Study Guide

Mourning Becomes Electra Analysis

By Eugene O'Neill

  • Tone

    Detached vs. Dark; Melodramatic

    When we're reading the playwright's descriptions of characters and places, or the notes about how characters say or react to something, O'Neill's narrator is matter-of-fact and to the point. Like when he describes Seth as "an old man of seventy-five with white hair and a beard, tall, raw-boned and stoop-shouldered." The narrator isn't invested emotionally in what's going on, he's just there to describe it. No matter how awful or horrible, no matter how much it might hit you like a punch in the gut, the narrator stays out of it.

    When the characters get to talking, however, that's when things start to heat up. And fast. It seems like no two characters can be together for very long without an argument breaking out or letting loose with something dark and intense, like when Ezra tells Christine that there's something sitting numb in his heart like a statue of a dead man in a town square.

    Even when the conversations seem light and airy, it's forced; there's usually a secret being kept. What might pass for tender displays of affection between a mother and her son or a father and his daughter seem weirdly incestuous. The characters bring a whole range of strong emotions to O'Neill's trilogy that the calm and straightforward tone of the narrator does not.

    There's a highly melodramatic tone in a lot of the dialogue between the main characters. Glares and accusations fly back and forth in hugely emotional interchanges. War and its horrors are described in over-the-top language. Christine and Orin's discussions are dripping with incestuous overtones. And people are always dropping dramatic hints about suicide or murder. There's non-verbal melodrama as well. Ezra clutches his chest and falls dead with an accusing finger pointing to his murdering wife; Christine faints dead away as the telltale pills roll slowly out of her hand. Nothing subtle about that; it's a play, and it's supposed to be seen.

  • Genre

    Tragedy

    If you're looking for a laugh-out-loud, fun-for-the whole family good-timey romp, don't read Mourning Becomes Electra. We might stop scowling for a sec when we see Peter, Hazel, Orin, and Lavinia chatting it up in The Huntedthat is until Orin starts talking about bashing in skulls and ripping out intestines. We might even crack a smile at the loveable Seth Beckwith clowning with his pals when nobody but us is looking in The Haunted.

    But there's not a whole lot of fun in O'Neill's trilogy. Instead, we've got deceit, incest, insanity, murder, suicide, and a whole lot of evil and hate. We've got characters destroyed by their character flaws. Any way you look at it, the story of the Mannon family is a tragedy for sure.                      

  • What's Up With the Title?

    In a play that's definitely got its fair share of strangeness, the title itself might also seem more than slightly odd. Mourning Becomes Electra. Who's Electra? There's not even a character named Electra in the play. Just what is O'Neill doing here?

    We know that Electra's the name of the sister of Orestes in Aeschylus's tear-your-heart-out tragedy The Oresteia, and that the play was all about the destruction of a particular family (members of the House of Atreus). So we can bet that we're going to see a play dealing with the same kind of theme, albeit with some important differences. One of these changes—and this is the second signal—is that this play is going to revolve around the story of a strong-willed daughter instead of a son. The name Oresteia basically means that Aeschylus's trilogy is all about Orestes. Using Electra's name tells us that we're going to be following an Electra-type figure. That figure is Lavinia Mannon. So "Electra" in the title of the play actually refers to Lavinia in the play.

    Then there's the rest of the title. It's hard to think of mourning "becoming" someone. That turn of phrase "X becomes a person" is a way of saying that something suits them, seems to be doing them good, or looks good on them, as in "that dress really becomes her." While guilt and grief may consume Orin, Lavinia seems to morph into the picture of health and beauty after her parents' deaths, as if the act of mourning has turned her into a beautiful woman. Like she's found a new shade of lipstick that does wonders for her eyes. And yes, that should creep you out.

    There's also another way of reading the title. Mourning Becomes Electra can mean that mourning literally becomes Electra (or, in this case, Lavinia, because Lavinia = Electra). It can mean that mourning completely takes her over. But don't just take Shmoop's word for it; let's get it from the horse's mouth. O'Neill said that by using the title Mourning Becomes Electra, he sought to convey that mourning befits Electra; it becomes Electra to mourn; it is her fate; black is becoming to her and it is the color that becomes her destiny. (Source)

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    A series of plays that's an updated and remodeled version of a classic Greek tragedy is not going to have a happy ending. Still, in a trilogy where pretty much every major character is dead by the final act, you could be expecting some serious fireworks Instead, we get Lavinia shutting herself up inside a house to die alone.

