in the Dark: Isolation in O’Neill’s
Long Day’s Journey into Night, widely regarded as his last and
greatest true masterpiece, Eugene O’Neill gambles with his skill as an
objective playwright by drawing potentially explosive material from his
own life. Fortunately for
both audiences and the author, who knew well the frustration of
producing failed experiments, rather than being swallowed in sentimental
self-pity and recriminations, the play contains much of O’Neill’s
finest writing, and it maintains its reputation as a pinnacle in
American theatre. The
highly concentrated work deals with the serious personal issues of four
family members as they unsuccessfully grapple with their individual
failings and collective deterioration.
Although external agents have introduced corruption into the
Tyrone family, O’Neill uses his characters to show that withholding
mutual support and efforts to understand one another in times of crisis
brings sorrow and further familial decay.
Although they sincerely love each other, the characters in
O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey isolate themselves from each
other and the reality of their problems, and consequently they are
unable to counter the corrupting influence of their personal demons.
pervasive central image in the play, suggested as early as the very
title, is that of the approaching--and finally enveloping--night.
This night, and the fog which accompanies it, physically embody
the sense of isolation that smothers the Tyrones’ house. Although the sun shines through the windows in the morning
(12), Mary knows in the first act that the fog will return with the
night (41), and by early afternoon the haze is collecting over the
nearby water (82). Mary
identifies her loneliness with the fog when she tells her husband,
“It’s very dreary and sad to be here alone in the fog with night
addition to symbolising natural isolation, the fog also comes to
represent Mary’s morphine addiction.
She describes the fog as an analgesic: “I really love fog. . .
. It hides you from the world and the world from you.
You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it
seemed to be. No one can
find or touch you any more” (98). Elsewhere, Edmund likens the morphine-induced barrier of
sub-consciousness around his mother to fog: “The hardest thing to take
is the blank wall she builds around her.
Or it’s more like a bank of fog in which she hides and loses
herself” (139). This
barrier thickens as the play progresses, and Frederic Carpenter notes
that as the day fades, Mary “gradually regresses from the sunlight
world of reality to the fog-bound world of dope and dreams” (Carpenter
are indicators besides the fog that reveal the Tyrones’ isolation from
the larger world. O’Neill’s
vision of isolation is so comprehensive that it denies even the
existence of God: after Tyrone’s desperate prayers failed to save Mary
from a regression into addiction, Edmund quotes from Nietzsche, “God
is dead: of His pity for man hath God died” (78).
Besides the four Tyrones, only one other character ever appears
onstage--Cathleen, the stupid servant girl.
Few other personalities are even mentioned, and of these
none--from William Shakespeare to the wily tenant Shaughnessy--is
admired by all characters. (The
one possible exception is the great actor Edwin Booth, who is mentioned
once, briefly, only to be quoted as saying that Tyrone was a better
actor than he.)
from larger society, then, the Tyrones’ predicament is worsened by their
isolation from each other. O’Neill’s
characters display a fundamental inability to understand one another.
Mary draws attention to this deficiency in others--in Jamie:
“Don’t you know your father yet?” (62); in Tyrone: “James!
You don’t understand!” (68); and in Edmund: “Yes dear,
you’ve had to listen, but I don’t think you’ve ever tried to
understand” (117)--but, of course, she doesn’t understand how
destructive her own actions are to her family.
Travis Bogard suggests that the characters’ dualistic natures
render such an understanding extremely difficult to attain: “The view of
human nature set forth in (O’Neill’s) plays is of divided beings--the
conception that earlier occasioned O’Neill’s use of masks and other
devices to suggest outer and inner lives” (Bogard 158).
The duality in O’Neill’s characters is evidenced in the
play’s ambiguous tension between love and hate (Tiusanen 116),
sentimentality and irony (Raleigh 133), melodrama and tragedy (Manheim).
the play, only Jamie recognises the inevitability of contradiction
(Manheim 38), yet it is Edmund who realises the limitations imposed on
communication: “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people”
(154). There is a tension
between the realities of the Tyrones’ lonely existence and a verbal
attempt to avoid that reality (Williams 294).
