Women’s Resistance and the Antigonean Power of Mourning in Ariel Dorfman’s Widows

In acts of defiance evocative of Antigone in Sophocles’ classic tragedy, the women protagonists of the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman’s novel Widows assert the right to burial and mourning as a form of resistance against state terrorism. Set in Nazi-occupied Greece in the early 1940s, the Widows depicts the intense struggles between the native toiling masses against the repressive Nazi regime and its local puppets. Here, most men have “disappeared,” taken away by the military on the suspicion of being armed rebels. In the midst of this grave situation, peasant women – missing their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers – claim a body that washes ashore the riverbanks and refuse to give this body to military officials for an anonymous burial.“Either he belongs to us all or he belongs to nobody,” the women affirmed. “All the women have to claim him for burial, all the families.”[1]

In the “Foreword by the Author’s Son,” we are told by a fictional Sigrid Lohmann that the main narrative that constitutes the novel is authored by his father, Eric Lohmann. The novel was written prior to Sigrid’s birth and his father’s arrest and disappearance at the hands of the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Denmark. In this foreword, we are told that the setting of Eric’s narrative is not actually “Greece but an imaginary place equivalent to all Europe of that epoch. Written between 1941 and 1942, the novel presages what was to occur in his own country [Denmark], in Holland, in France, in Italy, in Poland, in the years to come.”[2]

In the preface “By Way of a Dedication,” meanwhile, it is explained how Dorfman originally intended to publish Widows under the invented name of Eric Lohmann because his novel’s sensitive theme as well as the dominance of dictatorial regimes in his homeland made it impossible for “books with [his] name on them” to “circulate freely in Chile and other countries of the southern cone of Latin America.”[3] However, despite this precaution of writing under a pseudonym, no publishing house risked printing Dorfman’s novel. He thus ended up publishing Widows under his name but without revising its basic narrative:

I liked the novel as it was. By forcing myself to choose my words with caution, by forcing myself to witness such a traumatic and immediate experience from a distance, by forcing myself to explore a language which could not be traced to the style that Latin American readers and critics might have recognized as my own, it seemed to me I had managed to make the plight of the missing people into something more universal, which could happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone. It is our misfortune that it is happening today in my own Chile, in El Salvador, in South Africa, in the Philippines. It happened in Denmark yesterday, and who knows where it will happen tomorrow. Just a little imagination is needed to shift the character and change the landscape.[4]

Photo from archives of Roberta Bacic.

These are some of the realities that the novel draw material from and comment on. We thus have a novel that cleverly alludes to its actual conditions of writing and the larger socio-historical realities that shaped the circumstances of its writing. This at once illustrates what Edward Said once called a text’s worldliness or “how the embedding of the text in its world, and the network of its affiliations with that world, are crucial to its meaning and its significance, and indeed, to its very identity as a text.”[5] The world Dorfman’s novel illuminates is not just one wherein injustice reigns but also one where the world’s people’s struggle against all forms of exploitation and oppression continue. Just as Sophocles’ Antigone dared to problematize the role of women at the height of a patriarchal regime in the Classical age, the novel Widows tackle present-day conditions that other contemporary works of literature are too indifferent or fainthearted to touch on.

Dorfman’s own experiences in his native Chile and his affiliations with a real social movement for national liberation and social transformation should explain this social commitment in his novels. Chile during the time of the writing of Widows was living under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. This regime came to power through a United States-sponsored violent coup in 1973 – three years after Salvador Allende won democratic elections in 1970. Threatened by Allende’s program of land reform and social change, the local landlords, big business elites, and the US government conspired to replace Allende with a more corporate- friendly regime. Dorfman served as cultural adviser to Allende’s socialist administration.

Protesters against repression and “disappearances” in Chile gather at a Santiago rally. Photo by APF Fellow Pamela Constable.

