Mourning Becomes Electra

by Eugene O’Neill

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Which kind of relationship exists between mother and daughter in Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O'Neill?

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Lavinia and her mother, Christina, resemble each other physically, but this commonality does not guarantee a close connection between the two characters. When they argue, Lavinia takes a competitive and combative approach with her mother, one that hints at difficulties in their relationship.

Eugene O'Neill wrote this play during the time at which Americans were aware of Freudian theories, so he incorporated the Electra complex into his depiction of the relationship between mother and daughter. An Electra complex concerns the excessive attachment a daughter might feel towards her father, and this attachment leads the daughter to vilify her mother, who is an obstacle to the daughter's connection to her father.

In this play, Lavinia feels absolute love and unconditional adoration for her father, so much so that it interferes with Lavinia's relationships with men her own age. These feelings toward her father, combined with Lavinia's growing identification with the role of her mother in the family unit, make for clear comparison to the relationship between Clytemnestra and Electra: the mother/daughter pair who was the inspiration for Freud's Electra complex.

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This play is an "updated" version of the Greek Tragedy Electra.  Both Sophocles and Euripides wrote plays about this daughter of King Agamemnon, who was killed by his wife Clytemnestra upon returning from the Trojan War, because Agamemnon had killed their daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice to the gods, providing the wind his ships needed to sail to Troy.

So, Lavinia and Christine are patterned after the characters Electra and Clytemnestra of these Greek Tragedies.  Their relationship is one of complete lack of understanding, one for the other's situation, as was true for their Ancient Greek counterparts.  Lavinia sees Christine's new love as a betrayal of her mother's relationship with her father, and she, like Electra idolizes her military hero dad.  She also harbors a deep desire for revenge upon her mother for killing her father.

Between mother and daughter, there is also competition for the love of Christine's son/Lavinia's brother, Orin.  This signifiesa use of the psychology of Freud and and sense of incest in this modern play that did not exist in the Ancient Greek texts, since this sort of psychological analysis of characters was not invented until the early 20th century.  The terms, Oedipus Complex and Electra Complex, however, are useful in examining the familial relationships in Mourning Becomes Electra.

For more on the mother/daughter relationship in this play, the Greek Tragedies Electra and the Electra Complex, please follow the links below.

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