Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tragedy Loves Company: 2003 Q3 Essay

A few Saturday's ago, I conducted an experiment. I the most recent prompt that my AP students had written on, set a timer for 40 minutes, and wrote the essay myself. I must confess that the experience was eye-opening. I struggled with the time. I personally felt like I had too much time and I needed to focus and really dig deep in my analysis. And I struggled with the feeling that I was simply repeating myself. I then gave my essay to a colleague, without a name, and asked him to score it--pretending it was a student paper I was struggling with. I scored an 8 on the paper, which I agree with. The essay was good, but not without its failings.

Here is the prompt:
"According to critic Northrop Frye, 'Tragic heroes are so much the highest point in their human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them, great trees more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass. Conductors may of course be instruments as well as victims of the divine lightning.' 
Select a novel or play in which a tragic figure functions as an instrument of the suffering of others. Then write an essay in which you explain how the suffering brought upon others by that figure contributes to the tragic vision of the work as a whole.
You may choose a work from the list below or another novel or play of comparable quality. Avoid mere plot summary."

I chose Antigone because that is what my students wrote on. And without further ado, here is my essay:
Tragedy loves company. Tragic heroes in literature often cause suffering in the people around them, as they suffer themselves. In Sophocles' play, Antigone, King Creon functions as the tragic figure that causes the suffering of others. He brings about the suffering of his own family (Antigone, Haimon, and his wife, Eurydice), as well as the suffering of the common people of Thebes. This all helps the reader to better understand the theme that power blinds people to the needs of others.

About halfway through the play, Haimon, Creon's son, comes to speak with him about the sentence pronounced upon Antigone (Creon's niece and Haimon's betrothed). Creon's only thought though, his only desire, is power. Creon refuses to listen to his son, or the Choragus. His mind is made up and his stubborn pride will not allow him to change, because to change would make him look weak--and a king cannot look weak. This helps the reader understand how damning power can be. As soon as a man gets even the smallest ounce of power, he lets that go to his head and then refuses to listen to his advisers. This is the case in the real world and the case in the play. Creon refuses to listen to anyone and that prideful refusal leads to the suffering of his son, Haimon; his niece, Antigone; and his wife, Eurydice. Creon "kills" his entire family because he is too proud to change. Sophocles warns us of the dangers of power and how a tree in a storm better be able to lean, or else that tree will break.

In the end of the play, the blind prophet, Teiresias shows up to counsel Creon. Teiresisas states that he can no longer communicate with the gods, and that they aren't accepting his sacrifices anymore. Now, Creon messing things up in his own family is one thing, but now he has cursed all of Thebes with his actions. The common people (here represented by the Chorus and the Choragus) cannot speak with the gods anymore. They can't ask for blessings upon their families or their crops. Creon curses all those around him. As he says in the play, everything he touches comes to death. Sophocles provides us with a wonderful example of how not to lead, which we so desperately need in this day and age. Creon's desire for power clouds everything else in his mind. He cannot think, he cannot reason. His discussions with almost every character in the play turn into angry fighting. Creon is blind to everything else--the needs of his family and the needs of his city. And because of this blindness, Creon suffers, but more importantly, those around him also suffer. Hopefully the irony of Teiresias, the blind prophet, bringing this to Creon's attention isn't lost on the reader either. At the end of the play, the reader should see how important it is for leaders to temper their power with reason and good counsel from trusted advisers. No one can lead and be an island. You can't do the job by yourself. Those who try as we see in the case of Creon, only cause those around them to suffer. Like Northrop Frye states, "[they are] so much the highest points in their human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them." And that power blinds them to the needs of their subjects and causes pain and suffering.

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