What are the common themes of Long Day's Journey Into Night and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of disillusionment is common to O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Disillusionment is a significant theme in O'Neill's drama.  James is disillusioned with the paths that his professional and personal lives have taken. This is confirmed with O'Neill's description of him as having "streaks of sentimental melancholy and rare flashes of intuitive sensibility".   The combination of his perceived failure as an actor, in terms of being typecast in roles beneath his training, and in his wife's morphine addiction feeds his disenchantment.  When Edmund remarks about the difficulty in having a "dope fiend for a mother," it conveys the broken hopes he carries. In succumbing to alcohol and a sad debauchery, Jamie reflects ruptured bonds that once communicated so much in promise.  The final scene where Mary descends down the staircase and caressing her wedding gown is one of the most painful elements of disillusionment.  Her addiction is a self- medicating approach to insulate her from the pain of her life. In these examples, the theme of disillusionment is evident in the Tyrone household. 

This same type of emotional disillusionment is seen in George's and Martha's marriage in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  The disenchantment George and Martha feel in their own lives perpetuates the emotional pain they inflict on one another.  Each of them can only inflict pain on the other.  They are immersed in a game of who can hurt the other one more.  Such infliction of pain is extended even to Nick and Honey, a couple completely inexperienced with this level of emotional cruelty.  George and Martha are unaware of the line between illusion and reality.  This is seen when Martha tells George that he does not know the difference between reality and unreality, to which he responds that both of them "must carry on as though [he] did."  In the language they direct at one another, it is clear that emotional disillusionment comprises a significant aspect of their lives.

When George tells Martha that their son is dead, this is the moment where the theme of disillusionment is most heavily revealed.  We see that at one point these two people were happy or at the very least not as miserable as they are now.  The summation of their existences is their common disillusionment at the life that they share.  

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Long Day's Journey into Night

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