A Misunderstood Concept

A few weeks ago I began rereading Mourning Becomes Electra and Strange Interlude. Both are amazing plays and I didn’t feel like I had given them proper attention in my first reading. I had certain ideas, but not fully developed, and then quickly ignored. Looking over the plays again these same ideas reemerged, and I began exploring them throughout the texts. While innumerable bits of texts illustrate my ideas, I am not going to focus too much on them, so there will be minimal quoting. After all, I am not writing a paper. In fact I don’t know what I am doing. Probably just trying to play with the ideas in a more concrete fashion, and ordering them into something more than the string of thoughts floating around in my head.
Strange Interlude is based on subtexts. Basically this is what would have been considered an aside or soliloquy in earlier plays. However, by the time Interlude was written, the convention had mostly died out. The subtexts here, however, aren’t simply glimpses into the characters’ thoughts, but seem to negate all physical activity on stage; the characters continuously operate in complete opposition to what they feel or think. This is not immediately apparent (or I am just slow), but once it did become clear I couldn’t stop focusing on Nina, namely her assertion of love towards her husband. She adamantly swears she loves “Sam’s happiness” above her own, but her actions are quite contradictory to this. Her focus is less on what makes Sam happy as much as what Sam’s happiness can mean for her. She does everything within her power to keep Sam happy so she may benefit in the most basic socio-economic sense. Even in the few moments when she genuinely believes that she loves him, she is more concerned with the pride she feels for doing so than the emotion itself. She is proud of it in an almost congratulatory way. I can practically see her patting herself on the back. She begets fulfillment through the act of loving, and does so for this sake, whereas the fulfillment should come out of loving for nothing. If she actually loved him, I could not imagine it would take that much effort. She would not have to talk herself into it. If her actions portrayed what she felt, she would not have to convince others. But she does, always asserting to others, and to herself, that she “want[s]” to love Sam. She wants to, but can’t quite do it.
Yet this is the part that got me thinking. She can’t quite do it. Yes, but she does do it. She just doesn’t do it right. And sadly, she is aware that she is getting it all wrong, but doesn’t know how to do it any other way. She knows there is something missing, but she is looking for it in the wrong place. Plato argues that there are several stages of love through which humans ascend, yet most never achieve the ultimate form that is unconditional and divine. This most supreme form, Agape, is selfless, patient, and most importantly does not demand reciprocation. Unfortunately it is most often confused with Eros, a love which is erotic and based within the physical, not just of the other, but narcissistically of the self. It is selfish, self-gratifying, and resides within the desires of the person possessing it.
This is the distinction Nina can’t fully make. As she professes Agape, she does not experience anything more than Eros. Aside from her monetary gains, which are quite obvious, she stands to gain emotionally from Sam as well, basically draining him of his goodness as she demands the kind of reciprocation no one could ever give her. For Nina, the other person does not serve as a gateway to love outside and beyond the very person the love is directed towards. Love is not an elevated emotion, but rather trapped in a corporeal setting.
This is where I got a little derailed and confused. I see the connection between Eros and narcissism on Nina’s part, but can’t quite articulate it. I see narcissism as a means for her to refocus all love (hers and others’) inward, filling an inner void. All of the love she gives is consistently pointed towards herself, even if only as a reflection; she gives only with the expectation to receive. Where she cannot love herself she finds others to do it.
As if she wasn’t debasing the concept enough, she further equates love with physical perfection. As she turns to numerous lovers, her excuse, one that even she cannot fully believe, is to defend her actions stating that she wants her love to be given to physical perfection. If she believes the one she loves is severely flawed, a pure love would acknowledge and embrace the other person as is. Here she does not even make a show of loving.
While Nina may be confused, Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra is completely oblivious. The Electra complex depends upon Eros in the truest sense. The first phase of the complex begins with the daughter’s desire for the father. Once this is identified as forbidden, her desire transforms into an identification with the mother. The first phase does not allow love beyond the physical or the erotic, nor does it permit the incestuous relationship that is taboo. This erotic desire for the father I have a little trouble with, in that I don’t necessarily see it as erotic in a sexual sense, but erotic as in pertaining to the flesh. The desire is for the affection of the physical person, not anything higher. And more importantly, the desire is for the physical things this person can provide. The second phase can arguably be regarded as more elevated, but still resides within Eros; the daughter’s desire for identification with the mother is still a desire for unity with another person. Further, this identification is in essence an identification with the self, and therefore relying on narcissistic self love. Lavinia is the Electra figure, and what she seeks is herself, always mediated through others. She is striving towards a completion of the self, like Nina attempting to fill the void. She is not looking for a reciprocation of love, but rather to use love as a method of suffocation, as a means to consume the other person.
For Lavinia, her relationships, erotic and familial, do not have distinct boundaries. The “relations” to her “inmost self” is her relation to family; she cannot find herself outside of either becoming her father, or identifying with her mother. As Christine, Lavinia’s mother, states “I know you, Vinnie! I’ve watched you ever since you were little, trying to do exactly what you are 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!” Thus for Lavinia to be able to reconstruct herself and fill the emptiness inside, she must obtain, or recapture, the part of herself that is within Christine. Lavinia does not love Christine, but the idea of Christine, and she manifests this love physically by literally manipulating her own demeanor and appearance to mimic her mother, the only part of Christine really available for Lavinia to take. Further, Lavinia is born of Christine’s “own body,” a reminder of the physical bond these two women share, and thus any love Lavinia does show towards Christine, is narcissistically also a self love, based on proximity of flesh.
