(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Fifteen years pass since the slaying of Agamemnon. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, arrives in Argos with his tutor. He travels under another name, for Aegistheus, who has ruled in Argos since killing Agamemnon, ordered him killed while he was still a child. Orestes, however, was saved and reared by wealthy Athenians. Orestes is eager to visit Argos, for his mother, Clytemnestra, now shares the throne with Aegistheus. His sister Electra is also still in Argos. Orestes arrives, not as one seeking vengeance but as a tourist. Young, rich, handsome, and well educated, he is free of obligations and commitments, light as air, and apparently reasonably happy to be so. He finds a city in which the atmosphere is leaden and oppressive. He receives no answer to his requests for directions, and the first person to address a word to him is an idiot. It is as though a conspiracy exists to exclude him from the affairs of the city.

The truth is that the people of Argos are so involved with their own problem that they are quite incapable of seeing beyond it. The problem from which they suffer is that they assumed a burden of collective guilt. Fifteen years before, they did nothing to prevent Agamemnon’s death; instead of admitting their responsibility, they wrapped themselves up in remorse. This uniform pattern of behavior suits the god Zeus, since it holds Aegistheus’s subjects in check and leaves little scope for personal initiative. Another sinister, persistent presence is swarms of flies, sent by the gods to plague the populace as a constant reminder of their guilt. Death seems to be curiously intermingled with life in this city of frightened people. Repentance is even institutionalized. Once a year, on the anniversary of Agamemnon’s death, the “day of the dead” is announced.

One person in Argos, however, remains independent and defiant. Electra, though treated as a slave by her mother and Aegistheus, is rebellious. Contemptuous of the general fear and superstition, she lets it be known to Orestes, who did not yet reveal his true identity, that she lives only for the day when her brother will come to seek vengeance. At the same time, however, Electra is pathetic and occasionally childlike. While she vilifies Zeus with all her might, she also betrays her longing for warmth and affection in her questions about other cities of Greece. When Orestes asks her if she ever thinks of fleeing, she answers that she lacks the courage to do so because she will be afraid on the roads by herself. Electra, however, also has a fixed attitude. She feels a thirst for vengeance that does not ring true or confident when set alongside her...

(The entire section is 1076 words.)