.
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