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The Nightingale Symbol Analysis

The Nightingale  Symbol Icon

Electra compares herself to the nightingale multiple times throughout Sophocles’s Electra, and the bird is symbolic of Electra’s mourning throughout the play. Additionally, the nightingale also symbolizes Electra’s ultimate freedom from the limitations of a sexist society. Early in the play, Electra claims that her grief will never cease “like the nightingale,” which is a reference to the mythological figure Procne. Procne murdered her own son, Itys, as revenge for the rape of her sister, Philomela, by Procne’s husband, Tereus. After murdering her son, Procne was transformed into a nightingale, and she is the quintessential figure of grief within ancient Greek literature. By comparing herself to Procne, Electra describes the severity of her grief and suffering, and makes it clear that it will not end simply because societal norms of grief say that it should. As birds are often associated with freedom, Electra’s comparison of herself to the nightingale also demonstrates that her actions during the play are geared not just toward revenge, but toward liberating herself from societal constraints. Throughout the play, Electra is imprisoned, oppressed, and abused simply because she is a woman; however, Electra refuses to conform to society’s expectations that she should be weak and incompetent, and by the end of the play she is effectively free from the imprisonment and abuse of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. The chorus even says in the final scene that Electra has been “forced […] out / Into freedom.” Thus, as the play progresses the nightingale comes to symbolize Electra in new and more positive ways.   

The Nightingale Quotes in Electra

The Electra quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Nightingale . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Grief, Mourning, and Morality Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of Electra published in 2008.
Lines 86-120 Quotes

But I shall never
End my dirges and bitter laments
While I still see the twinkling,
All-radiant stars and the daylight,
Nor cease to keen like the nightingale
Who killed her young, crying my sorrow
To the world here by the royal gateway.

Related Characters: Electra (speaker), Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: The Nightingale
Page Number: 103-109
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Nightingale Symbol Timeline in Electra

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Nightingale appears in Electra. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Lines 86-120
Grief, Mourning, and Morality Theme Icon
Gender and Society Theme Icon
...that she will never stop mourning her father and will instead continue crying like a nightingale. Electra calls out to the curse that her father supposedly bore and to the “dread... (full context)
Lines 121-250
Grief, Mourning, and Morality Theme Icon
...“fool” would forget a deceased parent, and so she will continue to mourn like the nightingale. Still, the chorus points out, Electra isn’t the only one left to mourn Agamemnon. Electra’s... (full context)
Lines 1058-1097
Justice and Revenge Theme Icon
...despises Chrysothemis, and it seems as if peace will never come. Electra now fights alone, “Nightingale-like” in her endless mourning.  (full context)