Study Guide

Electra in Electra

By Sophocles


Electra is one tough cookie. She's spent all of her adult life being abused by the one person who's supposed to love her unconditionally (her mother), and yet she doesn't once waver in her staunch idealism. Her existence is a lonely one – not even her sister supports her in her efforts to right a severe wrong. Yet she draws strength from this isolation rather than despairing on account of it. Even if you think Electra ends up a murderer no better than her mother, you've got to admit: the girl's got guts.

Electra is so committed to her course of action that we have to wonder exactly why she so desperately wants the royal couple dead. Here are three possible arguments:

  1. Electra is acting purely out of obligation. She doesn't actually have a personal or emotional stake in what goes down, but she feels she is bound by duty to make sure her dad is avenged. Or, as Electra says, "I feel ashamed. I'm forced to do it, though. You must forgive me" (255-7).

  2. Argument number two is that Electra is driven entirely by emotion and hate and only masks these ugly emotions with the guise of so-called "duty." When Electra yells to her brother to "strike her another blow," we sense that emotion is in the driver's seat here (1415).

  3. Argument number three is that Electra's whole bloodline is just cursed. Electra's unfortunate ancestry can be traced all the way back to her ancestor, Tantalus, who chopped up his son, Pelops, and tried to feed him to the gods. It's fate, it's divine will, it's just the way things were bound to happen. As Aegisthus says, "The curse of Pelops' house!" (1497). (Click here for more on the cursed house of Atreus.)
Of course, the biggest questions regarding Electra have to do with morality. Why does Electra think she can kill her mother to avenge her father, but that her mother was not justified in killing Agamemnon to revenge her daughter? Electra's system of morality, if she has one, seems to be predicated upon contradiction and self-deception. She has convinced herself that morally she is in the right, and that her mother is in the wrong. She maintains this position, despite some weighty arguments put forward by the Queen. Check out the mother-daughter debate a little more carefully. Does Electra really listen to what her mother has to say about Agamemnon? Does she counter the Queen's arguments, or just ignore them?

You can also consider the way Electra's obsession affects her as a character. Clearly it's been detrimental, especially compared to Chrysothemis, who is living a pretty sweet life herself. Electra would argue that Chrysothemis may be superficially happy, but in doing so has neglected her duty and acted immorally. Whether or not Electra is better off on account of being determined to get revenge is up to you.

You also might want to take a look at the way Electra's character changes over the course of the play. Sure, she's an extremist at the start of the play, but she's still relatively calm, or at least able to debate rationally with her sister and mother. But as soon as she finds out Orestes is dead, Electra loses what little perspective she had at the beginning. She starts plotting to kill the royal couple herself, and even asks help from her sister, who wants nothing to do with it. Electra is driven by emotion to a greater and greater degree as the play continues forward. Even when she finds out Orestes is alive, her reaction seems to be over-the-top. When she reunites with the old slave, she's again looking a little maniacal. Of course, nothing tops her screaming to Orestes to strike their mother a second death blow.

Oddly enough, despite her heroine status, Electra doesn't actually do much in this play. She stands around and laments, and then she stands around and rejoices, and then she stands around and cheers her brother on while he takes charge of the play's real action (i.e., murdering the royal couple). This lack of action renders Electra a bit of an oddity in the world of Greek Tragedy. What kind of heroine doesn't do anything? However, as we discuss in "What's Up With the Title?", action isn't really the point of Electra. This play is interested in the emotional and moral consequences of actions like murder or vengeance, not in the murders or vengeance themselves. Most of the play is made up of moral debates between Electra, her sister, and the Queen. These debates are the guts of the play, and our heroine is at the center.

Speaking of classic tragic heroes, you can also think about whether Electra has the good old Greek "tragic flaw." If Electra has one, it's probably her inflexible, stubborn idealism. On the flip side, we could praise this trait if we look at her character from another perspective. It just goes to show that it all depends on your moral point of view. Which is sort of the point of Electra.

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