Long Day's Journey into Night

by Eugene O’Neill
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Why do many of the characters in Long Day's Journey into Night feel dead or like ghosts?

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Most of the main characters in Long Day's Journey Into Night retain a ghost-like appearance in that they are haunted. The sad, faded world they inhabit is no longer occupied by flesh and blood human beings, but by flickering shadows, half-existing in a drab, melancholic netherworld. Indeed, famed literary critic Harold Bloom once said that the play could be re-titled "The Ghost Sonata" and he was surely right.

Throughout the long, tragic, drawn-out journey to the call of the midnight bell we are introduced to characters no more than ghosts of their former selves. Mary is no longer the bright, refined convent girl of years gone by. Now she is little more than a pathetic, shambling morphine addict, an object of pity and contempt. James's heyday as a great stage actor is long since gone. He appears oblivious to the impending financial hardship about to befall his family, determined to keep his money tied up in property to avoid the worse-than-death fate of the poorhouse. And Jamie's promise as an actor has been shamefully squandered in a life of drunken dissipation.

Amidst all the human wreckage is the figure of Edmund. Potentially, he provides a sense of hope, a chance to transcend the chilled confines of this haunted summer house. His poetic reveries lift him up out of his grim surroundings to a much brighter place, and bring before his glittering imagination "a saint's vision of beatitude." But it's all too brief. Though on the cusp of literary fame, for now Edmund crashes straight back down to the drink-sodden kingdom of the living dead. As he says: "You have to go on living as a ghost." Before long, Edmund too will be a shadow of his former self.

And in the final, heartrending scene, as a wasted Mary pathetically clutches her wedding dress, we see what Edmund means by "a ghost within a ghost." Mary, now irretrievably lost in a drug-induced haze babbles incoherently about her younger days. The unquiet spirit of Mary's charmed youth is still there, somewhere, buried deep beneath the haggard wanness of her ghostly complexion. In the silvery gray apparition of Mary Tyrone are united the ghosts of past and present. But tragically, the past and present combine to point towards a haunted future not just for Mary, but for the whole of the Tyrone family.

 

 

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