Ajax self-concept and self-destruction
When does Ajax make the decision to kill himself? Does he demonstrate any indecision in the play?
Ajax’s choice to kill himself is the major turning point in Sophocles’ work. Ajax begins as the tragedy of a proud soldier who is shamed and humiliated by the gods he has slighted. However, after Ajax impales himself on his own sword his body remains onstage-a visceral reminder of the cost of war on the battlefield and at home. This soldier’s tragedy transforms from a cautionary tale about hubris to a contemplation of masculinity, authority and the echoes of war. While Athena and Orpheus’s influence on Ajax’s actions can’t be discounted, the unraveling of Ajax’s self-concept and his shaken mental state must also be examined to track the rise and fall of Greece’s greatest warrior.
Ajax’s resolution to kill himself is in question until his last moments onstage. Though he seems to commit to his death in the first 30 pages of the play, his actions or inactions and his fractured mental state demonstrate a far less committed state of mind. Ajax seems to invite death early in the play. Tecmessa vividly describes his reaction after Athena’s cruel illusion is broken and Ajax sees what he has done. When Ajax wakes amongst the slaughtered cattle he is despondent. Tecmessa finds him lying in a pile with the corpses and blood “planning to do some terrible thing.” She is terrified by his appearance and the change she sees in him after his delusion is broken. The chorus and Tecmessa share a sense of foreboding. The low noises that Ajax makes, like “an animal” or “woman”, demonstrate how he is no longer the man they knew. They no longer recognize him as Ajax; the proud and unbending shield that was their greatest warrior, but rather some “weak” creature. This permanent shift is so great that Ajax can no longer recognize himself as the leader he once was.
Ajax commands his friends to “cut my throat right now.” He wants them to “end his suffering” as he can’t bear to continue after the destruction he’s wrought. This speaks to Ajax’s fraying sense of self. He is manic and dangerous in this scene, enumerating his feats of military strength and power as if to remind himself of who he is. Eventually Tecmessa and the Chorus seem to be able to calm him, but when he finds himself alone again he asks “what should I do now?” This is an honest question. He’s adrift and alone, he isn’t open with his war-bride, he shares little with his fellow soldiers. Instead he is left in isolation to consider his future. Interestingly, his thoughts return again and again to his father. How can he preserve his father’s honor? What can he do to keep him from shame? He must do something “bold to erase all doubt in my father’s mind.” These thoughts about his father inevitably lead Ajax to the conclusion that he must take his own life. Ajax slowly closes in on this decision by questioning what men must do, and most importantly what a great man must do. This is Ajax at his most resolute. When he states that “a great man must live in honor or die an honorable death” he has made his choice. He has committed himself to death and has almost found a sense of peace in his decision. This moment where Ajax collects himself and makes the choice that a great man must make is his moment of clarity away from his son, his wife and his men.
The next time we see Ajax, Tecmessa pleads with him not to leave her. She implores him to stay with her and their son because she fears what Ajax may do if he is left alone. This infuriates Ajax, erasing the sense of purpose he found in his soliloquy as his wife begs him to consider their son and their future life together. He yells at his wife; “go inside, shut the gates before I lose my nerve!” He is disoriented in this scene. His language is violent and he threatens his wife and his friends if they try to stand in his way. His thoughts are scattered and his choice seems far less clear when faced with his wife and child. Ajax commands his men; “pray with her friends…I will now go where I must go…you will see that as un-lucky as I have been today, I am now saved.” Ajax is making what he believes is the only choice, he can’t see another way forward because he has lost his identity and can’t seem to think rationally. The temporary madness that Athena inflicted upon him may have lifted, but Ajax is permanently changed by his actions.
In Ajax’s final moments when his sword is buried in front of him and nothing stands in his way, his indecision is revealed. He has thought of every action the gods must take to avenge him-- He calls upon Zeus, the furies, Hermes and Helios to help and avenge him after his death. He puts together an incredibly thought out “to-do” list that demonstrates how long he has thought about this moment. This list details how the gods must punish his enemies, preserve his body, comfort his father and give him a swift death. Even after every detail has been thought out, he still delays. He talks about his childhood, as if to comfort himself with memories from before he became a soldier. He can’t think about his son or his wife because they may give him comfort, or hope. His family would cause him to lose his nerve, so instead he thinks of his childhood. In Ajax’s very last moment he no longer refers to himself as a soldier, a great man, a son, or a father. Ajax calls himself “the killer.” The total destruction of self concept is what gives him the push to end his life.