A few weeks ago I explored Lavinia and Nina in Mourning Becomes Electra and Strange Interlude. Originally I focused on how these characters attempt to rebuild or recreate themselves from and through others. They each have missing pieces, and they seek to fill in the gaps through misplaced concepts of love and loyalty. While Nina searches for narcissistic love, Lavina assimilates with those closest to her. I argued she fulfills the Electra complex, for which the play is named, through first loving her father, and then identifying in a most frightening way with her mother. While this is definitely there, and quite obvious, I missed another more subtle point.
In looking at numerous articles since, it seems no one has looked at Lavinia beyond the Electra complex. I, too, became distracted by the title and stopped short of further research, had it not been for an extremely helpful comment on the piece I wrote. In the comment he referenced looking at Lavinia in terms of Jungian individuation — something I had never thought of. It took a bit of time to figure it out as I have not read Jung in several years and only had a vague recollection of the concept. But after looking into it, it made perfect sense.
Jung at one point defined individuation as “becoming an ‘in-dividual,’ and, in so far as ‘individuality’ embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as ‘coming to selfhood,’ or ‘self-realization.’” For Lavinia, the “relations” to her “inmost self” is her relation to family. She cannot find herself outside of identifying with her mother; her inmost self does not exist.
Yet within this constant connection with the other she cannot form the self, which in Jungian terms is simultaneously independent and dependent of the other. It is independent as the self is formed, different and unique from anything else, in the purest terms of individuality. However, it is dependent as it relies on a universal unconscious that links the individual to everything. The individual is bred out of the collective, and inseparable from it.
Eugene Waith argues that the structure of Mourning Becomes Electra “is determined by a movement toward unmaksing, which is often a movement of the principle characters toward discovery of the stance they just take toward the fundamental problems of existence.” Once the mask is removed, for Lavinia there is nothing. Her mask is her identification with her mother, Christine. As she slowly begins embodying Christine’s appearance, and arguably her essence, Lavinia wears a mask of which she is not fully aware; Lavinia believes Christine to be the ideal she seeks, the completeness that she is denied, and in the process is completely consumed by the quest. I almost want to argue that she is unaware of the full extent of her actions, carrying out her mimicry without full knowledge of what she is doing.
Christine tells Lavinia that she was born of her “own body,” reminding her of the physical bond they share in which a part of Lavinia resides within Christine, and vice versa. For Lavinia to be able to reconstruct herself, she must obtain, or recapture, the part of herself from within Christine. The parts Lavinia does acquire are Christine’s physical appearance and mannerisms, as these are the only pieces available to her, and as Christine’s daughter it is not difficult to believe these traits already exist within Lavinia and must simply be flushed out. However this may not be done until after her father, Ezra, dies, because Lavinia first tries to identify with him.
Her appearance, movements and speech mimic Ezra’s, but she is also arguably unaware of these similarities. Once he is gone, a piece of herself also disappears, which she attempts to resurrect even further by reappropriating his role within the home. Just as she resembles Christine, she is also created in the image of Ezra, and his death signifies her severance with this likeness, so she attempts to recreate him as she becomes militant and demanding. She begins to oversee running the house, and even goes as far as commanding Orin, her brother. In this instance her relationship with Orin can be said to be the beginning of her assimilation with Christine, attempting to parent him and ultimately gain control over him. However, Christine’s relationship with Orin is based within nurture, laced with doting care and love, and bordering, if not directly transcending, into an incestuous affair. Lavinia does not encompass any of those traits, or at least not yet. She is strictly reenacting, and perhaps resurrecting Ezra, but only superficially. It does not take very long before she abandons the mimicry, as it does not allow her to fully connect with the other. She does not internalize the mannerisms she displays, and cannot capture the embedded emotions associated with these actions. In fact they serve to alienate her from both Orin, and more importantly Christine, thus further distancing herself from the ideal self she wishes to recreate. The play depends upon a constant realignment of the self with the other in an attempt to formulate the self.
Lavinia is made from Christine, and Ezra, related to Orin, and as the portraits throughout the house point out, she is a part of a greater whole. She is shaped by the past, by her experiences, and the collective experience of her surroundings. Yet within all of this, she is herself a unique existence, pulling from and contributing to this collective. Nevertheless she never consolidates the two. She remains too dependent upon others for forming the self, and thus only fulfills half of the process of individuation, seeking, but never forming the individual.