Mourning Becomes Electra Questions and Answers
by Eugene O’Neill

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Describe the sea imagery in the play and analyze the sea motif as an image of escape.

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Mourning Becomes Electra is a play cycle written by Eugene O’Neill that premiered in 1931. Set in 1865 New England, the three plays—known individually as Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted—is a reimagining of the Oresteia by Aeschylus. Deemed as a classic play from the naturalism movement, O’Neill use of imagery stems from the natural emotional states of humans.

Imagery of the sea is first seen in the play cycle’s setting. O’Neill sets this work outside of the Mannon residence on the outskirts of a small New England seaport town. Ocean waters can generally be tied with a desire to escape into a vast unknown. You can look out into the sea and see a new frontier to journey. The Mannons are a seafaring family, and there is a deep history of early generations of Mannons sailing away to paradisiacal islands.

Two of the Mannon women, Christine and Lavinia, find an escape from their Puritan lives through romantic ties to gentlemen whose trade belongs to the sea: Captain Adam Brant and Captain Peter Niles. For Christine, her affair with Brant can be seen as an escape from the mundane. As Brant says in act 1 of Homecoming,

I’ve lived most of my life at sea.

His fondness of the ocean typifies his open spirit. While Christine’s husband, Ezra, is at war, she takes a lover in Brant. In a sense, Brant is an escape from Ezra.

Lavinia is desperately jealous of her mother’s affair and wants Brant for herself, as she sees the same potential in him that Christine does. Lavinia threatens to expose Christine, but Christine and Brant plot to poison Ezra rather than force Christine to stay in a marriage she loathes.

When the deed is ultimately done, Christine’s conscience gets the best of her, and she plans to set sail with Brant. This circles back to the idea of escape, as Christine cannot escape her life or herself without him—and, ultimately, the sea itself. As Brant and Christine seek escape in act 4 of Homecoming, he says,

I’ve a foreboding I’ll never take this ship to sea. She doesn’t want me now—a coward hiding behind a woman’s skirts! The sea hates a coward!

He later goes on to say to Christine,

I’ll give up the sea. I think it’s through with me now, anyway! The sea hates a coward.

He has chosen Christine over his love for the open waters.

Peter is Lavinia’s intended. Many in the Mannon family, including Hazel (who is Orin’s fiancé and Peter’s sister), are fearful that Lavinia will hurt Peter in the process of her revenge. Despite this, Lavinia relates Peter and the sea in act 1, scene 2, of The Hunted when she says,

I’ve thought of you so much! Things were always reminding me of you—the ship and the sea—everything that was honest and clean!

Later in this dialogue with Peter, she dreamily states,

I loved those Islands. They finished setting me free. There was something there mysterious and beautiful—a good spirit—of love—coming out of the land and sea. It made me forget death . . .

O’Neill uses the sea as an image of escape through the men the women cling to and the idea that there is a paradise waiting for them. By being tied down to the Mannon estate, Christine and Lavinia need Brant and Peter as a means to escape. Unfortunately for them, the events on land prevent their escape to the sea.

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