Mourning Becomes Electra
"Homecoming": Act IV
It is toward daybreak in Ezra's bedroom. Christine's ghostly form slips out stealthily from the bed. Mannon's dull and bitter voice remarks that Christine cannot bear lying close to her husband. Declaring that he wants to talk with her, Mannon lights the candle on the nightstand. Christine sits with her face turned three-quarters away from him in dread.
Mannon rebukes her for not wanting to remember that she ever loved him. Changing the subject, Christine asks if he heard Lavinia pacing like a sentry until two. When she asks about his heart, Mannon accuses her of wishing his death. Uneasy, he feels like he is waiting for something to happen. He knows the house is not his and that Christine is not his wife, that she awaits his death to be free.
Christine protests angrily that he just used her as his wife, however, as his property. Mannon retorts that, with the war, bodies have come to mean nothing to him. She had lied to him again with her declarations of love, letting him take her as if she were a "nigger slave." She has always made him appear the "lustful beast" in his own eyes.
Christine rebels and becomes deliberately taunting even as Mannon fearfully attempts to quiet her. She has never been his—she is Brant's mistress. Mannon rises in fury, calling her a whore and threatening her murder. Suddenly he falls back in intense pain and begs for his medicine. Christine retrieves a small box from her room and gives him his poison. Mannon realizes her treachery in horror, calls to Lavinia for help, and then falls into a coma.
Hearing noise from the hall, Christine hides the box behind her back. Lavinia enters and rushes to her father. With his dying effort, Ezra raises himself to a sitting position and points at his wife: "She's guilty—not medicine!" he gasps and then dies.
A stammering Christine confesses that she told Mannon of Brant but insists she did not do so to kill him. Her strength gone, Christine collapses in a faint. Lavinia discovers the small box. Horrified, she flings her arms around Ezra and beseeches him to stay with her, to tell her what to do.
As with all of Mourning, the scene of Mannon's death makes use of oppressive foreshadowing. Mannon knows already that he house is not his, his wife not his own, and that she awaits his death for her freedom. In some sense, Mannon's death, and Christine's as well, have already happened. Already, Christine appears at the beginning of the scene as the "ghostly form" who will haunt and Ezra is a voice from the darkness of the grave that, in the following play, will possess his daughter.
The action moves quickly here, the scene tensely propelling us through the confession of Christine's treachery, Ezra's poisoning, and Lavinia's discovery of her mother's murder. Assuming the role of Aeschylus's Clytemnestra, an archetype of female treachery, Christine takes her husband to bed to kill him, making the marital bed the deathbed. As the townsfolk will remark in the following act, loving will have killed Ezra Mannon.
For Ezra and Lavinia, Christine is a mother turned lethal whore, Ezra's insults making manifest the degradation of the love object typical of the Oedipus complex. Note here also the racial fantasy at the heart of this degradation. In giving Ezra her body, Christine makes him a property-owner. This relationship makes their marriage racially charged: Christine becomes the "nigger slave" to the "lustful beast" of her husband. For the guilty Ezra, he would even find "cleaner" sex in a brothel. Christine degrades their marriage by acting as if she were his black whore. Ezra, the great northern general, would of course imagine himself as the polar opposite of the Southern slave owner.
As Christine has planned, the couple's argument precipitates Ezra's heart attack. Responding to her father's cries, Lavinia arrives at the last moment to bear witness to her mother's treachery. Ezra rises, in a sense from beyond the grave, to accuse Christine of murder, his momentary second coming prefiguring his role he assumes as the accusing and judging dead in the following two plays.
As Christine anxiously observes, Lavinia appears on the scene here as the house's sentry. Her role as sentry refers not only to her anxious watch over her father's safety, but her duty as a functionary of the Mannon ancestors. Thus Lavinia will again stand as sentry when presiding over her mother's suicide, crying that she has meted out the ancestors' justice. She also plays in sentry in serving as the guardian of the Mannon crypt, initially bent on preserving the familial secrets and repressing the past and then ultimately, as the last surviving Mannon, living out the family curse.
Lavinia's role as sentry puts her in close dialogue with the dead. As we have seen, all the Mannons speak with their dead, whether through the medium of Ezra's corpse or, more frequently, by addressing the ancestral portraits watching over the house. Lavinia in particular appears in conversation with these spirits. Recall, for example, her touching the painted Ezra's hand in Act II, her embrace of and desperate plea to the corpse here, her numerous commands that her father speak from beyond the grave, and, most chillingly, her ventriloquism of that voice itself that comes in the subsequent play.
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