The Tyrones use anecdotes, quotations, and spontaneous poetic
outbursts to deny the reality of the present.
However, as Egil Törnqvist notes, “the very things that should
not be mentioned are mentioned, because the characters cannot get
away from themselves; even when talking about other things, they keep
thinking about their own fate” (Törnqvist 130).
even Edmund observes, “We don’t seem able to avoid unpleasant topics,
do we?” (137), the Tyrones struggle to keep uncomfortable or
controversial topics out of their conversation.
This is occasionally done in an attempt to keep Mary’s spirits
up, as when Tyrone warns Jamie, “The one thing to avoid is saying
anything that would get her more upset over Edmund” (29).
Usually, however, characters avoid discussing their faults to avoid
personal guilt or conviction. When
Tyrone brings up the topic of Jamie’s expulsions from college, Jamie
exclaims, “Oh, for God’s sake, don’t drag up that ancient history”
(32). Similarly, Tyrone
avoids discussing his own scandal of years back: “For God’s sake,
don’t dig up what’s long forgotten” (86).
Occasionally characters, especially Jamie, are even willing to
accept an accusation rather than challenge it: “All right, Papa.
I’m a bum. Anything
you like, so long as it stops the argument” (33).
Even the Tyrones’ actions are careful to avoid confrontation, as
when Mary avoids looking at the men’s faces (66), and when Tyrone avoids
touching or looking at Mary (71).
an uncomfortable topic cannot be avoided, the Tyrones tend to deny the
veracity of others’ statements to protect themselves from the painful
reality. There are flashes of
sincerity, as when Jamie tells Edmund, “It’s a cinch you’re really
sick, and it would be wrong dope to kid yourself” (55), but these are
few compared to such examples as Tyrone’s early denial of the
possibility that Mary has relapsed back into her addiction (38), and
Mary’s declared denial that Edmund is seriously ill: “I wouldn’t
believe (Doctor Hardy) if he swore on a stack of Bibles.
You mustn’t pay attention to a word he says, Edmund” (74).
More significantly, Mary persistently denies the gravity of her own
addiction even to the end of the play: “I don’t know what you’re
talking about, James. You say such mean, bitter things when you’ve drunk too
much” (123). She even
denies that she once tried to kill herself when she was denied morphine:
“Nothing like that ever happened. You
must have dreamed it” (87).
further examples of denial, characters repeatedly call each other’s
statements nonsense (e.g. 16, 17), or outright lies (e.g. 31, 141). Mary’s duality even pushes her to the point where she
accuses herself, as when she feels lonely when the men leave the house:
“You’re lying to yourself again.
You wanted to get rid of them.
Their contempt and disgust aren’t pleasant company.
You’re glad they’re gone” (95).
Mary realises that her addiction has made her untrustworthy, but
her need for deception accompanies her need for pain-killers: “How could
you believe me--when I don’t believe myself?
I’ve become such a liar. I
never lied about anything once upon a time.
Now I have to lie, especially to myself” (93).
well as being loaded with exclamations of denial, Long Day’s Journey
is peppered liberally with statements of dismissal.
For example, Tyrone tells Edmund to disregard his mother’s
babbling: “Now, now, lad. You
know better than to pay attention--” (110); “Don’t mind her, lad.
It doesn’t mean anything” (116).
The Tyrones are nearly constantly admonishing each other to “shut
up,” “be quiet,” etc. Edmund
protests throughout Jamie’s confession, desperate not to hear the awful
truth of his brother’s jealousy (165-7).
Mary is repeatedly told to stop talking when her babbling draws
attention to her addiction and resulting lack of restraint (48, 90, 109).
And in one instance, after Edmund has called Tyrone a “stinking
old miser,” O’Neill enthusiastically exaggerates the patriarch’s
objection: “Be quiet! Don’t
say that to me! You’re
drunk! I won’t mind you”
an effort to communicate and make the gravity of issues known--always the
shortcomings of others, of course; never one’s own--O’Neill’s
characters repeat and have repeated themselves seemingly endlessly.