The Pinochet dictatorship resorted to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and other brutal human rights violations against all social movements, people’s organizations, and other perceived enemies. Almost 9,000 people were officially recorded to have disappeared during this period of military rule from 1973 to 1990 while it is estimated that as much as 30,000 people actually died or are still missing.[6] Pinochet “reversed the nationalizations and privatized public assets, opened up natural resources (fisheries, timber, etc.) to private and unregulated exploitation…, privatized social security, and facilitated foreign direct investment and freer trade”[7] to the benefit of his US masters. This situation is not much different from the same neocolonial experience of many other Third World countries like the Philippines, which continue to suffer from a flurry of issues brought about by the continuing imperial project. Because of the perils posed by a crisis of overproduction in its domestic economy, US monopoly capital is forced to expand overseas in order to export its surplus capital and products as well as to exploit more sources of cheap material resources and cheap labor. Imperialist powers like the US thus subjugate colonies or semicolonies that are independent in name but are essentially dominated by foreign powers in its politics, economy, and culture.[8]

Widows, however, is no direct reflection of these realities and was never intended to be such as Dorfman’s own preface explains. Far from simply mirroring man’s social life, Widows exemplifies Mao Tse Tung’s prescription for art and literature “to be on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life.”[9] Widows draw facts from real life but “concentrate on such everyday phenomena, typify the contradictions and struggles within them” in order to “awaken the masses, fire them with enthusiasm and impel them to unite and struggle to transform their environment.”[10] And it is in this more intense, more concentrated, and indeed more universal treatment that Widows attain a power that approaches that of Sophocles classic work, Antigone.

While Dorfman took as his point of departure for Widows the more general question of enforced disappearances of dissenters in the Third World, the way his protagonists confronted this issue by insisting on the right to mourn for their loved ones harks back to Antigone’s position against her being deprived of her brother’s grave. It can be recalled that Antigone buried her brother Polyneices in violation of an edict proclaimed by her uncle and the King of Thebes – Creon. Antigone’s claim takes place to the backdrop of Creon’s assuming power in the wake of a royal fratricide that leads to both Polyneices and Ereocles’ deaths after the former leads an army against his own brother. But whereas the contradiction between family and state and between the female voice and patriarchy as configured in Antigone is confined within the aristocratic classes, the same contradictions are reframed across classes in Dorfman’s Widows. We have the dominated, poor peasant women, standing up against the army, the protectors of the status quo and the interests of the ruling classes.

Photo by Macky Macaspac

Grief and mourning are often thought of by many people as “privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation and is, in that sense, depoliticizing.”[11] Against this commonplace, Judith Butler advances the contrary view that mourning provides a sense of community that can resist against the undermining of fundamental human ties brought about by today’s economically exploitative and politically repressive state of affairs. Under conditions wherein lives are grieved differently – where the loss of some lives are publicly mourned while others are disallowed from being mourned – the Antigonean demand for mourning despite the threats of state violence opens the space for the full realization of humanity. It is in this claim to grievance in Antigone and Widows that both texts work on the fundamental questions of “who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, what makes for a grievable life?”[12]

The exceptionality of Sophocles’ classic play revolves around this act of defiance by Antigone. “Alone in Greek literature, among mortal women, Antigone openly and publicly challenges her enemies. She fights like a man. Indeed, she is more defiant of Creon than any man in the play.”[13] This is even truer in Dorfman’s novel where the body at stake is not merely that of a character (Polyneices) who is complicit in the tragic dimensions of the unfolding drama. For in the novel we are shown how the lives alluded to in the text, the lives that cannot be publicly grieved for by virtue of the fascist state’s violence number in the thousands. These are the men and women who have “disappeared,” who have become desaparecidos:

Taken from their homes in the dead of the night or abducted in open daylight on the streets, these people are never seen again. Their relatives are left not just without their loved ones, but without any certainty about whether they are alive or dead. The “missing” are deprived of more than their homes, their livelihoods, their children. They are also deprived of their graves.[14]

