“A lock cannot be unlocked without the right key that fits into the hole. “1 Many books written by famous authors follow the concept of a lock-and-key. The major characters lead the story while the minor characters just add the key elements to it which highlight certain qualities and aspects in the protagonist2. The term foil3 is primarily used for the minor characters who play an important role to enhance the role of the protagonist. Minor characters are the intense-situation makers that help the reader interpret situations that the writer could not express through their writing or with the help of the protagonist.
Claire Zachanassian and Alfred Ill in The Visit and Antigone in Antigone play the major characters in contrast to the minor characters played by the husbands, the butler, the Guelleners, Haemon, Ismene and the nurse in the respective texts. My essay will further elaborate on the point of how the roles of minor characters enhance the role of the protagonist. A famous critic, Kurt J. Fickert, once said, “There’s wit and wisdom in Durrenmatt’s names”. The names of the characters in The Visit are very symbolic. Each of them depicts what the personality of each character is going to be like.
Coming to the female protagonist of this text, Claire Zachanassian, her name sounds Greek and can be interpreted as the name of a Greek Goddess, of perhaps Death, as it tells us that she has come to Guellen to kill someone. On further reading the text we find out that her motto of visiting her old town was to take revenge from her childhood sweetheart, Alfred Ill, and kill him. There are many characters, or foils, that bring out certain aspects of her personality. The husbands for example, many in number, shows us how money minded she was and that she never did have an emotional attachment to any of them.
She used all of them only for money and fame and enjoyed the power she had over them. She was very dominating in nature and made sure that she married only the rich and famous men of the world. One of the reasons of Claire treating her husbands in such a disgraceful manner could be her past experiences with men. Her childhood lover, Alfred Ill, had abandoned her with a baby in her womb and went and got married to another woman. This deed of his left her with an un-fathered baby in her womb which was looked down upon in society and leads her to elope to another place and start a whole new life.
This could be one of the reasons she till date looks down upon men and treats them lower than their status, in a degrading manner. It’s ironic how on meeting Alfred after many years she claims to be ‘very happily married’ when she is actually going to get a divorce in the next couple of days and move on to the next husband. We could say that she was a misandrist4 as she did have a lot of hatred towards men but it was peculiar as she treated her butlers with a lot of respect and even claimed that “butlers stay forever, husbands don’t”.
In contrast to the way Claire treated her husbands, Antigone treated her lover in a completely opposite manner. She was said to get married to Haemon, who she looked up to and respected immensely. She knew that she was destined to die and chose to break her engagement to Haemon, to save him from the pain. Haemon brings out the sensitive and motherly side of her. Just so that he does not get affected later on by her death, she decided to let go of her love in the very beginning.
She tells him that she ‘would’ have been his wife and that she ‘would’ have been a really good mother and they ‘would’ have had a little boy, but he didn’t get the hint in the beginning. She talks in past perfect tenses indicating that all these things ‘would’ have happened but since she is planning to take such a major step, she doesn’t see it happening ever. There is a lot of foreshadowing as well in the text which depicts that she and Haemon can never be together as she will be dying soon. Their love for each other was so pure and true that he even tried and convinced his father, Creon, not to kill her.
But when he couldn’t succeed in that he decided to bury himself along with her. He later found out that she had already hung herself and finally decided to plunge his sword into his own chest and die. The difference in the behaviors of Antigone and Claire towards their sweethearts is very evident. Antigone was mentally, emotionally and physically attached to Haemon while Claire didn’t care less whether there were people around or no and continued to ill-treat her husbands. They were merely like her puppets that did exactly what she wanted, how she wanted and when she wanted.
Along with being an uncaring wife, Claire was also very influential in nature. This influential aspect of hers is brought out by her butler who was originally the Chief Justice of Guellen and two other men, Jacob Chickens and Louis Perch who she named Koby and Loby. She had offered the judge a hefty sum of money and made him her butler. The two men, Loby and Koby had helped and supported Ill in making the Guelleners believe that they were the ones who had slept with Claire and Ill was not the father of her baby. Ill bribed them with a pint of brandy to make sure that the two ‘gum-chewing brutes’ take his side.
They had taken a false oath before God and everyone present in the court that it was them to blame for Claire being pregnant. They later fled to Canada and Australia respectively where Claire tracked them down and got them castrated and blinded for being dishonest about what had happened in reality. This shows us that she was indeed very influential as she made sure she got her revenge from the two men who had a hand in ruining her life and making her a prostitute. This unpleasant incident that took place in her life made her the hard-hearted and numb woman she is today.
All that matters to her is money and gaining revenge from the people who were responsible for her peripeteia5. In contrast to the hard hearted woman that Claire was, Antigone was a very sensitive and gentle woman and this aspect of hers is brought out by her nurse who plays a minor character in the play. Antigone also has childhood memories of being comforted by the nurse who looked after her. She was like a motherly figure that comforted her in times of agony and protected her and made her feel safe in times of panic. When the nurse questions her about her being upset and if something is bothering her, she says, “Nowhere, Nan.
But cuddle me and keep me warm just the same, like you used to when I was ill… Dear old Nan – stronger than fever or nightmares, stronger than the shadow of the wardrobe, grinning and changing shape on the wall. Stronger than all the insects gnawing away at something in the dark. Stronger than the dark itself, full of crazy shrieks that no one listens to. Stronger than death. Hold my hand, like when you used to come and sit by my bed. “6 This quote by Antigone shows us the child-like behavior that is still present in her though she is engaged to be married.
The nurse and she have conversations where it is clearly shown how she is always so concerned about her and how she knows when something is bothering her “dove”. Her nurse still tucks her into bed and showers her with the love and affection that a ten year old would expect. She talks to her in a very subtle tone and pampers her a lot too. It is also very evident from their conversations that they both are equally very fond of each other and love being around each other. Keeping all the above points in mind we can thus conclude that Antigone and Claire were two women who had completely different ideals and didn’t believe in the same things.
They both had different personalities and treated their respective sweethearts in completely different manners. The minor characters such as the husbands and Roby and Toby in The Visit and Haemon and the nurse in Antigone brought about various aspects in the protagonists of the plays and enhanced their characters even more. Hence we can finally say that the minor characters do add the key elements in the play which make the play more interesting for the reader and helps maintain the unity of effect.