Limited as the English language is with exhortations to be quiet,
phrases such as “Shut up” are frequently reused by necessity.
Characters express their disgust with worn-out phrases and
arguments, revealing that the issues dealt with in the play are not new to
the Tyrones. Edmund stems
Jamie’s taunting their father with, “Oh, shut up, will you?
I’ve heard that Gaspard stuff a million times” (158), and Mary
resignedly concludes her complaints about the summer servants with, “But
you’ve heard me say this a thousand times.
So has (Tyrone), but it goes in one ear and out the other” (61).
Edmund defends Jamie from Tyrone’s criticism by saying, “Oh,
for Pete’s sake, Papa! If
you’re going to start that stuff, I’ll beat it” (26, 129).
Appropriately, he says this twice during the play.
John Henry Raleigh explains the repetition of the Tyrone’s
conversations as a cultural phenomenon: “The motto of the Irish,
especially the drinking Irish, is that a thing is not said unless it has
been repeated almost ad infinitum” (Raleigh 130).
well as highlighting the insufficiency of language, O’Neill recognises
other blocks to communication that bar the Tyrones from understanding and
mutuality. There is, for
example, a sense of hostility in the household.
Tyrone’s love for Jamie, his “first-born, who (sic) I hoped
would bear my name in honor and dignity” (167), is so strong that it can
turn easily to an oppressive hostility (Bogard 162).
Elsewhere, Edmund is pushed to hit his brother for his biting
remarks as Jamie’s discretion diminishes with drunkenness (162, 170).
a sense of hostility among the men, there is also an overwhelming sense of
suspicion surrounding Mary, which she notices: “You really must not
watch me all the time, James. I
mean, it makes me self-conscious” (17).
This suspicion, intended to keep Mary from her morphine, only
serves to increase her anxiety and her need for a drug-induced escape:
“It makes it so much harder, living in this atmosphere of constant
suspicion, knowing everyone is spying on me, and none of you believe in
me, or trust me” (46).
even though conversation fails to reveal the characters to each other,
Travis Bogard states that “whiskey and morphine effectively remove all
disguise” (Bogard 158). Jamie
abandons his cynicism, and drunkenly confesses his secret hatred to Edmund
(165). Tyrone drops his
dramatic posturing and reveals the character behind the actor: “I’ve
never admitted this to anyone before, lad, but tonight I’m so heartsick
I feel at the end of everything, and what’s the use of fake pride and
pretense” (149). Edmund reveals his discomfort with his existence as a man:
“I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish”
(153). And Mary, of course,
acts out the searching, nostalgic confusion that has always been her
the end of the play, Mary is no longer herself--no longer a real,
thinking, caring person. With
this she has also lost her ability to feel pain, which is what she has
been seeking. However, in the
morning she will be no better than she was in the first act: nervous,
lonely, and craving her morphine. Ironically,
for all their isolation, the Tyrones cannot cut themselves off absolutely
through death or sleep. Jamie
complains that he’s had enough whiskey “to sink a ship, but can’t
sink” (156), and both Mary and Edmund have unsuccessfully tried to kill
themselves (86, 147). Instead
of finding reprieve, they are compelled to continue their tormented
than address the factors that perpetuate their misery, and collectively
combat them, the Tyrones move in endless cycles of guilt and evasion.
John Henry Raleigh argues, “Social forces, as such, do not exist
and, as in Greek tragedy, we are face to face with guilty-innocent
humanity on the purely personal level” (Raleigh 125). Robert Brustein agrees that, unlike most naturalistic
characters, “O’Neill’s characters are suffering from spiritual and
psychological ailments rather than biological and social ones (society,
for O’Neill, hardly seems to exist)” (Brustein 350).
To escape the reality of their own culpability, then, the Tyrones
must shift the blame for their misery to each other, or they are faced
with the responsibility of facing it themselves.
return to her morphine addiction, after two months of independence, is the
central crisis of the play (if, indeed, there is such an isolated element)
in much the same manner that Mary is the hub of her family.
