Cycle of Guilt and Self-Punishment in O’Neil’s Mourning becomes Electra

-Anup Joshi

Cycle of Guilt and Self-Punishment in O’Neil’s Mourning becomes Electra

            This paper explores the theme of guilt and self-punishment in Eugene O’Neil’s very popular revenge tragedy Mourning becomes Electra first performed in 1931. The play is the modern retelling of Greek tragedy Oresteia by Aeschylus. Written as a play cycle constituting three plays, homecoming, the hunted and the haunted, the play also follows a cyclic motion in its content. As Flink puts it, “Circular stories follow a “round” pattern. Like the cycle of seasons or the life cycle, circular stories follow a predictable series of events that returns to the starting point” (par 1). The generations of Mannon face the same fate in a loop which keeps repeating itself. Heredity is very much dominating in the Mannon family. Every last Mannon is bound to suffer. The offspring are doomed to face the same plight of their ancestors. Lavina shares the guilt of her mother Christine. Orin recognizes with his father and later shoots himself like his mother did. There is rivalry between mother-daughter and father-son relationship as Freud explains in his concept of Oedipal and Electra complex.Work Cited

Epitome of Modern life, the Mannon family members are crooked by lust, greed and selfishness. They are ready to deceive the purest relationship to fulfill their lust. When they are discovered and truth is about to burst, they commit murder or go through Masochism and self-punishment in the pretext of family shame. As Xia puts it, Mourning becomes Electra is “a story of murder and intrigue, a bloodline of jealousy and terrible deeds, sealed with an enchanted ditty, like a spirit lurking in the cracks of time, and it’s waiting to be awakened by the same melody” (par 1). Jealousy, lust and incestuous pull are the major causes for the damnation of the characters.
            The tension unfolds in the play with the homecoming of Brigadier General Ezra Mannon from the civil war. Though Mannon is a war hero and deserves to be welcomed with celebration and triumph, he is mischievously poisoned by his own adulterous wife, Christine for the sake of her lover Brant, in the very first night of his return. Lavinia who is attracted to her father in unnatural way, is jealous of her mother from the very beginning and when she discovers the truth about the death of her beloved father, she is determined to avenge his death. “I love Father better than anyone in the world. There is nothing I wouldn’t do-to protect him from hurt!” (14). Lavinia even deserts her intention of marriage for her father. She is infatuated with her father. As her mother rightfully holds her father as her husband, Lavinia turns jealous towards her. She urges to be in-charge. After her father’s murder she manipulates her brother Orin to destroy her mother. Orin, sick of Oedipal complex, on the other hand is infatuated with his mother. But once he discovers that Christine is playing with him and her true intention is to achieve Brant, he goes mad with outrage and murders Brant.  With all of the Mannons dead, at the end of the play Lavinia becomes an alienated figure and orders her house to be nailed so that she will be alone with her guilt.
            The chain of guilt becomes apparent in the Mannon family with Ezra and Christine. At the time of marriage, both were in deep love. But as Lavinia and Orin are born, tension builds up between them. As Christine recalls, “I loved him once—before I married him—incredible as that seems now! He was handsome in his lieutenant’s uniform! He was silent and mysterious and romantic! But marriage soon turned romance into—disgust!” (19). This disgust as Christine blames is Lavinia. She always hated her daughter. On the contrary, Ezra found Christine’s affection for Orin envious. So, he stayed out of home for most of the time. In the night of his homecoming he confesses the guilt and suffering in his heart with his wife. “When I was back you had turned to your new baby, Orin, I was hardly alive for you anymore. I saw that. I tried not to hate Orin. I turned to Vinnie, but a daughter’s not a wife” (33). It looks like the Mother-son and Father-daughter bonding destroyed their marriage. Due to this incestuous hangover, the guilt is accumulated in the family over time. When we trace the family history, we can trace this chain of guilt to a long period of time. Brant is also a product of Mannon’s family guilt. He is to avenge Ezra and rest of the Mannons. As an illegitimate Mannon, he proclaims “My only shame is my dirty Mannon blood!” (15). His grandfather and uncle Ezra threw his father from home because of marriage to his mother Marie Brantome whom both the men physically desired. With the guilt to be an illegitimate one, he is successful in stealing Ezra’s wife, a woman he imagines in his mother’s image and seduces Lavinia to conceal their affair.
