The Island

The Island Summary and Analysis of Part 5


The lights change and suddenly we are at the performance of Antigone. Backstage, John asks Winston if he knows all his lines. They hang up some blankets to act as a backdrop and John addresses the prison audience. He outlines the plot of Antigone, in which two brothers fight on opposite sides of a struggle, one defending the state and the other fighting against it. Both brothers die, and King Creon has decided that the son who fought against the state is not eligible for a burial. When Creon leaves Polynices out to die without a burial, Antigone defies the law and buries her brother, but gets caught.

After giving this background, John goes behind the curtain before coming out in a crown and blanket to represent that he is now Creon. He makes a speech to his subjects about how he is their servant. His speech is long and he talks about how he maintains the happiness of his people by upholding the law. He says, "Let what follows be a living lesson for those among you misguided enough still to harbour sympathy for rats."

Winston comes on, dressed as Antigone, and Creon cross-examines her. Antigone pleads guilty to burying Polynices. "Are you God?" Antigone asks, before saying, "What lay on the battleground waiting for Hodoshe to turn rotten, belonged to God." She goes on to say that she knows that she must die, and to that she says, "So much the better. Your threat is nothing to me, Creon. But if I had let my mother's son, a Son of the Land, lie there as food for the carrion fly, Hodoshe, my soul would never have known peace."

Antigone tells Creon that all the other citizens think like her, but are afraid to stand up to him. "I do not feel any shame at having honoured my brother," Antigone says, before adding, "I shared my love, not my hate." Creon orders the guards to take her to the Island, saying, "There wall her up in a cell for life, with enough food to acquit ourselves of the taint of her blood." Antigone gives a monologue to the audience about going to the Island, "to be lost between life and death." Suddenly, Winston takes off his wig and speaks to the audience as himself: "Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honour belongs." John also takes off his costume and they bring their hands together, as if held by handcuffs and ankle-chains. They begin to run, John mumbling a prayer, as a siren wails. The play ends.


After this emotional climax between Winston and John, we are transported into the future, to their performance of Antigone. At the breaking point of their conversation about John's release from prison, the scene changes and we are transported into the future. Winston frets about his endless future in prison—the fact that not only will he be cut off from the rest of the world, but he will lose all memory of John, his former life, and his political ideals. John is powerless to help him, and they must keep moving forward. The performance of Antigone becomes the culminating event of their friendship.

Antigone is thematically relevant to the broader play because it is about a state that is being ruled by an unjust leader, which parallels the fact that John and Winston are being imprisoned in South Africa during apartheid. John and Winston have been imprisoned for resisting the apartheid, a political project of resistance that can be compared to Antigone's resistance to Creon's political domination. Thus, we see that the performance of the play is not only a chance for the two prisoners to work on a project together before their inevitable separation, but also an allegory for their plight as Black South Africans who have resisted apartheid.

The parallels between the play itself and Antigone are evident not only in the subject matter of the ancient Greek play, but also in the actual text that Winston and John perform. In her testimony in John and Winston's version of the play, Antigone refers to Hodoshe, and the play-within-a-play is modified to denote a setting in South Africa. Sophocles's story begins to blend onstage with the story of apartheid, and Antigone becomes a representative of South African political prisoners and their fight for justice under an unjust state.

Something that is unique about the figure of Antigone is that she is more than willing to die for her crime, because she believes so strongly that she has done the right thing. Rather than try and get out of facing the consequence for her action, she pleads "Guilty" and suggests that her execution is "so much the better," because the alternative would mean that her brother never got a proper burial. In this way, she is like the political prisoners on the island, men who have made giant sacrifices on behalf of their beliefs and their ideals, and who are facing unthinkable punishments for actions that they do not even see as crimes. In this moment, we see that Winston and Antigone are the same; just as Antigone accepts her execution, Winston is accepting his own life imprisonment for the sake of his political beliefs.

The end of the play shows the two prisoners coming back together, as in the beginning of the play. They are chained together and they begin to run for their lives, as a siren wails. The final image of the play stages the two men, who have been handed very different fates, coming together to resist the authorities that they see as unjust. Rather than capitulate to Hodoshe and the state, they fight back, and try to escape from its control. The final image is an ambiguous and suspenseful one, but one that is also full of hope: the image of two comrades fighting for the same ideals.