Eugene O’Neill has composed a lyric of lamentation, in rhythms of agonizing pain, about a ravaged family that not only mirrors his own but also bears on the condition of all mankind. This is a family tied together not only by resentment, guilt, betrayal, and recrimination but also by compassion and love. As in Henrik Ibsen’s plays, the present and past blend in a search—never fully satisfied—for the source of the misfortunes that afflict the blighted house of the Tyrones. Each Tyrone is somehow, but not solely, responsible for his or her wretchedness. A tainted legacy contaminates generation after generation. Edmund’s attempted suicide, prior to the action proper, parallels the actual suicide of Tyrone’s father, just as his tuberculosis apes the illness from which Mary’s father died. Alcoholism courses through three generations. Each protagonist may be partly responsible for his or her fate, because of emotional cowardice or self-deception, but each protagonist is primarily a victim of his fate, whether inherited or inherent in the hellish mystery called life.
Mary’s words carry O’Neill’s message at several crucial moments. Having chastised Jamie for sneering at his father, she then reflects:But I suppose life has made him like that, and he can’t help it. 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.
O’Neill’s perspective is largely naturalistic: Man is usually the puppet of his heredity and environment, a pawn of nature’s order, or of chaos. Again, Mary’s words sum up this view: Defending Jamie against an attack by Edmund, she says, “It’s wrong to blame your brother. He can’t help being what the past has made him. Any more than your father can. Or you. Or I.”
That the Tyrones try to understand their weaknesses, that they pity as well as blame one another, that they alternate their rages with forgiving tenderness makes their experiences not only subjective but also representative and heroic. Their search for causes that remain ultimately unknowable, their defeated dreams and inevitable guilts, their need both to confront and to evade reality, and above all their bewilderment in the face of Job-like suffering constitutes them a universal family. Though isolated in their fog-blanketed house, they stand for every loving-hating family that wounds and consoles its members, enmeshed in the tragic net of human nature’s contradictions.
The plot of Long Day's Journey into Night focuses on a dysfunctional family trying to come to grips with its ambivalent emotions in the face of serious familial problems, including drug addiction, moral degradation, deep-rooted fear and guilt, and life-threatening illness.
Alienation and Loneliness The Tyrone family is fragmented, and each of its members to some degree is alienated from the rest. The most obvious estrangement exists between Tyrone and Jamie, both of whom allow their bitterness to overwhelm whatever residual love and respect they have for each other. Jamie holds his father's tightfistedness to blame for Mary's addiction to morphine, while Tyrone cannot forgive what he sees as his son's gutter-bound dissolution. The two are barely civil to each other, and knowing the recriminations their encounters habitually bring, they simply try to avoid each other, especially when drink has dissolved their masks of civility.
More subtle is the ambivalent alienation that Jamie feels towards Edmund. He confesses that a...
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part of him hates Edmund, from jealousy and an irrational association of Edmund's survival with their mother's desperate plight.
Most estranged and alienated of all is Mary. Her struggle with her addiction is desperately lonely, most of the time beyond the others' understanding or sympathy. She talks at length of her isolation, placing much blame on Tyrone for the itinerant life his acting career imposed on them. Under the influence of morphine, Mary drifts into her idealized past, cut off from the pain of her current life.
Deception Deceptive masks are worn early in the play in an effort to evade unpleasant truths. The other members of the family try to keep Mary from knowing that Edmund is seriously ill, and Mary obviously attempts to deceive herself with the comforting belief that Edmund is only suffering from "a summer cold." Mary also attempts to hide her relapse into drug use with pathetic excuses that simply deepen the family's disappointment. The deceptions even become trivial, in Jamie's efforts to deceive his father by watering down the whiskey, for example, or in Tyrone's efforts to hide his whiskey-fetching forays from the help.
More poignant are the self-deceptions, in which characters mask the truth from themselves. Clearly, the past into which Mary escapes is illusory, a romanticized but comforting distortion of truth. Even Jamie, cynical but honest, deludes himself in his search for personal redemption through alcoholism and whoring.
