In a play full of characters described as "statues" or compared to breathing imitations of portraits, there's no character that tears things up, turns things over, and transforms herself like Lavinia Mannon (aka "Vinnie"). The first time we see her in Homecoming, she's described as "cold as ice,", "thin" and "angular" young woman whose physical "unattractiveness is accentuated by her plain black dress."
She morphs into a full-fledged picture of curvaceous feminine beauty come the first scene of Act 1 in The Haunted. And, even more importantly in a play that has a lot to do with justice and revenge, she goes from a hardcore harbinger of harrowing hurt-filled horrors in The Hunted to a broken-down, guilt-ridden shadow of herself at the end of The Haunted (which is also the end of the play). Love her or hate her, she drives most of the action in the play.
When we first see Lavinia, O'Neill tells us that:
Her movements are stiff and she carries herself with a wooden, square-shouldered military bearing. She has a flat, dry voice and a habit of snapping out words like an officer giving orders. (Homecoming, Act 1).
This tells us right away that she's tough, and definitely not somebody you want to mess with. And if we remember that Old Man Mannon is an officer in the Union army, O'Neill's description suggests that Lavinia's more like her dad than her mom.
She's got a pattern of cutting off any expression of romantic emotion. It's not that she doesn't feel things—she feels plenty—she just doesn't show it, and she tries to convince herself she feels nothing.
PETER: Hazel feels bad about Orin not writing. Do you think he really—loves her?
LAVINIA: I don't know anything about love! I don't want to know anything! I hate love!
When Peter presses her about Captain Brant, she protests a bit too much.
PETER: But how about this mysterious clipper captain that's been calling?
LAVINIA: Do think I care anything about that—that--!
PETER: Don't get mad. I only meant that folks say he's courting you.
LAVINIA: Folks say more than their prayers!
PETER: Then you don't—care for him?
LAVINIA: I hate the sight of him!
The townspeople get that Lavinia hides what she feels, that it's a family trait:
MRS. BORDEN: […] Queer, the difference in [Christine] and Lavinia—the way they take his death. Lavinia is cold and calm as an icicle.
MRS. HILLS: Yes. She doesn't seem to feel as much sorrow as she ought.
MRS. BORDEN: That's where you're wrong. She feels it as much as her mother. Only she's too Mannon to let anyone see what she feels. But did you notice the look in her eyes?
We see by her transformation in The Haunted that there's been a sensual person in there all along, but one who couldn't tolerate those feelings and had to repress them—in large part because they were directed at her father. Only after her mother's death does Lavinia become a fully sexual person. It doesn't last.
The exception to Lavinia's cold, calculating manner is her absolute adoration of her father. That's one feeling she never has trouble expressing. At first glance, Lavinia just seems like a kid who's willing to do anything to help her poor, sickly father and keep him from getting hurt. Not a thing wrong with that. But when you zoom in, things start getting pretty weird pretty quickly because she's way too attached to Ezra. She even refuses her boyfriend's proposal of marriage:
LAVINIA: I can't marry anyone, Peter. I've got to stay home. Father needs me.
PETER: He's got your mother.
LAVINIA: He needs me more! I'm sorry, Peter. (Homecoming, Act 1)
There's also the way that she totally gets all gooey and mushy as soon as Ezra arrives on the scene.
LAVINIA: Yes, Father. I'm so happy you're here! Don't let Mother make you believe I—You're the only man I'll ever love! I'm going to stay with you! (Homecoming, Act 3)
Lavinia's already admitted to Christine that she's jealous of Christine for stealing Ezra's love from her (Homecoming, Act 2). And every man she finds attractive, including Captain Brant and her brother Orin (creepy) looks like younger version of her father.
If you want to wrap your head around what all of this means, you've got to dig a little into the world of psychology. We'll explain it all in our "Symbols" section when we discuss the Electra complex. We'll just say here that it describes a situation when a female child has an unhealthy attachment to the father that results in some serious, serious hostilities toward mommy. Whether or not you think it's unhealthy (and, to be honest, we do), Lavinia's love and devotion for her father is really what motivates her take the actions that paradoxically set his murder in motion.
