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The Oedipal triangular structure and its significance for "Mourning Becomes Electra"

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2010 20 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


Table of contents

I. Introduction: Freud and O’Neill so far

II. Freudian background of Mourning Becomes Electra

III. The Oedipal triangles in Mourning Becomes Electra
A) Ezra – Christine – Orin
B) Ezra – Christine – Vinnie
C) Ezra – Christine – Adam Brant
D) Adam Brant – Christine – Vinnie
E) Adam Brant – Christine – Orin
F) Vinnie – Peter – Orin

IV. The Interconnecting of the Oedipal triangles

V. Conclusion


Works Cited

I. Introduction: Freud and O’Neill so far

I don’t agree with your Freudian objection. Taken from my authors’ angle, I find fault with critics on exactly the same point – that they read too damn much Freud into stuff that could very well have been written exactly as is before psychoanalysis was ever heard of. (Clark 135-136)

As Eugene O’Neill describes in this statement, he does not want to have his plays solely read from a psychoanalytical perspective. Critics, however, stressed O’Neill’s innovative dramatic approach in Mourning Becomes Eletrca by designing the conflicts between family members with Freudian concepts to express jealousy or guilt (Borchers 89). Some scholars claim that O’Neill reached its greatest height not only as dramatic playwright but also as a psychoanalytic playwright with Mourning Becomes Electra (Nethericot 254). Nevertheless, most critics see the Freudian motif as a weakness and not as a major advantage to the play (cf. Sheaffer 371). But the dramatist not only used this modern way, but also heavily drew from ancient models, like Aeschylus’ Orestia or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, from which the Austrian psychoanalyst had derived his ideas (Robinson 76). The source of influence may be O’Neill’s own psychological treatment during the Twenties, where an Oedipal complex was diagnosed on him (Moorton 306). Hans Borchers traced the influence of psychoanalysis on O’Neill’s works chronologically with the help of the playwrights’ diaries and work notes, concluding that he was very much concerned with this new science and confirmed the influence of his treatment (91).

In how far O’Neill was personally influenced by Freud still remains debatable, but most scholars devoted their time to investigate Freudian motifs and their impact on Mourning Becomes Electra. There is now an abundance of works so I cannot list them all here. Yet, none of them sees the Oedipal characters in O’Neill’s play in connection, but analyzes them separately. Consequently, during the research for my paper, I discovered that scholars usually interpret Mourning Becomes Electra and its characters from this Freudian perspective and tend to overlook the interpersonal relations and details this play has to offer (cf. Borchers / Nethoerot / Alexander). I will accordingly try to argue against this orthodox or traditional reading with a more sophisticated one. For this reason my essay will have the Mannon family structure as its main concern. I will look at how the different characters deal with each other to show that they are all connected in what Carl-Gustav Jung, the famous Freud disciple, regarded as an “Oedipal triangle”. It means that a son or a daughter “loves” the parent of the opposite sex and wants to kill this parent and take his or her place. I will then aim to prove that these different triangles – of which there are several in Mourning Becomes Electra – link up with each other and thus give the whole play its driving element, its motor, since there is not only one of this personal constellations as in contrast to Sophocles’ or Aeschylus’ play.

The paper will start with a brief depiction of what Freud and especially Jung, whom O’Neill even more appreciated, conceived by their theoretical assumptions, which will lay the foundation for a more detailed analysis of the play. Afterwards, I will investigate the Oedipal triangles to show how they work and how people in them behave throughout the play, to lay open how the interactions within the triangles. I will then take these results one level higher and explain how the characters are acting as part of one triangle and at the same time in another, which animates other actions that are crucial to the plot of the play. I thereby hope to prove my postulation that the Oedipal drama in its many permutations determines the outcome of the trilogy by O’Neill.

II. Freudian background of Mourning becomes Electra

Freud and his famous psychoanalytical findings of the late 19th and early 20th century are nowadays considered as outdated by psychoanalysts, yet they served as theoretical and dramatical source for O’Neill’s play, which was premiered at the heyday of these theories in 1931 (Barlow 170). Famously, Freud elaborated these results into his Oedipus complex in his work Das Ich und das Es. Oedipus was the Theban king who without knowing killed his father and murdered his mother, bringing destruction to his reign.

