Characteristic of many, if not all, of Eugene O’Neill’s plays is his portrayal of neurotic or self-divided individuals, people who cannot approach wholeness until they first learn self-acceptance. In this respect, A Moon for the Misbegotten is typical, for both James Tyrone and Josie Hogan discover through each other that they possess within themselves the means for achieving such acceptance.
In an earlier play about the Tyrones, Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956), Mary Tyrone, mother and morphine addict, says to her younger son, “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.” Elsewhere she expresses such fatalism when talking about her elder son, James Tyrone, Jr., when she says, “He can’t help being what the past has made him.” Mary herself is haunted and consumed by her past, just as her elder son James is in this later play; thus it is not surprising when Tyrone says to Josie, “There is no present or future—only the past happening over and over again—now. You can’t get away from it.” Whereas his mother used morphine to escape herself and her present life, Tyrone uses alcohol and sex to kill all thoughts about how he failed his mother. He failed her by becoming an alcoholic, by not crying over her death, by attempting to forget the loss through drunkenness and whoring, and by blaming her for dying and leaving him alone. In other words, for Tyrone there is no present or future because he is being consumed by his feelings of guilt about the past. He is impelled into Josie’s arms because he needs to forgive and be forgiven, and because Josie is, he says, “like her [his mother] deep in your heart.”
Although Josie is strong and maternal, she is also self-consciously large and—she thinks—unattractive as a woman. To compensate for her appearance, she has affected a hard, bawdy, and promiscuous self-image; she pretends to have gone to bed with numerous local men, none of whom contradicts her tales for fear of losing face among other men who supposedly have been to bed with her. She knows that Tyrone is accustomed to being with prostitutes, and she mistakenly thinks that she must seem like one of them to get him to desire her as a woman. Only gradually—after he has revealed his great grief and guilt regarding his mother—does Josie come to understand that Tyrone does not need her as a woman, but in a nonsexual way. Indeed, not only does she confess to him that she is a virgin, but she also realizes that the love he needs from her is, because it demands she subordinate her own personal desire for him, “the greatest of all—because it costs so much.” Josie proves herself equal to such a selfless love’s demands; she listens to Tyrone’s tortured confession and as his mother’s surrogate forgives him: “As she forgives, do you hear me!” Josie says to Tyrone. “As she loves and understands and forgives!”