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  • Electra after Freud: Myth and Culture
  • Wendy Whelan-Stewart
Scott, Jill . Electra after Freud: Myth and Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. $39.95 h.c. 224 pp.

Certainly, to say that the myth of Oedipus is well-known in the Western world is an understatement: in fact, students in the U.S. encounter it in high school English classes as well as in university psychology and literature courses. In Electra after Freud, author Jill Scott knows she need not explain it in any detail and spends more time summarizing the sister myth of Electra. She questions whether Oedipus can claim predominance over Electra and her myth "as a central trope" in modern literature (2), and she tracks her influence in twentieth century Austrian, German, and American sources. Not only does her discussion take her to the works of different countries, but also to the genres of drama, opera, prose, and poetry.

Scott boldly argues that Electra (her character, her myth) rivals and perhaps even surpasses the usefulness of Oedipus in twentieth-century literature. Moreover, she is quick to attribute the revival of these characters in modern times to Sigmund Freud and his sexual theories. In fact, Electra cannot be understood outside of Freud, and so her argument is not only that writers have found Electra more suitable to their art than Oedipus, but that their understanding of Freud and psychoanalysis also plays a large role in their work. Modern individuals only understand the myth and character of Oedipus within the context of Freud's Oedipus complex, and most modern writers seem unable to disassociate this mythical character from Freud's theory. Electra, on the other hand, is more available to writers because her myth cannot be reduced to a sexual theory; Freud's inability to work out a female version of the Oedipus complex has freed Electra and allowed her to take various shapes in writers' works. Moreover, rebellious to the world of logic and order, she brings with her chaos, hysteria, and power.

Each chapter in Electra after Freud is a critical essay in its own right. As Scott moves from one chapter to the next, she often pulls threads from either one or several previous chapters and interweaves them in other chapters as she goes. Her movement from chapter to chapter is loosely chronological but, more importantly, illustrates Electra's progress in claiming the lead role in various genres and gradually reducing, even eliminating, the roles of Oedipus and Orestes. Scott sets out to establish artists' preference for Electra [End Page 216] over Oedipus and Orestes with her discussion of Vienna, the fin de siècle culture of the 1900s (a culture obsessed with the femme fatale and death), Freud's relatively new sexual theories, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Elektra. Initially, she shows how Hofmannsthal favors Electra's character over Orestes by giving her the limelight. The first four chapters of the book are devoted largely to the Austrian Elektra. Scott then highlights authors Robert Musil and Heiner Muller, who each chose to have a powerful Electra character banish a helpless Oedipus character and also absorb the role of the Orestes character as though the two "have become one" (117). Finally, only Electra appears—without either of the male characters—in the works of H.D. and Sylvia Plath. Furthermore, Scott charts the evolution of Electra's role from one of revenge and violence to one of power and creativity.

Scott is careful to show how an artist's creation of an Electra character was a product of his or her interaction with Freud personally or with his works, whether that artist raged against the ideas of Freud (like Musil) or welcomed them (like H.D. and Plath). A study of their ability to characterize Electra beyond the psychoanalytic role she played for Freud is one of the chief concerns for Scott. Hofmannsthal's Elektra, never a victim, becomes herself an analyst and self-consciously performs the role of the hysteric in order to effect her purpose (mislead and slay her mother). In Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Ulrich (Oedipus-Orestes), who must confront the "oedipal struggle with power and tradition" (99), never...


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