Lavinia as a form of Nemesis in “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugen O’Neill
Is the vengeance the best remedy for all the wrongdoings? If so then what about the consequences it creates. It is not the question to be asked in the case of what is wrong and what is right because there is always justice and penalty according to a deed. Hence, this paper attempts how the atrocious vengeance of the major character Lavinia in the play ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’, leads her to her own degradation. In another word, Lavinia, who is the protagonist as well as an antagonist of the play, has strong infatuation towards her father (Ezra Mannon) and extreme hate to mother (Christine Mannon), thus, she wants to punish her mother for what she does so she would stay with her father forever. However, things change when she finds out her mother’s adultery and the assassination of her father by her mother. Consequently, there occurs the fall of Mannon clan. While talking about Nemesis David Rush in his book A Student Guide to Play Analysis writes:
The term nemesis comes from the name of the Greek goddess of vengeance in classical mythology. Nemesis was one of the minor deities, whose job it was to seek vengeance on wrongdoers. The word itself, therefore, refers to any person or force that seeks to right a wrong and that wants to make a guilty person pay. The nemesis provides the punishment.
Thereupon, this paper tags Lavinia the tag of nemesis because she tries to take a vengeance to her mother. Her mother is involved in adultery and who poisons her husband. Lavinia’s hatred toward her mother begins since she starts to be a fond of her father. Actually, she wants to dethrone her mother from her place and be the wife of her father and mother of her brother. This argument is precise when her mother Christine says: “I know, Vinnie! I’ve watched you ever since you were little, trying to do exactly what you are doing now! You’ve tried to become the wife of your father and mother of your brother” (Act Two). Her jealousy to her mother turns out to be vengeance when her mother reveals that she does not love her father instead, she has a dislike in her heart for her husband, and however, she has an illicit relationship with Adam Brant (who is also the blood of Mannon family). She rather loves her son, Orin very much. Her vehemence towards her mother increases more when she learns that her mother’s lover is the son of her disinherited uncle David Mannon who is also trying to take revenge against Mannon family, especially, Ezra Mannon.
In the play, Mourning Becomes Electra, there are other factors too which oblige her to hate her mother, for instance, her makes her son in favour of her which Lavinia does not want. Her mother also maker her son, Orin to hate his father and lets him believe that his sister is out of her mind and so forth. All these things, in a nutshell, are the major factors that fill Lavinia with hatred and vengeance. She assumes that her mother is guilty, thus, she needs to be punished. However, her mother’s extramarital affair with Brant is exposed. Even her son knows about it and begins to hate her mother. Similarly, they think their mother should be punished, hence, the right penalty for her is to separate her from her lover and it is possible only when her beau is exterminated from the world. Therefore, to punish her Orin kills her lover then the situation becomes more complicated in the family. Later on, her mother shoots herself with her husband’s pistol because she had a planning to elope with Captain Brant resigning the stain of Mannon Family. However, her dream of escaping from the reality is withered when she gets the news of her beau’s murder. On the other hand, Orin who is very much infatuated with her mother regrets killing Captain Brant and letting her know that he is the killer of Mr. Brant. He pleads before Lavinia: “Why didn’t I let her believe burglars killed him? She wouldn’t have hated me then! She would have forgotten him! She would have turned to me! I murdered her” (Act Five). However, Orin is haunted by his deed. Thus, he kills himself. And it is Lavinia who is left alone in the world, in the Mannon house. Mannon house, actually, is full of wretchedness. Even Lavinia tells Seth (an old gardener): “there’s no rest in this house which Grandfather built as a temple of Hate and Death!” (Act3 The Hunted).
However, columnist Elexis Soloski in The New York Times writes:
The Civil War general Ezra Mannon (the Agamemnon stand-in) is killed by his wife, Christine, and her lover, the sea captain Adam Brant, Ezra’s cousin. When Ezra’s son, Orin, returns from the war, he and his sister, Lavinia, kill Brant and drive their mother to suicide. Then Orin, tormented by incestuous desire for his sister, kills himself, while the haunted Lavinia, “possessed by hate and death,” retreats to the shadowed family manse.
