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Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 402-414

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Past's Weight, Future's Promise:
Reading Electra

William Junker


SOPHOCLES' Electrapresents as its main character a woman who is tortured by the remembrance of things past:

Even my pitiful bed remembers,
there in that dreadful house,
my long night-watches grieving
my unlucky father who found
no foreign resting place in war
but died when my mother
and Aegisthus, her lover, took
an axe to his head as a woodman does a tree.
(85-95) 1

The story she tells is a familiar one. Her father, Agamemnon, having returned from the Trojan War, is murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Clytemnestra's motives are complex and unclear, for Agamemnon had previously sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, in order to ensure military success, and it is an open question as to what extent maternal vengeance as opposed to romantic intrigue motivated [End Page 402] her action. After the murder, Electra rescues her brother Orestes from probable death by sending him abroad (Aegisthus fearing revenge would have killed the child) while she grows and lives as an outcast in her own home, awaiting the day when the grown Orestes will return and bring their father's murderers to justice.

The story, and its ensuing consequences, had already been handled masterfully in Aeschylus' Oresteia; but in Sophocles' play there is considerably more interest shown in Electra herself. 2 This focus results in a magnification of Electra's mourning for her father along with a sustained meditation upon how this mourning results in her inability to live, in any full sense, with the knowledge of his death. She cannot escape the memory of the injustice done him, and this memory fuels her hopes for Orestes' return even as it renders her, for all practical purposes, incapacitated.

Her character thus described draws continual attention during the course of the play, and in their first appearance the Chorus admonishes her: "When you go on too far with grief, / you come to endless anguish, and destroy yourself. / There is no salvation from your troubles here, / so why should you persist in suffering" (136-39). Electra herself views her persistent suffering as necessary and noble, a show of allegiance to her murdered father and a refusal to compromise with his killers. The Chorus and Chrysothemis, however, argue that by so carrying on Electra is in reality causing more damage to herself than her situation warrants. Her ragged appearance, quite noticeable stench, and public outcries do nothing to help redress her father's honor; they rather highlight her mania and point toward insanity. At one point Chrysothemis implies as much. To Electra's accusation that her position of political compromise is dishonorable, she rebuts: "There's honor in not letting madness defeat you" (395)—suggesting both a different conception of honor and a veiled appraisal of her sister's mental health. In the service of life and sanity, the Chorus and Chrysothemis seem to say, leave off your suffering. In the service of honor and the dead, Electra rejoins, I cannot. The movement of the play in fact continually juxtaposes the position of Electra with that of her critics, and this juxtaposition is one that calls for interpretive elucidation. 3

An especially fertile way of adjudicating these issues in Electra is afforded us by Nietzsche, and, specifically, by his On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. This is the case because, as I want to suggest, Nietzsche's essay provides a framework which reconstructs, and in a unique way, the central problem of Electra. That problem is [End Page 403] essentially one of reconciling the conflicting claims of familial honor and memory with the claims of life. Through Nietzsche's exposition of history and its relation to life, this problem is both illumined and given greater subtlety—illumined, in that the potential agôn between history and life, while present in Sophocles' Electra, is not just obvious; and made subtle, in that Nietzsche's proposed solution to this agôn allows for a reading of the...


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