Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” was patterned after Aeschylus’ The Orestes. In O’Neill’s version, Agamemnon is the American General Ezra Mannon, Clytemnestra is his second wife Christine, Orestes is his son Orin, and Electra is his daughter Lavinia. The play featured murder, adultery, incestuous love and revenge. Though fate alone guides characters’ actions in Greek tragedies, O’Neill’s characters have motivations grounded in 1930s-era psychological theory as well. Though the play can be read from a Freudian perspective paying attention to various characters’ Oedipus complexes and Electra complexes, the characters may also be evaluated based on Aristotle’s concept of a tragic character.
Aristotle’s ideas about tragedy were recorded in his book of literary theory titled Poetics. In it, he has a great deal to say about the structure, purpose, and intended effect of tragedy. His ideas have been adopted, disputed, expanded, and discussed for several centuries.
The following is a summary of his basic ideas regarding the tragic hero:
1. The tragic hero is a character of noble stature and has greatness. This should be readily evident in the play. The character must occupy a “high” status position but must also embody nobility and virtue as part of his/her innate character.
2. Though the tragic hero is pre-eminently great, he/she is not perfect so that the audience can easily relate themselves with such character. Although perhaps elevated to a higher position in society, the character should be seen as someone essential like that of the normal person.
3. The hero’s downfall is partially her/his own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate. In fact, the tragedy is usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the hero’s lack of perfection. This error of judgment or character flaw is known as hamartia and is usually translated as tragic flaw.
4. The hero’s misfortune is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime.
5. The fall is not pure loss. It could bring about increase in awareness, gain in self-knowledge, and discovery on the part of the tragic hero.
Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra: A Summary
Ezra Mannon is among the prominent figures in the town. He had served as a judge, a mayor and, most recently, as one of Grant’s generals in the Civil War. He has a bad heart and a hard time expressing love. His wife, Christine Mannon, was an adulterous woman who has stopped loving him right from the beginning of their married life.
Lavinia Mannon is the loving daughter who hated her mother and adored her father. While Orin Mannon, Lavinia’s weak-willed brother, hated his father and adored his mother.
The other characters of the play include Adam Brant is the illegitimate son of Ezra’s uncle by a servant. He is captain of a ship in the merchant marine and had an illicit affair with Christine. Peter is Orin’s childhood friend and Lavinia’s fiancé. Helen, Peter’s sister, is Lavinia’s childhood friend and Orin’s fiancée.
The curse on the house of Mannon, a prominent New England family, goes back a generation to Ezra Mannon’s father Abe and Uncle Ben. Ben was kicked out of the family when he impregnated a French Canadian servant named Marie Brantône. A gambler and a drunkard, eventually he killed himself. Marie asked Ezra, now head of the family, to help her; but he ignored her, and she died. Thus her son, Adam Brant, had an understandable grudge against Ezra. While Ezra and his son Orin are off fighting in the Civil War, Adam Brant introduced himself to the family as a suitor to Lavinia. The handsome captain ended up seducing Christine.
The war has ended and Ezra Mannon was on his way home. His wife Christine and his daughter Lavinia were both waiting for him. While Lavinia was excited to see him, Christine was not. She never loved Ezra, and having finally experienced love with Adam, she thought that she cannot endure Ezra’s touch anymore. At the night of Ezra’s return, Christine gave him poison instead of his heart medicine; but before he dies, Ezra was able to tell Lavinia about what Christine and Adam had done.
A few days later, Orin returned home from the war. Still in a shock due to his father’s death, Orin has become the battleground between Lavinia and Christine. Eventually, Lavinia had convinced Orin to go with her in following Christine who went to Adam’s ship. The two spied on Christine and Adam. Orin was overwhelmed with jealousy when he saw his mother, whom he loved so passionately, cavorting with Adam. Christine and Adam had then planned to flee but right after Christine has left to get her things, Orin killed Adam. When Orin told Christine about what he did to Adam, she shot herself.
