Mourning Becomes Electra | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Mourning Becomes Electra | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Mourning Becomes Electra is actually three separate plays based upon the three plays of the Oresteia (458 BCE) by Greek dramatist Aeschylus. O'Neill's three plays are usually performed together.


The American Civil War (1861–65) has ended. The town awaits the return of wealthy, powerful Brigadier-General Ezra Mannon and his son, Orin Mannon, from war.

One of those waiting is Ezra's daughter, Lavinia Mannon. An awkward young girl, Lavinia is deeply attached to her father such that she believes she can never love another man. She has recently returned from New York with secret—and disturbing—information. Captain Adam Brant, Lavinia's suitor, has evil intentions. He is the son of Lavinia's uncle, who was ostracized from the family after making an unfortunate marriage. Brant is bent on revenge. Moreover, while he pretends to woo Lavinia, he is actually courting her mother, Christine Mannon, with whom he is not related.

Lavinia confronts her mother, Christine. Christine admits she's in love with Brant. Angry at her mother's deception and her statement that Lavinia was born of her hatred for her husband, Lavinia threatens to expose Christine. Cornered, Christine sets out to procure poison to use on her husband, Ezra. Since Ezra has a heart condition, his death will seem like an accident.

Ezra arrives home. He says he regrets that he and his wife, Christine, aren't as close as they once were. He wants this to change. The two have sex. However, later that night Christine confesses her affair with Brant. When Ezra has heart pains, she gives him something from a bottle that isn't his medicine. He dies but not before angrily accusing Christine to Lavinia.

As the curtain falls, Lavinia finds the bottle containing the pills Christine gave Ezra.

The Hunted

Two days later the townspeople speculate about Ezra Mannon's death, and Orin Mannon is on his way home for the funeral. He arrives home, much changed by his experiences in battle. He has suffered a head injury, and he sees death everywhere. Christine Mannon, meanwhile, is wracked with guilt. She tries to talk to her daughter, Lavinia Mannon, to find out what she knows and keep her from reporting that Christine murdered her husband.

Alone with her son, Orin, Christine coddles him like a baby. He responds well to this petting and also to the suggestion that he not listen to his sister. Christine says Lavinia is crazy. He's always been closer to his mother and dreams of going with her to exotic islands like the ones described in a book he read. He promises to believe her.

However, as soon as Lavinia gets Orin alone, she persuades him of the facts. After all, she has no reason to lie to him, and she's not crazy. Orin threatens her with being sent to an asylum, but Lavinia has a suggestion. When Christine goes on a trip, they should follow her. She'll go on Adam Brant's ship, and then they are sure to find out all of it.

These events come to pass. In the dead of night a few days later Orin and Lavinia hide on Adam Brant's ship. Christine arrives and tells him exactly what she's done and that Lavinia is suspicious of her. They have to flee. They make plans to travel to the exact same islands Orin mentioned to Christine. Orin is indignant at both the murder and that his mother is planning to go to his islands with someone else, to run away from him! After Christine leaves, Orin kills Brant. He and Lavinia make it look like a robbery.

They return home and tell Christine what happened. Christine shoots herself.

The Haunted

A year later siblings Orin and Lavinia Mannon return from a trip East, where they have visited some islands. Orin is gaunt and sickly looking. Lavinia, meanwhile, has undergone a complete transformation from an awkward girl who dresses only in black to the picture of her mother. Beautiful and sexually aware, she is determined to forget the past and the ghosts of the Mannon house.

Peter Niles, neighbor of the Mannons', and Lavinia plan to marry. However, Lavinia is concerned about Orin's bizarre behavior, including taunting her for flirting with men in the islands. She worries he'll reveal their part in Adam Brant's and Christine Mannon's deaths. She tries to keep him from saying anything to Hazel Niles, to whom Orin is engaged.

Orin writes a letter in which he enumerates all of his and Lavinia's sins. He gives it to Hazel, instructing her to reveal it in the event of his death or if Lavinia tries to marry Peter. Lavinia begs for the letter back, promising to do anything to get it. Orin agrees. Then, he begins to caress her hair and talk of their lives together. Seeing the horror on her face, he begs her to confess. Then, he begins to speak to her as if she is Christine.

Peter arrives, and Orin announces he is going into the study to clean his pistol. A shot is heard. "Orin! Forgive me!" Lavinia cries out. Then she hides the envelope Orin was going to give Peter.

Shortly after Orin's death, Lavinia plans to marry Peter and flee the Mannon house and its ghosts forever. The Niles family objects to this plan, believing that marriage to Lavinia will transfer the Mannon bad luck to Peter. He plans to marry her anyway. They embrace, and Lavinia calls out, "Take me, Adam!" Realizing what she has done, Lavinia releases Peter from their engagement. She tells Seth to board up the house with her inside it. She says, "I'm not bound away—not now, Seth. I'm bound here—to the Mannon dead!" She will live a long time in full memory of what has happened, the last of the Mannons.

Mourning Becomes Electra Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Lavinia Mannon spies on her mother and tells her about it.

Rising Action

2 Ezra Mannon comes home from war.

3 Christine Mannon kills Ezra after an argument.

4 Orin Mannon returns home and learns his father was murdered.

5 Lavinia and Orin kill Captain Adam Brant.

6 They tell Christine, and Christine kills herself.


7 Plagued with guilt and jealousy, Orin shoots himself.

Falling Action

8 Lavinia plans to marry Peter Niles but calls him Adam.


9 Lavinia locks herself in the house with the Mannons' dead.

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