Mourning Becomes Electra | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Mourning Becomes Electra | The Haunted, Act 1 | Summary

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Summary

The first scene opens a year later. Seth Beckwith and four other men are gathered outside the Mannon house, which is unoccupied and bathed in light. Lavinia Mannon and Orin Mannon are on a trip to the East. These men, as in other acts, represent the chorus of the play. They discuss whether the house is haunted. Seth bets one of the men, Abner Small, $10 he can't go into the house and stay there until moonrise. They joke some more and discuss whether Christine Mannon really killed herself because of grief, as Lavinia told people. Seth says of course she did and tells the men to mind their own business.

Hazel Niles and Peter Niles arrive to tell Seth to open up the house. Orin and Lavinia are coming home the next day. The men leave, but not before Smalls mentions the bet. Hazel chides Seth for betting that Smalls couldn't stay in the house. Seth says he hoped to stop people's talk this way. However, Seth also thinks the house could be haunted.

The three are discussing whether Orin and Lavinia have improved. Lavinia's letters haven't said much. Suddenly, Lavinia enters a day earlier than expected.

Lavinia has completely changed in the year she's been gone. Once an awkward, black-clad shadow of Christine, she now resembles her almost completely. She has filled out and wears a green dress. Her movements are more fluid.

At her call Orin follows. The year has had the opposite effect on him. He has lost weight and walks woodenly. He has a beard. He resembles his father more than ever, though his face wears a lifeless expression. He seems to be afraid to go to the house, and Lavinia asks him if he can, saying, "This is the test!" He dutifully follows her, agreeing there are no ghosts.

When Orin reaches one point, he stops with a shudder, saying this is where he last saw Christine alive. Lavinia says, "That is all past and finished! The dead have forgotten us! We've forgotten them!"

The next scene takes place in the Mannons' sitting room, which has portraits of all their ancestors. Orin says he was certain Christine would be waiting for him, but she isn't. Lavinia tells him to quiet down and act normal in front of Peter and Hazel. He apologizes, saying Lavinia is all he has in the world. She tells him that Hazel and Peter's friendship and love will help them forget what they've been through. They have every right to love.

Orin says he's watched his sister change into his mother. She asks if he really thinks she's as pretty as Christine. He says it's her soul that has transformed. She dismisses this, but he says souls are a real thing. He gestures toward the portraits and says the Mannon dead will convert her to that belief.

Again, Lavinia tries to persuade him to rid himself of his guilt and try to be happy. They went to the islands together, the ones Captain Adam Brant had mentioned, and he swore he was doing better. He's not responsible for Christine's death, she tells him. It was Christine's fault for killing Ezra Mannon. Also, she could have lived but chose to kill herself. Orin seems to agree, and Lavinia encourages him to take the covers off the furniture.

Peter enters. Lavinia stares at him eagerly. He says that for a second he thought she was—he breaks off, but it is clear he was about to say Christine. He can't believe how well she looks in her newly colorful clothes. He is still interested in marrying her, as he was at the beginning.

Peter addresses Orin, who has been at the window. Orin says they visited his islands, but they turned out to be Lavinia's islands instead. He says, jeeringly, that if they'd stayed much longer, she'd have been naked with the natives. Lavinia is appalled and encourages him to find Hazel.

When he leaves, Peter asks what's wrong with him and assures Lavinia it will be all right. They discuss whether he still loves her, and Peter says he does. She talks of the islands and how they set her free, especially the natives who were so naked and innocent. Then, she remembers herself and that, if she marries Peter, she'll have to leave Orin. He's been so morbid. She begs Peter to tell Hazel to make allowances for anything Orin might say. He agrees he will.

They kiss and, as they do, Orin and Hazel walk in. Orin reacts threateningly, saying, "So that's it! By God—!" Then, he says he was only joking and that he supposes congratulations are in order. He says he's glad. Lavinia's eyes are full of dread.

Analysis

While the Oresteia had supernatural elements, Greek gods and goddesses who seem to control the action, O'Neill doesn't use supernatural elements per se in Mourning Becomes Electra. Rather, he includes veiled references to the idea that certain things are fated to happen. Here, in the final play, he also has the idea of ghosts. However, unlike British playwright William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) plays such as Hamlet (c. 1600), in which ghosts actually appear, the audience doesn't see the ghosts in Mourning Becomes Electra. Rather, the ghosts exist in the characters' minds. They are haunted by guilt and by the memory of what they have done.

The audience has to wonder at Peter Niles still being interested in marrying Lavinia Mannon. Yes, she's really attractive now. But she's attractive in the odd way of looking exactly like her dead mother, including taking on her way of dressing. Of course, now that both her parents are dead, she's very, very wealthy. On the other hand, both her parents died under suspicious circumstances, so most people would stay away. Perhaps Peter sees Lavinia as a poor victim. He does seem especially impressed at how pretty she's become.

Lavinia's appearance is off-putting. Both her parents died within a few days, one by murder, the other by suicide. In most cases that would wreak havoc on a person's looks, even a year later. Orin is a mess, which seems natural. In Lavinia's case she actually looks better. What's more, she's started dressing and styling her hair exactly like her mother. In the first part of the play, Lavinia didn't want to be noticed by men because she only cared about being Daddy's little girl. Now, with both her parents gone, she has finally come into her own as a sexual being. She's not only flirting with Peter but also dancing with half-naked islanders. Sadly for her, it won't last long.

Moreover, while Lavinia looks exactly like her mother, Orin looks much more like his father. They seem to have turned into their parents, ruling over the house. Perhaps this is what Lavinia was hoping for—as Ezra's wife. Now that he is gone, it's not the same.

However, Lavinia needs to be careful. While she's succeeded in keeping Orin shut up for a year in the East, now he wants to talk. His guilt over Christine's death makes him want to tell people all about how he killed Brant and is responsible. Lavinia is trying hard to stop him, but it doesn't seem to be working.

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