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House of Names: A Novel Summary & Study Guide Description
House of Names: A Novel Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on House of Names: A Novel by Colm Tóibín.
The following version of this book was used to create your study guide: Tóibín, Colm. House of Names. McClelland & Stewart, 2017. Hardcover.
This section includes a plot summary, as well as a summary of the literary history from which the author draws, in his retelling of the Agamemnon myth. There is furthermore a brief list of names and terms, which will introduce readers to the characters and concepts found both across Tóibín's text, and his source material.
House of Names begins when Agamemnon invites his wife Clytemnestra, their son Orestes, and their daughter Iphigenia to Aulis under the pretense of Iphigenia’s marriage. Soon, however, Agamemnon’s true intentions are revealed: he wants to sacrifice Iphigenia to appease the gods, and allow the Achaian army passage to Troy. At numerous occasions Clytemnestra tries to convince him to spare their daughter, though these attempts are futile; he is set in his ways. The day of the sacrifice comes, and, before the women can curse Agamemnon for his treachery, they are gagged, bound, and dragged in separate directions — Iphigenia to the altar, where her throat is cut, and Clytemnestra toward a small grave, where she is trapped without food or water. In the silence of this prison, she comes to the conclusion that she must retaliate. She must kill her husband.
When the winds change three days later, Clytemnestra is released and is sent back home, with four guards in tow. Upon arriving in Mycenae, she finds her daughter, Electra, distraught: she heard rumors of Iphigenia’s murder, and blames Clytemnestra for not stopping the procession. Days pass in silence. But soon Electra begins speaking about a man named Aegisthus, who appears occasionally in her bedroom at night. Aegisthus is a prisoner, locked up deep beneath the palace for murder. Clytemnestra seeks him out and enlists his help in dispatching the men Agamemnon sent to watch her. Soon he becomes her bodyguard and then, her lover. Together, they plot and carry out the brutal murder of Agamemnon and Cassandra.
At this, the narrative shifts to a third person telling of Orestes’ story, which begins in the moment immediately prior to his father’s death, when guards under the orders of Aegisthus whisk Orestes away from his home and towards a camp, where many of the sons and grandsons of the Mycenaean Elders are kept. It is here where Orestes meets Leander, and together the two plot their escape. With the help of the sick boy, Mitros, they distract and dismember the guard on duty, and leave their prison in the dead of the night.
For days they travel without food or water. At the ends of their ropes, dirty and tired and half-dead, they run into a sheep farmer who agrees to take them all on as farmhands. But when they arrive at the man’s home this offer is revoked. Orestes, Leander, and Mitros leave the farm and continue their travels, until they soon come to some forested land by the sea. But before they can appreciate this change, three ferocious dogs attack them, all of which are dispatched by Orestes and Leander. The dogs belong to an old blind woman who lives alone a few miles out. Leander speaks with her and she agrees to let them stay, on one condition: that they remain by her side until she dies, or until she tells them to go.
Over the course of many years the boys become accustom to rural life. Every night, the old woman tells them all a story. Every night, Orestes thinks about Leander. Eventually, the two fall into the pattern of a relationship, their casual touches becoming embraces, their embraces becoming something more. Until one day, two men — the same guards who escorted Orestes to the boarding house — appear and the boys are forced to kill again. After this, the old woman’s health begins to fail her, and she dies. Mitros follows suit, and after him comes the dog. Three bodies, three graves, three burials. Only Orestes and Leander are left, and they decide that now, it is time to return home. They pack provisions for the road and depart for Mycenae, eager to return to their families and to the city they unknowingly left in shambles.
The narrative then shifts to describe the perspective of Electra, who observes how Agamemnon’s death has changed the relationship Clytemnestra has with Aegisthus, which becomes extremely fraught as of late, especially when all the Mycenean boys — minus Orestes, Leander, and Mitros — are returned from their prison. Months and years pass, during which Electra remains alone — without husband, without brother. But she never grieves. She visits the graves of her father and Iphigenia each day, holding on to the hope that Orestes will soon return. And when he does, the two will unite and kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Following this, Orestes once more becomes the story’s focalizer, detailing again in third-person his journey from the old woman’s house, to Leander’s house, and then to Mycenea, whereupon he reunites with his mother and Electra, and witnesses the tension that has come over the palace. In the weeks following his return, Orestes observed the movements in the halls, outside his room. He would watch as Aegisthus came and went, visiting various lovers — male and female; he would watch as Electra crossed the corridor to attend secret meetings. Eventually Orestes receives word from a guard employed by Leander regarding the whereabouts of Theodotus and Mitros. Orestes frees the two men and brings them back to their homes, where Mitros reveals to Orestes the truth regarding Clytemnetsra’s actions. When Orestes returns to the palace Electra chastises him for being rash, and Clytemnestra resolves to send him away for his own protection.