    Everything just kind of grinds to a halt at the conclusion of Mourning Becomes Electra, and if you ask us, that does a whole lot to amp up the most horribly depressing parts of what is, all in all, a pretty depressing piece of theater. Lavinia's a character who's been a fighter; you might even think of her as a crusader for justice minus the cape and tights. But not anymore. By the time the play's over, she's totally crushed, and she's given up the fight. She's resigned herself to living out the rest of her days in a dark old house surrounded by ghosts, giving up any and all hopes for a happy, normal life. She's only got two things to comfort her come the end of the final Act in The Haunted. The first is the knowledge that she's punishing herself for the evil that she did: covering up murder and driving Orin to suicide. The second is knowing that whatever wicked, nasty evilness that infested the Mannon clan dies when she does, and can't ruin anybody else's life in the meantime.

    The ending of Mourning Becomes Electra is O'Neill's way of suggesting that, no matter how powerful you may be, no evil goes unpunished and fate can't be escaped—and that fate springs from ourselves.

  • Setting

    A Small Seaport Town in New England, 1865-1866

    Even though O'Neill was clear that he wanted to create a modern psychological drama, he decided to set the story in the past. His re-creation of New England after the Civil War is pretty accurate. As one critic commented, "O'Neill has been at pains to make his image of post-war New England faithful in spirit and fact to what it was. Without much apparent research and with stringently economic means he has created the past: a song, cannon shots celebrating the surrender, a few names from history, lilacs, almost inevitably associated through Walt Whitman's elegy with the death of Lincoln." (Source)

    But if you typed "New England" into Google Maps you wouldn't get directions that were very helpful. That's because New England is a term that lumps together the states of Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Sure, they're all pretty small, but O'Neill still isn't being super specific.

    Being the first place that most colonists settled in the U.S., New England has more than its share of old, established families of British descent who'd been around long enough to accumulate wealth and prestige. It was largely settled by the Puritans, who had a reputation of being, well, Puritanical when it came to things like sex, marriage, and class. New England has a lot of old seaport towns (because it has a lot of coastline), and this sets the tone for the themes of travel and seafaring that we see in the play. Boston Harbor seems to be the point of departure and arrival for the sailing ships in the plays.

    While he did want his play to reflect the culture and experience of life in a small nineteenth-century New England town with its wealthy upper-crust aristocrats and its worker bees, he also wanted to do what the classic Greek playwrights were doing when they wrote their stuff. That means that he wanted to use his play to talk about the human condition, about struggles and ideas that weren't necessarily unique to a specific time and place but that everybody anywhere could understand and relate to. That's why he doesn't get too specific. O'Neill wants to make sure things seem kind of universal.

    Most of the action in the play—except for a few secretive jaunts to the harbor in Boston—takes place either in or around the Mannon estate. The first act of every part of O'Neill's trilogy happens outside of the Mannon estate and, as the plot thickens and things start to get interesting, we journey further into the interior of the home.

    We're with the Mannons when they've got company (usually in the sitting-room) or when they're having some personal chats (usually in the study). We even get a glimpse into Christine and Ezra's bedroom for what's probably the coldest and darkest moment of all, when Christine murders her husband. There are exceptions to this rule, like the nasty arguments that sometimes take place in front of the old mansion. But generally, the darker and more intense or dangerous something is, it's going down somewhere deep inside the house, hidden from public view.

    The house itself, we're told over and over again, is dark and oppressive, like a tomb. It's almost a character in the play.    

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    The language and style of Mourning Becomes Electra make for some pretty smooth sailing overall. But there are times when reading it can feel like playing tag with a semi-truck with no brakes loaded down with rocks barreling down a steep hill. No joke. That's how fast the action goes down for most of the play.

