The Freudian view of behaviour invokes a region as mysterious as the dwelling-place of the gods and sees human motivation as guided by impulses as imperative as divine commands. As the social dimension of O’Neill’s action extends into, the puritan past, so the broader dimension extends into the unconscious where drives are determined by infantile experience.
Freudianism and Crime
Freudian theories of character are a version of reality that explains the crimes of the Mannons as their puritans heritage explains their feelings of guilt. When intellectuals of the twenties characterized puritanism as repressive, they were using a word, that has explicit Freudian sanction, When O’Neill chose Freudian psychology to motivate the action, he extended the dimensions of his play-world into areas as broad as the Olympus of Aeschylus.
Like the puritanism, the Freudianism of the play is popular and unscientific. Mourning Becomes Electra is not a carefully documented case study nor was intended to be. The fact that the doctrines of Freud were widely misunderstood and vastly oversimplified by the public and the popularizers, did not prevent the playwright or the novelist––who often did not understand them either––from using the attitudes towards human behaviour that the theories suggested. However imprecisely, the public knew that Freud insisted on the relevance of the sex drive to life-adjustment, on the dangers of repression, on the importance of dreams as a key to self-knowledge in these areas. The unconscious or subconscious was a deep, dark, cellar-like place from which proceeded equally dark impulses like the urge to marry your mother ; repression was a dangerous damming-up of such urges and led to abnormal inversions. The biological determinism of nineteenth-century Naturalism also had prepared the ground for the psychological determinism of these theories. Whether or not the public approved, Freudianism, as it was understood or misunderstood, represented in the 1920’s a definite complex of attitudes about the importance of the psyche as a key to human behaviour.
O’Neill’s Psychological Intuitions
O’Neill himself insisted that his knowledge of the psychoanalysts was unscientific and fragmentary, and that he was guided more by intuition than by any theory :
There is no conscious use of psychoanalytic material in any of my plays. All of them could easily be written by any dramatist who had never heard of the Freudian theory and it was simply guided by an intuitive psychological insight into human beings and their life-impulsions that is as old as Greek drama. It is true that I am enough a student of modern psychology to be familiar with the Freudian implications inherent in the actions of some of my characters while I was portraying them ; but this was always an afterthought and never consciously was I for a moment influenced to shape my material along the lines of any psychological theory. It was my dramatic instinct and my personal experience with human life that alone guide me.
There are pieces of autobiography to which O’Neill could have pointed to justify his stand, for instance, Jamie O’Neill’s devotion to his mother and the fact that Eugene always thought that this devotion kept his brother unmarried. Eugene’s own attachment to his mother’ was deep and firm, even under the strain of Ellen O’Neill’s dope addiction. In his own experience, too, there was the idealistic Irish-Catholic identification of mother with the Virgina –– a Jansenistic preoccupation with purity that was tied tightly to the mother-image. In the broader cultural perspective, there is the American reverence for “Ma” that assumes almost a mythical proportions in folk traditions. The woman keeps the flame, “not only of the hearth, but of duty and purity and faith and hope” in a rude masculine world. Nonetheless, in spite of O’Neill’s contention, there is a psychological theory built into the plot and characters, of Mourning Becomes Electra. If O’Neill is working from his own experience, he interprets it according to the categories that popular Freudianism offered him. That hypothesis attached a darker significance to the traditional attachment to mother, and to mother’s attachment to her “boy”. The folk tale attitude towards mother, the American experience and O’Neill’s own heritage established a background for the Freudian position and indicate how the playwright is likely to interpret the “complexes”.
Specific Details of Freudianism
The specific details of O’Neill’s Freudianism in Mourning Becomes Electra are elaborated from the oversimplified proposition that every male is attracted to the woman who resembles his mother in physical appearance and every female desires a man who resembles her father. The prototype of the female in the play is Marie Brantome. Christine and Lavinia both, resemble her, especially in their “peculiar shade of copper gold hair”. Adam says to Lavinia : “Lavinia, you’re so like your mother in some ways. Your face is the dead image of hers. And look at your hair. You won’t meet hair like yours and hers again in a month of Sundays. I only know one other woman who had it. You’ll think it strange when I tell you. It was my mother.” The Mannon women are identified with one another through this symbol. The Mannon men, too, look alike––Adam, Ezra and Orin. These similarities visualize the tangled, interlocked relationship among the members of the family at the same time as they “explain” them. Given this pattern, according to the Freudian hypothesis, the involvements are predictable. Adam loves Christine ; Lavinia loves her father, Adam and Orin ; Ezra loves his wife and daughter ; Orin loves his mother and his sister. Reciprocally Lavinia hates Christine ; Adam hates Ezra and Orin ; Orin hate rivals for his mother’s love, Adam and Ezra. Christine’s revulsion for her husband is explained by another Freudian postulate, her unfortunate experience on her wedding night, presumably Ezra’s ineffective love making. Orin’s complex and Lavinia’s are treated specifically in the course of the dialogue ; Lavinia has a fixation on her father and her brother, and Orin is still his mother’s “boy”.
