26 September 2011

A Few Lines on the Name of a Cat: Alcestis

I'll come clean with you. I decided to blog today about my choice of 'Alcestis' as the name for one of the cats in my novel A Kiss Before You Leave Me because I knew that I could never make any real headway with future posts about Euripides and Plato (two  of 'the 26') and the Plato quotation about love, self-sacrifice and gender that is the final epigraph in Kiss--could never get anything said in any of these three future posts if I didn't devote a few paragraphs to Alcestis first.

Alcestis, in A Kiss Before You Leave Me, is the name of Kathleen Kincaid's cat. Kathleen communes with her Alcestis in the first chapter, where we learn in passing that Alcestis may have kittens on the way. Later in the novel, one of those kittens will save Jack Emery's bacon on Miranda Kincaid's birthday. Miranda will adopt her and soon name her Sido (for Colette's mother), and the kitten, then adult cat, deaf from birth, is seldom far from Miranda's side from that day onward.

But what about the mother cat? What about Alcestis?

She seems to be there just to give birth to the future Sido and send her packing. As Kathleen suggests in that first chapter, a mother cat has it easier than a human mother: once Alcestis has given birth to her kittens and nursed and loved and taught them for a few weeks, she gets to say goodbye to them forever. (Unlike Kathleen, Alcestis will never have to serve as a mother-in-law.)

But what's in that name?

Although the character of Alcestis goes back to Greek legend, the earliest account of her story that survives intact is in Euripides' play Alcestis (first produced in 438 BC), which is also his earliest surviving work. By the time of the Renaissance, Alcestis had become a widely-used reference for pure, selfless love. But the 'classic' Alcestis is the one we find in Euripides.

Alcestis is a Greek princess, the wife and queen of King Admetus. The preordained moment arrives when Admetus must die unless he finds a surrogate to die in his place. Only Alcestis is willing to sacrifice herself. She is remembered for that sacrifice--to which Admetus agrees--although the story is more complicated: Admetus' friend Heracles arrives shortly after Alcestis' death (about which Heracles is not informed), and for reasons of 'hospitality' Admetus proceeds to break, one after the other, the vows he's made to Alcestis on her deathbed. Heracles produces a 'new' woman, veiled, whose hand Admetus takes--only to discover that she is Alcestis, whom Heracles has won back from Death. After three further days of silence, she is fully restored, purified.

The play is, at least potentially, and especially for present-day readers, thorny and controversial.

My own reading of the play has always begun, inevitably, with the speech in which Admetus denounces his father's refusal to die for him. It is a simultaneously powerful and alienating speech that must suggest to some modern readers the question of Admetus' own tacit refusal to die for Alcestis--a possibility he never invokes but which is clearly there: he would need only to decline to make her his surrogate. He would die; she would live.

This is not to say that Alcestis would welcome such a sacrifice on his part, nor that there is no possible justification (for reasons of family or state) for his failure to make it. (Commentators, even if they ignore the issues of self-sacrifice, always explore the cultural justifications for Admetus' apparent breaches of faith after Alcestis' death.) Indeed, I hold no brief here for any one approach, and I do not claim to hold the key to Euripides' intentions. I ask only that you hear in the name Alcestis not merely the Renaissance ideal but also the multiple possibilities that are there for readers of today.

I propose between A Kiss Before You Leave Me and Euripides' Alcestis no simple analogies or parallels (and thus no easy keys to anyone's intentions). The cat Alcestis is of course not called upon to sacrifice herself, temporarily or permanently, for love or anything else. She was named, however, by her highly literate human (an editor, a fancier of crossword puzzles), who knows--and has yet to learn--a great deal about self-sacrifice in the name of love.

1 comment:

Jim Carpenter said...

I love this! Finally I understand the name - and you awaken my memories of reading the play in Grad school 40 years ago. That play makes more sense to me now than it did back then!