Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736
Identity In O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night , Mary Tyrone insists, ‘‘None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and. . . . they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what...
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In O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Mary Tyrone insists, ‘‘None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and. . . . 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.’’ Like Long Day’s Journey into Night, Anna Christie focuses on the search for identity. But, unlike those in the Tyrone family, Anna Christie is able to discover a new sense of self through her contact with the sea and through a loving relationship.
Appearances and Reality
Closely related to the theme of identity in the play is that of appearances versus reality. Both Chris and Anna, at times, appear to be what they are not. Even though when Anna walks into Johnny-The-Priest’s, ‘‘plainly showing all the outward evidences of belonging to the world’s oldest profession,’’ she appears to her father as the innocent child he left behind in Sweden. Mat initially thinks she is Chris’s woman, as is apparent when he asks her, ‘‘What would [a lady] be doing on this bloody hulk?’’ He soon, however, decides that he is not fit ‘‘to be kissing the shoe-soles of a fine, decent girl’’ like her. When Anna is honest with Chris and Mat about her past, Chris refuses to hear, telling her, ‘‘Don’t talk dat vay, Anna! Ay go crazy! Ay von’t listen!’’ Mat, however, immediately accepts what she is saying, and he reacts by rejecting her.
Chris refuses to consider the reality of Anna’s past because he loves her and because he is unable to face his role in her descent into prostitution. He admits that he has not been the perfect father to Anna, but he will not take full responsibility for his abandonment of her. That ‘‘ole davil sea’’ gives him an excuse for leaving Anna and her mother and for letting her stay on the farm after her mother dies. Thus, he tries to appear to Anna as a man who wanted to be a good father but was prevented from doing so by the overpowering force of the sea. Mat’s rejection of Anna reveals his inability to accept a woman who does not fit the ideal of a wife and illuminates society’s restrictive attitudes toward women.
Courage and Cowardice
Throughout most of the play, Chris is afraid to face his responsibility for Anna’s harsh life. Anna, however, shows herself to be much more courageous than her father. Rather than deceive the man she loves, she is willing to leave him. Finally, though, when Mat refuses to let her go, she garners the courage to admit to her father and to Mat the sordid details of her past.
Change and Transformation
After living with her father for a while on the barge, Anna experiences a transformation. Later, she tries to explain to Mat that ‘‘yust getting out in this barge, and being on the sea changed me. . . . and made me feel different about things, ’s if all I’d been through wasn’t me and didn’t count and was yust like it never happened.’’ She explains that the sea and Mat’s love have cleansed her of her past. When Mat abandons her, she considers going back to her former life as a prostitute, but she cannot return to prostitution.
Atonement and Forgiveness
All three characters are faced with the choice of whether or not to forgive themselves and each other. After Chris finally admits his failings, he begs Anna’s forgiveness. She offers it without hesitation, and she tries to ease his mind by suggesting that fate, not free will, rules their lives. She tells him, ‘‘It ain’t your fault, and it ain’t mine, and it ain’t his neither. We’re all poor nuts, and things happen, and we yust get mixed in wrong, that’s all.’’
Mat’s act of forgiveness is more problematic. Because of his rigid attitudes toward women and their place, he must be convinced that Anna was forced to be with other men, and that she did not have feelings for any of them. Only after Anna swears that she hated all of the men she was with will he forgive her and accept her as worthy of his love.