Long Day's Journey into Night: Essay Q&A
1. How much of Long Day's Journey Into Night is autobiographical?
The play is a portrait of O'Neill's own family. Many but not all of the details correspond exactly. O'Neill's father, James O'Neill, was, like Tyrone in the play, the son of an Irish immigrant. He was also an accomplished actor who was famous for his role as the Count in The Count of Monte Cristo, which in the play Tyrone refers to (without naming it) as bringing him financial success but artistic sterility. O'Neill's mother, Ellen Quinlan O'Neill was, like Mary Tyrone, educated in a convent. She later became addicted to morphine, which became a source of emotional pain to Eugene O'Neill (as it is to Edmund in the play). As in the play, O'Neill's brother, Jamie, was an alcoholic, who would die of alcoholism in 1923. The character of Edmund is based on O'Neill himself. Like Edmund, O'Neill was a rebellious, turbulent young man who sailed to Argentina and lived rough there. Also like Edmund, he later tried to commit suicide, and in 1912 he got a job on a local newspaper. He also contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a private sanatorium, where the illness was cured.
However, in spite of the real-life basis of the characters, biographers point out that O'Neill is not always strictly accurate in the details. Like any creative artist, he shapes his materials to produce the best dramatic effect and also to convey a psychological, if not always literal, truth.
In the play, Tyrone's miserliness is exaggerated. In fact, he adored his wife and did his best to provide for her comfort, in spite of the fact that his profession demanded that they travel a lot and live in hotels. On one occasion, far from calling in the services of a cheap "quack" when his wife became ill (as Tyrone is accused of) James O'Neill took her to a famous specialist in Europe, who successfully treated her. It is also considered unlikely that Ellen O'Neill became addicted to morphine as a result of giving birth to Eugene. Also, by 1912, the year in which the play is set, O'Neill had already been married and divorced, which is not a part of Edmund's biography in the play, perhaps because it would needlessly complicate the dramatic situation.
2. Describe how the past dominates the present in the play, and the consequences this has for the characters.
"Well, you know how it is, I can't forget the past," says Jamie in Act 1. He is talking about his mother's long history of drug addiction, but the comment has a wider significance. Almost every interaction the family has during its long day's journey into night is affected or shaped in some way by the past. As Mary puts it, "The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too" (Act 2, scene 2). Much of the play is devoted to dramatizing how this situation came about. Tyrone's miserliness is responsible for much of it, and this is a recurring pattern. Just as Mary's drug addiction began as a result of Tyrone's unwillingness to pay for a competent doctor, so Edmund's life is imperiled by Tyrone's attempt to send him to a state sanatorium just to save money.
There are other recurring patterns. Mary tries, not for the first time, to break her addiction, but she slides back into it. Jamie has never got beyond the habit of drunkenness he acquired from his father at an early age. Even Edmund's consumption is in a sense a repeated pattern, since Mary's father died of the same disease. All the arguments and accusations in the Tyrone household have been heard again and again, as Jamie's comment in Act 1 reveals: "I could see that line coming! God, how many thousand times-!"
Because the troubles of the present are so deeply rooted in the past there is little forward movement in the play. The past exerts such a powerful grip that the characters believe there is little point in trying to change their situation. They best they can advocate is passive acceptance. "All we can do is try to be resigned-again" (Act 4) Tyrone says of his wife's addiction.
In the case of Mary, the past finally wins in an almost literal sense, since she regresses to her girlhood at the convent and shuts out the present. There is no future for her, or for Tyrone or Jamie. Only Edmund shows signs of being able to break out of the binding grip of the past.
3. What are the main flaws of each character? In what sense might each be described as both victim and victimizer?
Tyrone's main flaw is his miserliness. He values money too much, as can be seen by his career, in which he preferred to make easy money acting in a popular play rather than pursue true artistic excellence. His miserliness is a blight on the family, culminating in his desire to send the sick Edmund to a state sanatorium just to save money. But Tyrone is was a victim, since his father deserted the family when Tyrone was a boy, and at the age of ten he was sent to work long hours in a machine shop. The family was always poor, so Tyrone's attitude to money was formed early and is easily understandable.