    O'Neill is also all about showing us what lies hidden just beneath the surface, so it's important to pay attention to everything that gets said or goes down, and how it all happens. On top of that, some really important thematic stuff gets said when characters are slightly or completely out of their minds, which can make picking it up on a first read kind of a challenge. Still, this play is like both volumes of Kill Bill meet Mean Girls. You're in for one wild ride, and one that's definitely worth a little work.

  • Writing Style

    Short and Simple, but Sometimes Surreal

    Overall, the writing style is pretty straightforward. O'Neill was a twentieth-century American playwright, and the play reads like it was written by a twentieth-century American playwright. Still, it's important to remember that O'Neill is trying to capture both a specific historical time period, as well as some class differences, so the prim and proper speech of Lavinia—who just can't bring herself to call her mother a whore no matter how much she wants to—is going to sound a lot different than Seth's more working-class way of talking.

    And, every once in a while, especially when a character has gone slightly off their rocker (okay, okay—it's usually Orin), they can let loose with some things that don't make sense on the first read-through. Take the conversation that Ezra tries to have with Christine before she poisons him. He tells her,

    This house is not my house. This is not my room nor my bed. They are empty—waiting for someone to move in. And you are not my wife! (Homecoming, Act 4)

    Super dramatic and intense, but all he's really saying is that he knows she's not in love with him and he's suspicious of her. But O'Neill has him say that in an emotionally heightened way to add to the strangeness of the whole atmosphere.

    Orin has his share of bizarre and vague dialogue, as his memories of the past get mixed up with the present, and his mental state goes downhill. It's almost like he's reacting to something other than what's in front of him. At these times, the reader has to work hard to figure out what's up. Our confusion is meant to mirror his.

  • The Mannon Estate

    A Tomb with a View

    The Mannon home isn't like what you'd expect to see on MTV's Cribs. Like most rich folks, the Mannons love showing off their money, but the way O'Neill describes this mansion is more than just proof of just how loaded the family is. O'Neill's stage directions describe a "large building of the Greek temple type that was in vogue for the first half of the nineteenth century. A white wooden portico with six tall columns contrasts with the wall of the house proper which is of gray cut stone."

    A whole lot is going on there. First of all, the comparison to a "Greek temple" is no coincidence. It's yet another way that O'Neill is trying to tell us that this play is based on one of the greatest ever works of Greek tragedy, The Oresteia—he probably figured it would be better than having the Mannons running around in tunics and sandals.

    Then there's how the house is described. It's basically got two parts—the one that looks super fancy and awesome and is the first part that people see (the portico). Then there's the part that's dull and ugly (the part of the house made from gray cut stone). It's almost like the house has a false front that hides its real ugliness, just like the Mannons have put on a false front all these years to hide their nasty secrets and the hideousness that's gone down inside those walls.

    Finally, there's the way that certain characters, like Orin and Christine, describe the house using imagery connected with death, dying, and burial. Christine calls it a "tomb" when she and Lavinia are talking in Homecoming (Act 1). As a Mannon by marriage and not by DNA, she seems to hate the house the most:

    I've been to the greenhouse to pick these. I felt our tomb needed a little brightening. (She nods scornfully towards the house.) Each time I come back from being away it appears more like a sepulcher! The "whited one" of the bible—pagan temple front stuck like a mask on Puritan gray ugliness! It was just like old Abe Mannon to build such a monstrosity—as a temple for his hatred! Forgive me Vinnie, I forgot you liked it. And you ought to. It suits your temperament. (Homecoming, Act 1)

    Orin also remarks to Peter that he thinks it's weird how much the moonlight makes the house look like a "tomb." Describing the house in this way both foreshadows the deaths to come and reminds us—in The Hunted, at least (Act 2)—of the fact that at least one character has already died there. The house represents secrets and death. 

  • Ezra Mannon's Portrait

    Court's in Session

    One of the weirdest things about Ezra Mannon is that he's always there—even when he's not. Characters constantly talk about him, and his memory haunts Lavinia, Orin, Christine, and others after he's dead and buried. The portrait of Ezra that hangs in the study reinforces that idea.

