Murder Becomes Her

Review: Colm Tóibín’s 'House of Names'

The Lion Gate at Mycenae / Getty Images

Why'd she do it? Why'd she slit her husband’s throat? He'd just come back from war, leader of a victorious army, and there she was, his wife—marking his homecoming with a smile, a kiss, and a sharp little knife.

If you thought Odysseus had it bad, taking years to win his way back to Ithaca after the Greek triumph in the Trojan War, at least he eventually gained a fond reunion with his wife, son, and small island kingdom. The rest of the Homecoming tales about the heroes’ return to Greece tend to be less cheery. Odysseus had a woman named Penelope waiting for him. Agamemnon had a woman named Clytemnestra.

The story of Agamemnon’s murder—the Greeks’ commanding general, cut down not by the Trojans but by his wife—fascinated the ancients. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all wrote plays about the family’s multigenerational troubles. From Homer to Pindar, the poets knew there was something off about them. As late as the Roman Imperium, writers from Plutarch to Servius were still trying to make sense of it all: the disaster of the House of Atreus. And maybe we’ve never stopped wondering what makes the Atreidae tick. Eugene O'Neill's longest play, the 1931 Mourning Becomes Electra, retells the tale. And now Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, House of Names, takes us back through it yet again.

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From his first novel, The South (1990), through to his fictionalizing of his mother’s quiet life in Nora Webster (2014), Tóibín has shown himself a stylist as good as any writing today. His novelization of Henry James’s life and work, in The Master (2004), was widely praised, as was his story of Irish immigrants in Brooklyn (2009). The quietness and restraint of those books makes the violence of his new work a surprise. House of Names is Tóibín’s eleventh novel, and perhaps it is still quiet and restrained relative to its gory plot. But no one enters the tale of Clytemnestra, her husband, and her children, and leaves unbloodied.

After all, this is a story in which Tóibín feels compelled to give the words "I have been acquainted with the smell of death" to Clytemnestra as her opening line. It has a "sickly, sugary smell," she goes on to say—but that culinary vocabulary is appropriate, for "murder makes us ravenous." It "fills the soul with satisfaction […] luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction."

In Greek mythology, the corruption of the House of Atreus reaches back through the generations. The founder, Tantalus, killed his son Pelops and fed him to the gods at a dinner party, just to see if they would notice. Brought back to life, Pelops won the hand of a princess by arranging the death of her father and then murdering the man who helped him do it. Pelops' sons Atreus and Thyestes struggled over the throne of Mycenae, till Atreus found out that his wife was having an affair with his brother. In revenge, he had Thyestes’ children slaughtered, boiled, and served to him at a reconciliation dinner.

The next generation was only marginally better. Atreus' son Menelaus precipitated the Trojan War by marrying Helen and then letting a Trojan prince named Paris steal her away. Agamemnon, Atreus' other son, married Helen’s half-sister Clytemnestra. It wasn't a happy union. Their children—Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes—would all find their own sufferings and their own paths to hell.

Tóibín leaves most of this family history in the background. The earliest event in the novel is the death of Iphigenia. On their way to conquer Troy, the Greek fleet stops at the port of Aulis, where Agamemnon kills a deer in a grove sacred to the goddess Artemis. In revenge, Artemis arranges for the winds to blow against the ships, preventing their sailing. A soothsayer tells the Greeks that Agamemnon must sacrifice whatever is dearest to him. As it happens, that’s his daughter Iphigenia. So, naturally, he lures her to Aulis with the lie that she's to be married to Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes. In Tóibín’s telling, Clytemnestra comes along for the wedding and gets to see Iphigenia sacrificed. "Do the gods smile on men who have their daughters killed?" she sneers.

In some versions of the myth (notably, Euripides' play Iphigenia in Tauris), the gods rescue Iphigenia, whisking her away at the last moment and allowing her eventually to be reconciled with her brother Orestes. But Tóibín chooses the full-on death version of the story for House of Names. In the novelist’s mind, Clytemnestra was always a hard-case and a borderline psychopath. But she takes her husband’s murder of their daughter—the only good person, really, out of that whole sick crew—as license for all that follows.

The Greek sources are less certain of Clytemnestra’s motives (and even her means: in some versions, she uses a sacred axe to kill her husband). There are hints that she was always going to wreak some revenge on her husband, furious at the way marriage with Agamemnon and Menelaus was forced upon her and her sister. In other versions, she's spurred on by her illicit lover Aegisthus—who is Agamemnon's cousin, naturally, just to make the whole thing sicker. And Aegisthus is looking for revenge on the family for the treatment of his own father, Thyestes. In yet other versions, Clytemnestra doesn't fully decide to kill Agamemnon till his homecoming, when he returns with a beautiful Trojan princess—the ill-fated, unbelieved prophetess Cassandra—and the children he has sired on her.

Tóibín does accept a common theme in the Greek sources, with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus at least partially motivated by their desire to cling to the power they've had in Mycenae since Agamemnon left for the Trojan War. "This is a house of whispers," Electra tells her confused younger brother, Orestes. "What matters is that you must not meddle in things that are beyond you."

Electra is the grimmest character in House of Names, manipulating Orestes into helping her achieve the deaths of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Unlike her mother, however, she is a believer in divine justice. In what might be the most revealing line of the novel, Clytemnestra whispers, "I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed." It’s as dismal a reading of the failure of nerve, the final stage of ancient Greek religion, as we have had in English literature since T.S. Eliot’s 1927 poem "The Journey of the Magi." And if, to achieve this effect, Colm Tóibín has to import a little bit of the late Hellenistic age back into an early Hellenic story, well, so be it.

At least Tóibín doesn't try to modernize the story. In Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill changes the setting to contemporary New England. In his 1943 play The Flies, Jean-Paul Sartre changes the theme to modern existentialism. Colm Tóibín knows that this part of the story of the House of Atreus—from Clytemnestra's fury to the actual Furies' hounding of Orestes—belongs in its essence to an Ancient Greek world. These are universal myths because the Greeks are universal. The Homecoming of the heroes of the Trojan War was not a happy tale, for the most part. And House of Names reminds us that we tend to forget this truth, at our peril.