Loving the enemies of the state. Analyzing notions of citizenship in Antigone and Home Fire
The literary genre of Greek tragedy was established around the 5th century B.C., a time which was marked not just by violent political upheavals but also public debate, which included self-scrutiny and criticism that led to what is known as the 5th-century enlightenment (Goldhill 2). As a result, one of the dominant discourses of the time was the debate around ‘citizenship’ and what it meant to be a good citizen. It is interesting to explore this notion of citizenship by analyzing what it means to be flawed, by connecting the concept of ‘Hamartia’ to two works of literature from very different time periods: the Sophoclean Greek tragedy of Antigone (441 B.C) and its modern-day novel adaptation by Kamila Shamsie titled Home Fire (2017). The two lead female characters of these works had to go through phases of immense struggle and subsequent death in their act of challenging the rules of the all-powerful state, thereby showcasing the problematic nature of the state-citizen relationship from a historical as well as a more modern political lens.
As Simon Goldhill, professor in Greek literature and culture, describes, in the 5th century, the designation of citizenship to an individual implied a higher privilege and position than the non-citizens (Goldhill 3). Ironically, almost 3000 years later, with society having supposedly evolved and come a long way, the position of the state with respect to its citizens remains the same, especially in certain authoritarian establishments. The current political climate in these authoritarian states resonates with that of ancient Athens, where autocratic governments tend to glorify ideal citizens as only those who seemingly possess a strong sense of duty towards their state. If this expectation is in any way defied or challenged, the individual or the citizen would have to face the wrath of the powerful state, as was the case with the two leading characters of the play and novel Antigone and Aneeka, respectively.
The Sophoclean tragedy of Antigone is set against the political backdrop of the 5th century B.C., where Antigone actively defies Creon (or the ruler of the state) in her quest to bury her dead brother. The novel adaptation, on the other hand, is set in the modern political climate of the conflict between Western society and Islamic extremism. The lead character Aneeka is a young English Muslim girl who finds herself in the midst of this conflict while fighting for her dead brother Parvaiz’s burial while going against the government’s orders of not allowing ISIS members to be buried in the U.K. Parvaiz, who was wrongly influenced by one of his estranged father’s (who had died fighting for the ISIS) colleagues to join ISIS, quickly realized his mistake and upon attempting to leave, was shot dead. The novel builds up to how Aneeka fights against the state for the right to bring back Parvaiz’s dead body to the U.K., where it rightfully belongs, instead of sending it to Pakistan, where the U.K. government believes it should be buried. Despite Parvaiz’s British citizenship, his body is not allowed to even enter the U.K due to the strong resistance of the authorities for allowing an ex-ISIS member, or in other words, an enemy of the state to be buried in their land. It may be argued that being a Muslim and of Pakistani origin played a big role in determining where his body would be buried. This reflects Islamophobia on the part of the establishment which finds a way to even justify such an approach by terming the innocent dead boy as a terrorist in an extremist organization who does not deserve to be buried in the U.K. Both these literary works center on the conflict between the state and its citizens with regards to certain civic virtues that the ruling authority or the state considers absolutely integral to a moral and virtuous citizen.
A typical Greek tragedy, according to Aristotle, is marked by its lead character tragically dying in the end due to certain intellectual errors on their part, which is then linked directly to a flaw in their personality (Heath 32). This flaw or ‘hamartia,’ as per Aristotle, is characteristic of every tragic play ever written. However, in both these literary works, there is no hamartia or intellectual flaw that led to the main characters’ deaths. It was a result of the act of two regular citizens deciding to resist and challenge the authoritative ruler or state in order to demand what they believed was their right. They challenged the conventional state-citizen relationship through acts of love and bravery.
One of the striking aspects of citizenship in ancient Greece was that only adult males were considered citizens and therefore had a more privileged status in society (Goldhill 4). Such gender disparities may be observed very evidently in Sophocles’ Antigone and Shamsie’s Home Fire. In the case of Antigone, for instance, when Creon (ruler of the state) finds out that his son Haemon who was supposed to marry Antigone, was in support of her going against his father’s wishes to perform the last rites for her dead brother who was declared a traitor to the land, Creon cries out saying.’
You’re despicable, yielding to a woman. A woman’s slave. Don’t waste your wiles on me’ (Lefkowitz and Romm 307).
Chorus Leader: ‘How clear it is: the girl’s breed is savage from her savage father. She knows not how to yield.’ (295).