One night later, the same guard appears in Orestes’ room, telling him that he must visit Leander’s house as soon as day breaks. Orestes obliges, and finds, in the middle of the living room, a pile of bodies — the bodies of Raisa and Cobon and Theodotus and their family — covered with maggots. Ianthe emerges from this pile, and Orestes takes her back to the palace, where Electra cares for her.
That same evening, following a dinner with Clytemnestra at which it is revealed that Orestes is to leave Mycenae the next day, he is greeted in the night by Electra, who tells him that now is the time to commit matricide — for Aegisthus has left, and as a result, Clytemnestra is alone. Electra has hidden a knife under a stepping-stone in the garden; the plan is for Orestes to take Clytemnestra on a walk, and then to kill her with this concealed weapon. The next day arrives and all occurs smoothly: Orestes stabs his mother repeatedly in the chest, crushing the life from her as she did his father.
Briefly, the narrative shifts to describe Clytemnestra’s point of view when, immediately following her death, she is left to navigate the halls of the palace as a ghost, stuck between the realm of the living and the dead.
After this the narrative is once more focalized through Orestes, who recounts the series of events that follow his mother’s murder, beginning with Aegisthus’ capture at the hands of Leander and his army who come to reside within the palace. Naturally, Leander takes charge, and forces Electra to abide by his rules: the kitchens are to be opened for the troops, the elders are to be assembled, and the cells are to be emptied to make way for new prisoners. This upsets Electra; no longer does she visit her father’s grave or speak of gods or spirits — now, her days are spent exclusively with diplomatic qualms. “She was like someone who had been woken from a dream” (244). Rather than submit Aegisthus to the death penalty, Leander resolves to break the man’s legs, so that he cannot escape his confinement and can continue to aid all parties in strategic discussions.
Orestes begins to feel as though he is alienated and abandoned, first by the elders, and then by Electra and Leander. For no one wishes to be alone with him — no one except for Ianthe, Leander’s sister, who comes to Orestes’ room at night hungry for the company. The two strike up a relationship, and eventually it is revealed that Ianthe is pregnant – but not with Orestes’ baby. For the five men who murdered her family raped her first; and furthermore, she realizes that what she and Orestes do in the dark is not enough to make her pregnant. In order “for that to happen, it must be different” (252).
As a result of this, Leander marries Orestes to his sister. This union is the only way to ensure Orestes can stay at the palace; “‘The elders do not want you to be involved in anything,’ Leander said. ‘They do not even want you in the room listening to us’” (250) on account of his committing matricide. So, days later, in a small ceremony, Orestes and Ianthe are married.
In the weeks that follow, Orestes continues to attend strategy meetings. He continues to listen as the elders, Leander, and Electra discuss what is to come. And he continues to feel, within this house, the spirits of those who have passed — his father’s spirit, the spirits of Theodotus and Mitros, and most of all, his mother’s. Which is why he remains unsurprised when, one evening, Leander comes alone to his room to tell him that the guards have been hearing Clytemnestra’s voice in the halls at night. She whispers, asking for her son. So Orestes waits in the hall for her to appear, and when she does, she tells him that she is alone.
Following this, Ianthe goes into a long and pained labor. Orestes and Leander go to find the midwife, bringing her to the palace and to where Ianthe rests. Then, “[a]lmost afraid to look at each other, the two went back into the corridor and stood together without saying a word, listening to every sound” (262). This is where the novel ends.
History and Context:
House of Names takes as its source material the Ancient Greek myth of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and ruler of the House of Atreus, who during the Trojan War was forced by the goddess Artemis to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to allow the Achaian’s passage to Troy. Most famously alluded to in Homer’s Illiad, this event, despite being of extreme importance, was relatively unwritten about within the canon of Hellenic writing. Far more interesting were the various events that surrounded this murder — events most famously captured by dramatist Aeschylus in his Oresteia, a compendium of three plays: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.
