Thomas E. Porter has rightly observed that the “thematic image of the “
Islands” runs through the entire drama and represents a uniquely American belief that a spatial remove is a panacea for all problems.” The Mannons continually consider the possibility of escape. Adam Brant, the sea captain, has been to the “ Islands” ; he describes them in idyllic terms to Lavinia :
Unless I’m much mistaken, you were interested when I told you of the
Islands in the South Seas where I was shipwrecked on my first voyage at sea ... Unless you have seen it, you can’t picture the green beauty of their land set in the blue of the sea ! The clouds lie down on the mountain tops, the sun drowsing in your blood, and always the surf on the barrier reef singing a croon in your ears like a lullaby ! The Blessed Isles, I’d call them ! You can forget there all man’s dirty dreams of greed and power.
Ezra considers the possibility of an escape when his difficulties with Christine become apparent : “I’ve the notion if we’d leave the children and go off on a voyage together––to the other side of the world––find some island where we could be alone a while.”
Symbols of Warmth and Security
On his return from the war, Orin tells his mother of the Islands which he, as noted above, identifies with the Mother image “Have you ever read a book called “Typee” ––about the South Sea Islands...Someone loaned me the book. I read it and reread it until finally those
Islands came to mean everything that wasn’t war, everything that was peace and warmth and security.... The whole Island was you.”
Adam’s Garden of Eden
For Adam, the
Islands are a Garden of Eden, a hortus conclusus where sin is unknown and life simple and sweet. For Ezra, who does not pursue the idea, they represent isolation, freedom from the “children”, a chance to begin again. For Orin they represent peace in the embrace of Mother.
Islands Are Real
Islands are not only a symbol in the play ; they are also very real. Christine and Adam, now free of Ezra, are going to sail to the South Seas where they will be happy. Orin’s rage at Adam and his mother includes an outburst about “their” Island “I heard her asking him to kiss her ! I heard her about me ! And my Island I told her about––which was she and I––she wants to go there––with him I”
The Geographical Reality of the
The geographical reality of the
Islands, insisted on in Adam’s description and Orin’s reference to Melville’s Typee becomes inescapable when, in The Hunted, Orin and Lavinia describe their trip there. The freedom and naturalness of the environment and the primitive innocence of the natives transform Lavinia. Peter says to Lavinia : “Gosh, you look so darned pretty––and healthy. Your trip certainly did you good ! You stopped at the Islands ?” Orin then says, “Yes, we took advantage of our being on a Mannon ship to make the Captain touch there on the way back. We stopped a month. But they turned out to be Vinnie’s Islands, not mine.” The feminine features of the environment bring out the feminine in Lavinia ; she blossoms out into a replica of Christine. For the nonce, she loses her puritan cast of mind, her New England inhibitions, because of the experience. As symbol, the Islands represent release from puritan guilt, the hope of an escape to love and freedom. But as reality, they project a spatial dimension and an escape “to another country”. The Islands are also a real refuge that would put the house of Mannon half a world away.
Islands and the New Life
In Mourning Becomes Electra O’Neill uses the
Islands as the surrogate to the hope of a new life. They represent a paradise in which the climate and an abundance of material goods cancel the necessity for competition –– “war” of all kinds. The Mannons need not protect their fortune, or assume responsibility in the community. No class distinctions keep people apart. Lavinia walked in the moonlight with a native and everything was “simple and natural”. She says : “I loved those Islands. They finished setting me free. There was something there mysterious and beautiful ––a good spirit of love––coming out of the land and sea. It made me forget death. There was no hereafter. There was only this world––the warm earth in the moonlight––the trade wind in the coco palms––the surf on the reef––the fires at night and the drum throbbing in my heart––the natives dancing naked and innocent-without knowledge of sin !” The puritan ethic can be forgotten, is not necessary, because this remove is also a return. Evil does not exit on the Islands, there are no laws, there can be no consciousness of guilt. Emotions––impulses from the unconscious––have free play without the danger of remorse ; there is no conflict between desire and control, between the good of the individual and the good of society. The fertile, vernal, tranquil qualities of the place at once create and reflect the psyche of the inhabitants. Lavinia says to Peter : “I’ve thought of you so much. Things were always reminding me of you––the ship and the sea––everything that was honest and clean! And the natives on the Islands reminded me of you too. They were so simple and fine.”
Islands” in “Homecoming”
In the first play, Adam praises the life on the “Blessed Isles” and Ezra longs to go there. Adam and Lavinia plan their flight ; Orin and Lavinia actually stop there on their voyage, and the experience transforms Lavinia. O’Neill, in using this image, is drawing on a yearning to escape, to return to paradise, that links the puritan with the Freudian element of the play. If the
Islands are a refuge and a paradise, they are also, as noted above, Mother. The descriptions of Adam and Orin, the transformation of Lavinia, confer on the Islands a feminine image of warmth, softness, sea-bathed fecundity. Thus, in both the spatial and psychological dimensions, they represent escape, heaven and a new life.
Islands are Unattainable
In the action the
Islands are unattainable. The vision and the dream cannot be realized ; for the Mannons, there is no escape from complex or heritage. Christine and Adam never make the journey ; Lavinia and Orin return to find their dilemma unsolved, their guilt unpurged. Paradise cannot be regained by out-voyaging. will not serve––Orin’s jealousy blights them for him and for Lavinia also. They remain the symbol of a forlorn hope that is not transformed into a regenerating experience. Geographical Islands
Futility of the Forlorn Hope
O’Neill does not arbitrarily assert the futility of this hope at the conclusion of the play : he foreshadows it throughout. One major device for this purpose is a choric-song, the sea-chanty “Shenandoah”. Homecoming opens with Seth, the Mannons’ gardener, singing in the “wraith of what must once have been baritone” a chorus of that melancholy song. The desire to put to sea––the sailor is bound away “across the wide
” ––results in frustration and separation ; the spatial dimension is not seen as an escape or a refuge, but as an unnavigable gulf : “Oh, Shenandoah, I can’t get near you.” The song recurs at Christine’s suicide : “She’s far away across the stormy water.” The separation is final. The image of the Missouri Islands and the hope of escape are countered from the outset by a song of hopeless longing. The stormy waters that separate man from his desire cannot be crossed except by death.