By Lucy Elford
‘Firey and incandescent’
Elektra, by Jennifer Saint, is a tale presenting the perspectives of three women (Clytemnestra1, Cassandra2, and the titular character, Elektra3), suffering from the violence of men during the events of the Trojan War4. These women are presented in starkly different ways; Clytemnestra is vengeful and bitter, Elektra glorifies her father and is motivated by her youth, and Cassandra is alone and resigned. Saint provides the reader with a fresh perspective on these typically villainized and victimised women, colouring in their personalities and motivations outside of the ancient male gaze.
1Wife of Mycenaean king, Agamemnon.
2Daughter of Trojan king, Priam. Gifted prophetic sight by Apollo, whilst also cursed to never be believed by those she shares her prophecies with.
3 Daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.
4 The Trojan War was a fictional war originating from Homer, lliad. The war was a result of Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, being abducted by Paris of Troy. Menelaus called all of the Greek kings and princes to bring her back. This led to a decade-long war, involving various gods. The Greeks claimed victory, and Helen returned to Sparta.
Clytemnestra takes the primary mantle in the first segment of the book, as we join her in her marriage to Agamemnon, her relationship with her sister, Helen, and the brutal ‘sacrifice’ of her first child by her husband. Clytemnestra is typically characterised by her murder of Agamemnon and her subsequent death at the hands of her son Orestes, plotted by her daughter Elektra, to avenge their father. She is often presented as a harsh character, with a lack of pity for her husband. However, Saint allows the reader to formulate their own opinion of the character removed from the typical misogyny that these bold female characters are often drowned in.
I believe that a huge aspect of Clytemnestra’s motivations is often forgotten by those telling her tale. Clytemnestra’s first-born, Iphigenia, is murdered at the hands of her father as a sacrifice to the gods for fair winds on their journey to Troy. Agamemnon deceives Clytemnestra and her daughter with the promise of marrying Iphigenia to Achilles, and instead commits a devious crime in front of Clytemnestra’s eyes. This is her motivation for Agamemnon’s murder, and Saint uses this as her driving force throughout the novel. Her heart is set on killing her husband, and she becomes blind to the rest of the world (and her family) around her in the meantime.
Elektra is portrayed by Saint as a fiery figure. Growing up with an absent father, she idolises the distant image of him and begins to harbour resentment towards her mother’s revenge plans. Her youth becomes both her saving grace and her downfall, as it contributes towards her romanticisation of Agamemnon and lack of motivation to understand the mental toll of her sister’s death on her mother. It also creates a barrier between herself and the abusive acts of her mother, which caused her to neglect her surviving children. Elektra is a character one may be able to simultaneously root for and be exasperated with, as we are gifted with the insight into both mother and daughter’s mindsets.
Cassandra is a popular tragic figure in classical literature5. Her tale begins with an encounter with Apollo in the temple she serves. He attempts to seduce her, however Cassandra refuses. The sanctity of the location prevents the typical traumatising outcome of these situations, and Cassandra is instead cursed with foresight at the cost of never being believed. Cassandra is often the face of the tragic woman. She provides the reader with an insight into the events of the war from the alternate side, with a refreshed view of Helen, and a first row seat into the suffering of women after a great military defeat. Cassandra is cursed from the start, and both she and the reader know this, which gives her passages a rather melancholy tone, as well as a deeply helpless one. Even in her moments when she is attempting to save her city, Cassandra holds no faith in her acts, driven by pointless and erratic fear. Her narrative is a deeply disturbing one- from the moment of her curse to the death of Polyxena, it holds an incredibly depressing tone. Cassandra’s character serves as a respite from the deep family politics of Elektra and Clytemnestra, while plunging the reader into the life of an isolated and fatal woman.
5 Examples of Cassandra in literature include: Homer’s Iliad (XXIV, 697–706) & Odyssey (XI, 405–434), Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Euripides’s The Trojan Women & Electra, Bibliotheca (III, xii, 5; Epitome V, 17–22; VI, 23 ), Virgil’s Aeneid (II, 246–247, 341–346, 403–408), Lycophron’s Alexandra, Triphiodorus’s The Sack of Troy, Quintus Smyrnaeus’s Posthomerica.
Elektra is a deeply intricate novel tasked with imagining what the tale of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra would have been like if it were presented to us through a female lens. The plot follows a familiar path6, Helen’s marriage to Menalaus, Clytemnestra’s motherhood, Agamemnon’s travel to war, Aegethius’ invasion into the palace, the fall of Troy, and finally the deaths of both Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. It is a busy plot, full of devastating events that are potentially scarring for the reader, however Saint handles this in an eloquent way. She moves the reader to another narrative in the heat of an intense moment to generate this ineffable tension that grips them to continue reading, giving a voice to three women from entirely different perspectives and political ties. Saint gives a balanced and heartfelt understanding of the Trojan War and its following events.
6 The events in Saint’s Elektra adapts Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Euripides’ Electra, as well as Sophocles’s Electra and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.
