Murderous Compassion: Pity in Sophocles' Electra

Doug Clapp

Samford University

Sophocles' Electra presents a seemingly insoluble equation in the calculus of compassion.  Electra pities her murdered father but conspires to murder her mother, who is finally slain by her son despite her plea for pity.  Electra's desperate decision to act alone in assassinating Clytemnestra seems to belie the compassionate stance she takes toward her father.  Orestes' initial deception of his sister seems to belie the pity he later expresses for her.  Violence overwhelms sentiment and compassion seems to lose its meaning.

This is all the more disturbing since Electra confounds Aristotle's definition of pity in the Rhetoric (2.8.2), which undergirds David Konstan's recent study of the emotion (Pity Transformed, Duckworth, 2001).  Konstan concludes from Aristotle's analysis that "pity" is an emotional reaction at a distance: "the pitier is always to some extent in the situation of an observer rather than a participant in the experience of the other, and views the suffering of the pitied from the outside, as it were." (60)  Likewise, to Konstan it "follows that we do not pity those who are suffering the same thing as we are." (50)  Electra is too close to the situation to experience an Aristotelian pity, and yet she freely intermingles a sense of pity for her father's fate with her deeply personal grief (lines 100, 102, 145).  The chorus might have the proper distance, but the pity that they acknowledge in the parados (lines 193-194) shows them sharing Electra's emotional burden.  And so Kells (Cambridge, 1973) comments, "The Chorus and Electra are now at one." (93)  This pity is too personal, and it become misguided when Electra mistakenly pities Chrysothemis, who suggests that Orestes is alive (line 920), and Orestes, whose false ashes leave Electra little hope (line 1161).  The chain of events and reactions to events raises significant questions about the role of pity.

This paper will suggest potential answers by drawing on helpful insights from Steven Tudor in his 2001 book Compassion and Remorse (Morality and Meaning of Life 11, Peeters, 2001).  Tudor begins with the premise that both compassion and remorse involve moral acknowledgement of the suffering of another.  Compassion can occur in one who witnesses the suffering, remorse in one who causes the suffering.  The nexus of these related but distinct emotional reactions lies at the heart of Electra.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page