Enjolras as Orestes?

Meta related to characters, plots, or other elements introduced by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables.
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Enjolras as Orestes?

Postby Citizeness Feuilly » Mon Mar 21, 2011 3:18 pm

I've been thinking a lot lately about the whole Orestes/Enjolras and Plyades/Grantaire parallel. Here are my ramblings on the topic....sorry if I'm pointing out the blindingly obvious here!

Starting at the beginning - the name "Orestes" means "one who can conquer mountains" - this is consistent with Enjolras. One who *can*, who has the power, to accomplish great deeds, but ultimately doesn't really.

Although the myth changes a bit from poet to poet, the gist of Orestes' life story is as follows:

As a descendant of the ill-omened house of Atreus, Orestes was doomed to a tragic end from the beginning. Born to the King and Queen of Mycenae, Orestes was their only son, and seemed set to have a charmed life. But, after his father, Agamemnon, left to fight at Troy, his mother, Clytemnestra, sent him and his sister off to live with their royal, paternal cousin Plyades, leaving her free to pursue an affair with her brother-in-law. Thus, Orestes was raised with Plyades, and considered him to be a brother. There is some considerable doubt whether this was a platonic relationship, or whether it evolved into a homosexual one. *I'm* inclined to believe that it was - the Ancient Greeks are notorious for homosexuality, and such a relationship would have been taken as only natural. Both are athletic, virile young men. According to the social customs, they would have been viewed too young to marry, but there was no prohibition on homosexuality as a way of relieving passion before marriage. And besides, seeing their later interactions, I think a homosexual relationship best fits the situation.

But I digress. So - while Orestes is off with Plyades in Phocis, Agamemnon comes home at last. Clytemnestra's not happy - not only does this disrupt her affair, but Agamemnon also has a new mistress in toe, the Trojan princess Cassandra. Clytemnestra, shall we say, doesn't react well to this open betrayal, even though she's done the exact same thing, and murders both Agamemnon and Cassandra on the night of their return.

Roll the clock ahead 8 years - Clytemnestra and her lover are now ruling Mycenae, and Orestes is now a 20-year-old young man. His sister, Electra, encourages Orestes to return home, avenge his father's death, and claim his birthright, erasing the shame from their family name. Orestes, accompanied by his dear friend/lover Plyades, returns home. However, at the vital moment of killing Clytemnestra, Orestes second-guesses his decision. Plyades urges him on, and gives him the steel to carry out the deed.

The rest of the story from here is, I think, pretty well known - Orestes is driven mad with guilt by the Furies over his deed.

Thus, we see that Orestes' main role is that of an avenger, a warrior and a champion - but one who is ultimately destined to fail as a result of one of their crimes. Enjolras' comparison to him is extremely fitting. Enjolras *is*, or at least earnestly desires to be, the champion of the people - the morally abased, those who are no longer able to defend themselves, whatever the reason. Thus, in this analogy - Clytemnestra/her lover are the leaders of France who have committed grievous crimes against the people. Agamemnon represents the people, who need a champion to defend their rights. Enjolras is Orestes, the ultimately good-hearted avenger who is forced to commit serious crimes in the name of his cause. And Grantaire is Plyades, the largely static character who nonetheless provides his friend/lover with the strength to carry out the climactic deed.

I'm going to expand a bit on Orestes and Plyades' relationship, though. For example, throughout his madness, Orestes is not abandoned. Plyades follows and cares for him wherever they go, beyond all borders of the known world. For example, when they came to rest at an unfamiliar plain, Orestes is seized by a fit of madness. Plyades defends Orestes from an advancing band of native soldiers, and wipes away the foam (from his mouth?), tends his body, and covers him with his own cloak. These actions are not just those of a boyhood friend - these are the selfless ministrations that spring from genuine, sincere love.

Further on, throughout their adventures, it is determined that one of the two will be put to death, and the other will convey a letter to Mycenae. Both refuse to leave, saying that if he can safe the life of his friend, he will have saved his own life.

