Last Updated on July 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499
T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion is a a two-act play composed in blank verse. It was first produced in 1939 (following the comparatively successful Murder in the Cathedral in 1935) and is set in the fictional estate of Wishwood, where the ailing matriarch, Amy "Lady" Monchensey is hosting a birthday party with the aid of her sisters, Ivy, Violet, and Agatha, as well as her two brothers, Charles and Gerald Piper. They are joined by Mary, a daughter of a deceased cousin of Amy's, as well as a servant. Amy is very ill but awaits the arrival of her three sons.
It is a cold springtime at Wishwood (in Northern England) and Gerald misses being a subaltern so that he could be back in the warmer climes of the East. The group discusses differences between their generation and their children's (claiming, for example, that the younger generation is decadent). They look to Mary to ask for her commentary on her own generation, but, feeling socially marginalized by virtue of being nearing thirty and without serious marriage prospects, she comments that she feels she belongs to no generation.
Finally, Harry arrives. Agatha (Amy's sister) suspects it will be hard for him to adapt to the return, but his mother disagrees, as she is interested in him taking over the estate. Before Harry's return, Amy insists that they are lucky not to have met Harry's late wife, who died after falling overboard on a ship at sea.
When Harry arrives, the family expects it is John and is surprised to see him. Harry is accompanied by creatures noticeable only to him—the Eumenides of Greek tragedy who haunt the culprits of murder. Harry insists that, contrary to his mother's wishes, they cannot act like nothing has changed. He suffers from intense feelings of guilt for having been angry with his wife and thinking of killing her when she fell overboard. Mary confesses to Agatha that she wants to leave Wishwood, though she knows that Amy wants her to stay. Harry and Mary reminisce about their childhood together but do not become romantically involved as Harry's near-death mother would wish.
Agatha admits that when Harry was in utero, his father thought of killing his mother, which Agatha prevented by dissuading him. It is announced in sequence that neither John nor Arthur (Amy's other two children) will be coming. Harry, too, announces that he is leaving, which his mother first protests and then wishes to know why. She claims to her brother that he is becoming a missionary in order to account for his sudden departure. Amy also accuses Agatha of taking her son just as she took her husband (though Agatha insists that she did not prompt Harry to leave).
After Harry leaves, Agatha and Mary admit to having seen the Eumenides, too. The chorus describes how humans are resistant to changes in their lives. Amy dies, and Mary and Agatha pray around her body while blowing out candles on her birthday cake.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1113
Amy, Lady Monchensey, is reluctant to have the lights turned on. She has to sit in the house from October until June, for in winter the sun rarely warms the cold earth of northern England. Since all she can do is measure time, she hardly wants to make night come too soon.
The whole family, except her three sons, gathers to celebrate her birthday, and the sons are expected that evening. The conversation while they wait out the time is tasteless. Gerald and Charles, Amy’s brothers-in-law, feel that the younger generation does not accept its responsibilities. Ivy and Violet, her younger sisters, agree that youth is becoming decadent. When they ask Mary her opinion, as a representative of the new generation, Amy’s ward is nettled. Nearing thirty, she was always poor and remains unmarried; she thinks she belongs to no generation.
Amy lives only to keep Wishwood, the family estate, together. Since her husband’s death, she has been head of the house. She knows her family, settled in its ways, is getting older; soon death will come as a surprise for them all. Only Agatha, her older sister, seems to find a meaning in death. Harry, the oldest son, was gone eight years. Amy hopes he can drop back into the old routine at the family home, but Agatha is doubtful. The past is over; the future can be built only on the present. When Harry comes back he cannot take up life where he left off, because he would be a new Harry.
The others begin speculating. They do not like Harry’s wife, a demanding woman who persuaded him to take her away from Wishwood. On their travels she was lost at sea, apparently swept overboard in a storm. Amy says they must feel no remorse for her death.
Harry surprises them by being the first of the sons to arrive. When he seems upset because the blinds are not drawn, the others remind him that in the country there is no one to look in. Nevertheless, Harry keeps staring at the window. He can see the Eumenides, the vengeful spirits. They were with him a long time, but only at Wishwood can he see them. He greets the assembled company with an effort.
Harry becomes impatient when the relatives begin talking of all the old things waiting at home for him. Nothing ever happens to them; they go through life half asleep. Harry, however, is doing some soul searching. In mid-Atlantic he pushed his wife overboard. Now the Furies are always with him.
Only Agatha seems to understand him. The others think him overtired and urge him to go lie down for a while. When he leaves, they decide to invite Dr. Warburton for dinner so that the family doctor can have a look at him.
Charles and Gerald call in Downing, Harry’s servant, to question him. Violet and Ivy object because they fear scandal. Agatha, however, makes no objection, because questioning Downing is as irrelevant as calling in Dr. Warburton. Downing seems to be frank. He hardly thinks Harry’s wife had the courage to commit suicide, and while he is a little distrait, Harry always appears normal. The only thing amiss that Downing noticed was that Harry was always too much with his wife.
Mary appeals to Agatha for help in getting away from Wishwood. She knows that Amy wants her to stay on and marry Harry; in that way Amy will have a tame daughter-in-law for a companion. Agatha, however, refuses help. Mary should have had the courage to leave earlier; since Harry returned she cannot run away.
When Harry talks with Mary about his fears and doubts, she tries to understand his feeling that change is inevitable. They reminisce about the hollow tree in which they played as children and about their regret when Amy had it cut down. Harry sees the Furies again in the window embrasure. Startled by his manner, Mary pulls back the curtains to show that nothing is there.
Dr. Warburton comes early for dinner to have a confidential talk with Harry. He tries to attack Harry’s disturbance indirectly by warning him that Amy’s health is very poor and that Harry must take the burden of Wishwood off her shoulders. Harry recalls the unpleasantness of his boyhood when being good meant pleasing Amy. Abruptly, he demands to know something of his father. The old doctor assures him that there was no scandal. His father and mother just agreed to separate, and his father went abroad to die.
A police sergeant comes to tell the family that John, having suffered a slight concussion in an auto accident, cannot be there for the birthday dinner. Although the family buzzes with the news, Harry shocks them with his statement that it hardly matters because his brother John is unconscious all the time anyway.
A long-distance call comes from Arthur, the other brother. He was in an accident, too, and his license has been suspended for drunken driving. Still troubled about his father, Harry presses Agatha for more details. Agatha remembers his father’s feelings, but his mother complemented his weaknesses. Then Agatha loses her inhibitions and tells the truth. While Amy was pregnant with Harry, her husband plotted to kill her. Agatha talked him out of his scheme; she could not bear to think of destroying the new life Amy was carrying.
At that news Harry feels a great release, for the curse of the house seems clearer. When the Eumenides appear again, Harry is no longer frightened. He knows at last that the Furies are not pursuing him; he is following them. Harry decides to leave Wishwood.
Amy, furious at the news that Harry is going away, blames Agatha, the younger sister who stole her husband thirty-five years ago and now is taking her son. Mary pleads with Agatha to stop Harry’s departure, but to no avail; Harry has crossed the frontier of reality. Then Mary asks her help in getting a situation, perhaps a fellowship, so she can leave, too. As the two women become more confidential, they reveal to each other that they have also seen the Eumenides. That knowledge is a bond uniting them outside the stifling confines of Wishwood. When they talk with Downing, he confesses he sees the Furies but he pays little attention to them; they are Harry’s ghosts. Just before she dies, Amy begins to understand what is happening at Wishwood. Agatha and Mary bring in the birthday cake and blow out the candles as they circle around it. The rest of the family begins talking about the will.
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