The Family Reunion

by T. S. Eliot

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In T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion, who are the Eumenides and what is their significance?

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In T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion, the Eumenides, originally goddesses of revenge in Greek mythology, symbolize the spiritual and moral forces guiding Harry, the protagonist, who is haunted by them after murdering his wife. These figures, perceived only by characters attuned to spiritual realities, drive Harry towards a spiritual transformation and moral reckoning. They represent not only personal guilt and torment but also serve as catalysts for Harry's eventual spiritual redemption and departure from past burdens.

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In Greek mythology, which educated people of Eliot's generation knew well, the Eumenides or Furies, were goddesses of revenge. They were often conceived of as ghosts of murdered people, sent to torment the guilty.

In Eliot's play, Harry has murdered his wife by pushing her overboard on a ship. He gets away with it because it is deemed a suicide, although Downing, his servant, will frankly state that he doesn't thinks she took her own life.

Harry, who Eliot likened to Hamlet, is tormented by sightings of the Eumenides after committing the murder. He believes these Furies are in pursuit of him. At Wishwood, the ancestral family home which is the site of the family reunion, Mary, Agatha, and Downing see the Eumenides too. These three characters can discern the Furies because they are people not asleep or living in the past. They can therefore perceive spiritual reality, unlike Harry's mother, Amy.

The Eumenides are important because they represent the spiritual aspect of life that walks with us, though not everyone is aware of it. They prod Harry in the right spiritual/moral direction, helping him to break away from Wishwood and the past.

Harry is freed of the curse of Eumenides when he realizes that his father, like him, had plotted to kill his wife. His father, however, had not gone through with it because his lover and wife's sister, Agatha, talked him out of it. Amy was pregnant with Harry, and Agatha couldn't bear the idea of the baby's death.

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The Eumenides play a vital role in The Family Reunion in that they act as the catalyst for Harry's spiritual transformation. Their presence in the play is an uncomfortable reminder of the nagging sense of guilt that gnaws away at Harry's soul, and from which he seems destined never to escape.

Over the course of the play Harry comes to realize that it is only by following a radically different spiritual path in life that he will ever be able to come to terms with his troubled past. In that sense, the Eumenides, far from acting like the Furies of Aeschylus's Oresteia, have been thoroughly Christianized. They do not seek revenge; rather they act as Harry's spiritual guides, pushing him along the path of salvation. In this synthesis of Christianity and ancient Greek mythology we see an illustration of the two aspects of Eliot's aesthetic sensibility. As both a convinced classicist and a deeply devout Christian, Eliot is in a prime position to explore the tension between the values of antiquity and the core tenets of the Christian faith, a tension reflected in his own soul as both man and artist.

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T. S. Eliot's play, The Family Reunion, as all of Eliot's work, is highly allusive. In other words, there are many references to historical events, other literary works, and various religious symbols and concepts.

The Eumenides are actually Greek goddesses, more commonly known as the Erinyes or Furies. They are chthonic or infernal goddesses responsible for vengeance, and are often portrayed as monstrous elderly crones, sometimes with snakes for hair or bat wings. In Aeschylus' play the Eumenides, the third play of the Oresteia trilogy, they are transformed into benign goddesses of justice. Thus when they are called the Eumenides in The Family Reunion, Eliot is invoking the play by Aeschylus, a play that also revolves around murder within a family. 

Harry believes that he, like Orestes in Aeschylus's trilogy, is being pursued by the Eumenides because of his role in the death of his wife. They can also be seen by Downing, Agatha and Mary. They appear outside the house, and symbolize Harry's guilt. As they can only be seen by certain people, they serve as an indicator of the degree to which the characters in the play are sensitive to the spiritual world. Harry's acceptance of the Eumenides and realization that rather than their pursuing him, he is seeking them out, leads to his final reconciliation with his past and his family role.

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