Long Day's Journey into Night | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Long Day's Journey into Night | Themes

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What Might Have Been

Arguably the most important theme in the play is the idea of the paralysis caused by obsessing over what might have been. Mary constantly refers back to specific points in her life, claiming that each point was the time when she was truly happy. She implies that, had she taken a different path, she might still have been happy—by becoming a nun or a pianist, by not marrying Tyrone, or by not giving birth to Edmund. Tyrone, too, wonders about what might have been had Mary not become an addict or had he not given up his pursuit of a real acting career in favor of easy money. This idea also haunts Edmund and Jamie. The young men wonder what might have been if their mother had not become an addict, but they also wonder about themselves.

Tyrone and Mary believe Jamie has wasted his life, and Jamie does not disagree with them. Edmund, on the other hand, faces his own mortality and wonders if he will live much longer. Mary's wedding dress and Tyrone's note with comments from actor Edwin Booth also serve as representations of what might have been.

The family's focus on the past prevents them from moving forward, which is part of the frustration expressed by Edmund at various times. Tyrone's choice of literature represents his glory days when his career was ascendant, and he refuses to consider the worth of any of Edmund's newer authors. Each of the different pairings—Tyrone and Mary, Tyrone and each son, Mary and each son, the two sons together—go through the same pattern of relitigating the past, followed by a temporary truce when they are recalled to the present by Mary's addiction or Edmund's illness, and then another reminder of the past sets them off again. The entire family seems to have been frozen in time at a certain point in their lives—possibly when they discovered Mary's addiction—and they are unable to move beyond that moment.

Denial Becomes Someone's Truth

Every character in the play experiences denial on multiple occasions and in various ways. Mary's drug abuse is a form of denial—when she takes morphine she feels insulated from the physical and mental pain of living. As an addict, Mary's denial is perhaps the least surprising. She claims she is not addicted and insists certain things never happened. Her idealized descriptions of the past are another form of denial, a way to reassure herself that life was good and easy at one time and that the horrors she feels now are just an aberration.

Tyrone, Jamie, and Edmund are all in denial about Mary's condition. They all believe she can give up her addiction, but they deny how powerful the addiction really is. Jamie is the one who ultimately breaks down onstage. In spite of his cynicism, he too denied the obvious signs and believed his mother could once and for all beat her addiction.

Tyrone's life is riddled with denial. He insists Mary is doing well and contradicts Jamie when he raises concerns in Act 1. He angrily asserts his own poverty, ignoring the fact that he is impoverished because of his poor real estate dealings, not because of extravagances like having lamps on after dark. Though he knows Mary attempted suicide and his father probably succeeded at it, he tells Edmund no one in his family would do such a thing—even after Edmund states that he tried to kill himself at one point. Perhaps the ultimate example of denial appears in the final act when Edmund tells his father: "Facts don't mean a thing, do they? What you want to believe, that's the only truth!"

Faith and Suffering

Although none of the characters has seen the inside of a church recently, the suffering caused by a loss of faith is still a central theme of Long Day's Journey into Night. Tyrone and Mary do not practice their religion, but they both believe strongly in Catholic teachings. Tyrone insists he prays "every night and morning" and has prayed for Mary for years. Mary attempts to pray the Hail Mary but fails because she does not believe God or the Virgin Mary would listen to someone like her.

Their sons have no faith. Edmund quotes German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) when he claims "God is dead" to point out that Tyrone's prayers never helped Mary. Tyrone repeatedly criticizes both boys for the "atheist" writers they quote. On some level, Tyrone and Mary believe their suffering is connected to their lack of faith. Mary says she is certain the Virgin Mary will always protect her "so long as she never [loses] ... faith in her." However, Mary looks uneasy as soon as she says it. Catholicism, as taught in Mary's era particularly, tended to be focused on the "suffering for the unrepentant sinner." An unrepentant sinner would be one who refuses to stop the sinful behavior, which Mary exemplifies perfectly.

Tyrone also had a professional "faith" in the works of English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616). In Act 4 he says, "I studied Shakespeare as you'd study the Bible." He says he would have worked for nothing to perform Shakespeare and would have done it simply "for the joy of being alive in his great poetry." But just as Mary ceased to practice her faith in the Virgin Mary as she got older, Tyrone quit his practice of Shakespeare as the years passed. They both still believe, but neither of them practices their faith any longer—and they both suffer and regret it.

O'Neill was raised Irish Catholic, just as the Tyrones are, so undoubtedly some of this emphasis on faith is a reflection of his personal and family history. The Catholic Church is deeply intertwined in the history and culture of Ireland and Irish Americans. As they suffered through the famines of Ireland and the indignities of rejection as immigrants to the United States, many of them sought solace in their faith. Like his characters, O'Neill seems to be both sympathetic to and rejecting of this comforting faith. He understands the appeal of faith and belief, but as exemplified by the character Edmund, who reflects the playwright, O'Neill does not share in it.

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