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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 2
Summer-Fall, 1987



O'Neill's dramatization of family relationships in Long Day's Journey Into Night, his culminating masterpiece, is admittedly autobiographical. Moreover, disguised portraits of the O'Neills abound throughout the entire canon, a feature which critics have repeatedly underlined. Mourning Becomes Electra undoubtedly represents a notable exception to that pattern. In this drama, O'Neill resorts to various artistic models to depict the conflicts besieging the house of the Mannons. Besides obvious references to Aeschylus and Shakespeare, there exists a more obscure literary allusion in Mourning Becomes Electra: muted reminders of Herman Melville's neglected novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities, that have hitherto largely escaped critical attention.

At first glance, to assert that O'Neill may have been indebted to Melville in the composition of his trilogy would seem exaggerated. And yet I submit that a direct connection is highly probable, an impression reinforced by the many analogies linking the two works. Critic Joyce D. Kennedy, who first pointed out the possible kinship between the novel and the play, conjectured that O'Neill had been introduced to Pierre by his scholarly friend Carl Van Vechten.1 The latter, who had strongly contributed to the Melville revival of the twenties, visited the O'Neills at Le Plessis in the summer of 1929, a period during which the dramatist drafted his play. The fact that comparable plot incidents occur in both Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra could therefore constitute a tangible result of O'Neill's and Van Vechten's conversations.

In addition, O'Neill appears to have nurtured a life-long admiration for Melville which concretized itself in a 1921 press interview. He then described the hero of Diff'rent, Caleb Williams, as an Ahab-like captain: "He belongs to the old iron school of Nantucket-New Bedford whalemen whose slogan was 'A dead whale or a shove boat.' The whale ... is transformed suddenly into a malignant Moby Dick...."2 In a hitherto unpublished introduction to Hart Crane's White. Buildings, the playwright further alluded to Melville's mystical vision of the sea: "In Crane's sea poems ... there is something of Melville's intense brooding on the mystery of 'the high interiors of the sea.'"3 In a private communication, Louis Sheaffer informed me that, according to Agnes Boulton, O'Neill's second wife, the dramatist was fascinated by Moby Dick. Finally, it may not be purely coincidental that in Mourning. Becomes Electra Orin Mannon evokes yet another romance by Melville, Typee. In a lyrical confession, he asks his mother, "Have you ever read a book called 'Typee'--about the South Sea Islands?... I read it and reread it until finally those Islands came to mean everything that was peace and warmth and security."4

In view of these hints, I regard the influence of Pierre upon Mourning Becomes Electra as plausible. The resemblance between the two works, however, resides primarily in a relationship of confluence, more than of influence, originating in the authors' affinity of vision.5 Considered in that perspective, Pierre offers a privileged observation post from which to examine the "Americanness" of the family feuds O'Neill delineates. Through such an analysis, the playwright emerges as a writer imbued with both the cultural and literary heritage of his nation.


As critics have remarked, Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra possess features strongly reminiscent of the stories of Orestes and Hamlet. Both Orestes and Pierre, in attempting to avenge paternal honor, engage in conflictual relationships with their mothers. Isabel Hanford, Pierre's half-sister, qualifies as a latter-day counterpart to Electra, for in leaving his manorial estate to live with Isabel as her husband, Pierre indirectly provokes the demise of his mother. Owing to his hesitations, Pierre can also be regarded as a replica of Shakespeare's romantic Hamlet.6

The plot of Mourning Becomes Electra, like that of Pierre, owes a great deal to the myth of Orestes. Indeed, Lavinia Mannon urges her brother Orin to take the life of Adam Brant, Christine Mannon's lover. She thus hopes to punish her mother for plotting the death of the family head, Ezra Mannon. As a result of Orin's violent deed, Christine eventually commits suicide.7 Further, the action of O'Neill's play also recalls that of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Lavinia's first task consists of convincing her brother of Christine's guilt. Likewise, Hamlet must dispel his own doubts before deciding to act.8 In short, the plot incidents devised by the writers to portray the intricacies of their heroes' family crises derive their most strikingly identical features from Aeschylus and Shakespeare.


While in the works of these classical authors, the incest motif performs a restricted role, in Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra it acquires a paramount importance. Melville's and O'Neill's male characters experience odd feelings towards their domineering mothers. In Pierre, Mrs. Glendinning adopts an authoritarian conduct when dealing with her son and praying that he may "remain all docility to me" (p. 26).9 However, Pierre lives with her in perfect harmony, giving her a "courteous lover-like adoration" (p. 20). In the opening pages, Saddle Meadows, the Glendinnings' estate, could even be decoded as a symbol of the Biblical paradise. Pierre enjoys there the beauty of a "scenery whose uncommon loveliness was the perfect mould of a delicate and poetic mind ..." (p. 4).