    But oh, man—whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words wasn't kidding. O'Neill says that, in the portrait (painted ten years ago), Mannon's face is "cold and emotionless, and has the same semblance of a life-like mask that we have already seen in the faces of his wife and daughter and Brant." It's that portrait that makes poor old Abner Small think he's seen a ghost in The Haunted—unless it really was a ghost he saw.

    We also know that this is a portrait of Mannon in his judge's robes, which is definitely important in a play that has to do with crime, justice, and revenge. Lavinia wants to be a judge just like her daddy, and punish Christine and Brant for their crimes. And, when Orin's writing his version of the Mannon Family history, he looks up at the portrait and asks it a question: "The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! Is that what you're demanding, father?"—like he's a witness testifying under oath (The Haunted, Act 2).

    The huge portrait hanging on the wall is supposed to suggest that Old Man Mannon's somehow always watching what's going on, making us always remember the power he has over the lives of others. When other characters are in the room with the portrait, you can imagine it hanging high above them, almost like Papa Mannon's looking down on them like a king sitting in his throne, always judging.

  • The Mannon Family Portraits

    The Hall of Dead Relatives

    Ezra's not the only dead or absent Mannon whose face we find framed and nailed to the walls of the Mannon home. In the sitting-room, where guests are entertained, are portraits of no less than 5 dead Mannons.

    We've got one who was a Puritan minister who probably set fire to some witches, and another who was an officer who fought alongside none other than George Washington. Right away, we know that the Mannons have been around for a while, and that they've done some pretty cool stuff, like fighting against the British in the Revolution. Also some pretty messed up stuff, like burning innocent women alive for being witches. Once again, this reinforces that, as glorious as the Mannon family past may be, there are probably some ugly skeletons in the old closet, too.

    We're convinced that these portraits, like the portrait of Papa Mannon, are supposed to be like spirits watching over the lives of the living, constantly hounding them about what they have or haven't done. In that way, they're kind of like the Erinyes or Furies of Greek mythology—ancient goddesses whose sole purpose was to torment the guilty, and who actually harass Orestes after he murders his mother in The Oresteia. And if there's one thing going around in Mourning Becomes Electra, it's guilt. Seriously. Characters catch it like it's a nasty cold—if colds could kill people, that is.

  • The Islands of the South Seas

    Destination Nowhere

    Sometimes it's nice to just pack your bags and get away from it all—everybody needs to take a little vacation now and then. That's where what Brant, Lavinia, and other characters call the "Blessed Isles" come in. Just as O'Neill never pinpoints for us exactly where in New England the Mannons live, we don't know exactly where the islands are. We can guess, based on their popularity with rich folks around the time this play is taking place, that they're islands somewhere in the South Pacific.

     The reason O'Neill doesn't specify is that the exact location is irrelevant. The Blessed Isles are symbolic places, not real spring break destinations. They're meant to be everything that cold, Puritanical New England isn't. They seem to symbolize two things: sex and escape to freedom. Hmmm—maybe it does sound like spring break after all.

    Okay, let's take escape first. When the characters mention these islands, they think of them as a place where you can forget about the rest of the world. You can leave your problems behind, problems like an inconveniently alive husband.

    BRANT: That's always been my dream—someday to own my own clipper! And Clark and Dawson would be willing to sell the "Flying Trades." You've seen her, Christine. She's as beautiful a ship as you're a woman. Aye, the two of you are like sisters. If she was mine, I'd take you on a honeymoon then! To China—and on the voyage back, we'd stop at the South Pacific islands I've told you about. By God, there's the right place for love and a honeymoon!

    CHRISTINE: Yes—but Ezra is alive!

    BRANT: I know it's only a dream.

    CHRISTINE: You can have your dream—and I can have mine. There is a way. (Homecoming, Act 2)

    Sadly, Ezra has the same fantasy. He wants to escape his dead life:

    MANNON: We have twenty good years still before us! I've been thinking of what we could do to get back to each other. I've a notion if we'd leave the children and go off on a voyage together—to the other side of the world—find some island where we could be alone awhile. You'll find I've changed, Christine. I'm sick of death! I want life! Maybe you could love me now! I've got to make you love me!

