February 10, 2003
Long Day’s Journey into Night,
In Eugene O’Neill’s agonizingly autobiographical play Long Day’s
Journey into Night, readers are introduced a dismal family situation.
Drugs, death, illness and failure lace each conversation, and regret flows
almost as unreservedly as the alcohol.
In such a tragedy, one would expect to have a clear idea of with whom the
blame lies. In this piece of drama, however, there is a distinct inability
to do so.
Eugene O’Neill persistently manipulates the emotional responses of the
reader. This manipulation keeps partiality off balance and uncertain.
O’Neill accomplishes this by allowing readers to sympathize with one family
member. Once sympathy is established for one particular character, that
character promptly says, or does, something that loses the reader’s
alliance, along with the alliance of whichever character he or she is
berating at that particular moment. This results in the reader’s inability
to discern who, precisely, is culpable for the Tyrone family’s situation.
The idea of assigning culpability in Long Day’s Journey Into Night is
almost humourous. Even if one wanted to, it would be difficult to sort
through years of built up anger, layer upon layer of repression, and huge
amounts of guilt in each character; for each character is at fault for one
thing or another, and, in addition, each character blames someone else for
his or her problem. For example, Mary blames her husband and his
tightfistedness for her addiction to morphine. Due to their mother being an
addict, Jamie is unable to bring girls home, thus he visits prostitutes.
Such behavior has influenced his younger brother Edmund, “making him old
before his time” (35). Consequently, Jamie is at fault for Edmund’s poor
health. In turn, his mother, for causing the addiction by being brought
into the world, as well as worsening it with his own illness, blames
Edmund. And so, the vicious circle continues.
However, if one does not wish to inflict upon one’s distinguished
teaching assistant a painfully long PhD dissertation help of each member’s
contributions to the tragedy and the results thereof, one ought to
maintain, for argument’s sake, that the majority of the culpability lies
with James Tyrone, for his behaviour in regards to money, alcohol, and his
own status as a failed actor.
James’s father had left the family when James was only ten years of
age. This left James as the man of the family, working twelve hours each
day to help provide for his mother and three sisters. As James explains,
“It was in those days I learned to be a miser”(151). He feels proud of his
savings, and announces to his family in regards to buying something: “I got
them dead cheap”(15). His own early recognition of the importance of money
explains his continual contempt for his own children’s lack of concern when
it comes to working: “What do you know of the value of a dollar?”(150). He
accuses Jamie of being lazy and having no ambition.
Not only does James Tyrone wish his sons understood the value of
money, but since they do not, he is forced to be miserly enough for the
whole family. Consequently, the family resents his overly economic ways.
There are many attacks throughout the play on James Tyrone for this, the
first one being Jamie accusing him of not sending Edmund to a real doctor
for his illness when he first got sick. Jamie says, “Hardy only charges a
dollar. That’s what makes you think he’s a fine doctor!”(31). Later,
another dialogue gives an even worse view of the situation; Tyrone sending
Edmund to a cheap sanatorium, but spending money on real estate:
JAMIE: Well, for God’s sake, pick out a good place and not some cheap
TYRONE: (Stung) I’ll send him wherever Hardy thinks best!
JAMIE: Well, don’t give Hardy your old over-the-hills-to-the-poorhouse
songabout taxes and mortgages.
TYRONE: I’m no millionaire who can throw money away! Why shouldn’t I
tell Hardy the truth?
JAMIE: Because he’ll think you want him to pick a cheap dump, and
know it isn’t the truth especially if he hears afterwards you’ve
seen McGuire and let that flannel-mouth, gold-brick merchant sting you
with another piece of bum property! (82)
Later realizing the anger this statement comes from, James Tyrone
offers Edmund “any place you like! Never mind what it costs! Any place I
can afford. Any place you like”. Sadly, there follows the stipulation
Tyrone cannot seem to shake off: “Within reason.”(151).
Cheap medical care seems to be Tyrone’s weakness. As Mary Tyrone makes
clear, his tightfisted ways result, though inadvertently, in her downfall
as well, due to a doctor giving her morphine as an easy fix.
