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Mourning Becomes Electra | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Mourning Becomes Electra | Themes



Central in Mourning Becomes Electra is the theme of revenge. The most prominent example of this is on the part of Captain Adam Brant, who vows revenge upon the Mannon family for their treatment of his mother, Marie Brantôme. However, his quest for revenge creates a chain reaction, which leads to more and greater acts of revenge, involving every principle character.

In Homecoming Brant says he planned to get revenge on Ezra Mannon by taking Christine Mannon from him. His "love" came from that decision. He may also have courted Lavinia Mannon for the same reason, to pit the two women against one another. However, this one act of revenge creates a chain reaction of vengeance. Since Christine is not content merely to have an affair with Brant, she murders her husband. This is the ultimate revenge on Ezra Mannon, but it doesn't stop there. Lavinia becomes bent upon revenge for her father's death. She manipulates her brother, Orin Mannon, into killing Brant. Orin wants to kill Brant for what he did to his father. However, he also wants to punish his mother for her sexual sin with another man, a man who wasn't him. With these goals in mind Orin and Lavinia kill Brant.

When Orin and Lavinia tell Christine what they have done, Christine kills herself. This was an unintended consequence, at least to Orin. Lavinia may well have expected it. Devastated, Orin seeks revenge against Lavinia for both this and for her exercise of sexuality with tribe members during their travels to the islands. Orin kills himself out of guilt for his mother's death and his murder of Brant.

In the final act of The Haunted, Hazel Niles begs Lavinia not to marry her brother, believing something will happen to him if he marries her. At first Lavinia dismisses this idea. When she sees the effect of Adam Brant's revenge upon her, she realizes that Hazel was right, and the family is cursed. She releases Peter and instructs Seth Beckwith to board up the house. She will be trapped inside with the Mannon dead forever. Even in death Adam Brant has his ultimate revenge upon the Mannon family. Their line will die boarded up with Lavinia.

Lavinia seems insane by the play's end, but her final act is one of kindness. By breaking off her engagement to Peter, Lavinia stops the cycle of revenge. Had she married Peter Niles, it might have gone on forever. This cycle is the nature of vengeance. By showing how one act of revenge leads to another, O'Neill brings revenge full circle until it can go no further.

The Binding Force of Fate

Fate looms over the characters in Mourning Becomes Electra, pushing them toward an inevitable end. If the audience believes the characters' actions were inadvisable, they may also believe it really isn't their fault. It was all predestined.

In the trilogy the Oresteia by Aeschylus (c. 525–c. 456 BCE), the god Zeus seems to control the actions of the characters, punishing Agamemnon for offending him. In that play the gods and the Furies are agents of fate, and they push the action forward. Clytemnestra, in murdering her husband, Agamemnon, was merely their instrument. Since Mourning Becomes Electra is based upon Aeschylus's work, the audience knows it isn't going to end well for the Mannon family. O'Neill, however, included no gods in his play: the Mannons' fate merely exists, with no supernatural element.

The play begins with the mournful-sounding chanty, "Shenandoah." A chanty is a type of song sailors sing while they work. "Shenandoah" is sung by Seth Beckwith in "the wraith of what must once have been a good baritone." It includes the lyric, "I'm bound away," which here has a hidden meaning. Yes, the sailor is bound on a journey; however, it also means that the characters are bound, or fated, to act in a certain way. As the townspeople discuss the Mannon family, the audience gets its first glance of Lavinia Mannon. She is clad in black as if in mourning, foreshadowing the death to come.

There are numerous examples of characters acting as if they have no control over what is to come, as if they are mere instruments of fate. Adam Brant speaks of being drawn to Christine Mannon, to avenge himself upon Ezra Mannon. Orin has bizarre dreams of killing, over and over, a man who looks like his father. This foreshadows both his murder of Adam Brant and his later suicide. In The Hunted Christine tells Hazel Niles, God "twists and wrings and tortures our lives ... until—we poison each other to death!" This implies that she was fated to kill her husband—and is therefore not to blame.

Ezra Mannon's behavior implies that he knows his death is fated to occur and that Christine will kill him. O'Neill uses the theme of fate in Ezra's words. Ezra says he feels as if something is waiting for him. He feels his bedroom isn't his, but that it is waiting for someone else to move in, implying he is no longer in control of his destiny.

Ezra is a man who has served well in the military and as a judge. He is strong and stoic. Yet in his interactions with Christine he is weak. He begs Christine to listen to him and consider his love. He tries to explain himself to her, even as he is aware of her betrayal. These are the actions of a man doing anything to try to stop the machinations of fate. He does not succeed.

Similarly, in The Haunted Orin is a man fighting back against a predestined end. He has had nightmares of killing the same man over and over, a man who looks like his father or like himself. He fights back against the knowledge that he will die by trying to keep his sister with him. Failing this, he commits suicide. His sister, finally free, plans to leave the Mannon house and go far away. In the end, though, fate keeps her bound to the Mannon dead.

The Presence of Death Among the Living

Hand in hand with the theme of fate is that of death. In Act 1 of Homecoming, Christine describes the Mannon house as a tomb, saying that Ezra's father built "such a monstrosity—as a temple for his hatred." Death is all around the Mannons. Lavinia wears the colors of mourning for the first two-thirds of the play and, when she changes to colors, her brother chastises her. The dead, in the form of portraits of the Mannon ancestors, keep a watchful eye on all the inhabitants of the Mannon house.

The character of Orin Mannon, in particular, personifies death. Orin has returned from fighting in the American Civil War (1861–65), by far the deadliest war in United States history. He is shell-shocked at the carnage he's seen. He can't stop seeing it. He has nightmares of killing men and thinks constantly of suicide and death. Even his fantasies of escaping to an island involve a fictional island inhabited by cannibals. Still, Orin tries to outrun the inevitability of death. He first schemes to keep Lavinia under his thumb and, failing that, begs her to stay with him. He knows that he is destined to die otherwise, and in the end he succumbs.

Similarly, Ezra Mannon is a man who has looked death in the face. A brigadier general, he has returned from the same brutal war, and he should be happy in the presence of his family. He has no reason to suspect what his wife is about to do. Somehow, though, he knows. He tries to bargain with her, and it is like bargaining with death itself.

The plot of the play is a list of deaths—murders and suicides—one after the other. Ezra Mannon's death provides the motivation for Adam Brant's murder. Adam Brant's murder leads to Christine's suicide. Her suicide leads to her son's. Near the end of the play Lavinia prays, "Show me the way to save him! ... I couldn't bear another death! Please! Please!" Yet when Orin commits suicide, she accepts it with calm inevitability. Finally, the Mannon house is haunted and cursed, a home to the dead.

Ezra Mannon says of his military service, "Death made me think of life. Before that life had only made me think of death!" Life and death are locked in battle in Mourning Becomes Electra. In the end death wins.

Questions for Themes

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