Furthermore, Orin writes Mannon family tree and witnesses this guilt residing in the family lives from many generations. “A true history of all the family crimes, beginning with Grandfather Abe’s—all of the crimes, including ours” (88). The guilt of lust, incest and desire seems to be prevailing in the family for a long chain. Orin and Lavinia are just on the line of continuum. Orin thus attempts to dig the history “to foretell what fate is in store” (88) for him and his sister.
             Christine shoots herself after her son murders Brant for her adulterous affair with him. As Brant is also from the Mannon line, their affair is incestuous. Their love is not the real love but the union to avenge the common enemy Ezra Mannon. With Brant’s death, and Orin discovering all about her adultery, Christine is doomed. She has lost her husband, lover and even son. As by that time Orin hates and despises her, she has no recluse. She might be arrested by police or be ashamed in the society as the adulterous and murderer woman. With no option left, she undergoes through self-punishment and kills herself for all the crime she has committed.
            After the death of Ezra and Christine, Lavinia and Orin live like an incestuous couple. The pattern of their relationship is similar to that of their parents. Orin now identifies himself with his father and Lavinia who despised her mother so much, now adopts the same role of her mother. Orin distances himself from Christine and says, “What is she to me? I am not her son anymore. I’m father’s! I am a Mannon!” (80). Moreover, he becomes totally infatuated with her sister Lavinia. He cannot distance himself away from her. On the other hand, alike mother despises father, Lavinia starts to be weary from Orin. She urges to become a carefree woman and plans marriage with Peter. Her closeness with Peter is a threat to Orin. He cannot let her go. Outraged he threatens her, “You are scheming now to leave me and marry Peter! But by God, you won’t! You’ll damn soon stop your tricks when you know what I’ve been writing! ... I warn you I won’t stand your leaving me for Peter” (87, 90). Orin is filled with guilt conscience. He finds himself responsible for the suicide of his mother. And he cannot be separated from Lavinia. He concludes that he is dammed with his sister. “Don’t cry. The dammed don’t cry” (90). Like his father, he also becomes maddened by the idea of death and keeps taking about death prior to his suicide. Lavinia wants to get rid of Orin for the sake of Peter. Like her mother poisoned her father to death, she also encourages Orin to commit suicide so that she will be left alone with Peter and she would get a carefree life. She pushes him, “I hate you! I wish you were dead! You’re too vile to live! You’d kill yourself if you weren’t a coward!” (95). Lavinia is totally responsible for the suicide of Orin. In the two generation we witness in the play, we can see same things repeating parallelly in the Mannon family. The plot of the play is thus not linear and moves to nowhere ahead. It is cyclic and same cycle of guilt, murder and suicide recur time and again.
            As Billington puts it, Orin among all the Mannons is “flakily neurotic” (par 2). He keeps talking about the guilt before he himself commits suicide. Unlike Lavinia, who urges to start a fresh life ahead, he cannot tackle with public sphere and loiters around his own private sphere. First his love towards his mother and now towards his sister has made himself feel guilty. So, he says to Lavinia, “I love you now with all the guilt in me—the guilt we share! Perhaps I love you too much Vinnie” (95). He is haunted by the guilt of Brant’s murder and forcing his mother to commit suicide. He feels guilty that he begins to see Lavinia not as a sister or mother, but “some stranger with a beautiful hair”. All the guilts are accumulated in his mind and is about to burst. He wants to confess his guilt through letter to Hazel but his sister restricts him to do so. He becomes a very oppressed person, guilt running through his veins all the time. As a result, he seeks a way out for the self-punishment. He gets the pistol which his mother used to shoot herself and departs from the world. But Lavinia refuses to share his guilt at that moment. She lets her brother kill himself alone.