A similar leitmotif is also present in the case of Aneeka, who was fighting a battle against the British state to bring her brother back from ISIS and for the state to recognize him as a citizen who wanted to rectify his mistake, the media (an important tool used by the powerful state) was very quick to conjure up false news reports that claimed that she had, in fact, seduced the son of Karamat Lone, the head of the state, and manipulated him to allow her brother back into the U.K. The truth, in fact, was that she was simply good friends with Karamat’s son Eamonn. However, the news had reported that Aneeka was only using Eamonn as a puppet to get her brother back and wanted to break off her relationship with him once Eamonn had obliged. This was all done, of course, to portray the immense power and virtuosity of the head of the state, Karamat, in declaring her brother as the enemy of the state (Shamsie 188).
As a response to such cruel declarations by the respective authorities in the two works, these women acted out of love and a sense of duty towards their own brothers, who had been termed as an enemy of the state. Apart from falling prey to such an unjust and inhumane ruling by their respective heads of state, both Antigone and Aneeka also had to face immense ridicule associated with their gender. Not only is this unfair to these characters, but it is also a matter of concern that even 3000 years later, an adaptation that reflects the modern political and social climate is still one that is heavily biased against females. In the following excerpt, a dialogue from Ismene resonates with this.
Ismene (Antigone’s elder sister): ‘We are not meant to wage war with men; and then, that we’re compelled by those stronger than we are to acquiesce in this, and things more painful still. And I’ll obey the authorities. Trying to do more than we can make no sense at all.‘ (283).
As briefly mentioned previously, in his commentary of the Greek tragedies titled ‘Poetics,’ Aristotle describes the concept of Hamartia as an intellectual or moral character flaw in the personality of the lead character of a tragedy that leads to their inevitable death (Heath 32). Classics scholar E.R Dodds, points out that scholars have consistently looked at the Oedipus Rex (which is in some ways the prequel to Antigone) with a microscope to look for flaws or Hamartia in Oedipus’s personality (Dodds 66). However, what they fail to identify is the fact that Sophocles never intended to portray Oedipus or any of his other characters as examples of perfect individuals who could do absolutely no wrong. It is the same with Antigone and Aneeka who being humanized characters also had their other shortcomings. Their tragic deaths, however, cannot be associated with any personal flaw other than their decision to choose a path of resistance against the mighty authority or the state.
Antigone is an orphan whose parents fell victims to the consequences of a grave prophecy made about them. Her two brothers Eteocles and Polynices, had also died fighting off each other, one of whom had now been declared an enemy and traitor of the land. At this point, she was left with no family other than her sister Ismene. Aneeka, too had no parents. Like Antigone, she lost her younger brother, whom she deeply loved, and had an estranged relationship with her sister Isma. Additionally, Isma was not in favor of wanting to bring back Parvaiz’s dead body to the U.K., thereby leaving Aneeka, much like Antigone, to fight this battle all alone.
Reporter: ‘He won’t be buried here?
Karamat Lone: No. We will not let those who turn against the soil of Britain in their lifetime sully that very soil in death‘ (Shamsie 188).
It is worth admiring how the two women responded to a situation wherein they were left alone and seemingly helpless. Arguably, the general tendency of most individuals in such a situation would be to simply bow down to the state or the authority. Yet, both Antigone and Aneeka display immense commitment towards their cause of bringing back their dead brothers to the land where they belonged. In the process, they showed how not only is it problematic to blindly accept dictums but also that the true essence of progress and evolution lies in actually following a rational path through acts of questioning authorities and sometimes even revolting against them if necessary.
True ‘enlightenment’ in society, as Kant suggests, may only be achieved through the adoption of ‘practical reasoning in the public sphere to break free of one’s ‘immaturity’ using their own understanding without guidance from others (Kant 1). The emotive response of wanting to defend her dead brother’s honor by burying his body is Antigone’s use of her practical reasoning. This ‘immaturity’ is something Antigone is defying in many ways by deciding to act according to her own will rather than following guidelines laid down by the state. Kant also suggests that one’s use of practical reason should be free and public. As for both Antigone and Aneeka, the act of defying the laws and wanting to honor and bury their respective brothers is an act in accordance with the use of free practical reasoning. This is perfectly manifested in the following excerpts:
Antigone: ‘Tyranny enjoys many blessings, not least the power to do and say what it pleases. And I can’t join in hate but only love’ (296).
Aneeka: ‘He wants to come home. He wants me to bring him home, even in the form of a shell’ (Shamsie 196).
With Eteocles being celebrated and buried in Thebes, Polynices, too, deserved burial in his own land. Antigone died fighting for this basic right. In the case of Home Fire, Aneeka’s brother, Parvaiz, who, upon realizing his mistake of following his uncle to the land of ISIS, tried his best to escape but was killed. Parvaiz being a British citizen, also deserved to be buried in the U.K. Aneeka’s attempts at burying her brother with dignity led to her death.