One of the key themes Saint plays with in Elektra is motherhood. She unabashedly confronts the nuanced environment of a grieving mother by utilising the dual narratives of Clytemnestra and Elektra. Clytemnestra, initially, is a deeply caring mother, one that has a close bond with her eldest daughter and it appears as if this will be the same for her other children. Yet, after Iphigenia’s death, there is a clear shift. Clytemnestra struggles with connecting with her children after the loss of her first child, ‘How did I know I did not raise another child for slaughter?’. As a grieving mother, Clytemnestra fails to support her other children, which creates a bitter resentment in Elektra throughout the novel.
Feminine pain is a constant aspect of Ancient female narratives (Medea, Circe in The Odyssey, etc..). Saint discusses this throughout Elektra in a subjectively artful way. Helen is not given a narrative, however she is an ever present figure due to the impact of the Trojan war on the three narrator’s lives. As an eternally controversial figure in history, Helen can easily be viewed in a very polarising lens- either a promiscuous kingdom-killer, or a victim of the masculine thirst for war. Saint, in my opinion, balances the two extremes to craft a very human personality for a woman given god-like status in literature. Clytemnestra observes that as Helen became a legend her humanity was forgotten- ‘’No one ever mentioned that she was thoughtful or that she was kind’. Saint, through the view of Helen’s twin sister, allows the reader to understand Helen in a unique way. Clytemnestra is not bitter or overwhelmingly envious of Helen’s natural beauty, and both grieves for Helen and celebrates her. Clytemnestra is a bold supporter of her sister, despite the war bringing the death of Iphigenia. Prior to her sister’s death, she appears disturbed at ‘the way the men speak of her’, and even creates a rift between herself and her husband in Helen’s defence. Post Iphigenia’s death, she isn’t as loud about her support, and even questions her love for her sister, but there is still respect given to Helen despite what the war had taken from Clytemnestra. Saint masters the deep bond sisters can share, with Helen and Clytemnestra being an extreme example of the strength of these bonds. Helen, arguably, caused the event that took everything from Clytemnestra, and yet there is still a strong sense of solidarity between the twins. Personally, I thoroughly appreciated the lack of envy from Clytemnestra, as she says herself ‘[Helen] could not help that heads would swivel to gaze’ and ‘I made my peace with it’. Clytemnestra and Helen have a surprisingly healthy relationship, despite the centuries of legend that had the potential to disrupt this.
Sisterhood and the female gaze
The ultimate thing that links everything in Elektra together is the bond of sisterhood and the female gaze. For centuries, the tales of the women in this novel were told from the perspective of men, leading to black-and-white villainisation, sexualisation, and often a complete lack of empathy for the trauma these women go through. A key example of the female gaze’s presence in Elektra, for me, would be the realistic representation of Elektra and Clytemnestra’s relationship. They clearly do not like each other, above everything else. Elektra views her mother with contempt in response to Clytemnestra’s neglect of her children and betrayal of Agamemnon, and Clytemnestra is consistently frustrated with her complicated child, often comparing her to Iphiganea. This mother-daughter-duo, however, isn’t as simple as love and hate, with Clytemnestra harbouring a deep love for her daughter, wanting the best for her, even if this leads to her distancing herself from her daughter and making herself the villain. Elektra is mystified by her mother, and often thinks of her strength and elegance. The pair are three-dimensional, they are reflective of the complex relationships present in the ‘real world’, generational female trauma, and the intricate workings of what it means to be a woman and how it impacts female relationships.
Clytemnestra and Cassandra’s minor interaction near the end of the novel, I believe, is further evidence of the female gaze in Elektra. In the original mythology, surrounding the death of Agamemnon, Cassandra is also murdered by Clytemnestra and Agethius. This is because she symbolises both rewarding Agamamnon’s escapades in the Trojan War and his lack of respect for his wife. She is part of Troy, and therefore a part of what caused Iphigenea to die. However, Saint refuses to follow this women-blaming-women narrative, and Clytemnestra displays clear pity and a partial bond with Cassandra. She does not blame her for Agamemnon’s actions, and is merciful. Cassandra is an incredibly tortured character, and the final blow of her misfortune is her kidnapping from Troy to a strange and foreign land. She clearly has no desire to be there, and with her family all dead or in slavery she has no true motivations for life. To be a woman in the ancient world was a deadly thing, and both Cassandra and Clytemnestra understand this. When Agememnon is killed, Clytemnestra still kills Cassandra, but the circumstances are incredibly different. It is a mercy kill, an act of kindness. Clytemnestra recognises Cassandra’s pain and understands that making her live in this foreign city is more of a death sentence than actual death itself. Saint illustrates an unspoken bond between women with these two characters, and illustrates the heavy price of womanhood in a beautiful manner.
Here are some links to articles and other media I believe can further your understanding of Jennifer Saint’s Elektra, specifically the theme of motherhood:
- Ellen Handler Spitz- Mothers and Daughter: Ancient and Modern Myths
- Annie Ernaux, I Remain in Darkness
- Moan.Inc- The Tragic Greek Mythology of The Women Of Troy- Interview with Jennifer Saint (ELEKTRA Spoilers)