Themes, Motifs, and Symbols IN MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA



Although O’Neill supposedly derived Mourning Becomes Electra from the Oresteia, the parable that really structures the play’s action is overwhelming that of Oedipus. Oedipus was the Theban king who unwittingly killed his father and murdered his mother, bringing ruin to the land. Famously Freud elaborated this myth into his Oedipal complex, the structure through which children are conventionally introduced into the social order and normative sexual relations.

At the middle of this complex in what Freud defined as its positive form is that the child’s incestuous desire for the parent of the other sex, a desire possibly surmounted within the course of the child’s development as an alternative subject to repression. Its development is starkly differentiated for boys and girls. Both begin with a primary love object, the mother. The boy child only moves from the mother upon the threat of castration posed by his rival, the father. In other words, the boy fears that the daddy would cut his penis off if he continues to hold close to the mother who rightfully belongs to her husband. By prohibiting incest and instituting the right relations of desire within the household, the daddy becomes a figure of the law. In surmounting his Oedipal desires, the boy would then abandon his mother as a love object and identify himself together with his father.

In contrast, the girl abandons the mother upon realizing both the mother’s castration and her own. To her dismay, neither she nor her mother have a penis. She then turns to the daddy in hopes of bearing a toddler by him that might substitute for her missing penis; the girl would become a mother in her mother’s place. Thus, whereas castration ends the complex for the boy, it begins it for the girl.

The Oedipal drama in its many permutations determines the course of the trilogy. Lavinia, for instance, yearns to exchange Christine as wife to her father and mother to her brother. Christine clings to Orin as that the “flesh and blood,” entirely her own, that will keep on her castration. Brant, in turn, is but a substitute for her precious son. Orin yearns to re-establish his incestuous bond together with his mother. But the war, where he would finally assume the Mannon name, forces him from their pre-Oedipal embrace in the first place.

Though titled after Electra, the predominant pair of lovers in mourning is that the Mother-Son. Put bluntly, the male Mannons in how or another take their female love objects as Mother substitutes, and also the women pose them as their sons. The Fathers of the play, Ezra and otherwise, figure because the rival who would break this bond of affection. As we are going to see, what’s primarily being mourned here is that the loss of this love relation, this “lost island” where Mother and Son may be together.

Fate, Repetition, and Substitution

As Travis Bogard notes, O’Neill wrote Mourning to convince modern audiences of the persistence of Fate. Accordingly, throughout the trilogy, the players will remark upon a weird agency driving them into their illicit romances, murders, and betrayals. What O’Neill terms fate is that the repetition of a mythic structure of desire across the generations, the Oedipal drama.

As Orin will remark to Lavinia in “The Haunted,” the Mannon’s don’t have any choice but to assume the roles of Mother-Son that organize their case history. The players continually become substitutes for these two figures, a substitution made most explicit in Lavinia and Orin’s reincarnation as Christine and Ezra. during this particular case, Lavinia traces the classical Oedipal trajectory, during which the daughter, horrified by her castration, yearns to become the mother and bear a baby by her father that will redeem her lack. Orin directly figures as this child in addition because the husband would go away to be together with her son.

The Double/the Rival

The various substitutions among the players as structured by the Oedipal drama make the players each other’s doubles. The double is additionally the rival, the player who believes himself dispossessed convinced that his double stands in his proper place. Thus, as an example, Lavinia considers Christine the wife and mother she should be.

To take another example, Mourning’s male players universally vie for the need of Mother. The warfare generally remembered as a war between brothers involves symbolize this struggle. The men’s rivalries are murderously infantile, operating in step with a jealous logic of “either you go or I’m going.” Because within these rivalries the opposite appears as that which stands in the self’s rightful place within the Oedipal triangle, the rivals appear as doubles of every other also. Orin’s nightmare of his murders within the fog allegorizes this struggle, Orin repeatedly killing the identical man, himself, and his father. This compulsive series of murders demonstrate the impossibility of the lover ever acceding to his “rightful place” within the Oedipal triangle—Mother will always want another, producing one more rival.

The Law of the daddy

In the Oedipal myth, what tears the son removed from his incestuous embrace with the mother is that the imposition of the father’s law. Mourning’s principal father, Ezra, is a figure for this paternal law, though more in his symbolic form than in his own person. Ezra’s symbolic form includes his name, the portrait within which he wears his judge’s robes, and his ventriloquist voice. Indeed, his symbolic form almost usurps his person. Note how Ezra, in fear that he has become numb to himself, muses that he has become the statue of a good man, a monument within the town square.

Ezra’s death makes the importance of his symbolic function even more apparent. With the death of his person, he exercises the law with all the more force, haunting the living in his various symbolic forms. Thus, for instance, Christine will cringe before his portrait, Lavinia will invoke his voice and name to command Orin to attention.


The Blessed Islands

The fantasy of the Blessed Island recurs among the most important players because the lost Mother-Son dyad disrupted by the Oedipal drama. It, instead of any of their deaths, is that the trilogy’s principal object of mourning.

Orin offers the foremost extensive vision of the Blessed Island to Christine in Act II of “The Hunted.” A sanctuary from the war, the Island maybe a warm, peaceful, and secure paradise composed of the mother’s body. Thus Orin can imagine himself with Christine without her being there. In terms of the trilogy’s sexual drama, the Blessed Island is that the realm of the pre-Oedipal, the time of plentitude and wholeness shared by mother and child. However, Orin goes to war to try and do his duty as a Mannon.

The Natives

The Blessed Islands also are populated, within the players’ imaginations, by natives, which entwine their fantasies of sex with those of race. Generally, the native appears through two divergent images: the sexually innocent and also the sexually depraved. Thus, as an example, Lavinia will recall the islands because the home of timeless children, dancing naked on the beach and loving without sin. This island is that the perfect home for a pre-lapsarian romance. For Orin, however, the natives display an almost bestial sexual prowess, stripping his sister with their lascivious gazes. The native assumes these proportions when imagined as rivals, the prowess, and pleasure they might ostensibly provide the lover becoming objects of envy.


Though Mourning is rife with symbolism, the symbol that dominates the playing space is certainly the Mannon house. The home is in-built the fashion of a Greek temple, with a white-columned portico covering its gray walls. As Christine complaints in Act I of “Homecoming,” the home is the Mannons’ “whited sepulcher.” It functions not only as a crypt to the family’s death but also to its secrets. Its founder, Abe Mannon, designs it as a monument of repression, building it to hide over the disgrace that sets this revenge cycle in motion. What symbolizes this repression successively is that the house’s distinguishing feature, the “incongruous white mask” of a portico hiding its ugliness. This mask doubles those of its residents, evoking the “life-like masks” the Mannons wear as their faces.

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