“But bearing Edmund was the last straw. I was so sick
afterwards, and that ignorant quack of a cheap hotel doctor-All he
knew was I was in pain. It was easy for him to stop the pain.”(90)
Tyrone is also to blame for his wife’s general unhappiness, not just
her addiction to morphine. Mary says to Edmund that she has never been
happy in the house, because “Everything was done in the cheapest way. Your
father would never spend the money to make it right.”(45). The subsequent
scene has Mary come downstairs (60), in a detached sort of manner. She
complains bitterly to Edmund about Tyrone’s inability to make a real home.
He is too stingy to build a real home, with good servants, and so she has
suffered all her life. When Tyrone himself comes in, she says in
continuation of her previous statements ” I’m sick and tired of pretending
this is a home! You won’t help me!”(69). She goes on to say that had he
remained a bachelor “Then nothing would have happened.” This indicates
strongly that she blames him too.
Tyrone condemns Mary for her addiction, yet feels no guilt or
responsibility for it, taking away any amount of forgiveness readers may
have parted with in Tyrone’s favour. The amusing part of this however, is
while he condemns his wife for substance abuse, the same thing is his own
Mary tells her husband: ” I would never have married you if I’d known
you drank so much” (115). She also launches into a story about their
honeymoon, when Tyrone was dragged home intoxicated. It appears that in a
fashion similar to that of their father, Jamie and Edmund seem quite
partial to alcohol. In fact, the entire family seems unable to confront
reality without chemical assistance. Mary’s words indicate that drinking
all day is a common Tyrone family activity: “I know what to expect. You
will be drunk tonight. Well, it won’t be the first time, will it or the
thousandth?” (72). The Tyrone men validate their drinking habits with folk
wisdom about whiskey’s alleged health benefits: “It’s before a meal and
I’ve always found that good whiskey, taken in moderation as an appetizer,
is the best of tonics” (68). Alcohol has contributed to Jamie’s failures.
It has hurt Edmund’s health. And it becomes a source of conflict between
Jamie and Tyrone, as Jamie consistently steals his father’s whiskey,
replacing the amount taken with water, so his father won’t take notice.
Regrettably, the alcohol solves no problems, and problems get more
intricate as the tongues loosen from the booze. The three men share a
drink, but none of the social magic of alcohol seems to work. Tyrone,
Edmund and Jamie remain as miserable as ever.
The last, most driving element of James Tyrone’s guilt is his status
as a failed actor. In act four of the play, James Tyrone relates something
to his youngest son that he has never told anyone before. He explains that
since his father left the family when he was ten, he grew up to be miserly.
Thus he was quick to give up artistic fulfillment in exchange for financial
security, ruining his career as ” one of the three or four young actors
with the greatest artistic promise in America”(153). James Tyrone now muses
that he doesn’t even know what it was he had wanted to buy.
It appears that James has never forgiven himself for this, and
therefore inflicts it on his family and neighbours. Mary says in regards to
the neighbours: “they bowed to your father and he bowed back as if he were
taking a curtain call”(44). Jamie relates that Tyrone puts on an act for
Tyrone begins to quote a play almost as tragic as his own family life,
but his son, obviously well versed in his father’s repertoire of
chastisements from King Lear, finishes the sentence before his father can
continue, with ” ‘to have a thankless child’. I know”(92). His sons also
immediately think in terms of tragedy when referring to their father,
quoting Othello in reference to James’s snoring: ” ‘The Moor, I know his
trumpet'”(21). It appears that Tyrone turns his own life into a tragedy,
like the ones he once portrayed so well upon the stage, switching
affections and emotions like he would have to between scenes, although his
family isn’t as accepting of this as Edwin Booth and the critics obviously
But why bother to deal with the question of fault? After all, the
characters themselves claim not to care about it, such as in act two, scene
two, when James Tyrone tries to blame Edmund’s consumptive state on Mary’s
side of the family. Jamie cries out against blame: “Who gives a damn about
that part of it!”
Apparently, everyone does.
O’Neill, Eugene. Long Day’s Journey Into Night. New Haven: Yale University