The buried incestual metaphor defining Pierre's link to his mother is duplicated in Orin's affection for Christine Mannon. As in Melville's novel, the mother's mixture of mild authority and loving gentleness forms an essential component of Mourning Becomes Electra. Indeed, Christine's tenderness is rooted in possession, as is evidenced in her exclamation, "Oh, Orin, you are my boy, my baby! I love you!" (p. 775). And yet, the male protagonist spontaneously confesses his erotic bond with the maternal heroine, while betraying his wish of living with her in the islands of Typee:

ORIN. Someone loaned me the book ... those Islands ... I used to dream I was there. And later on all the time I was out of my head I seemed really to be there. There was no one there but you and me. And yet I never saw you, that's the funny part. I only felt you all around me. The breaking of the waves was your voice. The sky was the same color as your eyes. The warm sand was like your skin. The whole island was you.... A strange notion, wasn't it? But you needn't be provoked at being an island because this was the most beautiful island in the world--as beautiful as you, Mother! (p. 776)

If Saddle Meadows functions as an image of the celestial paradise on earth, where mother and son can enjoy unmitigated bliss, the islands of Typee play a comparable role in O'Neill's drama. Ironically, one might get the impression that the playwright uses Melville's Typee in order to reproduce in his trilogy an atmosphere of happiness comparable to the initial chapter of Pierre. This phenomenon inevitably leads one to consider the divergences separating O'Neill and Melville in their treatment of the mother/son relationship. As a typical writer of the twentieth century, O'Neill integrates his Melvillean model into a modified context, thereby distancing himself from the meaning of his source. He demonstrates his awareness of the limited value that Orin's projects can preserve in the terrible world of New England. Whereas Melville's Saddle Meadows actually shelters the characters. Orin's allusions to Typee remain purely abstract. Moreover, his hopes are threatened by Christine's love affair with Brant. That O'Neill should debunk his character's aspirations by applying the modernist technique of literary quotation testifies to the highly innovative nature of Mourning Becomes Electra.


The two authors' rendering of the brother/sister incest motif is even more unique than that of the mother/son relationship. This theme offers considerable insight into their concept of the American family. In Pierre, the hero declares his passion for his half-sister on the first night of their stay in the city:

He moved nearer to her, and stole one arm around her; her sweet head leaned against his breast; each felt the other's throbbing ... his whole frame was invisibly trembling. Then suddenly in a low tone of wonderful intensity, he breathed: "Isabel! Isabel!" ... "Call me brother no more! ... I am Pierre and thou Isabel, wide brother and sister in the common humanity ... the demi-gods trample on trash, and Virtue and Vice are trash! ..." (pp. 378-381).

In a kindred manner, Orin Mannon suggests his secret love for Lavinia: "(... He stares at her and slowly a distorted look of desire comes over his face) ... There are times when you don't seem to be my sister but some stranger with the same beautiful hair--(He touches her hair caressingly)" (p. 853).

Significantly, both Pierre and Orin prefer to regard their sisters as strangers bearing no kinship to them. Through these portrayals of perverted love affairs, the two writers obliquely indict the Puritan environment that allowed such a desecration of parental links to occur. Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra focus on the doom of fated Puritan families whose members are stifled by a narrow code of moral principles. Being the unconscious victims of that background, Pierre and Orin adopt distorted sexual behaviors resulting in the disintegration of their lives. The Glendinning house is eventually shattered by murder and death, while the Mannons become prey to an implacable fate. Clearly, O'Neill and Melville reject the harsh set of Old Testament ethics underlying their heroes' religious system.

As with the mother/son incest motif, O'Neill seems simultaneously to adhere to Melville's view and to negate the validity of his philosophy. The dramatist's possible borrowing from Melville appears woven into a larger context, tending to complicate the situation detectable in Pierre. If in Melville's work the protagonist is motivated solely by his Oedipal longings, in Mourning Becomes Electra the source of the action proceeds from a more intricate design. At first, Peter Niles, prompted by Lavinia's indifference to his proposals, informs the young heroine of Adam Brant's affair with Christine Mannon. The report infuriates Lavinia and awakens her desire for revenge, thwarted as she feels in her secret loving admiration for Brant. She then seeks to bring Orin to murder the sea captain, after clearly evidencing Christine's guilt. Out of a thinly veiled love for his sister, Orin finally agrees to act according to her wishes.