    CHRISTINE: For God's sake, stop talking. I don't know what you're saying. Leave me alone. What must be, must be! You make me weak. It's getting late. (Homecoming, Act 3)

    Orin's never been to the islands, but just reading Typee (Herman Melville's autobiographical account of life in Polynesia) is enough to send him off into dreamy fantasies about being there all alone with mommy and the warm sand and gentle breezes:

    ORIN: Someone loaned me the book. I read it and reread it until finally all those Islands came to mean everything that wasn't war, everything that was peace and warmth and security. 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 around me. The breaking of the waves was your voice. The sky was the same color as your eyes. The warm sand was 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! (The Hunted, Act 2)

    For Orin, the islands are the ultimate escape from reality. O'Neill's giving us a great description of what psychoanalysts called the "oceanic feeling," a nursing baby's blissful state of oneness with the mother, no boundaries, just pleasure. One problem, though: Orin's an adult.

    The islands also symbolize sex. For some characters, the sexual symbolism of the islands is a kind of thrilling escape from the uptight, repressive attitudes about sex that make everyone feel guilty and dirty. This discussion between Brant and Lavinia makes the islands sound like a sexual paradise, where the islanders don't feel guilty because they don't know they should. Unlike all the other characters in the play.

    BRANT: I suppose clippers are too old a story to the daughter of a ship builder. But unless I'm much mistaken, you were interested when I told you of the islands of the South Seas where I was shipwrecked my first voyage at sea.

    LAVINIA: I remember your admiration for the naked native women. You said they had found the secret of happiness because they had never heard that love can be a sin.

    BRANT: So you remember that, do you? Aye! And they live in as near the Garden of Paradise before sin was discovered as you'll find on this earth! Unless you've seen it, you can't picture the green beauty of their land set in the blue of the sea! The clouds like down on the mountain tops, the sun drowsing in your blood, and always the surf on the barrier reef singing a croon in your ears like a lullaby! The Blessed Isles, I called them! You can forget there all men's dirty dreams of greed and power! (Homecoming, Act 1)

    Lavinia's sarcastic and skeptical about this at first, and she lets Brant know it. But more than any other character, she's transformed by her experiences once she gets there. We get heavy hints about some foolin' around with one of the natives, but we're never really sure how far things went. Still, she comes back from the islands turned on and tuned in:

    LAVINIA: I loved those islands. They finished setting me free. There was something mysterious and beautiful—a good spirit—of love—coming out of the land and sea. It made me forget death. There was no hereafter. There was only this world—the warm earth in the moonlight—the trade winds in the coco palms—the surf on the reef—the fires at night and the drum throbbing in my heart—the natives dancing naked and innocent, without knowledge of sin! (The Haunted, Act 1)

    Oh, those throbbing drums—we all know what that rock-n-roll music leads to. Lavinia even looks completely different when she gets back. She's heavier, more voluptuous, acts more like her sensuous mother, and gets rid of the Goth get-up. Everyone's doing double-takes when they see her. She's been sexualized. She practically throws herself at Peter; she's ready to live.

     But Orin, whose own fantasies of the islands were pretty rapturous as long as mommy was involved, is disgusted with Lavinia:

    ORIN: Yes. We took advantage of our being on a Mannon ship to make the captain touch there on the way back. We stopped a month. But they turned out to be Vinnie's islands, not mine. They only made me sick--and the naked women disgusted me. I guess I'm too much of a Mannon, after all, to turn into a pagan. But you should have seen Vinnie with the men--!

    LAVINIA: How can you--!

    ORIN: Handsome and romantic-looking, weren't they, Vinnie?--with colored rags around their middles and flowers stuck over their ears! Oh, she was a bit shocked at first by their dances, but afterwards she fell in love with the Islanders. If we'd stayed another month, I know I'd have found her some moonlight night dancing under the palm trees--as naked as the rest!

    LAVINIA: Orin! Don't be disgusting!

    ORIN: Picture, if you can, the feelings of the God-fearing Mannon dead at that spectacle!

    For these Mannons and their conflicted ideas about sex, the islands have intense meaning, whether it's sexual innocence or sexual perversion. No matter how you feel about it, the Blessed Isles are a place of sexual awakening.                        

  • Darkness and Light

    Anybody Got a Match?

