In Mourning Becomes Electra, every character has their share of emotional problems. But if you held a contest for the most rattled, confused, and downright tragically broken and bonkers character, poor Orin would win by a landslide. Brother to Lavinia, son to Ezra Mannon, and darling little bundle of joy to Christine (even though he's all grown-up), life for Orin was never easy. If he thought heading back home after years of fighting in the Civil War was going to be a relief, he was so wrong.
O'Neill writes him as a man-child, overly attached to his mother and ill-prepared for the horrors of war. He comes back from war even more damaged, and gets thrown right into a family drama that's his ultimate undoing. He's completely controlled by his mother and sister, and he's an emotional, guilt-ridden wreck by the end of the play, another casualty of the Mannon family craziness.
Our first look sets up Orin's story:
One is struck by his startling family resemblance to Ezra Mannon and Adam Brant […]. There is the same lifelike mask quality of his face in repose […] His mouth and chin have the same general characteristics as his father's had, but the expression of his mouth gives an impression of tense oversensitiveness quite foreign to the General's. […] He carries himself by turns with a marked slouchiness or with a square-shouldered stiffness that indicates that a soldierly bearing is unnatural to him. When he speaks it is jerkily, with a strange, vague, preoccupied air. But when he smiles naturally his face has a gentle boyish charm which makes women immediately want to mother him. (The Hunted, Act 1)
You can practically predict everything that happens to Orin from this initial description. It's all there—the emotional sensitivity, his childlike attachment to women, his psychological brokenness.
Before we even see Orin, we know he's been wounded, and the first time we actually lay eyes on him in Act 1 of The Hunted, he's got a bandage wrapped around his head. What O'Neill is trying to do is show us, from the very beginning, that Orin's wounded in more ways than one, that he's suffered some awful trauma that's never going to heal.
It helps to know that Orin, like Lavinia, is based on a specific character from The Oresteia of Aeschylus: Orestes, Electra's brother, who we first meet in The Oresteia when he returns from the Trojan War. We get some pretty poetry about some of the not-so pretty slaughter in The Oresteia, but Orin doesn't use any poetry when he talks about how ugly the war was.
Shortly after he shows up in The Hunted, he says the war forced him to "harden" himself to expect his own death and everyone else's, which isn't exactly a terrific way to make people feel comfortable. All that talk about having to "batter each other's brains out with rifle butts and rip each other's guts out with bayonets" (The Hunted, Act 2) can't exactly win you any friends.
Orin knows he's been destroyed by the war:
LAVINIA: I don't know! I've got to talk to you! For heaven's sake, forget the war! It's over now!
ORIN: Not inside us who killed! The rest is all a joke! The next morning I was in the trenches. This was at Petersburg. I hadn't slept. My head was queer. I thought what a joke it would be on the stupid Generals like Father if everyone on both sides suddenly saw the joke war was on them and laughed and shook hands! So I began to laugh and walked toward their lines with my hand out. Of course, the joke was on me and I got this wound in the head for my pains. I went mad, wanted to kill, and ran on, yelling.
He tells his fiancé he's damaged goods:
ORIN: No. Forget me. The Orin you loved was killed in the war. Remember only that dead hero and not his rotting ghost! (The Haunted, Act 3)
Orin has a lot of symptoms of what we now call PTSD. He's jumpy, easily startled, has flashbacks of the war, morbid thoughts, is depressed and withdrawn, and struggles to adjust to life at home. And—spoiler alert—he succumbs to suicide like too many veterans of war.
Orin's unnatural attachment to his mother is central to his character. O'Neill is all over Orin's "Oedipal" feelings (see our "Symbols" section for more on this.) There's not a single time when Christine and Orin interact that things don't get more than slightly weird. Take a minute to grab a barf-bag and take a look at this little exchange:
CHRISTINE: […] I think you'll discover before you're much older that there isn't anything your sister will stop at—that she will even accuse me of the vilest, most horrible things!
ORIN: Mother! Honestly now! You oughtn't to say that!
CHRISTINE: I mean it, Orin. I wouldn't say it to anyone but you. You know that. But we've always been so close you and I. I feel you are really—my flesh and blood! She isn't! She is your father's! You're a part of me!
ORIN: Yes! I feel that, too, Mother!
CHRISTINE: I know I can trust you to understand now as you always used to. We had a secret little world of our own in the old days, didn't we?—which no one but us knew about.
ORIN: You bet we did! No Mannons allowed was our password, remember?
CHRISTINE: And that's why your father and Vinnie could never forgive us! But we'll make that little world of our own again, won't we?
ORIN: Yes! (The Hunted, Act 2)
But wait, there's more!
