Mourning Becomes Electra | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Mourning Becomes Electra | The Hunted, Act 1 | Summary

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Summary

The Hunted, Act 1 takes place two days after Ezra Mannon's murder. Several townspeople are gathered, gossiping about the Mannons. Though they have different names, they take the place of the chorus characters from Homecoming. They remark at how hard Christine Mannon is taking Ezra's death and what a dutiful wife she is. Lavinia Mannon, on the other hand is cold and too calm. She doesn't feel as much as she ought, they say. They also talk about what a great man Ezra was, what a loss to the community. This is especially true because it was his first night back from war. Finally, they speculate that it was love that killed Ezra, meaning they think he died during sex.

After they leave, Christine comes out, distraught. Hazel Niles joins her, and they discuss Orin Mannon's homecoming. He is expected soon. Christine warns Hazel that Lavinia may try to keep Orin from marrying Hazel. However, she will protect her. She also mentions how queerly Lavinia has been behaving since Ezra's death, including not speaking to Christine.

Christine comments what a good-hearted person Hazel is. She wonders why all people can't be innocent like she is, but God won't allow it. She says that God "twists and wrings and tortures our lives with others' lives until—we poison each other to death!"

They go inside, and Orin arrives with Peter Niles and Lavinia. He looks like Ezra and Captain Adam Brant and has the same masklike face. He's looking for his mother and comments that the house looks ghostly and dead, like a tomb. Lavinia says, "It is a tomb—just now, Orin."

Orin and Lavinia discuss that Ezra's heart condition didn't seem serious. He'd written to both that it wasn't. However, Orin says that after being in the war, death isn't a shock to him any longer. He says his mind is full of ghosts. Orin asks Lavinia about what she wrote about Brant and vows to make him sorry if he comes back. Lavinia warns her brother not to let their mother get him under her thumb, as he did when he was younger. Orin accuses her of being crazed.

Christine comes out and embraces Orin. She is concerned about his head, injured in the war. They walk off, and Lavinia tells him to remember what they discussed. Christine glares at her, which Orin notices. Christine goes back to coddling Orin and takes him inside the house. She returns alone to speak with Lavinia. She tells her that she should respect her as her mother and not be suspicious. Then, she mentions missing some sleep medicine, meaning the poison she used on Ezra. She says she knows Lavinia is going to tell Orin lies and try to get him to go to the police. She demands to know what Lavinia is plotting. However, Orin calls for her, and she has to leave.

Analysis

In this act the chorus-type characters return, though they are different people. While they are commenting on the action in the manner of a Greek chorus, their conversation is gossip that isn't always correct. They view Christine, who murdered her husband, as a tragic heroine, devastated by her husband's death. Conversely, they see Lavinia, who truly is devastated, as lacking in feeling. They aren't privy to any information the general public doesn't have and indeed know less than the audience does. However, they do provide insight into how the different characters will be viewed by the world. Christine, who strives to be attractive and acts well the part of the woman in mourning, seems more sympathetic. Meanwhile, they view awkward Lavinia, who keeps to herself, unsympathetic, even though the opposite is true.

Christine does, indeed, seem to be falling apart. However, she is most likely disturbed from the guilt of having murdered her husband or worry at being caught. She, unlike Lavinia, is a capable liar. Anticipating that Lavinia may try to confide in Orin and Hazel, she poisons Hazel's mind against Lavinia. Knowing Hazel wants to marry Orin, she makes it sound as if Lavinia is plotting against that. Therefore, Hazel will tend to side with Christine, even though Christine is a murderess.

In the same way Lavinia tries to get Orin on her side. She confirms with him that Ezra wasn't really that sick. She also tells him that Christine is going to lie to him. However, Lavinia isn't as artful as Christine, and she angers Orin.

This is particularly the case because Orin is so close to Christine. When he arrives home, she immediately begins coddling him, kissing him, stroking his head, and talking as if he is a baby. It would be natural for him to side with Christine over her, especially if they have a normal sibling rivalry. However, Orin does see Christine's hateful look at her daughter. Therefore, he may be more inclined to believe his sister.

The theme of death is rampant in Mourning Becomes Electra. There has, of course, been a murder, and there will be other deaths. Orin gives words to this aura of death and foreboding when he speaks of the war. He says, "I hardened myself to expect my own death and everyone else's, and think nothing of it." This echoes Ezra's comments in Homecoming about all the bodies he's seen.

Christine states that God "twists and wrings and tortures our lives with others' lives until—we poison each other to death!" In the original play the Oresteia, the gods control much of the action. In this play Christine blames God, or perhaps fate, for what has happened. She had no choice but to poison her husband. It was God who made her do it, she claims.

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