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Orpheus Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Seated across from his wife, Eurydice, in their villa in Thrace, the poet Orpheus concentrates on the tapping of a white horse that is housed in a niche in the center of the room. Orpheus believes that the horse’s tapping will indicate the next letter in an inspired message. Eventually, the horse taps out “hell” and, finally, “hello” (in the original French, mer becomes merci). Orpheus has submitted a previous message, “Orpheus hunts Eurydice’s lost life,” to the Thracian poetry competition. Eurydice’s complaints of neglect, compounded by her doubts regarding these messages, begin to provoke Orpheus. In response to her warnings regarding the jealousy of the Bacchantes, a cult of women to whom Eurydice used to belong, Orpheus accuses her of disloyalty. He goes on to insist that Eurydice break a windowpane each day so that the glazier, Heurtebise, will come to their villa. To deny his jealousy, he breaks a pane himself and summons Heurtebise.

Upon Heurtebise’s entrance, Orpheus departs for town to prepare for the poetry competition. In exchange for some poison-laced sugar from the Bacchante leader, Algaonice, Eurydice hands Heurtebise an incriminating letter she has had in her possession. Heurtebise also gives Eurydice an envelope from Algaonice in which to place the letter to eliminate any trace of Eurydice’s involvement. Shrinking from giving the poison to the horse herself, Eurydice convinces Heurtebise to do the deed. Heurtebise, however, interrupted by Orpheus’s reappearance, stands on a chair at the window, pretending to take measurements. Orpheus has returned because he forgot to take his birth certificate with him for the competition. To retrieve the document from the top of the bookcase, Orpheus grabs the chair on which Heurtebise stands, and after the chair is pulled from beneath him, Heurtebise remains suspended in the air. Orpheus, oblivious to this fact, retrieves the certificate and leaves. Eurydice, however, demands an explanation from Heurtebise, who refuses to acknowledge that anything unusual has happened. Eurydice hastily seals Algaonice’s envelope with her tongue in order to give the letter to Heurtebise before dismissing him. She remarks on its peculiar taste and then, calling Heurtebise back, reveals that she is dying; the envelope had been poisoned. She sends Heurtebise after Orpheus.

Death then enters through a mirror, followed by two attendants dressed in surgeons’ uniforms. Death herself wears an evening dress and cloak, which she exchanges for a white tunic. Before beginning her “operation” on Eurydice, Death orders the horse to take the sugar Heurtebise has tossed on the table, and the horse disappears. An elaborate procedure to obtain Eurydice’s soul begins. It involves calculations, measurements, mechanical devices, and a watch supplied by an audience member. Following a drumroll, a dove attached to a thread emerges from Eurydice’s room; once the thread is cut, the dove—Eurydice’s soul—flies off. Death and her attendants leave the way they came. Death, however, has forgotten her gloves.

Orpheus and Heurtebise enter to find Eurydice dead. Heurtebise counsels Orpheus to put on Death’s gloves and return them to her for a reward. Heurtebise leads Orpheus to the mirror, revealing it to be the door through which Death has traveled. Orpheus sinks into the mirror, Eurydice’s name on his lips. A postman comes to deliver a letter, which Heurtebise instructs him to slip under the door. The scene repeats, implying the arbitrariness of time. Orpheus reappears through the mirror, Eurydice behind him. As explained by Orpheus, he and Death have made a pact that Eurydice can remain with him as long as he never looks at her. Their initial bliss at reunion degenerates into bickering. Having avoided looking at Eurydice several times, Orpheus, careless in...

(The entire section is 955 words.)