Electra’s mother, and her mother’s lover, killed her father, Agamemnon. Her brother, Orestes, is in exile. She misses her father, and her relationship with her mother and stepfather isn’t good. As you’d imagine, Electra has the blues.
The question, though, is whether in Sophocles’ depiction of Electra’s grieving has tipped into pathology; whether melancholia has replaced mourning.
Based on Freud’s discussion of pathological grief in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” Electra might well need therapy:
“The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of self-regarding feelings”
Electra in soliloquy (103-106):
I will not put an end to this bleak lament and weeping
While I gaze on the stars’ radiant twinklings
Or on the day.
Electra to Chorus (821-22):
It would be a kindness if someone killed me
And a pain if I were to live.
I have no appetite for life.
“The inhibition of the melancholic [a loss of interest in life] seems puzzling because we cannot see what it is that absorbs him [or her] so entirely.”
Chorus to Electra (121-123):
O child, child of a miserable mother–
Electra, what unrelenting lamentation
Destroys you unendingly?
“They [melancholics] give a great deal of trouble, perpetually taking offense and behaving as if they had been treated with great injustice.”
Clytemnestra to Electra (519-522):
Now that Aegisthus is away, you show me no respect.
To top it off, time and again you’ve told lots of people
Things about me–that I’m brash, I rule unjustly,
I mistreat you and the things that are yours.
“…like mourning, melancholia is the reaction to a real loss of a loved object. . . The loss of a love-object constitutes an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself felt and come to the fore.”
Electra to Chorus on the subject of Orestes (164-172):
I waited for him without fail, childless,
Forever suffering through life, unmarried,
Wet with tears and doomed to endless misfortunes.
But he forgets what he suffered and what he learnt.
Isn’t that why no message arrives without dashing my hopes?
He’s always longing,
Longing, but does not think to appear.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐ μὲν δὴ
λήξω θρήνων στυγερῶν τε γόων,
ἔστ᾽ ἂν παμφεγγεῖς ἄστρων
ῥιπάς, λεύσσω δὲ τόδ᾽ ἦμαρ
ὡς χάρις μέν, ἢν κτάνῃ,
λύπη δ᾽, ἐὰν ζῶ: τοῦ βίου δ᾽ οὐδεὶς πόθος.
ὦ παῖ, παῖ δυστανοτάτας
Ἠλέκτρα ματρός, τίς ἀεὶ
τάκει ςε ὧδ᾽ ἀκόρεστος οἰμωγὰ. . .;
νῦν δ᾿ ὡς ἄπεστ᾿ ἐκεῖνος, οὐδὲν ἐντρέπῃ
ἐμοῦ γε· καίτοι πολλὰ πρὸς πολλούς με δὴ
ἐξεῖπας ὡς θρασεῖα καὶ πέρα δίκης
ἄρχω, καθυβρίζουσα καὶ σὲ καὶ τὰ σά.
ὅν γ᾿ ἐγὼ ἀκάματα προσμένουσ᾿ ἄτεκνος,
τάλαιν᾿ ἀνύμφευτος αἰὲν οἰχνῶ,
δάκρυσι μυδαλέα, τὸν ἀνήνυτον
οἶτον ἔχουσα κακῶν· ὁ δὲ λάθεται
ὧν τ᾿ ἔπαθ᾿ ὧν τ᾿ ἐδάη. τί γὰρ οὐκ ἐμοὶ
ἔρχεται ἀγγελίας ἀπατώμενον;
ἀεὶ μὲν γὰρ ποθεῖ,
ποθῶν δ᾿ οὐκ ἀξιοῖ φανῆναι.
Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.