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Mourning Becomes Electra | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Mourning Becomes Electra | Symbols



Two of the sets of Mourning Becomes Electra involve portraits. The first is Ezra Mannon's study, where his portrait presides over the room. The second is the sitting room, with portraits of many Mannon ancestors going back several hundred years. These portraits represent the past, death, and judgment.

Ezra Mannon's portrait, in particular, shows him in judicial robes. In The Haunted Orin Mannon addresses the portrait like a defendant addressing the judge. Ezra may not have been able to see what Christine Mannon planned for him in life. Since his death, however, he has had his watchful eye on all the members of the Mannon family. It is this watchful gaze that Orin cannot bear.

The other ancestors' portraits will keep Lavinia Mannon company in her new life, locked in the house. She is bound to the house and the Mannon dead.

The Mannon House

"It was just like [your grandfather] to build such a monstrosity—as a temple for his hatred," Christine says at the beginning of the play. The Mannon house has a grand-looking portico that hides a plain, even ugly, gray structure. As such, the house symbolizes the family within it. At first glance it is beautiful and grand on the outside, like Tara, the grand plantation at the center of American author Margaret Mitchell's (1900–49) Gone with the Wind (1936). However, the beauty is just a façade hiding the ugliness within. Christine, an outsider who came to the family, hates the house. By contrast, Lavinia, who was born into the family, loves it. Christine's referring to the house as a tomb foreshadows the deaths to come.

Inside the house are more dead people, the portraits of the dead Mannon ancestors. After many deaths Lavinia will come to be bound to the Mannon house and the dead inside.

Islands and Typee

Both Captain Adam Brant and Orin Mannon talk about visiting islands: to each it is a means of escape. An island is someplace apart from the mainland—and therefore apart from everything. It symbolizes uninhibited behavior and a character's baser self.

Orin read American author Herman Melville's (1819–91) book Typee (1846) while fighting in the war and dreamed of going there with Christine. Christine tells Adam Brant they can go there too. However, Typee portrays the people on the island as cannibals. Therefore, even in the characters' fondest fantasies, the islands don't present an actual possibility of escape. Subconsciously, they know they are trapped.

Conversely, Lavinia speaks of Adam Brant's islands with disgust. She knows he has seen naked island women there and finds sex grotesque. Unlike her mother or brother, Lavinia doesn't dream of going anywhere. She wants everything to remain the same and to stay homebound forever. However, later in the play the islands become a place where she is able to come outside of herself, to dance and flirt. She becomes sexually free in a way that she could never have imagined.

Finally, Orin speaks of death as an island of peace. He sees it as a relief, both beautiful and dangerous.

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