ORIN: Someone loaned me the book I read and reread it until finally 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 was 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. (He smiles with a dreamy tenderness.) […] this was the most beautiful island in the world—as beautiful as you, mother! (The Hunted, Act 2)
CHRISTINE: I want to make up to you for all the injustice you suffered at your father's hands. It may seem a hard thing to say about the dead, but he was jealous of you. He hated you because he knew I loved you better than anything in the world!
ORIN: Do you, Mother? Do you honestly? I knew he had it in for me. But I never thought he went as far as to--hate me.
CHRISTINE: He did, just the same!
ORIN: All right then! I'll tell you the truth, Mother! I won't pretend to you I'm sorry he's dead!
CHRISTINE: Yes. I am glad, too!--that he has left us alone! Oh, how happy we'll be together, you and I, if you only won't let Vinnie poison your mind against me with her disgusting lies! (The Hunted, Act 2)
Orin's rage about Christine's affair isn't out of loyalty to his father. It's a jealous rage; someone else has his mother's intimate attention. This is one reason why his sister's able to drag him into her murder plot.
ORIN: […] I heard her asking him to kiss her! I heard her warn him against me! And my island I told her about—which was she and I—she wants to go there—with him! Damn you! Why did you stop me? I'd have shot his guts out in front of her! (The Hunted, Act 4)
This kid is doomed.
Lavinia and Orin have a relationship that's built around Orin getting pushed around and doing whatever Lavinia tells him to do—kind of like she was trying to be his mom (hint, hint). One of the first things we find out about Lavinia from Orin is his nickname for her when he calls her a "bossy fuss-buzzer" shortly after he shows up. The word "bossy" says it all.
We think that doesn't quite do it justice, though. We find out during Christine and Lavinia's argument in Homecoming that Lavinia basically forced Orin to fight in the war because it was "his duty as a Mannon to go" (Act 2), and Orin's comments later on prove that was true (The Hunted, Act 2). She also manages to convince Orin that his precious mother Christine conspired with her lover to murder their father, and she gets him to kill Brant. And here's a pretty heartbreaking exchange where poor Orin's consumed with guilt and regret and Lavinia moves in to take over his mind:
LAVINIA: Who murdered Father? Answer me!
ORIN: Mother was under his influence--
LAVINIA: That's a lie! It was he who was under hers. You know the truth!
LAVINIA: She was an adulteress and a murderess, wasn't she?
LAVINIA: If we'd done our duty under the law, she would have been hanged, wouldn't she?
LAVINIA: But we protected her. She could have lived, couldn't she? But she chose to kill herself as a punishment for her crime--of her own free will! It was an act of justice! You had nothing to do with it! You see that now, don't you? Tell me!
LAVINIA: And your feeling of being responsible for her death was only your morbid imagination! You don't feel it now! You'll never feel it again!
ORIN: No. (The Haunted, Act 1.ii)
At the end of the play, Orin finally attempts to get out from under his sister's control by writing his history of the Mannon family's many sins, including the murder of their father and Brant:
ORIN: Can't you see I'm now in Father's place and you're Mother? That's the evil destiny out of the past I haven't dared predict! I'm the Mannon you're chained to! So isn't it plain—
LAVINIA: For God's sake, won't you be quiet! Take care, Orin! You'll be responsible if--!
ORIN: If what? If I should die mysteriously of heart failure?
LAVINIA: Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Don't keep saying that! How can you be so horrible? Don't you know I'm your sister, who loves you, who would give her life to bring you peace?
ORIN: I don't believe you! I know you're plotting something! But you look out! I'll be watching you! And I warn you I won't stand your leaving me for Peter! I'm going to put this confession I've written in safe hands--to be read in case you try to marry him--or if I should die--
LAVINIA: Stop having such thoughts! Stop making me have them! You're like a devil torturing me! I won't listen! (The Haunted, Act 2)
Orin's last sick attempt at controlling his sister involves "consummating" their relationship, which has now come to replace his relationship with his mother. He tries to possess her. Lavinia's been doing the same thing but she freaks out when she sees what this has led to:
ORIN: And I suppose you think that's all it means, that I'll be content with a promise I've forced out of you, which you'll always be plotting to break? Oh, no! I'm not such a fool! I've got to be sure. You said you would do anything for me. That's a large promise, Vinnie--anything!
LAVINIA: What do you mean? What terrible thing have you been thinking lately--behind all your crazy talk? No, I don't want to know! Orin! Why do you look at me like that?
ORIN: You don't seem to feel all you mean to me now--all you have made yourself mean--since we murdered Mother!
ORIN: I love you now with all the guilt in me--the guilt we share! Perhaps I love you too much, Vinnie!
LAVINIA: You don't know what you're saying!
ORIN: There are times now when you don't seem to be my sister, nor Mother, but some stranger with the same beautiful hair-- Perhaps you're Marie Brantôme, eh? And you say there are no ghosts in this house?
LAVINIA: For God's sake--! No! You're insane! You can't mean--! (The Haunted, Act 3)
This just in: they're both doomed.