What are the major themes of Long Day's Journey into Night?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night spans one horrible day in the lives of the Tyrone family.  This is a dysfunctional family facing many problems: disease, alcoholism, drug addiction, and guilt.

The setting of the story is 1912. The wealthy Tyrone family is staying in their summer home. All of the action takes place in the living room. The story covers one day in the lives of the family. 

The protagonist would be the matriarch of the family, Mary. The other characters include James, the father; Jamie, the eldest son; and Edmund, the youngest son who has just been diagnosed with tuberculosis. 

Each of the characters has his own problem.  Mary’s and Edmund’s are the most devastating at the time. Mary has just spent time in a sanatorium for her overuse of morphine.  Since she returns to using it again, the treatment failed.  Edmund is going to go to a sanitarium for tuberculosis.  Jaime has no job and is considered a failure.  The father drinks too much.

“Let’s discuss the elephant in the room.” This adage would never happen in the Tyrone family. No one in the family is willing to bring up topics that might be controversial or introduce any kind of meaningful discussion. Jamie does try to discuss his mother’s addiction to morphine. When he does, he receives a punch in the head twice. 


This play has several issues that O’Neill wanted to discuss in the play. Much of the dialogue deals with the past. Thinking about or feeling guilty about what each have done consumes their thoughts. Another problem which does not add to the happiness of the family is the “blame game." The loss of a young child is the reason for Mary’s addiction. Who is to blame for the child’s death is another hot topic. 

The family seems to have no coping skills.  Instead of treating each other with compassion, the approach is to numb the pain with alcohol and drugs.  This lack of understanding and support among the family members leads to addiction and failure.  Everyone knows what the other is doing; and instead of helping the one who is hurting, the treatment is to constantly badger them with hateful banter.  

The second motif that the author offers is addiction. These people have addictive personalities. Again, the use of drugs only masks the real problems that each member tries to handle on his own. The two older men are addicted to alcohol, but rather than facing their own problems they attack Mary and her problem.

Part of their problem comes from a lack of focus. No one works or does anything of value. The sons do not work; the father takes the summers off; and Mary has never worked. Depression has sent each of them in search of something to mask the issues that need to be evaluated. 

The parents have been so busy with their own problems, that the sons have been left to their own devices. Without supportive parents, the children are left to look after themselves and their parents, and they're simply not cut out for the responsibility.

In the end, Mary descends the stairs dressed in her wedding dress. 

Tyrone: It's the damn poison. But I've never known her to drown herself in it as deep as this. Pass me the bottle.   

She is in a morphine haze. Her actions represent the focus of the play. The past haunts the present. For Mary, the two may now have combined into one long day’s journey into night.


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