I’ve been turning over a poem about Elektra in my mind. I think it’s going to involve pearls, but it’s too early to say. I draw from mythology in my work because it’s a satisfying ongoing cultural study. The stories stay more or less the same, but people pick out different emphases as the centuries rumbled by. As part of my research, I’ve been reading iterations of the Elektra story in no particular order to puzzle out how it became an aesthetic on Tumblr (yes, we’re still alive and blogging) amongst women with complicated relationships with their mothers. These days, people are mashing up quotes from the original Greek plays with clips from Succession. Here are a few posts to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Post 1. Post 2. Post 3.
To summarize, Elektra is the daughter of Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra murders her husband (Elektra’s father) partly out of revenge for her forced marriage and partly to be with her lover, who becomes king in his place. Elektra and Orestes, children of Clytemnestra’s previous marriage, become inconvenient stepchildren. A servant whisks baby Orestes away to a neighboring kingdom, while Elektra lives as a servant or peasant, depending on the retelling. Orestes returns as a young man, and the two adult children conspire to murder their mother and stepfather. The act is bloodier than they imagined. They leave the matricide disturbed and remorseful.
As part of the Greek tragic canon, the story has had a long shelf life. Although the Elektra story is less well known than Oedipus’s, I find it more believable in my 2022 realist psychoanalytic sensibility. The entire Oedipus situation revolved around cosmic bad luck. Elektra’s family is a tragedy of colliding reactions to violence.
Then the Freudians got involved. Carl Jung, a student of Freud, proposed the Elektra complex as a sort of female equivalent to the Oedipus complex. The theory is that daughters are in sexual competition with their mothers for their fathers. I disagree with the literalness of this interpretation—I’m especially disturbed by how psychoanalysts have historically used the Elektra complex theory to minimize the trauma of incest—but its cultural momentum is undeniable. I suspect Elektra lingers because her story speaks to how the Western family unit is intertwined with misogyny.
You hear fathers say they never thought too much about feminism until they had a daughter. It’s easy to seed resentment between mothers and daughters in this situation. The mother has been promised control of her children in return for accepting object status, the scorn our culture has for women who look a day over twenty, but now she watches her husband treat her daughter like a human being. Why couldn’t he muster that respect for her? The daughter is invited to scorn her mother, all the while in denial that she is on a conveyor belt to the same fate. If she marries another man invested in patriarchy, she’ll wonder why he doesn’t treat her as her father did. The cycle resets. As mother and daughter pick each other to death, the patriarch maintains his status as a full human being and hero of the family unit. A subtler punishment is the shallowness of his relationship with his wife and his anxiety about his daughter’s future marriage.
I’m obviously cobbling together a lot of theorizing done by previous feminist scholars. Simone de Beauvoir’s and bell hooks’ writings on the family unit come to mind. What’s curious is the degrees of feminist awareness brought to Elektra retellings. To what degree do Elektra fans understand that they’re tangled in the same nets at their mothers?
The album Electra Heart by MARINA, an album I listened to on repeat when it came out, sparked a pink train wreck aesthetic. In this category, I’d also put
by Melanie Martinez. In the context of her other work, I think it’s clear MARINA has the feminist context to see her train wreck female characters caught in a snare. In Cry Baby the speaker of the album holds anger at her mother and cultural critique closely. Such is the dilemma of knowing theory and still being a person caught in the thick of it. I don’t know how many fans who make the pink gif sets are aware of the irony. The next stop on the aesthetic is Lana Del Rey, who has the frustrating habit of writing absolute bangers that embrace patriarchy.
This is all to say, as I fiddle with my poem about Elektra, a lot of reading and ambient musing happens in the background. I think people imagine poetry as spontaneous, fixed in an utterance. For me there’s a lot more stewing involved before I start typing.
It's hard giving advice on writing poetry because inevitably, someone raises their hand and points out an exception. God forbid someone does the opposite of your advice, succeeds, and then describes you as the villain in their underdog story at speaking events. So I put this out into the universe, fully accepting that I am wrong and you should ignore me: to write well, you have to figure out what’s already being said by the culture, and more importantly, what’s boring. It's hard when you’re drawing from an ancient story, so the only way to inoculate against boredom is to understand the ways something has been told even if the center is the same. Hence, if you’re writing about Elektra, you should probably read all those plays.
Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Paige Welsh's creative work has been published in Narrative Magazine, Bear Review, and Gigantic Sequins. You can find her book reviews in The Los Angeles Review of Books and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. When she's not writing, she likes to garden with her partner Chris, and their cat, Biscuits. You can follow her on Twitter @MarkthatPaige.