            Lavinia turns out to be the most stubborn of all the characters in the play. She does not give up so easily. She does everything in her power to protect the guilt and crime Mannon family name holds. She attempts to start anew and determines to marry Peter, not because she loves him, but as she sees him as her liberator from the Mannon’s guilt. She tries to move forward. She wants to forget the dead and her past. But with Orin’s inability to move ahead, she too becomes crippled. Its like she is in the cobweb of psychological fate, destined to suffer at any cost. She screams to herself, “The dead! Why can’t the dead die!” (99). She transforms herself and tries to escape from the past but past keeps haunting her. At the last act of the play, when Peter pushes her to reveal the truth, she is finally forced to embrace her guilt. She cannot hold the deranged past for so long and confesses, “Orin Suspected I’d lusted with him! And I had!” (101). Before her confession, she called the death of Brant and Christine as “justice” and aggrandized it. It was her way of coping with life and moving ahead. Once she herself accepted her guilt deep from her heart her feet turned lame and she stumbled. After the incestuous curtain is pulled, alike all the Mannons, she too goes for the self-punishment. But the masochism she inflicts upon herself is most dreadful among all.
“I’m not going the way mother and Orin went. That’s escaping punishment. And there is no one left to punish me. I’m the last Mannon. I’ve got to punish myself! Living alone here with the dead is a worse act of justice than death or prison! I’ll never go out or see anyone! I will have the shutters nailed closed so no sunlight can ever get in. I’ll live alone with the dead and keep their secrets and let them hound me, until the curse is paid out and the last Mannon is let die!” (102).
To conclude, O’Neil’s play uses the classical template to explore the modern life of the modern people in late 19th century. Modernists writers and thinkers incline towards cyclic plot rather than chronological one. Modern people are driven by lust, desire, greed, warfare and envy. And these characteristics are bound to repeat in every generation. There is no way escaping this fate. In the play, civil war is responsible to break the Mannons’ psyche and drive them crazy. The play is very similar to the W.B. Yeats’ play Purgatory which also tells a family saga of decline and fall. The cycle of guilt and punishment are recurring in a loop. There is no end to it. Yeats’ protagonist, the old man moves ahead and stabs his son to break the cycle of crime but still his mother resides on purgatory and there is no escaping to it. Similarly, O’Neil’s characters are also dammed with the cycle of guilt and self-punishment. The plot structure is in a way linear in structure as Rush calls “to describe the events in the order in which they happened” (37) linear arrangement of plot. The plot moves with time but using flashbacks to talk about the Brant’s origin and Orin’s tour to the island with Lavinia makes the plot complex. The content of the play is very circular. The playwright even loops around the setting of the play from interior and exterior part of the Mannon’s house to give circularity. The characters out of their oedipal and electra complexes, indulge themselves in a guilty act. When their sinister acts reach to the apex, they finally accept their guilt and punish themselves as a way of balancing. Lavinia will have to be haunted by the dead and the past up to eternity. She could not escape this terrible fate. She turns the house as a prison and nails herself inside. 

Billington, Michael. “Mourning Becomes Electra”. The Guardian. 18 Nov. 2017. Web.
Flink, Lisa Storm. “Unwinding A Circular Plot: Prediction Strategies in Reading and
Writing”. Read Write Think. 18 Nov. 2017. Web.
O’Neil, Eugene. “Mourning Becomes Electra”. Project Guttenberg Australia. 18 Nov.2017.
Ebook. <>
Rush, David. A student Guide to Play Analysis. New York: Library of Congress, 2005. Print.
Xia, Ran. “Mourning Becomes Electra”. Theatre is Easy. 18 Nov. 2017. Web.
Yeats, W.B. "Purgatory." Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. Ed. John p. Harrington.
Second ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009. 29-35. Print.
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About Anup Joshi

Anup Joshi is an emerging young writer searching for space in Nepali literature. He writes poems, stories and lyrics for songs. As a student of English literature he loves reading books. He is also a passionate photographer and enjoys travelling.
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