In Pierre, that fatal step requires a lesser number of transactions. Indeed, Isabel's letter to the hero does not, as is the case in Mourning Becomes Electra, constitute the result of a series of events. With his method of amplifying the impact of his apparent model, O'Neill seems to indicate that the strange bond between Orin and Lavinia exceeds in horror and complexity that uniting Pierre and Isabel. In Mourning Becomes Electra, the pressure of Puritanism, causing the degeneration of a genuine brother/sister relationship, deprives mankind of any hope of salvation.


Not only do the two writers regard the disappearance of family cohesion as a product of American Protestantism; they also endow this gradual decline with tragic resonances. In Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra, one discovers elements of an innovative tragic form, one that seeks to ennoble the American common man. Although they remain the hereditary proprietors of manorial estates, Glendinnings and Mannons alike are subjected to the psychological woes that any New World citizen could experience. It is precisely the magnitude of the heroes' sufferings that confers upon Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra their tragic aura.

But in the end, one can only speak of near-tragedy when considering these two works. First, Pierre is written in a novelistic form which is generally not associated with pure tragedy. Second, the almost exclusively psychoanalytical nature of the characters' conflicts reduces the impact of the artists' tragic endeavors. Their creatures manifest marked Oedipal fixations, which, while they contain in themselves a tragic potential, tend to mitigate the social and metaphysical implications embedded in Aeschylus' and Shakespeare's dramas. Residing in the protagonists' psychological turmoil, the concept of fate displayed in Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra acquires an inner shape. Orin and Pierre are literally imprisoned within their own soul and prove unwilling to assume the full consequences of their public acts. Indeed, they choose to commit suicide while Lavinia, unable to face the world, buries herself alive.

This testifies, in my opinion, to Melville's and O'Neill's ironical stance, which emerges with perhaps even darker pessimism in the playwright's work. Whereas at first, the authors seemingly confer a tragic nobility upon their heroes, they subsequently deny them the benefit of any spiritual enlightenment. The two artists imply that true tragedy cannot exist in the New World, owing to the exaggeratedly private--psychoanalytical, to use a modern critical term--quality of the crises characterizing American family relationships. Thus adopting a view that corresponds to the night side of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Melville and O'Neill offer us a bleak picture of the possibilities of tragic elevation in America.


A final point of confluence between Pierre and Mourning Becomes Electra consists of their common metaphysical import. In these works, O'Neill and Melville explore the essence of the connection between members of American families and the divinity presiding over their destinies. Both come to the bitter conclusion that no God can improve the tormented relationships in which such family members are engaged. The hero of Pierre never succeeds in understanding his link with the deity, a failure best expressed through his sudden discovery of Plotinus Plinlimmon's pamphlet, "Chronometricals and Horologicals." This treatise, advising the reader not to seek to interpret God, tells of the impossibility of reconciling the horror of the human plight and divine goodness. In other words, Plinlimmon suggests, "in things terrestrial (horological) a man must not be governed by ideas celestial (chronometrical)" (pp. 298-299). Struck with the "Profound Silence" of God's voice, Pierre nearly "runs, like a mad dog, into atheism" (pp. 290 and 299). God remains indifferent to the sufferings Pierre incurs while living with his half-sister Isabel. The hero qualifies as an American Enceladus, a character who, in his efforts to attain divine status, is confined to the earth:

You saw Enceladus the Titan, the most potent of all the giants, writhing from out the imprisoning earth ... still turning his unconquerable front toward that majestic mount eternally in vain assailed by him ... Enceladus was both the son and grandson of an incest; and even thus, there had been born from the organic blended heavenliness and earthliness of Pierre, another mixed, uncertain, heaven-aspiring, but still not wholly earth-emancipated mood.... (pp. 480-483)

Orin Mannon. another New World Enceladus. feels estranged from a heavenly God and consequently gropes in the darkness of the earth. He dimly realizes that he must rely on his own strength in order to survive the psychological crisis generated by his Oedipal desires:

ORIN. And I find artificial light more appropriate for my work--man's light, not God's--man's feeble striving to understand himself. to exist for himself in the darkness! It's a symbol of his life--a lamp burning out in a room of waiting shadows! (p. 837)

In Pierre as in Mourning Becomes Electra, then, one witnesses a movement towards
agnosticism. In his trilogy, with the aid of Melville's novel, O'Neill presents us with a portrait of a torn apart family bereft of the help of God, thus prefiguring the agnostic universe of Long Day's Journey Into Night.10