Mary's principle flaw is her inability to face up to reality, which is illustrated in her denial that Edmund is seriously ill. This flaw leads to her drug addiction, since the drug takes her into a kind of dreamy world of the past. Mary is also full of resentment about her life, for which she is quick to blame Tyrone. But she too is a victim. Educated in a convent, she was an innocent girl of eighteen when she married Tyrone. As his wife, she had to endure his drinking and his miserliness. The latter led directly, in her view, to her addiction, since Tyrone would only pay for a cheap doctor to treat her when she was sick after the birth of Edmund, and it was that doctor who prescribed morphine.
Jamie's fault is his cynicism. As his mother and father often point out, he is always ready to see the worst in people and he acts like a Mephistopheles figure to his younger brother, tempting him to lead a destructive lifestyle. Jamie has no aim in life other than to drink and spend time in brothels. But he is a victim in the sense that his father, who was always drinking too much, set him a bad example. As Mary says to Tyrone, "You brought him up to be a boozer" (Act 3).
Edmund is the only character who is presented without a major flaw other than his physical frailty and his sickness. To an extent, Edmund shares Jamie's cynicism, but he is also a seeker after truth, with a restless intellect and a poetic sensibility. Like his brother, he is a victim of the family into which he was born, and he also has to live with the belief that it was his birth that caused his mother's addiction.
4. Discuss the significance of Edmund's speech to his father about his experiences at sea.
In Act 4, Edmund confides in his father about what he experienced at sea when he was sailing for Buenos Aires. Lying down on deck at night under moonlight, listening to the sound of the water and looking up at the white sails, he felt he was completely in harmony with nature. More than that, he seemed to lose himself altogether. He "dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky!" The experience was of peace, unity and joy, as if there were no past and no future; he was living in the eternal moment of now. Edmund also says that he experienced this spiritual ecstasy again, also when he was at sea. He describes it as "the end of the quest, the last harbor," so far beyond the pettiness of all the usual human hopes, fears and dreams. The same experience had come to him several other times in his life, when he was swimming or lying on a beach. It came only when he was in the presence of nature, and always when he was alone, with nobody in sight.
This significance of these deep spiritual experiences is that for the first time Edmund finds meaning in his life. His life had always been troubled; he was restless and had once tried to commit suicide, but this experience seemed to take him outside of time altogether, which means beyond the past. No wonder he treasured it so much, since the life of the Tyrone family is so trapped in the past. Their past dictates their present, and there is no way, as the play demonstrates, that they can escape from it. Yet here is a moment when Edmund, so to speak, steps into freedom. He is no longer bound by the past, no longer condemned to play out the conflicts of the past in the present and the future. It is not surprising that he feels he has discovered the secret of life, and describes the experience as a "saint's vision of beatitude." The problem is, of course, that the experience was fleeting. Edmund could not live permanently in that state of freedom, but at least he had glimpsed it, and it expanded his vision of what life could be.
5. Why has Jamie wasted his life?
Mary believes that Jamie had made nothing of his life because of the bad influence of his father. As a boy, Jamie was clever and excelled at school. But Tyrone "brought him up to be a boozer," even giving him whiskey as medicine when he was a child. Tyrone denies Mary's accusation, but never in the play does he show any interest in examining the causes of Jamie's decline. He simply regards him as an ungrateful "drunken loafer" who has wasted all the money his father spent on his education and squandered all his opportunities.
But Jamie himself has a deeper understanding of the causes of his plight, which relate to his attachment to his mother and the shock of discovering her addiction. He has known about it ten years longer than Edmund has, which means he first discovered it when he was an adolescent. It is likely that his failure in school can be attributed to the shock of catching his mother in the act of injecting herself with morphine. He found it repulsive. "Christ, I'd never dreamed before that any women but whores took dope!" he tells Edmund in Act 4. This must have been a shattering experience that destroyed his belief in his mother's purity. It is the key to the abusive language he uses about her, as when he calls her "hophead," for example.
Jamie remains so attached to his mother and so distressed by what happened to her that he even hates Edmund because "it was your being born that started Mama on dope." His unresolved deep feelings about his mother also ensure that he is the first in the family to suspect that she has relapsed, and the first to confront her directly about it. The issue is so important to him, so vitally bound up with his own problems in life, that when he discovers that Mary has not beaten the addiction, in spite of his belief that she would, he is devastated. "It meant so much," he says to Edmund in Act 4. "I'd begun to hope, if she'd beaten the game, I could, too." The fact that she has not means that there is no hope for him either.