At the center of this complex in what Freud defined as its positive form is the child’s incestuous desire for the parent of the other sex. This desire is normally overcome during the course of childhood and will be repressed by the child. This development is totally different for boys and girls, however both begin with the same primary love object, namely their mother. The boy child only drains from the mother because of the threat of castration posed by his (sexual) rival, the father. In other words, the boy fears that the father would cut his penis off if he does not stop to stick to his mother who rightfully belongs to him. By prohibiting incest and instituting the proper relations of desire within the household, the father 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 with his father. (cf. Freud Das Ich und das Es)

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 has a penis. She then turns to the father in hopes of bearing a child by him that would substitute for her missing penis; the girl would become a mother in her mother's place. Thus, whereas castration ends the Oedipus complex for the boy, it begins it for the girl. However, Sigmund Freud himself never developed the so-called Electra complex. His disciple Carl-Gustav Jung advocated it in his essay Versuch einer Darstellung der psychoanalytischen Theorie in 1913, where he described it as a the equivalent to Freud’s theory. He named it after Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon. She wanted to kill her mother, who had helped plan the murder of her father. Interestingly, Freud on the other hand “nowhere in the Standard Edition of Freud’s Collected Works does Freud discuss matricide.” (Slipp 95)

For this paper’s purpose, it is most important to bear in mind the Oedipal triangle from which the child wants to exclude the parent of the same sex to be able to possess the parent of the other sex for him or herself. This means, that the child is unconsciously inhabited by an incestuous desire.

III. The Oedipal triangles in Mourning becomes Electra

A) Ezra – Christine – Orin

Though titled after Electra, the predominant pair of lovers in Mourning Becomes Electra is the mother-son, because their relation lasts a lot longer than the father-daughter’s. Put bluntly, the male Mannons in some way take their female love objects as mother substitutes and the women regard them as their sons (Barlow 172). Against this works the strong love of Ezra Mannon, the rightful spouse of Christine, who wants to win back her lost love. (O’Neill 89-92)

That Orin wants to take his father’s place after his death is extremely stressed in the play, especially in The Haunted. Christine: Poor boy! Does it [his wound] pain now? Orin: Not much. Not all when your hand is there. […] Gosh, Mother, it feels so darned good to be home with you!” (Ibid. 135) Then, Orin makes his mother compliments about her good looks, which Christine enjoys. (Ibid. 136) He additionally puts his mother above everything else in his life: “You come before everything!” (Ibid. 138) O’Neill lets Orin emphasize his incestuous feelings openly (Borchers 100). He often dreams about him and Christine to be on a remote island where both could lead a happy life without being bothered by others. His serious head wound he suffered during fighting in the Civil War caused these dreams (O’Neill 148-150). For Freud, analyzing dreams was essential in finding out hidden feelings in the unconscious, because he was convinced that dreams revealed the inner of a human. (cf. Freud Die Traumdeutung) Furthermore, Orin is totally influenced by his mother and does whatever she asks him to (O’Neill 71).

The mother strongly and fully loves her second born child Orin back. The mother does not hesitate to demonstrate her stark love feelings towards Orin. She utters them right away in their first encounter after Orin came home: “You poor darling, how you must have suffered! (She kisses him.) But it’s all over now, thank God. I’ve got you back again! (Keeping her arm around him, she leads him up the steps.) (Ibid. 128) Mother and son share their mutual affection. For instance, Christine says: “But we have always been so close, you [Orin] and I. I feel you are really – my flesh and blood! She isn’t! She is your father’s! You are a part of me!” Orin replies: “Yes! I fell that, too, Mother!” and the two have their own in-group to which all Mannons are excluded by a little password. “She had lavished possessive affection on her second child Orin […] during her husband’s absence” in the Mexican War “thus causing the son to be pathetically fixated on her.” (Gassner 31-32) Surprisingly, this is not part of the concept Freud described: in his idea, the mother did not voluntary attach the son to herself – for Freud, the child does so all by his natural development and without maternal influence. According to Hans Borchers, the explanation lies in the strong Mannon characters that are unable to follow the usual, “civilized” solution postulated by Freud, namely to identify with the father and fill out his gender role (103).