    Black and white, right and left, darkness and light—all classic pairs that are used to describe good and evil in a slightly fancier and prettier literary way. 

    Throughout Mourning Becomes Electra, it's safe to say that if something isn't right, it happens at night, in the dark or behind closed doors where nobody can see. Christine murdering Ezra; Lavinia and Orin conspiring to murder Brant; Christine's and Orin's suicides—all go on after the sun sets. It's also safe to say that if it happens during the day, it's about making things okay. In other words, the day is usually when you see the friendly, polite and pretty side of things, when it's all about keeping up appearances, like during Ezra's funeral. 

    For our money, though, there's no better use of light v. dark imagery than when Orin goes off on Lavinia when Lavinia criticizes him for keeping the shutters closed: 

    ORIN: We've renounced the day, in which normal people live—or rather it has renounced us. Perpetual night—darkness of death in life—the fitting habitat for guilt! (The Haunted, Act 2)

    Right here we see plain and simple that darkness is associated with death, guilt, and all things evil, while light is for normal, law-abiding, non-murdering folks.

  • Ghosts and Other Spooky Stuff

    Who doesn't love a good ghost story? 

    Well, probably Orin Mannon, for one. 

    Once the unfortunate Ezra Mannon and his murdering adulteress of a wife are out of the picture, ghosts seem to be everywhere in the different parts of Mourning Becomes Electra. When Orin and Lavinia return from their little vacation away from guilt, it's clear from their conversation that Orin's convinced that ghosts live inside that house. Even before they show up Seth and his buddies are talking about all of the dead Mannons that walk the halls of the Mannon estate. 

    We admit, ghosts are really, really cool, but that's not the only reason why they keep showing up. Think back to Seth's pals and the way they talk about ghosts. Ghosts haunt places where horrible things have happened, usually to the person who's now a ghost. They represent a part of a pretty awful past that just won't stay buried, a terrible secret that just won't die. Particularly angry ghosts, like Patrick Swayze, will even haunt the person who did them wrong in life or refuse to cross over to the Great Beyond until justice is served and the truth about how they died is told. 

    In Mourning Becomes Electra, ghosts are used to symbolize feelings of guilt and to represent the inescapability of the past.

  • The Oedipus Complex

    Psychiatrist: "I have to tell you, madam, that your son is suffering from an Oedipus complex." Mother: "Oedipus, Schmoedipus! What does it matter, so long as he loves his mother?"

    Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places 

    The plot of Mourning Becomes Electra may be based on Aeschylus' Oresteia but the psychological motivation is straight out of another Greek myth: Oedipus the King, about the unfortunate guy who unwittingly kills his father, King Laius of Thebes and marries his mother, Queen Jocasta. 

    After Oedipus's birth, Laius hears a prophecy from an oracle that he'll be killed by his own son, who will then marry his mother. He does what any self-respecting monarch would do—leaves his baby son in the wilderness to be eaten by beasts. Problem solved. But not so fast—the baby is rescued and gets adopted and lovingly raised by a foreign king and his wife. Oedipus hears rumors he was adopted, but when he asks an oracle about it, he only learns that he's fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Naturally, he flees in terror, not wanting to fulfill the prophecy. 

    On his way to Thebes, he runs into an old man who won't move his chariot out of the way. In a fit of road rage, he kills the man and continues on his way. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, he's fulfilling the oracle's prophecy. Eventually, Oedipus is given the throne of Thebes after saving the city from the curse of the Sphinx. The queen's been widowed, so natch, he marries her. 

    The oracle's prophecy is now totally fulfilled, but the city is struck with a horrible plague. A prophet tells Oedipus it's because the murder of the king has never been solved. You can guess the rest. As Oedipus investigates the situation further, he and Jocasta gradually realize what has happened—Oedipus was actually adopted, and the guy in the chariot was his biological father Laius. Jocasta, realizing she's been sleeping with her own son, runs into the palace and kills herself; Oedipus blinds himself with a pin from her dress. 

    In the late 1800s, the great psychologist Sigmund Freud attended a performance of Sophocles' play about this myth, called Oedipus the King. And the rest is history. 