If one admits that O'Neill kept Pierre in mind while composing Mourning Becomes Electra, one is forced to note that the confluence between the two works resides in the moral, tragic, and metaphysical probings of their authors. Like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, O'Neill apparently resorts to the technique literary quotation, .as defined by Jean Weisgerber. in order to structure his drama.11 Mourning Becomes Electra can be regarded as a mosaic of literary allusions, whether to Aeschylus, Shakespeare, or Melville. Moreover, comparing this trilogy with Pierre offers a new image of O'Neill as a writer belonging to the tradition of American literature. In addition, I have suggested that, in two instances, O'Neill qualifies Melville's notion of the family unit in America and amalgamates his borrowings within a highly personal framework. To this end, he manipulates ironic commentaries--his reference to Typee--and the device q amplification--evident in the complex structure in which Orin's murder is inserted.12 This double angle of vision reveals the profundity of the playwright's delineation of family relationships in Mourning Becomes Electra. In the process of translating the ancient patterns of Aeschylus' and Shakespeare's works to describe the American components of such conflicts, he was most probably aided by the legacy of Melville's Pierre.

--Marc Maufort

*A paper delivered at the NEMLA Convention in Boston on April 3, 1987.

1See her article entitled "Pierre's Progeny: O'Neill and the Melville Revival," English Studies in Canada, 3, i (Spring 1977), 103-117. This critic aims primarily at proving the influence of Pierre upon Mourning Becomes Electra and therefore concentrates on details of the plot. She restricts her thematic analysis to an examination of the two writers' satire of American capitalistic greed, leaving aside their common moral, tragic, and metaphysical concerns. These issues constitute precisely the main contribution of the present paper.

2This interview appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on February 13, 1921.

3This introduction is preserved in the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library. It consists of a four-page typescript with the author's manuscript corrections. Donald C. Gallup, former Curator of the O'Neill Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, argued, in a private conversation, that this introduction had not been written by O'Neill. As no definitive evidence has been offered, however, I have chosen to quote from this piece of critical writing. Its composition, i.e. a typescript with handwritten modifications, reflects O'Neill's usual working method. Louis Sheaffer does not hesitate to lend credence to the authenticity of the manuscript. [See O'Neill, Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), pp. 207-208.] The excerpt is quoted with the permission of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

4Eugene O'Neill, Nine Plays (New York: Modern Library, 1941), p. 776. Subsequent parenthetical citations refer to this edition of Mourning Becomes Electra (pp. 683-867).

5The term confluence, meaning analogy, is derived from a study by Jean Weisgerber, Faulkner and Dostoevsky: Influence and Confluence, translated by Dean McWilliams (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974).

6The link between Pierre, the Oresteia, and Hamlet is detailed by Gerard M. Sweeney in Melville's Use of Classical Mythology (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1975), pp. 102-103 and 105.

7For a more thorough analysis of O'Neill's indebtedness to the story of Orestes, see Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 341.

8An excellent study of the confluence between Hamlet and Mourning Becomes Electra can be found in Horst Frenz and Martin Mueller, "More Shakespeare and Less Aeschylus in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra," American Literature, 38 (March 1966), 85-100.

9All citations refer to the same edition: Pierre, or the Ambiguities (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1929).

10At least one critic regards agnosticism as a concomitant of the American loss of faith in religious institutions: William T. Going, "Eugene O'Neill, American," Papers on Language and Literature, 12 (1976), 384-401.

11Jean Weisgerber, "The Use of Quotations in Recent Literature," Comparative Literature, 22 (1970), 36-45. Weisgerber posits that this technique reflects the writer's desire to comment on present human experience by reference to the past, often with ironic purposes. Moreover, it allows the reader to decode the meaning of the work by himself, thus participating actively in the process of artistic creation.

12Although it might seem preposterous to suggest that O'Neill modified his Melvillean model, considering the fact that the influence of Pierre upon Mourning Becomes Electra remains debatable, this hypothesis gains plausibility in view of the systematic occurrence of that phenomenon throughout the dramatist's canon. In a doctoral dissertation recently submitted at the University f Brussels, entitled "Visions of the American Experience: The O'Neill-Melville Connection," I have offered numerous instances of that method. In his early sea play Ile, for example, O'Neill reshapes the thematic texture of Melville's Moby Dick in order to satirize Captain Keeney's materialism, as opposed to Ahab's idealism. In Mourning Becomes Electra, he transforms Melville's image of peaceful South Sea islands detectable in Typee in order to illustrate the elusiveness of the Mannons' dreams of a harmonious life away from the constraints of New England civilization.



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