Electra

by

Sophocles

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Electra: Lines 251-470 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Electra tells the chorus that she feels “ashamed” of her laments, since they must make her seem bitter, but she also insists that she has no choice, especially because she is a woman who comes from a noble family. Electra and her mother, Clytemnestra, are now enemies, and Electra is forced to live with Agamemnon’s murderers and watch Aegisthus sit on her father’s throne. What’s worse, Electra is forced to witness the most infuriating thing of all: Aegisthus sleeping in the same bed Agamemnon once did. 
This passage lends insight into Electra’s character and her struggle with grief. Here, she admits to feeling “ashamed” of her contempt for her mother, but nonetheless, Electra’s grief over the death of her father at her mother’s hands appears to have completely overcome her. She considers it her duty, as a daughter and as a woman, to both avenge her father and keep his memory alive through mourning. 
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 Electra claims that Clytemnestra even appears to take pleasure in her despicable behavior. Every month, Clytemnestra dedicates the day she killed Agamemnon to dancing and making sacrifices to the gods. Clytemnestra forbids Electra to grieve and frequently abuses her, saying that she hopes Electra will be eternally tormented for her insistence on continuing to mourn Agamemnon.
This paints Clytemnestra in a particularly unflattering light. Regardless of the murder of Agamemnon, which is certainly awful but somewhat understandable given her society’s norms, her treatment of Electra is unconscionable. Clytemnestra sees Electra’s grieving as an active choice between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Electra has obviously chosen her father. 
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Whenever Clytemnestra hears rumors that Orestes is coming back, she becomes furious and blames Electra for taking Orestes away from her and sending him far from home. For her part, Electra is tired of waiting for Orestes to return, and she’s starting to think he might never come. To the chorus, she muses that because everything around her is evil, she might have no choice but to behave evilly herself.
Clytemnestra gets upset whenever she hears Orestes might be coming back because she knows that he will attempt to kill her to avenge Agamemnon’s death. Clytemnestra lives in perpetual fear that her own son will come home and murder her, which again reflects how common (and senseless) revenge is in Greek society. 
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The chorus worries that Aegisthus may be close enough to hear, but Electra says that he isn’t home; she wouldn’t go outside if he were. The chorus asks Electra if Orestes is really on his way back to Argos. Electra claims that he’s said he’ll come, but that ”he never does what he says.” The chorus attempts to reassure Electra and tells her that men might hesitate before doing something difficult. “I never hesitated when I saved his life,” she says. Suddenly, Electra’s sister, Chrysothemis, approaches.
The chorus’s fears that Aegisthus will hear and punish Electra again underscores the sexist nature of Greek society. It is assumed by the chorus, a group of Mycenean women, that Aegisthus, a man, has the power to control Electra. Aegisthus does in fact control Electra, as Sophocles frequently mentions that she isn’t allowed to publicly mourn outside the palace when Aegisthus is home. However, Electra makes it clear that she doesn’t intend to submit to his will forever, marking her as an unusual woman in this context.
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Chrysothemis asks Electra what she’s doing and reminds her that there’s no point in being angry after so long. Chrysothemis confesses that she herself is upset too, but nonetheless thinks it is smarter to keep a low profile and not pretend that she’s powerful enough to make any difference. She begs Electra to see reason, because even though Chrysothemis knows that Electra is right, the sisters have no choice but to obey those who are more powerful than themselves. Electra, however, accuses her sister of forgetting Agamemnon and thinking only of Clytemnestra
Chrysothemis implies, much like the chorus does, that Electra’s excessive mourning is pointless, but she also implies that Electra’s attempts to fight Aegisthus are pointless too. Women, in Chrysothemis’s view, are essentially powerless and ineffectual. Thus, Electra should stop opposing Aegisthus.  Electra, of course, cannot submit without a fight, showing that women can actually be tougher than most people in this society believe them to be.
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Electra refuses to stop mourning, telling Chrysothemis that irritating Agamemnon’s murderers is a way of honoring his memory. Her sister says that she hates Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, but Electra claims that Chrysothemis’s hatred is just an act. In Electra’s opinion, Chrysothemis is helping Agamemnon’s murderers, so instead of being called “Agamemnon’s daughter,” she should be called “Clytemnestra’s daughter.” Electra says that Chrysothemis has “betrayed” their family, at which point the chorus interrupts, begging both sisters to listen to each other instead of fighting.
Electra implies that Chrysothemis’s hatred of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus is a lie, and that she only pretends to hate them to appease Electra. Chrysothemis, on the other hand, claims she only pretends not to hate them to make her life easier and lessen their abuse. Either way, Chrysothemis is deceiving somebody, which underscores Sophocles’s point that people are often deceitful, for a wide variety of reasons.
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Chrysothemis tells the chorus that Aegisthus is going to make Electra stop grieving soon. She claims that if Electra won’t stop publicly mourning, Aegisthus will bury her in a cave far away. Electra welcomes Aegisthus’s threat, but Chrysothemis says her sister is insane for not listening to her. Being submissive, Chrysothemis says, makes more sense than foolishly ensuring defeat, but Electra is unmoved. She maintains that she’ll accept defeat if that’s what she has to do to honor her father’s memory. 
This scene again reflects Aegisthus’s power as a man in Greek society, as he presumes to have enough control over Electra to punish her through such excessive and cruel means. This passage also reiterates Sophocles’s argument that mourning can’t be confined to accepted social periods. Electra’s grief doesn’t go away simply because of Aegisthus’s threat or Chrysothemis’s pleas for her silence. 
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Electra then asks Chrysothemis where she’s going, and to whom she’s bringing offerings. Chrysothemis says that she is carrying Clytemnestra’s libations for Agamemnon’s grave. Electra is shocked and wants to know why her mother is sending libations to her father’s grave. Chrysothemis explains that Clytemnestra dreamed that Agamemnon was alive, and that he took his staff (which Aegisthus now holds) and struck the hearth. From the hearth grew a “leafy branch” which covered all of Mycenae. 
The “leafy branch” that grows from the hearth represents Orestes’s rightful place as the King of Mycenae. When Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon, they effectively usurped his role as king, and Clytemnestra’s dream implies that she feels guilt over denying Agamemnon’s son the right to rule as his forefathers did.  The dream also reflects Clytemnestra’s fear for her own safety, as she knows her son will one day return to avenge Agamemnon’s murder. 
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Electra tells Chrysothemis not to deliver the libations as ordered. She tells her sister to instead discard the offerings and hide them deep in the earth where they will be unable to reach Agamemnon’s grave. Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon cruelly, Electra reminds Chrysothemis, so there’s no way gifts can undo that harm. She tells Chrysothemis to instead offer strands of hair from their heads and pray for Orestes to return. The chorus agrees and encourages Chrysothemis to do as Electra says. Chrysothemis consents, but she begs the chorus not to tell, saying that she would face terrible consequences if her mother found out.
Electra doesn’t want Clytemnestra’s libations to be placed on Agamemnon’s grave because she considers them false offerings. Clytemnestra doesn’t respect Agamemnon and doesn’t wish to honor him in any way; she is simply making offerings to curry favor with the gods and gain their protection from Orestes’s vengeance. Electra says elsewhere that she believes that her mother killed her father only so she would be free to marry Aegisthus and rule over Mycenae, which means that the killing is not justified under the Greek “blood for blood” system of justice.
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