Mourning Becomes Electra

by Eugene O’Neill

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What is the significance of title the 'Mourning Becomes Electra'?

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Mourning Becomes Electra is a story styled after the Greek legend and the title refers to how the lead character is condemned to a life of mourning the disasters that befall her family. In the Greek legends, Electra is the sister to Orestes, and they are the children of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. In the story, Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus kill Agamemnon in order to establish their relationship. Agamemnon is avenged by his children who murder both the mother and her lover but the story ends with Electra finding no peace in her life.

The Mannon family in the story by O’Neill goes through similar situations and the characters have a strong resemblance to the Greek legend. Electra is personified by Lavina, Clytemnestra is personified by Christine Mannon, Ezra (Agamemnon), Brant (Aegisthus), while Orin personifies Orestes. The Mannon family is marred by deaths, where Christine kills her husband (Ezra) to be with Brant, who is later killed by Orin. Christine commits suicide and so does Orin. The story ends with Lavina who goes back to their old lonely mansion.

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The title works on two different levels; on an aural level, O'Neill makes it sound like the title refers to a positive rebirth and transformation. One could think of the image of "morning" becoming "electric"; this is an image of brightness and renewal. This is ironic given the title's actual meaning, but having it work on two levels adds surprising depth.

However, the "mourning" in the title is actually a reference to the clothing one wears at a funeral or when mourning the dead. The idea that funereal garb is "becoming" (i.e., attractive) is commentary on the character Lavinia (who is modeled after Electra in the Greek tragedy this play is based upon), a young woman who resents her mother's marriage to another man soon after the death of Lavinia's father. The idea that the attitude of mourning is "becoming" refers to Lavinia's character arc; she comes to realize she harbors too much anger and pain and it is not making her thrive.


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What is the significance of the title "Mourning Becomes Electra?"

The title is intended to remind the reader of the ancient tragedies by Aeschylus and Euripides about the children of the House of Atreus. The plot evokes the Atreides' story by both its tragic construction and its themes of the effect of adultery and absence on families.

In the story of the House of Atreus, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia in order to obtain favorable winds for the fleet sailing to Troy. When Agamemnon is away, his wife Clytemnestra has an affair with Aigisthos. Agamemnon finally returns with the woman Cassandra as a war prize. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon and Cassandra with the help of her lover.

Orestes and Electra are the children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Orestes kills his own mother, and is then hunted by the Furies until the curse is finally resolved in Athens. Electra, during this, lives away from home, and mourns the destruction of her family and its effect on her chances at a normal marriage.

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