    Here's the history. Freud had noticed in his work that young boys starting at around age three (the age he believed they became aware of their penises) become sexually and jealously attached to their mothers. He called this the "Oedipal phase" of psychosexual development. During the Oedipal phase, the boy sees his father as a rival for his mother's love and unconsciously wishes daddy were dead so he can have mommy to himself. He then unconsciously fears that Daddy will cut off his penis in retaliation. You may have heard the term "castration anxiety." Well, that's it. (Freud assumed that little boys by this time have noticed that half the population don't have penises, so they figured they were cut off.) Isn't this all so interesting?? 

    In most cases, parents handle this phase appropriately, set boundaries, keep the intimacy between themselves, etc., and by about age 6, the boys have had enough of castration anxiety, give up the attachment to Mommy, repress those sexual feelings and get on with the business of being boys and wanting to be like their fathers. If parents mishandle the Oedipal phase for whatever reason—e.g. the mother acts like Christine Mannon—then the kid can be permanently stuck in this phase, unable to have healthy relationships or a healthy sense of self. He would seek out relationships with women who reminded him of mommy. Freud thought that most psychological problems could be traced to an unsuccessful resolution of the Oedipal conflict. Exhibit A: Orin Mannon. 

    Don't feel left out, ladies. Freud's famous student Carl Jung coined the phrase "Electra Complex" to describe a little girl's version of this conflict. Electra was Orestes' sister and she helped plot to kill their mother Clytemnestra. In the female version of the Oedipal story, the little girl realizes she's been "castrated", and develops "penis envy." 

    Her solution is to marry daddy and have a baby, and the baby becomes her consolation prize for not having a penis. Girls who don't successfully work out their Electra complex will always look for guys who resemble daddy, and grow up to be aggressive and controlling. We can see that Lavinia Mannon obviously never resolved her Electra complex, because she ends up turning Orin into her child—and he actually is her daddy's child. That's one twisted solution. 

    Freud's ideas were hugely popular in the U.S. when O'Neill was writing his plays, so he would have been very familiar with the Oedipal theory. Mourning Becomes Electra is absolutely soaking in it. 

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third-Person Omniscient

    Technically, since this is a play, there isn't really a narrator in the same way there's a narrator for a novel, short story, or poem. The narration is really in the descriptions at the start of each part of the trilogy that describe characters and parts of the setting, like when we read that Josiah Borden's wife is "a typical New England woman of pure English ancestry, with a horse face, buck teeth, and big feet." (Shmoop's New England-based employees are definitely gonna write in about that.) Narration is also in the stage directions that are meant to give actors hints about how to speak or react to certain lines.

    Still, we get first-hand access to information that plenty of other characters don't, and O'Neill has us moving around across time and space like we're all Marty McFly in Back to the Future. That's a sure bet we're dealing with your classic third-person omniscient narrator.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Home is Where the Hate Is

    Even though Mourning Becomes Electra is technically a trilogy, it's kind of like the literary version of Lays Potato Chips—you really can't read just one. That's because so much of what happens in every play is relevant to every other part of Mourning Becomes Electra. All the same, Homecoming is really where we learn the most about what's going on with New England's favorite dysfunctional family.

    We find out that Ezra and Orin are due back from war and that Christine and her daughter Lavinia hate each other. We learn many not-so flattering things about the Mannon family's past that are going to come back and bite everybody in the tukhus in a seriously big way. The biggest secret, of course, is that Brant is actually the illegitimate son of a disgraced Mannon relative and a former servant, and that he also happens to be sleeping with the married Christine Mannon.

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    Eat Your Poison, Dear

    O'Neill doesn't waste any time setting events in motion. Along with a ton of exposition in Homecoming, we get a healthy dose of conflict, featuring none other than Christine and Lavinia with a little help from Adam Brant. The end result of all of it, of course, is Christine herself giving a not-so healthy dose of poison to Ezra Mannon. Nothing sets a chain of nasty events in motion like a love triangle and a grisly murder.