Now, we know that the relationship that exists between Enjolras and Grantaire is, on the surface at least, significantly less loving. Plenty has been said/written on their glorious, crazy, dysfunctional, love/hate relationship, so I won't even try to expand on that. All the same, for one reason or another, an extremely deep bond exists between the two, whether they like it or not.

In my mind, Hugo was experimenting a bit with the relationship between Plyades and Orestes. If Plyades was to somehow betray Orestes, how would their relationship adjust? Their friendship runs too deeply for it to be cut off altogether - but their camaraderie can no longer exist as it once did. Maybe Grantaire and Enjolras were friends as children, only for Grantaire to betray Enjolras in adolescence, causing them to grow apart, and Enjolras to despise Grantaire for that betrayal? In the deleted quarry scene, Enjolras declares that Patron Minette are his brothers, not his friends - they are *too* morally abased to disgrace him or his cause by joining in the fight. Working with the above view of events - could Enjolras view Grantaire in the same light, as a brother, but no longer his friend?

Anyways, there are my ramblings on the topic. Sorry if this post makes no sense or is redundant, I'm dead tired, but I just can't fall asleep until I get this out.

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Re: Enjolras as Orestes?

Postby Rose In Misery » Mon Mar 21, 2011 4:57 pm

Yay! Another ancient Greek fangirl!

This very interesting. I don't think there has been much discussion about Enjolras/Grantaire as Orestes/Pylades except in discussion about the character's sexuality and homosexuality was generally referenced by 19th authors (i.e. with lots of classical allusions). I'd always thought it a slightly odd comparison since Grantaire did not remind me of Pylades (he DID remind me of Sydney Carton, however). I could understand Hugo's idea of Enjolras looking like a statue/Apollo/Greek hero etc. but I couldn't quite picture him as the sort of guy who'd avenge his father's death or anything like that. I got the feeling that the Orestes/Pylades relationship was an example of what Grantaire wanted or aspired to have with Enjolras. By that I mean, to be treated as an equal (although you could obviously read into it in other ways).

Still, you said a lot of stuff that I've never even thought of and the whole thing was fascinating to read. My interpretation of the whole relationship is pretty simplistic in comparison. It would be good if there was more meta on Hugo's classical (and possibly also Shakespearean) allusions. My first impression of them was that some of them seemed a bit offhand. It would be good to know what parallels there are between such and such character and who they get compared to.
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Re: Enjolras as Orestes?

Postby Citizeness Feuilly » Mon Mar 21, 2011 6:24 pm

:) I'm a proud ancient Greek fangirl, who had a crush on Apollo LONG before I'd even heard of Les Misérables or, more specifically, Enjolras.

So I'm not the only one who thought Grantaire was an awful lot like Sydney Carton? Yay! I've been battling with a plot bunny of Enjolras being arrested for treason and Grantaire taking his place at the last moment...it doesn't work on SO many levels, but it won't bloody leave me alone!

The idea that the whole Orestes/Plyades thing was an expression of equality between Enjolras and Grantaire is one I'd never even thought of. Plyades and Orestes were equals in every way - loyal, charming, clever, strong, handsome, just about every adjective with homo-erotic undertones in the dictionary. In those last few moments in the Corinthe, Enjolras and Grantaire *are* equals. No longer are they the golden leader and the despised drunkard - they're two young men martyred for their individual causes - Enjolras, the welfare of France, and Grantaire, the welfare of Enjolras. Enjolras' warm smile was an acceptance of this; although Grantaire's cause was not the same as his, the level of commitment was equal. And Enjolras can sort of, at last, respect Grantaire for that.

I'm on board for *any* meta on classical/Shakespearean allusions in Hugo's work. The only reason I can think of for Hugo's offhand classical comparisons is that his 19th century audience would be significantly better versed in the Classics than the modern reader. We've lost that tradition of a solid education in ancient history/mythology - and, as such, we don't get as rich of a reading experience. But we can find these little layers and allusions, and then we discuss it till the cows come home. :)

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Re: Enjolras as Orestes?

Postby Col.Despard » Tue Mar 22, 2011 12:35 am

There was a story written some years back by Cillabub that took the Orestes and Pylades = Enjolras and Grantaire thing rather literally - it had them sent back to earth after their deaths to relive the O & P story! Cillabub is another fan of Greek mythology.

