Mourning Becomes Electra | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Mourning Becomes Electra | Homecoming, Act 2 | Summary

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Summary

The second act takes place in Ezra Mannon's study immediately after. A large portrait of Ezra, done about 10 years earlier, dominates the décor. The portrait strongly resembles Captain Adam Brant. Throughout the act various characters look at the portrait, as if it is watching them.

Christine Mannon and Lavinia Mannon are in the study. Lavinia admits she followed Christine to New York. She saw Christine and Brant kissing and knows they met other times. She calls Christine shameless and evil.

Finally, Christine admits that she's in love with Brant. She says she hates Ezra and that Lavinia was born after she became disgusted with Ezra. "So I was born of your disgust!" Lavinia spits back. Christine admits she loves Orin Mannon and not Lavinia. She didn't want him to go off and fight in the war, but Lavinia talked him into it. If she hadn't, Christine says, she never would have fallen in love with Brant. She longed for love, and Brant loved her.

Lavinia taunts her mother, saying that Brant only wanted revenge on Ezra. She says she doesn't want to hurt her father and won't tell him as long as Christine ends it with Brant. Christine says she knows Lavinia wanted Brant for herself. In fact, she claims Lavinia wanted to steal her place as wife to Ezra and mother to Orin. What, she wonders, would Lavinia do if Christine simply disgraced the family and ran off with Brant?

Lavinia says Ezra would ruin Brant's career. He'd also never divorce her. Christine would be an old woman with her looks gone, and Brant would hate her.

The two women argue some more, and Christine agrees she'll leave Brant. She says she made Brant flirt with Lavinia just to have him around. Lavinia says she knew the whole time. She's written to her father and Orin to arouse their suspicions. "Take care, Vinnie!" Christine says. "You'll be responsible if—!" She breaks off. When Lavinia asks what she was going to say, she says she meant Lavinia will be responsible if Christine runs off with Brant.

Brant arrives outside, and Lavinia leaves Christine alone. Christine gets a slip of paper and writes two words on it. Then, she calls Brant in.

Christine tells Brant what she and Lavinia discussed. Brant remarks upon Ezra's portrait and the resemblance between himself and Ezra. He asks if Orin resembles his father. Christine says no. She mentions that the portrait was done when Ezra was a judge.

Christine bemoans her stupidity in bringing Brant to the house. She says she prayed Ezra would be killed in the war.

They discuss her options. Brant says he could kill Ezra or challenge him to a duel. Christine says either would cause him to be arrested and hanged. Brant says he could take her on his ship, the Flying Trades. Christine repeats what Lavinia said about Ezra's refusal to divorce her and that he would ruin Brant's career.

Christine says that Ezra has had heart trouble. If he died suddenly, people would assume it was heart failure. She takes the piece of paper upon which she's written and asks Brant to get the item written on it. She'll give the poison to Ezra with his medicine, and no one will ever know. Brant protests, but Christine goads him into helping her, mentioning his dead mother and that Ezra will be in her bed. He is convinced. A cannon's boom sounds, signaling that Ezra is home.

Brant leaves. Christine, left alone, reflects that he will never dare to leave her, even when she grows old and ugly.

Analysis

The relationship between Christine and Lavinia, while heightened, evokes the common tensions that exist between mothers and daughters. Each knows how to poke at the other's emotional vulnerability and uses all the tools at her disposal. Thus, Christine makes fun of Lavinia for her supposed feelings for Brant, while Lavinia taunts Christine, saying she's too old for Brant. The latter obviously works, as the scene ends with Christine saying Brant daren't leave her, even when she's old and ugly, showing Christine feels insecure about their age difference. However, Christine is going to involve Brant in her murder and cover-up and could tell on him in the future. This idea gives her a sense of power over him.

While Christine allows Brant to think he helped come up with the idea of murdering Ezra, she had already planned it when he walked in. This is conveyed to the audience in the detail that she wrote the information about the poison down before she saw him. She parrots back what Lavinia said about Ezra ruining Brant's career, again, showing that Lavinia has gotten to her. Knowing Brant's penchant for revenge, she mentions his dead mother. As such, Christine is the mastermind of the murder. Brant is merely her tool.

Ezra's portrait will become a powerful symbol throughout the play. It is introduced in this act. Christine mentions that it was taken when Ezra was a judge, which is apt since the portrait seems to sit in judgment. The portrait also reveals the strong family resemblance between Brant and Ezra. If there were any doubt about their relationship, it is ended by the portrait.

Lavinia suffers from Electra complex, a Freudian term for a too-strong attachment of a daughter to her father. The male counterpart is the Oedipus complex, and both complexes are on display in this act. Throughout their conversation Lavinia thinks only of Ezra and his feelings in the matter. Christine accuses her, saying, "You've tried to become the wife of your father and the mother of Orin!" Christine, meanwhile, admits to hating Lavinia but having a more-than-average attachment to Orin. Although the audience hasn't yet met Orin, it is implied that Christine doted on him to an unusual degree. Thus, it seems like both the Mannon children may be overly attached to the parent of the opposite sex. Both children envy the attention that parent shows others, including the parent's own spouse.

Brant asks Christine if Orin resembles his father. She says no. However, in The Hunted, the audience will find that they do, indeed, look alike. In fact, both resemble Brant too. Thus, while Christine may hate Ezra, she loves someone with his face. This is true of both Brant and Orin. Brant may be a socially acceptable substitute for the person she really wants to love, her son.

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