After Ezra’s death, Orin “doesn’t even pretend to be sorry, and his expression of affection for his mother appropriates the language of lovers.” (Moorton 309) In The Haunted, he says to Christine: “And I’ll never leave you again now. I don’t want Hazel or anyone. (With a tender grin) You’re my only girl.” (O’Neill 90)

Orin feels a deep suspicion of his mother after his father’s death, but emotionally he cannot bear to think any evil of her. Deep inside his heart, he feels relieved that Ezra is gone, since he is now able to have his mother entirely to himself and be as a child completely immersed in her love (Skinner 219). However, even before his murder, the father did not play a significant active role in this triangle, since he was often absent. At first, he was waging war against the rebels and later he is dead. However, a presence of his figure still lingers around, achieved by two means: either, we have his portrait in his study room (O’Neill 51) or his dead body remains laid out for some time in the house (Ibid. 131). Ezra continues to be there only silently, thus maintaining the triangle at least mentally for Orin. But he hopes that “we’ll get Vinnie to marry Peter and there will be just you and I.” (Ibid. 183)

But one of the strongest contrasts to the ancient model is that our male protagonist, unlike Oedipus, does not kill his own father. In Mourning Becomes Elektra, it is his wife, and thus the mother, who commits the murder. So, O’Neill withdrew the most vital point of the Oedipal conflict: the murder of the father by his own son. From this perspective, Orin cannot be blamed for patricide in our triangle. But Christine is to blame and by her single action determines the outcome also of the next triangle.

B) Ezra – Christine – Vinnie

The female descendant of the Mannon family, Vinnie, loves her father and hates her mother; her father acts as a foil for the ensuing struggle between Vinne and her mother Christine. All this can be detected in the title, as the name Electra appears in it and hints at the psychological reading of the play.

Lavinia consequently yearns to replace Christine as wife to her father and mother to her brother, which is already mentioned in her first stage appearance and the stage directions (“Lavinia comes out to the top of the steps where her mother had stood”, “by her facial resemblance to her mother” O’Neill 22-23). But even the others sense it. Orin: “She’s always coddling Father and he likes it, although he pretends – “ (Ibid. 134) Lavinia additionally assures Ezra: “You’re the only man I’ll ever love! I’m going to stay with you!” (Ibid. 87) Mannon mirrors her love, but when he hears about his daughter’s new acquaintance Adam Brant he reacts with jealousy (Ibid. 86). Vinnie remains in a childlike dependence on her father Ezra until his death, where she cries: “Father! Don’t leave me alone! Come back to me! Tell me what to do!” (Ibid. 108) which he, too, likes a lot: “I want you to remain my little girl – for a while longer, at least.” (Ibid. 87)

This father-daughter attachment is due to Christine’s horrifying wedding night. She there experienced brutal sexuality by her husband and subsequently felt estranged “from the fruit of her union. Christine thus alienated from her daughter, making the girl excessively attached to her father.” (Gassner 31) Christine realizes that it is unnatural not to love one’s own child though (O’Neill 56). Besides, Vinnie is hurt because her mother does not love her. “So I was born of your disgust. I’ve always guessed that, Mother – ever since I was little – when I used to come to you – with love – but you would always push me away!” (Ibid. 56) Hereafter, the reader understands why Vinnie is so full of anger and disappointment towards her mother. “In short, Vinnie is competing against Orion for Christine’s love.” But she is also aware of the fact that she cannot win her mother’s love and therefore wants to prove to herself that she does not need her affection. (Hedderel) This “forced the girl to seek both paternal and maternal love from General Mannon.” (Hammer 103) This also proofs how Christine’s estrangement from her daughter caused the creation of this this triangle in which Vinnie is yearning for her father’s love, but also indicates the reason why Lavinia will fall in love with Brant, as he embodies a younger version of her father.

Christine constantly sensed the rivalry between her and Vinnie. She suspected her of trying to take her place in the family. “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!” (O’Neill 59) Critics claimed that Christine is competitive towards her own daughter, as she embodies a sexual threat to her. The mother ages and loses her beauty, whereas Vinnie finally matures and is developing her attractiveness (Hammer 103-104). Moreover, Christine is five years older than Ezra, which seems to be an issue in itself. But that is not all: the two are also struggling about dominating the other. After Vinne found out about Brant and her mother, the mother fears that Vinnie will blackmail her into a dependent position in the family with her knowledge (O’Neill 62). If Vinnie would succeed, this would determine the course of this, but also the following triangle for the reason that it could reverse the power structures. Then, Vinnie could freely choose her partner and escape the sexual repression of her mother (Moorton 312).



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Institution / Hochschule
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Eugene O'Neill Amerikanisches Drama 20. Jahrhundert Mourning Becomes Elektra



Titel: The Oedipal triangular structure and its significance for "Mourning Becomes Electra"