Discuss the element of conflict and its effect on the Naturalistic Tone of Long Day's Journey into Night.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The conflicts that O'Neill depicts in Long Day's Journey Into Night are reflective of the Naturalistic tone that drives the drama.  The conflicts help to enhance the Naturalist tone O'Neill seeks to establish.  This tone is one where reality is shown in a condition where there is little in way of external restoration or arbitrary "happy endings."  Rather, this "slice of life" approach reflects little in way of definite closure and resolution.  It is suspended, and creates characters who lie beyond the border of being distinctly "good" or "bad."  They are products of their world and their characterizations and conflicts reflect it.  Mary articulates this when she says, “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”  This internal conflict is manifested with her family members and reflects a Naturalist approach to being in the world.

These type of conflicts which reflect a Naturalistic tone in the drama enable O'Neill to illuminate the alienation and sense of fragmentation that accompanies the members of the Tyrone household.  Such alienation is conveyed later on in the drama when Edmund speaks to his father as a "morbid poet:"

The fog was where I wanted to be. Halfway down the path you can’t see this house. You’d never know it was here. Or any of the other places down the avenue. I couldn’t see but a few feet ahead. I didn’t meet a soul. Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. Out beyond the harbor, where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was the ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.

The Naturalist condition of the fog helps to convey the sense of alienation and distance that Edmund experiences.  The believable nature of Edmund's reality is where the conflict resides and, in doing so, is reflective of the Naturalist approach in the work.  His estrangement is enhanced through the conflict, illuminated by the Naturalism which drives the conflict.  

Another aspect of the Naturalist tone reflected in the drama's conflicts revolve around the basic questions that govern the action.  Whether Mary has resumed her drug addiction and if Edmund has tuberculosis are the central conflicts of the drama. The pain within each conflict and the pain it illuminates within each of the characters as a result is part of the Naturalist tone that animates the drama.  This makes the drama's conflicts reflective of the Naturalist approach that guides it.  The conflict in each enhances the Naturalist tone in the work because they are active and vibrant collisions that move both characterizations and dramatic plot:

What one looks for first in any naturalistic play is, of course, the story, the plot—especially in the case of O’Neill, the melodrama, since O’Neill was, from start to finish, subject to the accusation of being a “melodramatist.” And melodrama there is aplenty in this play. It is the story of the day in the family’s life when the genuine if shaky stability it has somehow always maintained breaks apart from causes that are essentially unavoidable. The melodramatic interest inherent in the plot—what is sometimes called the “suspense”—is rooted in two closely related questions: (1) Has Mary Tyrone reverted to her drug-addiction of long standing, implying that she will be lost to her family, perhaps permanently? And (2) Has Edmund Tyrone contracted the much-feared “consumption,” implying that he will be lost to his family, perhaps permanently?

The Naturalist approach that reveals unsettling truths at the heart of characters drives the conflict and the drama's actions.  It is in this light where the element of conflict has a reflective effect on the Naturalistic tone of the drama.  

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