Mary and her sons largely blame Tyrone for both her initial
addiction and recent regression. Edmund
erupts to his father, “I know damned well she’s not to blame! And I know who is! You
are! Your damned stinginess!
. . . Because you’ve never given her anything that would help her want
to stay off it!” (140-1). Mary
complains that she was forced to live in town, in a shabby house that she
cannot think of as “home”: “I’ve never felt it was my home. It was
wrong from the start. Everything
was done in the cheapest way. Your
father would never spend the money to make something right” (44).
Tyrone’s penuriousness aggravates Mary, it is Edmund that brings the
immediate pain that she feels she needs to escape.
His birth caused the pain that brought Mary’s initial
prescription for morphine (166), and Edmund suspects that it is the
possibility of his having consumption that has pushed her to relapse (93).
Mary’s animosity for Edmund is ambiguous: she babies him, but
blames him for her addiction (Bogard 161).
Mary’s abhorrence of Jamie’s cynicism is less ambiguous (Bogard
161). Jamie is never
specifically targeted as an agent contributing to Mary’s regression, but
there is no doubt that his constant disrespect, suspicion, and nihilism
are such factors. Further,
Mary blames both Jamie and Tyrone for the death of her second son, Eugene
they blame each other, the men also lay at least partial blame on Mary for
her own addiction. When Mary
declaims against doctors as the source of her addiction, the men protest
(74), and, early in the play, Tyrone expresses faith in his wife’s will
power: “Yes, it will be hard for her.
But she can do it! She
has the will power now!” (37). Tyrone
begins to argue that it’s Mary’s own fault that she has no friends,
but gives up helplessly (84). Judith
Barlow argues that Mary is required by her family to possess powerful
maternal virtues: “nurturance, forgiveness, and renunciation of her
dreams for theirs. Insofar as
she fails in these obligations, both her family and the playwright condemn
her” (Barlow, “Mothers” 9). Through
Mary’s marginalised position, Long Day’s Journey reveals the
limitations of a materialistic patriarchal society and its need for
maternal figures (Hall 35-6).
it is a factor feeding Mary’s demons, Tyrone’s overbearing stinginess
is a flaw in itself, which isolates him from the love and respect of his
family. Frederic Carpenter
asserts that Tyrone “embodies the qualities of petty dictator
characteristic of all O’Neill’s fathers” (Carpenter 153).
Mary tells Cathleen that “Mr. Tyrone never is worried about
anything, except money and property and the fear he’ll end his days in
poverty. I mean, deeply
worried. Because he really
cannot understand anything else” (101).
explain his tight-fistedness, Mary, Jamie, and Edmund accuse Tyrone of
selfishness. Mary points out
his self-indulgent alcoholism, excessive to the point where he has often
needed help getting to his room after a night of drinking (113), and
Tyrone is seen as so land-hungry that he’d rather send his son to a
third-rate sanatorium than spend money that could otherwise be used to buy
more property (31, 145). Tyrone,
however, blames his thriftiness on a fear of poverty caused largely by his
own father’s desertion (146-8). In
addition, Tyrone believes that money spent on his family is usually a
waste because of their faults. His
money has not saved Mary from morphine: “I’ve spent thousands upon
thousands in cures! A waste.
What good have they done her?
She always started again” (141), and even after he has bought her
a car, she never drives in it (84). Even
when he gives money to Edmund, who in turn gives half to Jamie, Jamie
promptly wastes his share: “If he’s ever had a loftier dream than
whores and whiskey, he’s never shown it” (129).
more than the other Tyrones, is both completely mired in his cynical
condition and yet conscious of his pain.
Bogard graphically likens his agony to “the howl of a lost soul
in hell” (Bogard 163). As
is the case with the other Tyrones, there is a host of explanations for
his condition. Jamie’s
father repeatedly blames and criticises his son’s libidinous Broadway
lifestyle and laziness: “You never wanted to do anything except loaf in
barrooms! You’d have been
content to sit back like a lazy lunk and sponge on me for the rest of your
life!” (32). Tyrone also
denounces his subversive preference in poets as “morbid filth! . . .
Filth and despair and pessimism” (134).