After that incident, Lavinia and Orin traveled to the South Seas for a year. When they returned home, their friends Peter and Helen found them transformed. Lavinia had become a spitting image of her mother, and Orin, on the other hand, became a disintegrated person. Orin wrote a letter outlining the sad history of his family and threatened Lavinia that he will give it to Peter if she tries to marry him. Lavinia protested and for that, Orin tried to molest her. Lavinia was able to free herself. At the onset, Orin committed suicide.
With what had happened, Peter came to Lavinia to comfort her only to be told that she, indeed, had loved Adam Brant. In the end, Lavinia ignored Peter and had, instead, embraced a lonely fate by shutting herself up in the house of the Mannon.
The Mourning of Lavinia
The tragic nature of O’Neill’s play has become the basis of this paper in establishing the ground that Lavinia, who is the key character in the story, is an exemplification of Aristotle’s concept of a tragic character.
1. Lavinia is a character of noble stature and has greatness.
Though the concept of nobility has been very much observed in the earlier years, Lavinia’s stature of being a member of a prominent family in the community suffices for Aristotle’s notion of nobility. Apart from that, Lavinia’s greatness as a character has been manifested by the fact that she had adhered to what is moral and righteous. In learning that her mother had an illicit affair with Adam, she had resolved to break the affair. Furthermore, though she, herself has also been attracted to Adam, she tried to suppress her feelings for him. She has not succumbed to his felicitations and enticements which, in turn, caused Adam to shift his attention to the love-starved Cynthia.
2. Though Lavinia may be pre-eminently great, she was not perfect so that the readers can easily relate themselves with her.
Although perhaps elevated to a higher position in the society, Lavinia can also be seen as someone who is essentially the same as that of a normal person. Her attachment to Peter as a suitor and lover, her manifestation of grief at the death of her father, her expression of hatred for mother due to her infidelity, and her act of seeking revenge for her father constitute the natural reaction of a person when faced with the same situation as she had. Such behavioral manifestations run against the concept of a perfect character as viewed from a Christian perspective.
3. Lavinia’s downfall is partially her own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate.
Lavinia may not have died in the story but her decision of self-seclusion can be taken as her downfall. Such downfall has been triggered by some error of judgment on her part. After the death of Orin, she could have had a new and redeemed life at the hands of Peter; yet, she had squandered the chance when she admitted to him that she, indeed, had loved Adam – a revelation that had hurt Peter. Lavinia could have just kept such feelings to herself for it does not have any bearing anymore since Adam is already dead. It was, then, her poor judgment that caused her to express such a painful revelation which eventually led to her downfall.
4. Lavinia’s misfortune is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the mistake committed.
Lavinia, the loving and respectful daughter, can be considered as a victim of circumstances. She could have gained redemption through Peter but other factors had meddled causing her to give up her personal happiness. Her resolution of self-seclusion by locking herself inside the Mannon house to atone for the sins of her family may be considered as too harsh for her.
5. Lavinia’s atonement is not pure loss – there is an increase in awareness, a gain in self-knowledge, and a discovery on her part.
Lavinia could have just decided to leave and flee in order to start a new life but she opted to stay. In her decision, she has displayed a sense of epiphany and renewal. Fleeing will not necessarily enable her to escape the guilt and the haunting of her past. Her act of self-sacrifice has enabled her to put a halt to the curse to the family thereby ending the series of misfortunes that has befallen on the family. This act has elevated her to the role of a sacrificial lamb making her the spiritual savior of the family from moral decay and degradation.
Though varied emotions were aroused, the dharacter of Lavinia does not leave its readers – or audience – in a state of depression. Aristotle (Leitch 2001) argues that one function of tragedy is to arouse the “unhealthy” emotions of pity and fear and through a catharsis. Basically, through Lavinia and her fate, everyone is cleansed of those emotions.