Indeed, “Violence against those who are already not quite lives, who are living in a state of suspension between life and death, leaves a mark that is no mark.”[15] Just as King Creon considered his nephew Polyneices an “infidel and wants him denied a proper funeral, indeed, wants the body left bare, dishonored and ravaged,”[16] in Widows we witness how this prohibition on mourning and the “differential allocation of grief serves the derealizing aims of military violence.”[17] The conflict in Widows thus cuts through a straightforward family versus state dichotomy for the individual familial concerns of mourning and burial take on a social dimension as the widows of the different families of the disappeared join hands in claiming the washed off body as their own. An individualist resolution is indeed overpowered by the discovery that other individuals and other families share the same despair, that this collective loss of loved ones is rooted in a shared experience of fascist rule. Confronting the Captain in-charge of the soldiers encamped in their village, one of the widows declared:

From “You are not forgotten! Symbols During Martial Law” published in 1988 by the Socio Pastoral Institute.

“The times we’re living in aren’t normal, sir. Or do you find it normal that I have no man in my house, that two of my sons have been shot, that my daughters have no one to marry, that my husband comes floating down the river after having been arrested in the capital some two years ago…?”[18]

The demand to bury this single dead body as a member of their own families thus took on the form of a collective protest as the protagonist and thirty six other women presented petitions claiming the body as “their sons, husbands, uncles, fathers, brothers, and brothers-in-laws.”[19]

But even Antigone itself, just like Widows, cannot be reduced to a mere clash between kinship and state power or women’s resistance against patriarchal authority. For such simplistic accounts forget how “Antigone has already departed from kinship, herself the daughter of an incestuous bond, herself devoted to an impossible and death-bent incestuous love of her brother.”[20] This also fails to account how Antigone’s language “paradoxically, most closely approximates Creon’s, the language of sovereign authority and action, and how Creon himself assumes his sovereignty only by virtue of the kinship line that enables that succession.”[21] Just as in Dorfman’s novel, Antigone clearly intimates how the personal is implicated in the political and vice versa and how women’s issues are intricately linked to greater social problems. As Peter Ahrensdorf would put it, Antigone’s devotion to her family is devotion

to something larger than herself and making sacrifices for something beyond herself. In this sense, she is indeed acting nobly and selflessly. Yet, by devoting herself to the good of her family, she is devoting herself to the good of a community – a community of flesh and blood and soul – that includes her own good. She is devoting herself to a truly common good, a good that is common to all members of the community.[22]

Commenting on Antigone, Luce Irigaray would say that the purpose moving “blood relatives to action is the care of the bloodless. Their inherent duty is to ensure burial for the dead, thus changing a natural phenomenon into a spiritual act.”[23] And it is precisely such acts that, while rooted in narrow familial concern for grieving, clashed head on with the repressive powers of the state: that of King Creon’s in Sophocles’ Antigone and that of the dictatorship in Dorfman’s Widows. In Antigone, Creon’s proclamation fell upon the deaf ears of the heroine and thus failed to bind her as one of those addressed by Creon’s speech. In Widows, the Captain’s commands would likewise fall on the deaf ears of the resisting women in several confrontations. The women of Dorfman’s novel are thus like Antigone in their refusal “to obey any law that refuses public recognition of her loss, and in this way prefigures the situation of those with publicly ungrievable losses.” [24]

From “You are not forgotten! Symbols During Martial Law” published in 1988 by the Socio Pastoral Institute.