In fact the whole play depends upon a constant realigning of the self with the other in an attempt to formulate the self. Even the family portraits serve this purpose, a constant reminder of lineage, heritage, and essentially genealogy. None of these characters can think of themselves independent of those surrounding them, and Lavinia suffers from this the most.
Genealogy is extremely important to understanding both plays, as it is concerned with a “shaping past that will be transmitted to the future.” For Lavinia, this is nothing. Unlike Nina, Lavinia does not extend the family line. Nina’s search for beauty, while rooted in the physical, extends beyond the self, into offspring, while Lavinia begins through an identification with others, a focus on the unity between herself and others, but ends in solitude, recreating nothing. As she has the house closed off at the end of the play, she relinquishes the possibility of love or unity of any kind, and consequently negates the image of self, as she has no one left with whom to align. The “shaping past” does not successfully shape Lavinia, except in the most temporal sense. She momentarily embodies Christine, but cannot maintain the façade as nothing was ever internalized.
Once the last of her family dies, Lavinia realizes she has no one else to love, or consume with love. Many say she barricades herself so she can imagine surviving her loss. For me, there is no implication in the end that her condition is temporary. The actual nailing down of the shutters more accurately implies, and alludes to, the creation of a tomb, a structure made to encase those deceased. Her awareness of the futility within the material world to ever reach a state of exultation, or unity, does not breed acceptance. Simply remaining physically alive does not equate to living. I think as the play ends, she is acutely aware of the false premise under which she has been living, along with the reality of her future. As she asks Seth to have Hannah dispose of the flowers at the end, she is asking for Hannah to eliminate any temporal objects. Flowers are beautiful, but unlike Nina, Lavinia is tired of seeking out the flesh, the physically aesthetically pleasing, to find fulfillment. There is nothing temporary about Lavinia’s entombment. She has progressed beyond beauty in the physical form, but she has not progressed beyond the self. Her solitude is not solely within the house, it is the elimination of any other being or concept outside of the self, and as she turns inward, into a self that suffers a void, she essentially self destructs. She is physically present, but gutted, so self enclosed there is nothing left inside.
This same realization does not happen to Nina. When it becomes clear that she is not fulfilling herself through the love she receives from others, she commits the greatest selfish act. Her son is her attempt at creating beauty, and arguably one that will provide a constant flow of unconditional love, to fuel her own narcissistic self love. While this may seem like a stretch, I found the nuances of this argument in the details of his creation. She is so obsessed with finding perfect beauty, she attempts to create it. She hand picks the man who will father her child based on physical characteristics she finds most suitable. While it can be argued that everyone does this to a certain extent, her ways of going about it are rather exceptional. Not only does she rely on eugenics to predetermine how perfect her child will be, but she further attempts to pass the child off as belonging to her husband so that the child may inherit the physical aspects of the attractive surrogate father, along with Sam’s wealth. And the entire time she adamantly swears she is doing it out of love for Sam. She prizes “Sam’s happiness” to the point where she is willing to go through all of this in order to present him with the perfect child. She is only thinking of Sam.
Yet, she actually sort of believes this, in an almost sociopathic kind of way. She never truly learns how love works. As Lavinia sacrifices all relationships or potential for love of any kind, she regresses into a state of nothingness. Nina regresses as well, but into those around her instead of into herself. Her realizations throughout the play, which culminate in her assertion that life has been one “strange dark interlude” do not necessarily change her. As she states “Thank you, Father – have I been wicked? – you’re so good – dear old Charlie!” she looks to Charlie to fulfill the roles of the previous men in her life. He becomes the father, the lover, and confidant. Most importantly, he too subsumes the role of the ideal with which she has never been able to connect. Yet her bittersweet last lines are devoid of the hope she harbored with Sam, or Ned earlier in the play; she now understands that this ideal is out of her reach in her current state. Her love towards Charlie, much like her loves before, is a pale comparison to the ideal, if a comparison can even be made, but in the end, it is the best she can have.
Lavinia, on the other hand, has learned from her erroneous ways of seeking Eros, and the futility of striving for Agape, or any other inner love and beauty as long as she continues seeking unity based on physical forms. This new awareness is shattering. Nina has faced multiple disappointments, but her cognizance never reaches into the inner workings of her life to pull apart the false premises under which she has been living and though which she has been making all of her decisions. She knows her life has come to a bitter plateau, but her revelation is meek in comparison to Lavinia. In the end, Nina relies on Charlie to validate her, just as she has relied on others before, because that is all she knows, and unlike Lavinia, she does not have the strength to abdicate life’s pleasures.


  1. If Lavinia is striving to complete herself (though always through the medium of others), then it strikes me that her project is as much Jungian as it is (or perhaps more than it is) Freudian. Jung’s concept of individuation seems a better match here than Freud’s Electra complex (despite the title of the play). She seeks recognition and approval, but not necessarily anything like a modern (and limited) sense of eros from the people in her life.

    Nina, on the other hand, just sounds like a piece of work. She’s three cashews and a couple of walnuts short of a jar…

  2. I have not thought to really explore Lavinia in terms of Jung. I think that is a wonderful idea, and perhaps something that has not really been discussed before (the title throws everyone off).

    And Nina… well yes…

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