Mary, however, blames Tyrone for turning Jamie into an alcoholic
for his part, credits his “worldly wisdom” to hard experience and
disappointment. In reality,
it is a result of his parents’ aloofness; and, having been denied his
mother’s love, he seeks a corrupted substitute rather than pursuing
meaningful relationships. Jamie
seeks to unburden himself on a maternal figure, but the only women
available to him are whores: “By the time I hit Mamie’s dump I felt
very sad about myself and all the other poor bums in the world.
Ready for a weep on any old womanly bosom” (159).
Mary’s addiction has so degraded her in her son’s perception
that he identifies Mary with prostitutes (Barlow, “Mothers” 9).
Jamie remembers the first time he caught his mother injecting
herself with morphine: “I’d never dreamed before that any women but
whores took dope!” (O’Neill 163).
consumption, a physical ailment that he can potentially beat, is not
nearly as crucial as his ongoing despair, which is much the same in nature
as Jamie’s defensive cynicism. Much
of it is due, naturally, to the constant stress of seeing his beloved
mother addicted to drugs: “It’s pretty hard to take at times, having a
dope fiend for a mother!” (120). In
fact, Mary even believes that Edmund hates her for it (122).
Tyrone blames Edmund’s partiality to atheistic poets for the same
reasons that he objects to Jamie’s selections--they are, after all,
mostly the same writers. Edmund’s
despair is also partially due to Jamie’s “putting you wise” (165). Jamie recognises his influence--indeed, has exploited it:
“Hell, you’re more than my brother.
I made you! You’re
my Frankenstein!” (164); “Mama and Papa are right.
I’ve been a rotten bad influence” (165).
Jamie is portrayed as a Mephistophelian character (Carpenter 153),
and even his face has a “Mephistophelian cast” (19).
believes that he has a consciousness which transcends human existence, and
his disdain for human life results from this.
He wants to be part of nature, not simply living in it:
he fears the threat of consumption, Edmund’s illness may be a
manifestation of his death-wish, his desire to escape from his human body.
deepest desire of each of the Tyrones is revealed through a precious
memory, or transcendental moment. This
is the point to which each character returns in his or her mind to escape
the reality of the present time. Ironically,
the Tyrones ultimately realise that they cannot remove themselves from the
community of the present. Mary
observes the unity of time that will not allow for such isolation: “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” (87).
Edmund asserts, “The right way is to remember.
So you’ll always be on your guard.
You know what’s happened before” (45), but the reality is that
remembering brings pain: “That’s what makes it so hard--for all of us.
We can’t forget” (48). Rather
than confront the pain directly, the four Tyrones each turn nostalgically
to some lost memory.
of the Tyrones’ transcendental moments are associated with other people.
Tyrone remembers Edwin Booth’s remark, “That young man is
playing Othello better than I ever did!” and remembers it as “the high
spot in my career. I had life
where I wanted it!” (150). However,
whether or not he had the potential he claims to have had is uncertain.
Ann C. Hall argues that “James (Sr.) appears to have a remarkable
capacity for denial and revisionist readings of the past” (Hall 40),
and, in a deconstructive study of inconsistencies and uncertainties in Long
Day’s Journey, Michael Manheim further questions Tyrone’s promise
as a great Shakespearean actor (Manheim 36).
obviously, remembers her girlhood, and even her behaviour is reverting to
that of a schoolgirl. She
convinces herself, “You were much happier before you knew (Tyrone)
existed” (107), and so seeks not only to return to that memory, but to
live that past life again. O’Neill’s
stage directions reveal that Mary “has hidden deeper within herself and
found refuge and release in a dream where present reality is but an
appearance to be accepted and dismissed unfeelingly--even with a hard
cynicism--or entirely ignored” (97).
At Mary’s final appearance, even her physical appearance suggests
girlhood: “The uncanny thing is that her face now appears so youthful.
Experience seems ironed out of it.
It is a marble mask of girlish innocence” (170).
Of course, this is an unnatural and therefore unaesthetic effect of
simultaneously lives out two transcendental moments--living with her
father and praying to the Virgin Mary--synthesised into one blissful state
of being based on her dreams: “I had two dreams.