I think the Orestes mythology and the plays based on it resonate well with the Enjolras/Grantaire arc in some ways, less so in others. One of the major components to many versions of the story is the insanity/torment inflicted on Orestes as a result of his crime (even if the crime is divinely ordained), and it is difficult to find a parallel for this in Enjolras' story. He does impose a sentence on himself, as we see in the Le Cabuc scene, and realises the enormity of the actions he undertakes (as we see again in scenes like the shooting of the artillary officer), but he seems more implacably resolute rather than tortured by the consequences of the actions he feels compelled to undertake.

Where it works is in Orestes as an agent of divine justice. Enjolras specifically embodies this - we are told that he has but one thought, "the right", and whereas Combeferre represents the Revolution's "human right", Enjolras is its "divine right". Enjolras is likened to Themis in the Le Cabuc scene - while Themis is often conflated with Justicia, this is not accurate. Justicia represents human justice, but Themis is the embodiment of divine justice (you could almost see a Javert v. Enjolras contrast here). Hugo seems to view the Revolution as one of those instances in which, as with Waterloo and its surrounding upheaval, he detects the hand of the divine moving in human affairs (off on a tangent, I do rather like the idea that Marguerite has worked with that Enjolras's execution represents the Bourgeosie forstalling the revelation of the Apocalyptic truths of the Revolution).

Orestes is also finally forgiven in many versions of the story - the Aeschylus trilogy ends when he is ultimately forgiven at his trial, and in Euripides he succeeds in having the curse lifted after his tribulations. So we could see an analogy in that both Enjolras and Orestes are forced to shed blood as the result of being an instrument of divine justice, but their ultimate fates differ. Enjolras does not succeed in his immediate objective but dies with the hope of furthering his ultimate aim and with the light of the future in his eyes, whereas Orestes succeeds in his aim of retribution, suffers, and is ultimately shown mercy by the divine forces that put an impossible decision before him. One does not get the sense in Enjolras of conflict that one gets in Orestes - Enjolras does not enjoy the decisions he must make, but he does not flinch from them nor does he second guess them.

Both references to the Orestes story that Hugo makes are made in connection with Grantaire, and I think this speaks most directly to what Hugo is trying to evoke by the allusion. One thing that does niggle me is the "rejected" Pylades - Pylades is more than a hanger-on for Orestes, and Enjolras has no reason when they are first introduced to accept Grantaire, who is a hanger-on, as a Pylades. When Grantaire is offered the opportunity to actually assist Enjolras in his work, he stuffs it up. So not just a rejected Pylades, but a failed one - right up until his death, when he finally does stand by Enjolras and is in turn accepted.

I think Hugo's classical allusions are intended to evoke more elements than extensive parallels - Enjolas as Antinous farouche, for example. Enjolras has little in common with Antinous other than remarkable good looks and physicality, and even modifying it with "farouche" does not invite us to see too many similarities between the lover of the Emperor Hadrian and this fierce young student (unless we're to *really* go out on a limb and evoke theories that Antinous might have sacrified himself in the Nile, and I'm not too sure how extant these theories were when Hugo was writing).

I agree with both of you that a good comprehensive education includes some exposure to Greek mythology - like the KJV, it helps make a lot more sense of the Western literary canon! I'd like to see more exposure to other myth cycles as well - Egyptian, particularly the story of Osiris, and to such amazing works as the Epic of Gilgamesh. While Gilgamesh has not had as much direct impact on Western lit as the classical Greek and Roman myths and writers, I think the study of these and other works, both in their own right and in a comparative context, can only enrich our understanding of literature and human nature. Gilgamesh is one of the great works on grief and loss ever written, IMHO.

Of course, there would be controversy over what age to expose schoolchildren to the more earthy, unexpurgated classical authors. I remember delving wide-eyed into Ovid's version of one of my favourite myths, the story of Orpheus, when I was about eleven...it certainly wasn't the watered down version I'd been introduced to in school!
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