    And rather than letting Christine get away with it, not only does O'Neill arrange things so that Lavinia knows darn well what happened, he also gives Lavinia a chance to swipe some evidence against old mommy dearest: the box of poison pills. Knowing that Christine is guilty—not that Lavinia needs more excuses to hate her mother—is what makes Lavinia determined to get her own brand of justice, and avenge her father's death no matter what it takes. And, after just a couple more stops along the way, it's all downhill from here.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    Let the Bodies Hit the Floor

    Not that we've ever tried, but we figure it makes sense that convincing a person that somebody they love is a cold-blooded killer is probably pretty tough. Especially when that person is Orin Mannon, the poster-child for weird mommy-daddy issues. But Lavinia is determined, and she manages to do it pretty early on in The Hunted. All in all, though, you've got to admit that it was pretty easy to convince Orin to murder Brant. But it's Brant's murder that makes Christine kill herself, and that right there is a huge game-changer for both Orin and Lavinia. Things definitely change, but definitely not for the better. The guilt starts piling on.

    Falling Action

    Sibling Rivalry

    After their mother's death, everything starts to fall apart for the only major characters who are still alive, Orin and Lavinia. The sibs have taken a vacation to the islands in an effort to get away from the past and pull themselves together. When they get back, Lavinia tries to act like everything is just peachy keen.

    But Orin—who was never really okay to begin with—clearly has some major guilt issues. Lavinia's not really doing much better when you think about it, acting and dressing like her recently deceased mother. As Orin becomes driven crazier and crazier by the guilt he feels, Lavinia becomes even more controlling. The showdown between Hazel and Lavinia basically guarantees that neither Orin nor Lavinia can ever lead a normal life as long as they're both still alive.

    Orin decides to kill himself, partially because he feels like he has to atone for what he did. That leaves Lavinia alone to make whatever choices about her own life she feels like making midway through The Haunted.

    Resolution (Denouement)

    Ezra is my Homeboy

    After conspiring to murder her adulterous mother and her lover so she could avenge her father's death and driving her brother to suicide, what's a young single woman to do? Why, try and put it all behind her and get herself hitched, of course. Orin's out of the picture and Peter's all ready to take Beyoncé's advice and put a ring on it. But Hazel's meddling (and you have to admit, she's right about the Mannons being dangerous) plus Lavinia's increasing sense of guilt puts a stop to all of that. 

    If you want to remember just how the resolution to Mourning Becomes Electra goes down, just think that resolution = resignation. As in resigning yourself to living like a hermit in a house that may or may not be haunted and hiding away from society until you die. That's exactly what Lavinia does. O'Neill manages to punish his Electra after all.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • The Oresteia by Aeschylus: This stuff is literally everywhere, from how the trilogy is structured to the names of characters—notice how "Ezra Mannon" sounds a lot like "Agamemnon" or "Orin" sounds like "Orestes?"
    • The BibleSpecifically, Matthew 23: 27-8 (Homecoming, Act 1) and Proverbs 16:18 (The Hunted, Act 1)
    • Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis: There's no denying that Orin and Lavinia have some serious mommy/daddy problems, and Freud had a whole lot to say about that in his theory of the Oedipal Complex. Greek inspiration again.
    • William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus:Lavinia's named after the ill-fated daughter of a Roman general in what is arguably Shakespeare's bloodiest bloodbath of a tragedy.

    Historical References

    • The Civil War: O'Neill's trilogy starts at the end of the Civil War. Orin, Ezra, and Peter all fought.
    • John Brown: An abolitionist who's eventually hanged (Homecoming, Act 1)
    • Ulysses S. Grant: Civil War general who eventually becomes U.S. President (Homecoming, Act 1; The Hunted,Act 3)
    • Abraham Lincoln: No introduction necessary. (The Hunted, Act 4)

    Pop Culture References

    • "John Brown's Body" (Homecoming, Act 1): This popular abolitionist tune became the melody for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The lyric about Brown's body "mouldering in the grave" is a cheerful backdrop for this cheerful trilogy.
    • "Shenandoah": Seth is always singing this, and the Chantyman also gives it a shot in Act 4 of The Hunted. It's a song that's about love and loss, which makes it a perfect fit for Mourning Becomes Electra. Have a listen.
    • "Hanging Johnny" (The Hunted, Act 4): A popular sea chanty that's all about—you guessed it—being hanged as punishment for committing a crime.