God and Religion For Tyrone, a troubling problem is his sons' rejection of their Catholic faith, a foundation stone in their "shanty Irish" heritage. His complaints about their rejection of religion occasions Jamie's scoffing observation that Tyrone himself is a truant Catholic, which Tyrone must admit. He insists, though, that he still believes in God, which his sons do not. He is particularly upset with Edmund's godless and pessimistic view of life, claiming that it has been learned from reading depressing, atheistic poetry and philosophy.
Guilt and Innocence Mary's illusory, drug-induced escape into her youth is partly a flight from guilt into a restored innocence and rediscovered faith. In their own ways, the other Tyrones try to unburden themselves of guilt and shame, either through expiation, as seen in Jamie's admission of his jealousy of Edmund, or in pleas for understanding, as seen in Tyrone's attempts to blame his selfish penny-pinching on his early poverty. The play's tragic theme is that innocence cannot be restored; each character must bear some guilt and pain, even to the grave's edge.
Loyalty The loyalty of the three Tyrone men towards Mary has eroded because she has repeatedly dashed their hopes for her recovery, but their anger, hurt, and disappointment are an emotional index of their love for her. It is the common loyalty towards her that keeps the family together and explains why, for example, Jamie and Tyrone even tolerate each other.
Memory and Reminiscence Mary is not the only one with regrets about the past. Tyrone is haunted by his impoverished childhood and his father's abandonment and eventual suicide. In one self-pitying confession, he expresses regrets for having given up the chance of becoming a great Shakespearean actor in order to take a lucrative but artistically unrewarding part in a popular melodrama.
Moral Corruption Implicit in the responses to Mary's drug addiction is the belief that addiction was an indication of a weak moral will. Public disclosure of her behavior seems to be more threatening to the family than Jamie's disgraceful drinking, gambling, and whoring. In honest moments, Tyrone recognizes that the morphine is a poison and that Mary cannot control her need, but the moral stigma remains. Jamie's moral descent, buffered by his affection for his brother and mother, is treated as less of a social embarrassment, even by Tyrone.
Search for Self The principal searcher in Long Day's Journey into Night is Edmund, O'Neill's alter ego. Both Mary and Tyrone escape to their pasts, Mary to her convent days and Tyrone to a time in his career when he might have resisted trading his talent for wealth. Edmund, having just begun a writing career as a poet and journalist, looks to a future when his drifting ends and he finds an elusive inner peace that he has glimpsed in rare moments at sea. The alternative is to follow Jamie, his dissolute doppelganger, down a self-destructive, unhappy path to a spiritual dead end.
Wealth and Poverty Throughout Long Day's Journey into Night, Tyrone confirms the justice of Jamie's sneering attacks on him as a miser. Old Gaspard, as Jamie calls him, is obsessed with the cost of things, and is always looking for the cheapest alternative. He invariably equates the best with a bargain price, whether he is buying land, cigars, or automobiles, employing servants, or engaging the services of a physician.
On occasion, Tyrone's penny-pinching habits border on the comic. He cannot resist remarking on the most trivial of his marketplace triumphs, and he launches into diatribes about making the electric company rich while he wanders through the house turning off lights in rooms that others have abandoned. But there is real pathos, too, for some of the family problems have their origin in Tyrone's misplaced values, which, in an honest moment, even he admits. Jamie never lets him forget that it was his reluctance to seek out a competent physician that led to Mary's addiction. Jamie fears, too, that Tyrone will attempt to find a bargain sanatorium for Edmund, and repeatedly warns his father against doing so.
Indirectly, Tyrone begs for understanding, even forgiveness, by recounting his hard beginnings in an Irish immigrant family, deserted by his father. His fears of landing in the poorhouse are honest enough, for they relate to that dreadful time, when he had to work twelve hours a day in a machine shop to help his family survive. Tyrone has little success in engaging his sons' sympathies, however. Although Edmund claims to understand his father better, both sons are weary of his stories and are largely indifferent to his past; their concern is with the end result of Tyrone's stinginess, not its cause.