The Family Reunion

by T. S. Eliot

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Family Reunion is a play by British American poet T. S. Eliot. The play is written in a poetic structure using blank verse. The play's narrative is centered on Amy, the Dowager Lady Monchensey; her eldest son Harry, Lord Monchensey; and their tense relations. Eliot's play examines the hierarchy of wealthy families and the obligations one must have to maintain that fragile hierarchy and power structure. As her title suggests, Amy is a dowager, meaning she inherited the estate of her late husband. The death of a spouse is a recurring theme in the play. Amy and her children's wealth and social ranking are primarily due to inheritance from her dead spouse.

Likewise, Harry's wife had recently died in a ship accident in which she went overboard and drowned, causing Harry deep feelings of guilt. The other recurring similarity between the mother and son is the turbulent relations with their respective spouses. It is revealed to Harry by Agatha that his father tried to kill Amy when she was pregnant with Harry. Likewise, Harry had thoughts of homicide when his wife fell overboard. Both Amy and Harry's relationships were influenced by underlying violent ideations. Just as Amy inherited her abusive husband's wealth, Harry inherited his late father's temperament.

Harry is seen by literary critics as a reflection of Eliot himself, who wrote the play during his separation from his first wife. Amy's main concern is to continue the family legacy through Harry, but the latter wants no part of the family estate anymore and desires to leave. This feeling of being trapped in the estate, in his mother's grip, in the social structure of the family is an analogy for being trapped in his late father's legacy. As noted earlier, Harry exhibited the same dark characteristics as his father (i.e., his violent temper and volatile relations with his wife), and leaving the estate means liberating himself from a life of despair.

The role of the Eumenides is of particular intrigue in the story. They are markers of classical Greek tragedies: they are especially well-known for punishing murders of family members or spouses. It is interesting that Eliot chose to incorporate these figures in a twentieth-century work. Harry appears to play the role of a tortured hero haunted by his past. By incorporating the Greek Eumenides as ghosts tormenting the already guilt-ridden Harry, Eliot paints the play as a modernized Greek tragedy. Another key element of the Greek play is the role of the chorus. The chorus often serves as a narrating body, as well as a means of commentary on the action of the play. The chorus is often used to enlighten the audience and explain certain things. In The Family Reunion, Harry’s aunts and uncles serve the role of the chorus. However, instead of providing insight into the play’s action, the aunts and uncles reflect upon their own confusion or peculiarities. This has an absurdist, comical effect. Receiving humor rather than clarity appears to be well-suited to a play involving the complexity of family.

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