This is very short and a precise synopsis of the play Mourning becomes Electra which clearly states that the protagonist of the drama is only one in the family who is alive in the world to suffer more. Moreover, she is, actually, not alone but she chooses to be alone because there is not an option instead of being locked inside the house. Ever her lover Peter, who loves her tenderly, quits her after knowing her reality. On the other hand, Peter Clark links the play with Naturalism and Expressionism. He asserts that naturalism is one of the factors that determine our psychic. Thus, we behave or act accordingly. As he writes:
In Mourning Becomes Electra, O’Neill attempts to show how certain characters are dominated by their sexual drives, which cause them to commit crimes that repulse the ordinary person. In the play, man becomes a victim of forces beyond his control whether these forces are environmental, psychological, or biological. (p7)
Indeed, in the play, Lavinia is highly dominated by her sexual drive. That is why she is drawn to her father and brother instead of her mother. Rather she takes her mother as an enemy and wants to kill her as a punishment because he is guilty of murdering her father. She is against her mother. As Sigmund Freud says, it is oedipal complex because of which daughter and mother, father, and son behave as if they are rivals. This is what happens in the play. Furthermore, Clark further writes about Expressionism. In his language it is:
Expressionism is a theatrical technique in which the dramatist suggests symbolically through his staging and his settings certain inner feelings of his characters or his subject matter. Expressionistic dramatists were more interested in conveying their ideas than in giving a true representation of reality. In fact, this form is often a distortion of reality in order to present intimations of certain psychological states of mind. Expressionism uses symbols and symbolism in portraying crude violence and emotional intensity. Often there is a rejection of the strong individualistic character in favor of the more abstract symbol. There is seldom an interest in cause and effect because the dramatist wants to convey his ideas through abstractions. (p.8)
O’Neill in this play Mourning Becomes Electra tries to convey how some characters are dominated by their extreme attitude and belief system, which cannot be neglected because it carries the wholeness of the characters. For instance, Lavinia in the play has that psychological state of mind which represents her inner willingness to be mingled with her father. Thus, envies her biological mother. However, her desire and vengeance lead her to the alienation of self.
At the end of Mourning becomes Electra she is tired of being what she is not. She tried to be a Goddess Nemesis and tried her best to punish her mother for committed the crime. Somehow, she succeeds on her mission but it does not do any good to her because it’s she who is forced to be living alone in the world, for her father being assassinated, her mother and brother committed suicide. Nevertheless, she rejects to kill herself. Neither desires to behold any human visage in her life. She says to Seth before closing her inside the house:
Don’t be afraid. I’m not going away the way mother and Orin went. That’s escaping punishment. And there’s 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’ll have the shutter 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 le die! I know they will see to it I live for a long time! It takes the Mannons to punish themselves for being born.(p 218)
Nemesis in “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugen O’Neill come towards the end of the article and claims that Lavinia tries to act as Nemesis but she fails because of her extreme vengeance. She cannot play fair while playing as the justice goddess. However, it is not her job to punish her mother just because she has done a mistake. And it is the duty of the God to punish culprits. Or let’s say, we, who commit crime get penalty sooner or later, accordingly to our deeds and it certainly. Ergo, in the play, the role of Lavinia is unnecessary because she did not have to do what she actually did. However, her act brought her own and her family’s degradation.
Clark, Peter, and James L. Roberts. The Emperor Jones, the Hairy Ape, Mourning Becomes Electra: Notes. Cliffs Notes, 1995.
O’Neill, Eugene. Mourning Becomes Electra. Oxford: Oxford City, 2011. Print.
Rush, David. A Student Guide to Play Analysis. Southern Illinois UP, 2005,
Soloski, Alexis. “Review: In ‘Drunken With What,’ a Streamlined ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’.”The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 Oct. 2017.