MOTHER AND DAUGHTER IN MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA
It is often an intellectual game among students of drama to debate who is the center of a play, whose story is being told. With some plays it's not much of a game: Hedda Gabler, for instance, is appropriately named since Hedda is, shall we say, the corner-stone of nearly all the triangular relationships in Ibsen's play. Ultimately all roads lead to Hedda (until of course the very end, when George and Thea get together). Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra is also, I think, properly named; but here, despite the title, it is not quite so clear to whom the play belongs. O'Neill set out to write a trilogy that would do for Electra what Aeschylus had done for Orestes, and in some ways he succeeds. In the end it is Lavinia, the American Electra, who must rid the world of the Mannons while simultaneously becoming a strange apotheosis of what it means to be a Mannon. Yet it not Lavinia but her mother, Christine--Clytemnestra's counterpart--who is the most tragic member of the Mannon family because she more clearly wishes and strives to be free of the "Mannon curse."
The Mannon curse is to be forever bound to one's dead relatives; it is the fatal web which binds each character to the others and which ultimately binds the play together. The play is their cumulative ghost, and so of course it is not quite accurate to single out one character as the heart of the trilogy. But even within the inextricabilities of the Mannon web, the stories of the two women dominate the drama.
The main story is Vinnie's desire to be more like her mother. However, Vinnie never knows this is the story: even at the end she won't admit that she's never had a life of her own. And it is for this reason, this blindness, that Vinnie is more pathetic than tragic. Only at the very end does she take on tragic dimensions, when she realizes that there is no running from her punishment and indeed that she must punish herself.1
But up until the final part of the trilogy it is Christine's play. Christine sees--she sees the oppressive nature of her Christian responsibilities; she sees her life slipping by--and she wants her freedom. The underside of American literature--the vast sensual wilderness underneath the Puritan ideal--that Lawrence describes in his Studies in Classic American Literature, becomes manifest in Christine's desire for Captain Adam Brant and a life on the virgin soil of a faraway island. Caught in what Lawrence calls "the mechanical bond of purposive utility,"2 she feels she has a "right" to love, as her son Orin later says of her (827). Interestingly, when Vinnie virtually "becomes" her mother toward the end of the play, she too believes she has a "right to love" (842). Vinnie cannot imagine another life without becoming someone other than herself. But once Christine gets a taste of love and freedom she will not give it up, and she will not be beholden to Vinnie. In the end, rather than submit to Vinnie's blackmail, she quite literally takes her life in her own hands. Christine's main failing, beyond a certain pathetic longing for youth and beauty, is that she doesn't see clearly enough that she's acted too late, and acting too late is the heart of tragedy.
Vinnie wants her mother to live according to the way things are, to live up to the traditional standards of mid-nineteenth century New England. Appalled at learning of her mother's adultery, she threatens to tell her father unless Christine gives up Brant: "You ought to see it's your duty to Father, not my orders--if you had any honor or decency" (718). Vinnie is ever cognizant of her Puritan chores: "I'm not marrying any-one," she tells her mother. "I've got my duty to Father" (729). Christine's immediate answer shows an awareness of responsibility as well as its traps, something Vinnie would never admit: "Duty! How often I've heard that word in this house! Well, you can't say I didn't do mine all these years. But there comes an end." There comes an end to "duty," and to life itself. Vinnie can only see the timeless portraits of the Mannon line and their stony pride reaching through history. Indeed, Vinnie is herself described as having the timeless quality of an "Egyptian statue" (727).
But Christine has been married for twenty years to a man she doesn't love. She has become less and less her husband's lover and mate and more and more the person who takes care of the family. She is mother to all and yet finally rejects her role and family, and the Mannon "tomb," for her pagan Captain (who turns out, ironically, to have a fair share of Mannon in him) and the promise of romance and adventure in the South Seas, where the Christian doctrine of sin is unknown.
Yes, mourning becomes Lavinia. Even in the end, when she nails shut the windows and retreats inside to punish herself and end the Mannon line, her sacrifice fulfills the Puritan creed. A noble act, perhaps; a necessary act; but still too willingly accepted. Why didn't she stay on the South Sea Islands where she had become a more natural woman? The answer, it seems, lies in the double edge of the play's message: consequences must be faced and in doing so you simultaneously fulfill and carry on the need for Puritan sacrifice. Vinnie's response to her mother's "there comes an end" is, "And there comes another end--and you must do your duty again!" (729) Ad infinitum!
But even if one accepts Lavinia's sacrifice as an act of courage, and a moment of insight, on the whole she is more pathetic than tragic. She doesn't see, or if she does she won't admit what she sees. She won't admit what is obvious to others--that she is a poor imitation of her mother. Brant describes Vinnie's face as a "dead image" of Christine's (704). Orin realizes that Vinnie can never admit that she wanted Brant.
Only Vinnie's subconscious allows her to admit her desire for Brant. She mistakenly calls out for "Adam" when asking Peter to make love to her (865).
Christine is a tragic figure because she possesses more of a mind of her own and realizes, nevertheless, that she has wasted much of her life. She doesn't fully realize, however, what the past has done to her, how cruel she's become. For much of the play Christine underestimates the Mannon curse--to be forever tied to one's dead relatives because of an unwillingness to face the truth about one's living relatives. As Adam returns too late to his dying mother's bedside, and as Ezra tries too late to be open and loving with Christine, so Christine responds too slowly to years of bitterness toward Ezra and Lavinia. And bitterness is the handmaiden to cruelty. But it does not undermine Christine's victory as the central tragic figure of Mourning Becomes Electra.
Eugene O'Neill, Mourning Becomes
Electra, in Nine Plays (New York: Random House,
2 D. H. Lawrence, The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of "Studies in Classic American Literature," ed. Armin Arnold (New York: Centaur Press, 1962), p. 27.
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