Long Day’s Journey into Night

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The play is overtly autobiographical, with O’Neill calling his father James Tyrone, his mother Mary Tyrone, his older brother James Tyrone, Jr., and himself not Eugene but Edmund Tyrone--thereby assuming the first name of the youngest brother, who died in infancy when exposed to measles by the oldest. In the preface, dedicated to his third wife Carlotta, O’Neill thanks her for the “love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play--write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.”

Two events propel the action: Mary Tyrone, despite having recently been treated for drug addiction, relapses into her morphine habit; and Edmund learns (as O’Neill did) that he has tuberculosis and must enter a sanatorium. When other family members move urgently closer to Mary for her sympathy and support, she inexorably moves away from them into the fog of her illusions.

The family is shown as living in a closely symbiotic relationship, with each important attribute of one member affecting--usually for the worse--the behavior of the other three. The quartet is linked by resentment and guilt, but also by love and need. Anger and recrimination alternate with pity and understanding. Each character takes turns being victim and persecutor, aggressor and protector.

The drama rises above the confessional level to show the Tyrones as a universal family, whose soul-searing discoveries and dreams,...

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The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The plot of Long Day’s Journey into Night observes the classical unities, its action telescoping from 8:30 a.m. to midnight of an August day in 1912, set in the Tyrones’ summer home at New London’s beach, Connecticut. The curtain rises with Mary and James Tyrone entering their dining room. She retains a young and graceful figure in her mid-fifties, has a striking, “distinctly Irish” face, uses no makeup, and sports dark brown eyes that are “unusually large and beautiful, with black brows and long curling lashes.” Qualifying this favorable impression is her extreme nervousness, expressed by continually fluttering hands so spoiled by rheumatism that they “have an ugly, crippled look.” O’Neill stresses her “shy convent-girl youthfulness . . . an innate worldly innocence.”

James Tyrone, eleven years Mary’s senior but belying his age by ten, is handsome, healthy, soldierly erect. In contrast to his wife, “he has no nerves.” His stolid Irish peasant heritage has kept him fit, but also keeps him from fully understanding the complex natures of his wife and sons. The latter soon join their parents. The elder, Jamie, resembles his father physically but lacks Tyrone’s grace and stamina. He shows “signs of premature disintegration,” while his cynical sneering “gives his countenance a Mephistophelian cast.” Twenty-three-year-old Edmund is his mother’s son, with luminous eyes in a hypersensitive face. The author notes, “It is in the quality of extreme nervous sensibility that the likeness of Edmund to his mother is most marked.”

These four tormented persons form a closely symbiotic quartet. Each important attribute of one affects—usually for the worse—the behavior of the other three. Each is both innocent victim and culpable victimizer; each takes turns occupying one angle of a dramatic triangle, playing not only the victim, but also the persecutor and rescuer. In act 1, as in this plays’ humorous counterpart, Ah, Wilderness! (pr., pb. 1933), O’Neill refers to actual landmarks, people, and events belonging to New London’s history, such as anecdotes regarding the pond of a Standard Oil millionaire and the pigs of Tyrone’s tenant farmer. The play is overtly autobiographical, with the playwright saluting his third wife, Carlotta, in his somber preface, for her “love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and forgiveness of all the four haunted Tyrones.” The O’Neills have become the Tyrones, with Eugene making the significant change by calling his alter ego Edmund—the name given the second O’Neill son, who died in infancy when exposed to measles by the oldest.