The “events” referenced above begin with an act of vengeance, move to an act of retribution, and end with an act of purgation. The act of revenge comes when Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon, upon his return from war with the help of her lover, Aegisthus; this is covered in Aeschylus’ play, Agamemnon. The act of retribution comes when Orestes returns from exile and, alongside his sister Electra, avenges the death of their father, Agamemnon, by killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus; this is covered in Aeschylus’ play, The Libation Bearers. And the act of purgation comes when Orestes is forced to flee to Athens with the Eumenides — or furies: representations of female anger — on his tail, in order to partake in a trial jurored by Athene; this ends the cycle of death that plagues the House of Atreides, and concludes Aeschylus’ trilogy with a play called The Eumenides.
Though he does not follow this same cycle from vengeance, to retribution, to purgation completely (in fact, Colm Tóibín’s cycle is more “vengeance-retribution-unknown” (in that the last chapter ends ambiguously), it becomes the basis from which his novel gets its characters, themes, and direction. As a result it proves important that readers of House of Names (an ambiguous title: it refers on one hand to the House of Atreus that was plagued by the gods to spill familial blood due to past offense, and on the other, to an ambiguous house which diverges from the mythos — a house of Tóibín’s creation — affiliated but only tangentially to the fraught histories written about by Aeschylus and other Hellenic tragedians) know the history of Agamemnon, as well as the accompanying literature. Context, after all, is essential to close reading; we can only extrapolate, and understand why Tóibín is interested in retelling this tale, if we understand deeply the original source itself.
Here is collected a variety of terms used throughout this study guide, which relate to Hellenic myths and which therefore are of use to students interested in critically engaging with House of Names; they are presented in alphabetical order, and are collected both from the novel and from independent research, especially in relation to Aeschylus’ The Oresteia.
Aeschylus — An ancient Greek tragedian famous for writing The Oresteia, a trilogy of plays that dramatize the conflicts of the House of Atreus. These plays are: Agamemnon, which details Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband; The Libation Bearers, which details Orestes’ revenge against his mother; and The Euripides, which details Orestes’ absolution at the hands of Athene.
Agamemnon — Brother to Menelaus and leader of the Achaian army, Agamemnon murders his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to appease the gods and make the wind blow. He is later murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, when he returns home from war.
Achaian — A word that refers to Greek or Grecian persons.
Aegisthus — Lover to Clytemnestra and cousin to Agamemnon, he is imprisoned deep within the House of Atreus due to a fraught history. Freed by Clytemnestra following her return from Aulis, he plots against Agamemnon, and murders Cassandra.
Atreus — The house to which Agamemnon belongs; a house which was cursed when Tantalus murdered his son and cooked his remains for the gods.
Cassandra — Princess of Troy, she is taken back to Mycenae as a war prize of Agamemnon’s. She is known, in the myth, for her power of prophesy, which was bestowed unto her by the god Apollo.
Clytemnestra — The wife of Agamemnon and queen of Mycenae. She murders her husband and assists in the murder of the Trojan princess Cassandra, following the sack of Troy. Enraged by Iphigenia’s murder, anxious and hurt and angry with her husband, she commences an affair with Aegisthus to take her revenge.
Electra — Daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, she is absent from Mycenae (kept in the prison by Aegisthus’ men) during the time of her father’s murder. After her release she comes to resent her mother, and it is this resentment that drives her to commit matricide, alongside her brother, Orestes.
Iphigenia — The daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, she is sacrificed by her father at Aulis as a means to inspire the winds and allow the Achaian ships passage to Troy.
Leander — The sole grandson of Theodotus, he is kidnapped by Aegisthus’ men and detained in a boarding house, where he meets Orestes. The two escape into the countryside alongside Mitros, where they live for many years. Leander and Orestes are companions in the romantic and platonic sense. He is a fictional character used in replacement for a mythic character: Pylades, Orestes’ best friend according both to tradition and to Aeschylus’ plays.
Mitros — Son of Mitros, he is another of the Mycenaean children detained by Aegisthus’ men. He helps Orestes and Leander escape, and eventually dies to his illness, many years later.
Mycenae — The capital where Clytemnestra and Agamemnon live; he is the city’s king and she, it’s queen.
Orestes — Son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, he is taken away by Aegisthus’ men in the period during which his father is murdered. He will later grow to resent his mother and, alongside Electra, will avenge the death of Agamemnon. Orestes is romantically involved with Leander.
Prophecy — A trait attributed with the god Apollo, this refers to an individual's ability to see into the future.
Theodotus — The foremost elder of the Mycenean council, his grandson, Leander, is kidnapped by Aegisthus’ men.
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