Riddled Pasts & Rippled Presents

This is it, this is the week I have set aside for traveling to conduct research at libraries up and down the East Coast. First stop was Yale’s Beinecke Library, home to the manuscripts and personal papers of playwright Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill is the author of the trilogy of plays Mourning Becomes Electra, probably the least well-known work in my research. Although overshadowed in fame by Gatsby and Absalom, Electra shouldn’t be underestimated; I am convinced it is Electra that is what is going to take my thesis to the next level, and will allow me to understand the other two texts in a fresher, fuller way. Plus, it throws in a healthy dose of the Oedipus Complex which always keeps things interesting.

In Mourning Becomes Electra, the Mannons, a wealthy and well-established New England family, are burdened by a secret past: David Mannon, brother to grandfather Abe Mannon, ran away to be with a “low Canuck nurse girl.” This social misstep, allegedly, was enough for Abe Mannon to disown his brother, burn down their historical Mannon estate and childhood home, and start from scratch with no memory of the scorned brother. This odd past is subtly present in the play, but doesn’t come through as a prominent thread at first read. It seems like a strange and overdramatic, if somewhat forced, motivation for the characters, too distanced from the main protagonists to seem to truly affect their own warped actions.

At the Beinecke, I had the privilege of looking at early drafts for Electra, author notes, and early character charts (back when names were different, even! Amazing!) The play is modeled off the Greek tragedy Oresteia and so the characters themselves are already crafted within a framework. Therefore it was unsurprising that many of the characterizations remained the same from original manuscripts to what was eventually published. While characters were consistent, I was intrigued to find that the vague and dark Mannon history, sprung to life much more vividly in the earlier drafts. The groundskeeper Seth, playing the role of an omniscient Greek chorus, enlightens Lavinia to the sordid history of her grandfather, grand-uncle and the French-Canadian maiden, Marie Brantôme, that tore their family apart. The backstory takes on a life of its own and seems to saturate the present events of the play much more than in the later, revised versions of the play. It haunts characters like Lavinia who grew up mostly ignorant of the history and in a time when all its players were long dead. Despite the distance, the familial baggage haunts the present characters and informs their own twisted, incestuous, and treacherous actions.

This immediately made me think of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! This novel charts the transmission of trauma across generations and how those traumas become naturalized, or deemed inescapable and therefore permanently damaging, within characters far removed from the traumatic event/s themselves. I like to think of this as the ripple theory, based upon a famous passage in Absalom:

Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm… Faulkner 210.

This passage describes the effects of a past generation on the present generation like ripples in water that keep going, crossing pools and channels, the energy always, always moving. There’s an air of defeat, inevitability here, as “happen is never once” but goes on indefinitely (210). The negative effects of Sutpen’s choices will never be at rest, but go on to disturb whatever pools of water the ripples touch— as far north as Quentin Compson’s dorm room at Harvard half a century later. The past is always present in Mourning Becomes Electra, just like it is in Absalom, Absalom!; The Mannon-Brantôme scandal as well, a tale whose ripples continue to haunts and tears apart the family long after the fact. I am excited to dig more into the disorienting relationship of time in these works, especially generationally. Today I get to take a look at Faulkner papers at the University of Virginia, and can’t wait to see more of Faulkner’s writing process… I need all the help I can get when it comes to Faulkner. He’s crazy.

I still owe y’all a blog post because June slipped me by, so I’ll be hoping to write on my trip to UVa soon!

Until then,

Emma J


  1. htlawrence says:

    Hello Emma!

    You’re research sounds really interesting! I’m doing research on contemporary young adult novels, and reading posts like this makes me wish I could take a look at the drafts and authors notes. I looked at your abstract and I was wondering, were there any characteristics other than the ones you mentioned that made you choose the three novels that you did?



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