115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ixion and the Problem of Guilt in T.S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion

Jesse Weiner, Hamilton College

I trace a system of allusion to the mythological figure of Ixion in T. S. Eliot's The Family Renuion (1939), a reworking of Aeschylus' Eumenides. This allusion, I argue, is crucial for understanding the play's mystifying patterns of sin, guilt-transmission, and expiation.


T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939) is a problematic play (Eliot himself tended to apologize for it), and the issue of guilt ranks first and foremost among its problems. Part detective story, part tale of miasma and expiation, The Family Reunion reworks Aeschylus’ Eumenides, yet its patterns of sin and atonement depart drastically from its Aeschylean model. Harry, the play’s Orestes figure, has committed no murder, while the family’s inherited curse similarly stems from crimes imagined but not actualized. Nevertheless, Harry is haunted by the Furies and the play challenges its audience to accept his pollution: “…the slow stain sinks deeper through the skin / Tainting the flesh and discolouring the bone” (Part I, Scene I). Critics have tended to explain this mystifying mode of guilt-transmission as an imposition of Eliot’s Christianity and belief in original sin. I suggest that a subtle pattern of allusion offers a classical mechanism for crime and punishment in this tragedy. Harry is not only an Orestes figure but also an Ixion.

Throughout his oeuvre, Eliot's intertextual strategies make allusion essential rather than supplementary to meaning. This, I suggest, is true of The Family Reunion. Early in the play, Harry’s first proclamation of guilt is joined to a longing for “a momentary rest on the burning wheel” (Part I, Scene I), and imagery of being chained to a wheel forms a motif that runs throughout The Family Reunion. Harry thus invokes the punishment of Ixion, one of classical mythology’s great transgressors, who was forever affixed to a burning wheel for the attempted rape of Hera. By joining himself to Ixion, Harry follows Aeschylean precedent, since Orestes is himself compared to Ixion at Eumenides 441 and Ixion resurfaces at Eum. 717. The allusion, I argue, is crucial to understanding The Family Reunion’s structures of guilt, torment, and atonement. By establishing Harry as an Ixion as well as an Orestes, Eliot imports a Greek analogue to original sin and suggests a model of moral culpability that privileges intent and desire over action.