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Electra | Episode 3 | Summary

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Summary

Chrysothemis returns from their father's grave with joyous news: Orestes has returned. Electra scoffs. Chrysothemis explains that milk had been poured on the grave, which had been decorated with garlands of flowers. She also found a freshly cut lock of Orestes's hair. Electra tells her that Orestes is dead and suggests the gifts were brought in his memory, not Agamemnon's. Electra says that, with Orestes gone, she needs Chrysothemis's help in dealing with Aegisthus. She reminds her sister that Aegisthus will not let either of them marry and have children because those children would challenge his claim to the throne. She says they will be praised for avenging their father. But Chrysothemis argues that they are women and down on their luck, so they are not strong enough to go up against a powerful enemy whose strength only continues to grow. She begs Electra to be prudent.

The disagreement becomes personal, with Electra calling Chrysothemis a coward and insisting that Chrysothemis will reveal Electra's plan to their mother. Chrysothemis tries to convince her sister that she would never do that and only wants Electra to act carefully.

Analysis

In Greek culture, a body was prepared for the funeral and then ritually burned. The ashes were deposited in a funeral urn and buried. With it, the family would also bury symbolic objects, which in the case of a warrior such as Agamemnon might have included weapons, small statues, and gifts. The grave itself was decorated, sometimes elaborately. These decorations might include large vases with holes in their base so that libations poured into the container would reach the dead person in the Underworld to help sustain him or her. Grave offerings such as libations are a prominent symbol in the first half of Electra and form the basis of Chrysothemis's argument that Orestes has returned.

Another confrontation takes place in Episode 3 between Electra and Chrysothemis, between passionate loyalty and measured pragmatism. This time, Chrysothemis's powers of observation and logic allow her to correctly interpret what she finds at her father's grave as signs that Orestes is alive. But Electra has already been convinced that Orestes is dead, and her certainty enables her to convince Chrysothemis as well—wrongly, as it happens. Because her brother can no longer act as Electra's partner in revenge, she is forced to try to win her sister to her cause. At first Chrysothemis seems to agree to help, but she is half-hearted about it. Having heard Electra's request, Chrysothemis says that neither of them has the power to fulfill it. In the end the only help she offers Electra is her silence about Electra's plans, and she continues to urge Electra to practice restraint: "I will take care that thy words remain secret and harmless; and learn thou the prudence, at last though late, of yielding, when so helpless, to thy rulers."

In Episodes 3 and 4 Sophocles makes good use of the technique known as stichomythia—a form of dialogue in which two characters have a rapid-fire exchange of lines, playing off one another's words. Stichomythia heightens the emotion among the characters and the tension in the plot. It does not have to take the form of an argument, although it does in this case:

Electra: I admire thy prudence; thy cowardice I hate.
Chrysothemis: I will listen not less calmly when thou praise me.
Electra: Never fear to suffer that from me.
Chrysothemis: Time enough in the future to decide that.
Electra: Begone; there is no power to help in thee.
Chrysothemis: Not so; but in thee, no mind to learn.
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