Novels like Widows thus help us problematize “the relation between the violence by which these ungrievable lives were lost and the prohibition on their public grievability.”[25] By reading Widows we are brought closer to questions that cannot anymore be pushed under the rug as the weight of the multiple crises – from the economic depression, the food shortages, the energy crisis, the environmental cataclysms, and the political chaos – brought about by an unjust social system all bear upon us. From Sophocles’ age of antiquity up to our very own contemporary era, class-based societies from slavery, feudalism, to present-day capitalism has bred the worst forms of denigration, inequality, subjugation of gender, and dehumanization on a massive scale for the sake of the concentration of wealth and power at the hands of a very few. The Philippines is not exempted from this state of barbarity. Under the US-backed Marcos dictatorship from 1972 to 1986, there were 3,257 victims of extrajudicial killings, more than 35,000 victims of torture, and over 70,000 political prisoners.[26] Human rights abuses continued even after the toppling of the dictatorship as the regime of Corazon Aquino declared a Total War against the revolutionary movement under the rubric of the US-directed Low Intensity Conflict.[27] Under the decade-long rule of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from 2001 to 2010, the counterinsurgency plan Oplan Bantay Laya I and II resulted in 1,244 cases of extrajudicial killings, among other violations of human rights. This is the result of the counterinsurgency plan’s lack of distinction between people’s organizations and armed rebels, thus giving the regime leeway to persecute its opponents. This same framework persists in the new Aquino administration’s internal security plan, the Oplan Bayanihan.[28]

Widows continues the themes of mourning, women’s liberation, and resistance against state power presaged in Antigone but rework these to accommodate real contemporary realities of social injustice in the Third World as a consequence of imperialist intervention. In Antigone the heroine occupies the position of the “living dead” in the sense of being alive biologically but “dead in terms of the symbolic order”[29] as brought about by her exclusion from the social body as a consequence of the double transgressions of her act of rebellion against the law and her rising up in spite of her subordinate role as woman. In Widows, the heroines precisely resisted in the name of the thousands of “the missing,” the desaparecidos, who like Antigone occupy “an uninhabitable position, a position for which there is no place in the public space.”[30] The heroines’ acts of defiance give readers from all places and all epochs a concrete example of the necessity and the power of resistance. ■


1. Ariel Dorfman, Widows, trans. Stephen Kessler (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 53.

2. Ibid, 5.

3. Ibid, v.

4. Ibid, vi.

5. Bill Ashcroft and Pal Ahluwalia, Edward Said (London: Routledge, 1999), 27.

6. David Sugarman, “From Unimaginable to Possible:  Spain, Pinochet and the Judicialization of Power,” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2002): 120.

7. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 8.

8. Amado Guerrero, Lipunan at Rebolusyong Pilipino 3rd Edition (Luzon, Philippines: Pambansang Kawanihan sa Pagsasalin ng Partido Komunista Pilipinas Marxista-Leninista-Maoista, 1996), 78-82.

9. Mao Tse Tung, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse Tung Volume III (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1965), 82.

10. Ibid.

11. Judith Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4, No. 1 (2003): 12.

12. Ibid, 10.

13. Peter Ahrensdorf, “The Pious Heroism of Antigone,” in Greek Tragedy and Political Philosophy: Rationalism and Religion in Sophocles’ Theban Plays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 92.

14. Dorfman, v.

15. Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” 24.

16. Judith Butler, Anigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 7.

17. Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” 25.

18. Dorfman, 61-62.

19. Ibid, 61.

20. Butler, Antigone’s Claim, 6.

21. Ibid, 6.

22. Ahrensdorf, 111.

23. Luce Irigaray, “The Eternal Irony of the Community,” in Speculum of the Other Woman, Trans. Gillian Gill (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 214.

24. Butler, Antigone’s Claim, 24.

25. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 148.

26. Alfred McCoy, “Dark Legacy: Human Rights under Marcos Regime,” Hartford Web Publishing, 18 October 1999. Retrieved 15 March 2011 from http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/54a/062.html

27. Alice Guillermo, “Low Intensity Conflict: US Intervention in the Grassroots,” in The Covert Presence and Other Essays on Politics and Culture (Manila: Kalikasan Press, 1989), 87-106.

28. Chen Imperial, “Dangerous Fronts: Deconstructing Peace in Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan,” Philippine Collegian, 5 February 2011. Retrieved 15 March 2011 from http://www.philippinecollegian.org/?p=403

29. Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002), 99.

29. Ibid.

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