Is it truly a fair assumption to make then, following Aristotle’s commentary, that there was an intellectual or moral flaw of sorts in these characters? Antigone is a play about practical reason and the way in which practical reason orders or sees the world (Nussbaum 51). The play ends with the assertion that ‘practical wisdom’ is the most important constituent of human good living or eudaimonia (Nussbaum 52). The character of Antigone, in the process of defying the state, ends up experiencing a different truth. It is about changing one’s vision of the world and learning about a more elusive kind of wisdom (Nussbaum 52). Antigone has a vision of the world and its problems that are unusual, and she approaches these problems with unusual confidence because of which it comes across as different and even unacceptable to Creon, who is a representation of the unidimensional dictatorial state. In the process of viewing the world differently, Antigone ends up doing what Kant wanted his readers and society, in general, to attain, a state of enlightenment.
The same thing happens in Kamila Shamsie’s novel, where it can be seen that Aneeka faces constant injustice in her quest to get her brother’s dead body back to the land where it belonged. In the case of Aneeka, her actions are all the more admirable not just because she displays emotions of love and duty towards her brother with the courage to act upon these emotions, but also because of the kind of pessimism she surrounds herself with. Her elder sister Isma showed no signs of sympathy towards her own brother and was, in fact, responsible for letting out information to the police officials when Parvaiz had initially decided to join ISIS. Her justification for such an action, although stemming from a similar emotion to that of Aneeka, does not quite resonate with the wholesome nature of Aneeka’s. Deciding to completely cut off a family member for a mistake that he commits is again a sign of how civic virtues defined by the state are so powerful in nature that they are able to overthrow pure bonds of love and respect for one’s own family. In no way is the argument attempting to justify Parvaiz’s actions of agreeing to join an organization that breeds extremists, but the fact that even after his death, Isma, being the eldest of her siblings, is unable to gather the courage to step up for justice shows how difficult it is to challenge norms and rules that have been established by an authority as powerful as the state or the government. Despite being the youngest sibling, it is only Aneeka who is able to muster up enough courage and also continue on her path of struggling for justice without any support from her family, the media, or the state. Most other people in her situation may have naturally succumbed to societal pressure and given up. This remarkable display of courage and practical reasoning is what make both Aneeka and Antigone so special.
These works reveal the extremely problematic nature of how authoritarian states tend to treat their own citizens, especially those going against it. Countries like the United States of America, the Philippines, the United Kingdom (as seen in the novel), and India are few amongst the ones where the relationship between the state or the government and the people is rather complicated. Dissent is not favored, and minorities are gradually shifting to a position where they would have little or no say in the day-to-day affairs of the functioning of the state. Many political leaders across the world are seemingly behaving very similarly to the characters of Creon and Karamat Lone.
Creon: ‘And whoever counts a friend of greater worth than his own country— I say he’s nowhere! And I would not hold my tongue when I see disaster instead of safety stalking the city, nor would I count a man who’s hostile to the land a friend of mine, for this I know: it is the land that saves us’ (287).
Globally, we can observe ultranationalism being paraded with people being forced to act according to its principles, thereby resonating with how the “polis” in Greek society functioned in the 5th century B.C. Antigone and its adaptations remain relevant as they resonate with conflicts that are still part of the modern world. Analyzing them is a means to understand these conflicts in greater detail. The novel Home Fire is also able to bring out distinctly how a modern government that is otherwise meant to work for the happiness and growth of a minority community as the Muslims in Britain instead ends up alienating their culture as a whole. People in positions of power and authority have often failed to understand, appreciate, and include minority group cultures, be it in a social, cultural, or gendered sense. Practical reasoning coupled with empathy could indeed be humanity’s way out of this strict societal structure of hegemonies. At this point, Haemon’s advice to his father Creon seems absolutely appropriate:
‘Don’t cleave, then, to a single frame of mind— that what you say, and nothing else, is right. For he who thinks that he alone has sense or eloquence that others lack, or character when opened up, shows an empty page‘ (302).
By Prithvik Sen Choudhary
Dodds, E.R. “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex.” The Ancient Concept of Progress. Oxford 1973.
Goldhill, Simon. “Drama and the City of Athens.” Aeschylus: The Oresteia. Cambridge. Cambridge: UP, 2004, pp-1-19
Heath, Malcolm. Aristotle: Poetics. London, Penguin Books, 1996
Humphrey, Ted, Editor. An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? By Immanuel Kant, Hackett Publishing. 1992
Lefkowitz, M and James Romm. The Greek Plays: Sixteen Plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. New York, Modern Library, 2016.
Nussbaum, Martha. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. The United States of America, 2001.
Shamsie, Kamila. Home Fire. India, Bloomsbury, 2018