To become a nun, that was the more beautiful one.
To become a concert pianist, that was the other” (104).
Mary “worshipped” her father (37), and remembers an idyllic
life in his home before she married Tyrone: “In a real home one is never
lonely. You forget I know
from experience what a home is like.
I gave one up to marry you--my father’s home” (72).
In her memories, even Mary’s friends lived comfortably: “At the
convent I had so many friends. Girls whose families lived in lovely homes.
I used to visit them and they’d visit me in my father’s home”
(86). However, Tyrone doubts
Mary’s reminiscences: “You must take her memories with a grain of
salt. Her wonderful home was
ordinary enough. Her father
wasn’t the great, generous, noble Irish gentleman she makes out”
dreams of becoming a nun are similarly suspect.
Cathleen drunkenly blurts, “Well, I can’t imagine you a holy
nun, Ma’am. Sure, you never
darken the door of a church, God forgive you” (102).
Still, Mary looks to the ultimate mother, the Virgin Mary, in an
attempt to regain her lost faith (107).
Mary Tyrone, especially her younger, virginal incarnation, is
linked to the innocence and purity of the Holy Virgin (Carpenter 153), and
in fact, Doris Alexander argues that young, innocent Mary was ultimately
misled into marriage (Alexander 69, 98).
However, although she longs for a restoration of faith, Mary will
not help herself, and waits for divine intervention (Barlow, “Edmund”
transcendental memory is more broad than Tyrone’s or even Mary’s.
He simply longs for a time before he was isolated from his mother
by his knowledge of her addiction. He
reminds Edmund, “I’ve known about Mama so much longer than you.
Never forget the first time I got wise.
Caught her in the act with a hypo.
Christ, I’d never dreamed before that any women but whores took
dope!” (163). Jamie had
harboured a typically O’Neillian idealised conception of his mother, and
this revelation cost Mary his respect.
Having been hurt by what he considered a breach of trust on her
part, Jamie began to form what was to become an isolating cynical defence.
those of the other Tyrones, Edmund’s transcendental memory is solitary,
isolated not only from his family but from each individual living person,
even himself, so that he can be united with all people through Nature
(Porter 89)--specifically the sea, the great symbolic mother (Hall 41).
His is also the only memory that can ever be repeated.
Edmund remembers moments near the ocean when “. . . I became
drunk with the beauty and the singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I
lost myself--actually lost my life. I
was set free! I dissolved in
the sea . . .” (153). Edmund
tries to recreate this moment by wandering alone in the fog: “The fog
was where I wanted to be. . . . That’s what I wanted--to be alone with
myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from
their isolation, and even despite their hatred and contempt, the Tyrones
genuinely do love each other. Even
after thirty-six difficult years, Tyrone and Mary declare their love for
one another, “in spite of everything” (112), and in his most sincere
moment, Jamie assures his brother, “I love you more than I hate you”
(166). Although--or possibly because--he is the most removed from
his family, it is Edmund, the character based on the playwright himself,
who comes to understand other characters.
As Frederic Carpenter has explained, Edmund’s tragedy “is not
that of defeat, but of a suffering which leads to illumination”
(Carpenter 156). After
learning of his father’s poverty and sacrifice, for example, he
appreciatively says, “I’m glad you’ve told me this, Papa.
I know you a lot better now” (151).
alone is not enough to overcome the afflictions that beleaguer the tragic
Tyrone family; and without conscious and continued effort to overcome
their isolation from society, each other, and their present situations,
the Tyrones can only fall deeper and deeper into dark despair.
Yet, although the play is predominantly pessimistic, O’Neill
implies hope, especially through Edmund.
In composing this “play of old sorrow, written in tears and
blood” (7), O’Neill surely came to understand his own family better,
and by basing the play on his own life, O’Neill ensures that the story
does not end with the fall of the curtain, and there is hope that the long
night will not last forever.
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Judith E. “O’Neill’s
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Normand, ed. Eugene
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Manheim, Michael. “The Transcendence of Melodrama in Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Bagchee 33-42.
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