Orin’s mother complex is developed at some length. He has had his mother’s love, he is her “baby”. And his love for her, while rife with sexual overtones, is reverential. His greeting on their first encounter in the play contains a curious juxtaposition “Mother ! God, it is good to see you !” Christine deals with him in seductive terms, emphasizing the physical in their relationship ‘You’re a big man now, aren’t you ? I can’t believe it. It seems only yesterday when I used to find you in your night shirt hiding in the hall upstairs on the chance that I’d come up and you’d get one more goodnight kiss.” According to the play, the “Oedipus complex” arises because the mother loves the father too little and the son too much. This Freudian hypothesis explains the attraction and attachments that motivate the events––each Mannon is drawn by an unconscious impulse to that person who resembles the parent of the opposite sex. In Orin and Lavinia, the third generation, this impulse has grown into a fixation, a love-hate directed primarily at mother. The most illuminating instance of the operation of this Freudianism is the hero’s mother-fixation. His fate turns on his complex ; in him the pattern of psychological forces work out to a conclusion. He is mother’s boy, with all that implies, and his attachment, moreover, includes an explicit connection of mother with peace, innocence and the security of infancy. While away at war, Orin dreamt of his mother as an Island of peace. The playwright leaves little to the imagination. The Island surrounds Orin ; it is warm, secure amid the wash of waters. It does not take a particularly acute dream-diagnostician to recognize the desire to return to the womb. Supplementary to this dream was the illusion that each man he killed at the front resembled his father. The wish to possess mother and the acting out of the father-murder give Orin the classic Oedipal symptoms. This complex moves him to murder Adam, and the brunt of his hatred falls on the father-figure, not on the mother. Christine’s presence always has a softening effect. When he witnesses Christine’s disintegration because of Adam’s death, he pleads with her : “Mother ! Don’t moan like that ! How could you grieve for that servant’s bastard ? 1 knew he was the one who planned Father’s murder! You couldn’t have done that ! He got you under his influence to revenge himself ! …But you’ll forget him ! I’ll make you forget him ! I’ll make you happy.” In the midst of his jealousy, he is suffering from fractured idealism a desire to preserve his mother immaculate.
Lavinia Becomes Mother
This image of Mother remains inviolate throughout the play. As Mother, Christine symbolizes “pre-natal, noncompetitive freedom from fear”, as O’Neill says elsewhere. Even Christine’s rejection of Lavinia does not make her an “unnatural mother” ; it is the result of not being able to consider Lavinia her child. And Lavinia’s hatred screens a longing for mother-love. After Christine’s suicide Lavinia becomes Mother––she has assumed Christine’s function along with her personality. She takes care of Orin, watches over him. More than ever Orin is caught by his complex : Orin says to Lavinia ; “You don’t know how like Mother you’ve become, Vinnie. I don’t mean only how pretty you’ve gotten……I mean the change in your soul, too……little by little it grew like Mother’s soul––as if you were stealing hers––as if her death had set you free to become her.” And further he says : “Can’t you see I’m now in Father’s place and you’re Mother ?” The transformation into “Father and Mother” is complete, and Orin’s complex made completely explicit, when he makes his proposal to his sister : “I love you now with all the guilt in me––the guilt we share ! Perhaps I love you too much, Vinnie……There are times now when you don’t seem to be my sister, nor Mother, but some stranger with the same beautiful hair––”. He touches her hair caressingly. She pulls violently away. He laughs wildly. He continues, “Perhaps you’re Marie Brantome, eh ? And you say there are no ghosts in the house.” Lavinia says, “For God’s Sake––! No ! You’re insane ! You can’t mean–– !” Then Orin says, “How else can I be sure you won’t leave me ? You would never dare leave me then. You would feel as guilty as I do ! You would be as damned as I am!” By taking Lavinia, Orin would fulfil his desire to possess Mother completely ; he would also be able to share the burden of his guilt. The pivotal point of the action here is Lavinia’s horror at Orin’s proposal ; there is simply no question in her mind of actual incest. Lavinia in the Islands and with “clean, honest Peter” was sufficiently emancipated : “Any love is beautiful.” But emancipation draws the line at incest. The mother is ultimately attainable only by another, even darker, door.
Orin’s Return to Personal Unconscious
Stripped of its “Island” imagery, the way back to the womb, to peace and security, is a return to the oblivion of personal unconsciousness. Orin cannot confess his guilt publicly ; he cannot face life with its burden. When Lavinia cries out that he should commit suicide, he hears his mother’s voice : he says, “Yes, that would be justice-now you are Mother ! She is speaking now through you !……It’s the way to peace––to find her again––my lost Island––Death is an Island of Peace, too––Mother will be waiting for me there.” Orin’s suicide is presented as a return to Mother ; this is the judgment rendered by his complex. Death is the way to peace, rest, freedom from fear. It is also a passage into oblivion.
As Orin’s suicide is the judgment levelled by his complex, Lavinia’s self-immurement is the judgment of her puritan heritage and her complex. She tries to break out of the circle, to escape with Peter and live, but her resolution breaks down when, in a Freudian slip, she calls Peter “Adam”. The dead thrusting themselves between her love for Adam, Orin’s jealousy sealed in an incriminating letter. She accepts this fate with puritan spirit and locks herself in the Mannon house to live with the ghosts of the past in expiation for all their crimes. The “Mannon way” catches Lavinia in the end ; being born is starting to die. The house is a sepulchre, and her life henceforth a living death, So her determination––so much admired by the humanist critics––really amounts to the same decision Orin makes. She shuts herself off from the world to await the inevitable end. In Lavinia and Orin the Freudian and the puritan, so opposed in particulars, meld into a unity.