The Family Reunion

by T. S. Eliot
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Analysis

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Last Updated on September 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

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.

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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.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 266

Wishwood

Wishwood. English home of Amy, Dowager Lady Monchensey, and the location for the planned meeting for a family reunion. The name implies that Amy has tried hard to make the wishes of her children and herself come true, even though she has faced significant opposition. Even her effort to organize the family reunion is doomed to disaster. The play is set in late March, so no flowers are in bloom to adorn the tables. Amy’s son John overdrinks and has an automobile accident that prevents his attendance at the reunion. Harry, Amy’s oldest son and the heir apparent of the estate, arrives in a troubled state and abandons his mother for a spiritual quest. Harry, or Lord Monchensey, is driven by the appearance of Eumenides, who haunts him concerning his wife’s recent death when she was swept overboard while sailing on a passenger ship with Harry. His various aunts and uncles quarrel with each other and, especially during the choral passages, reveal the superficial and deeply disturbing lifestyle they have been living. In the last scene, a lighted birthday cake is brought out, and Agatha and Mary walk clockwise around the cake as they gradually blow out the candles a few at a time. By this time Amy has died and the birth of some new era is symbolized in this party that declares the undoing of a family curse. With Agatha’s help, Harry has been freed from the family curse and now sees the once frightening Eumenides as bright angels whom he must pursue beyond the artificial hopes of Wishwood.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 258

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A useful biography that includes a discussion of The Family Reunion, its genesis, mixed critical reception, and importance to Eliot’s early career as a playwright. Ackroyd considers the play to be Eliot’s most powerful work because of its use of symbolism.

Evans, Giles. Wishwood Revisited: A New Interpretation of T. S. Eliot’s “The Family Reunion.” Lewes, England: Book Guild, 1991. A subtle analysis of the play, with references to the work of critics and biographers. The author recognizes that the play develops the Christian sympathies and philosophical concerns of earlier works, and he regards it as Eliot’s best drama.

Hamalian, Leo. “The Figures in the Window: Design in T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion.” College Literature 4 (1977): 107-121. A useful analysis of the three levels of consciousness and other patterns that make this play a cohesive and successful whole.

Kari, Daven M. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Pilgrimage: A Progress in Craft as an Expression of Christian Perspective. Studies in Art and Religious Interpretation 13. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990. Considers the play to offer an important experiment in religious verse drama. Examines Eliot’s use of characterization, verse techniques, and stagecraft.

Spanos, William V. The Christian Tradition in Modern British Verse Drama: The Poetics of Sacramental Time. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1967. One of the most eloquent and insightful treatments of how Christian beliefs have been expressed through modern British verse drama. Excellent discussion of The Family Reunion in chapter 6.

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