Two events propel most of the action: Mary Tyrone, despite having recently been treated for drug addiction, relapses into her morphine habit just as her husband and sons dared hope that she was permanently cured; and Edmund learns (as the playwright also did, in 1912) that he has tuberculosis—called “consumption” by the Tyrones—and must enter a sanatorium. During act 1, Tyrone berates Jamie for having encouraged Edmund to ruin his health by drinking and womanizing; then Jamie lashes back at his father, accusing him of...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

O’Neill combines the retrospective techniques of Henrik Ibsen with the exorcistic intensity of August Strindberg. As in such Ibsen masterpieces as Ghosts (pb. 1881 as Gengangere), Rosmersholm (pb. 1886), and The Master Builder (pb. 1892 as Bygmester Solness), he minimizes the physical action: Properties are few, the setting is simple, suspense is absent, and dialogue is all-important as the characters exhume and examine their past, continually rocking it backward and forward. To quote Mary once more: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”

The play begins with sunshine streaming through the windows, but by lunch time, in act 2, the sun has turned to “faint haziness,” which becomes increasingly dense in the early afternoon, with the fog rolling in by the beginning of act 3 and becoming a wall by act 4. The fog becomes the play’s pervasive leitmotif: Its gradual thickening is an obvious reflection of the increasingly befogged mental state of the Tyrone household. It is a profound, eerily enveloping backdrop for the Tyrones’ various tragedies; its ominous ally, the foghorn, loneliest and most mournful of man-made sounds, broods portentously over the family like a herald of doom. Early in act 1, Mary mentions her inability to sleep well the previous night, with “that awful foghorn going all night long.” Her husband compares it to a “sick whale,” but Mary reminds him that he snored so hard, “I couldn’t tell which was the foghorn!” Act 3’s stage directions mention regularly sounded foghorns,...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New London

*New London. Connecticut town that was both the boyhood and young-adult home of Eugene O’Neill, who employs it as the setting of this markedly autobiographical drama. The family’s summer home is modestly furnished with items of lesser value than one would expect for a wealthy, successful actor. His modest rooms are also dimly lit in the night scenes, because Mr. Tyrone wishes to save money on the electric bill.

One feature of this house that plays a prominent, almost haunting role in each scene is the spare room upstairs. There it is that Mrs. Tyrone withdraws from the rest of the family to give herself shots of morphine, to which she is addicted. An eerie aura also surrounds this house because of the dense fog, which rolls in from Long Island Sound and enshrouds it.

Another aspect of New London and the Tyrone family’s interaction with its citizens is important to the meaning of the play. The family is not the social equal of the prominent families in this ocean-side city. Mr. Tyrone has made his fortune by acting, a profession of some disrepute in his day. The addictions which afflict his wife and two sons (morphine, alcohol, and dissolute lifestyles) further isolate the Tyrones from the more substantial and well-respected residents of New London. The social isolation of the Tyrones is mirrored symbolically in their fog-enshrouded house.


*Broadway. Great theater...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

There are two historical periods relevant to Long Day's Journey into Night. The play was written between 1939 and 1941, but it is set...

(The entire section is 1210 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Long Day's Journey into Night is Eugene O'Neill's thinly veiled autobiographical study of a dysfunctional family disintegrating...

(The entire section is 1097 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1910s: World War I begins in the summer of 1914, with the United States joining the allies against Germany in 1917.


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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Investigate the history of the use of morphine and the problems of morphine addiction from the time of its chemical isolation from opium in...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Long Day's Journey into Night was first adapted to film by Sidney Lumet, and starred Katharine Hepburn, Sir Ralph Richardson, Jason...

(The entire section is 115 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

A Moon for the Misbegotten, produced in 1947, was written by O'Neill as a eulogy for his brother, Jamie, who is fictionalized as Jamie...

(The entire section is 292 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Further Reading

Hayes, Richard, "A Requiem for Mortality," Commonweal, Vol. 64, February 1, 1957, pp. 467-68. A...

(The entire section is 358 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barlow, Judith E. Final Acts: The Creation of Three Late O’Neill Plays. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of ten essays by O’Neill’s major critics arranged in the chronological order of their publication, examining such topics as the monologues, the characters, the form, and the language. A helpful guide to the play.

Carpenter, Frederic. Eugene O’Neill. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Gassner, John, ed. O’Neill: A Collection of Critical...

(The entire section is 261 words.)