The flip side of Lavinia's attachment to her father is her utter loathing for her rival for his affections, her mother. Our first look at Lavinia shows us how much she tries to distance herself from her mother, despite their physical resemblance:
[O]ne is immediately struck by her facial resemblance to her mother. She has the same peculiar shade of copper-gold hair, the same pallor and dark violet-blue eyes, the black eyebrows meeting in a straight line above her nose, the same sensual mouth, the same heavy jaw. […] But it is evident Lavinia does all in her power to emphasize the dissimilarity rather than the resemblance to her parent. She wears her hair pulled tightly back […] and there is not a touch of feminine allurement to her severely plain get-up. (Homecoming, Act 1)
From the very beginning, mother and daughter are bickering:
CHRISTINE: Who are those people we saw wandering around the grounds?
LAVINIA: Some friends of Seth's.
CHRISTINE: Because they know that lazy old sot, does that give them the privilege of trespassing?
LAVINIA: I gave Seth permission to show them around.
CHRISTINE: And since when have you the right without consulting me? (Homecoming, Act 1)
Are they arguing about something trivial? Might sound like it, but it's really the first hint that Lavinia wants to take her mother's place of authority in the family.
It gets more explicit as the play goes on:
CHRISTINE: I know you Vinnie! I've watched you ever since you were little, trying to do exactly what you're doing now! You've tried to become the wife of your father and the mother of Orin! You've always schemed to steal my place! (Homecoming, Act 2)
But how does the child figure she can do that? Easy. By doing away with mommy and taking her place next to daddy. You get the impression that Lavinia would have loved to see her mother dead, especially after she discovers her adultery. But she settles for trying to ruin her life so that her father will dump her mother. Unfortunately, Christine gets rid of Ezra first.
After Lavinia and Orin have told Christine they killed Brant, Christine runs into the house and Lavinia knows what her mother's about to do. She considers following her, but stops herself. All she says is "It is justice." Christine's suicide fulfills her daughter's wish. But it's too late for Lavinia; Daddy's dead too.
When Lavinia and Orin return from the islands in The Haunted, we see Lavinia's appearance transformed into her mother's. Something happened there that made her shed the black dress and embrace her sensual side. Here's the playwright's description of her:
Lavinia appears in the doorway at rear. In the lighted room, the change in her is strikingly apparent. At a first glance, one would mistake her for her mother as she appeared in the first act of "Homecoming." She seems a mature woman, sure of her feminine attractiveness. Her brown-gold hair is arranged as her mother's had been. […] The movements of her body now have the feminine grace her mother's had possessed. (The Haunted, Act 1)
Orin sees it, too:
ORIN: You don't know how like Mother you've become Vinnie. I don't mean only how pretty you've gotten—
LAVINIA: Do you really think I'm as pretty now as she was, Orin?
ORIN: I mean the change in your soul, too. I've watched it ever since we sailed for the East. Little by little it grew like Mother's soul—as if you were stealing hers—as if her death had set you free—to become her! (The Haunted, Act 1,i)
So Lavinia's become her mother. But who will she possess if her father's no longer around? She gets her tentacles wrapped around the next best thing: her brother. Conveniently, their time away has aged Orin. He looks old and weak and even more like his dear departed father.
Lavinia's obsessed with controlling her emotions, and this drives her to control the behavior of everyone else. Way before we see her stick her nose into Brant and Christine's business, we see her bossing Seth around. Then there's her little brother Orin. We find out that she was the one who pressured him to go off to fight in the Civil War. Not only that, but she's the one who convinces Orin that Christine and Brant murdered Ezra, and drags him into her twisted revenge plot. She's got so much control over Orin that it destroys her close friendship with Hazel, his fiancée.
Lavinia's fantasies about control are illusory. Like all the other Mannons, her fate seems to be controlled by powers outside of herself. The tragic Mannon destiny rolls right over her, as all her efforts to pull the strings go nowhere.