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Eugene O'Neill's play Long Day's Journey Into Night is a story of defeat, struggle, pain, love, and acceptance. "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 greed 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. The play is repetitious, just as the cycle of an alcoholic is repetitious. They revisit old fights and open old wounds, left by the past, which no one can seem to forget. The Tyrone family is in a prison of its own making. There have been so many events in the past that have had such a traumatic cumulative effect on them that the shadow of the past extends into the present and the future. The family is like a cart stuck in a ditch. Through the characters in the Tyrone family, O'Neill shows that the past can never be forgotten.
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 greed 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. Tyrone is very stinginess, may have led to Mary's addiction to morphine. He refused to pay to treat pain caused by childbirth, according to Mary. Although Tyrone is very frugal he has a problem with accepting bad real estate investments. "The famous one stroke of good luck" that Tyrone received from an investment is his encouragement to invest more money.
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. Mary is in denial about her problems and refuses to confront them but rather exposes everyone else's problems. She claims her children are starting to become alcoholics like their father. She consistently complains about her hands that are hideous now but were once so beautiful. She also blames her husband and sons for being so lonely. She once had friends and was going to be a nun but she was shunned once she fell in love with Tyrone. Although the four Tyrones live under the same roof this summer, there is a deep sense of isolation. Family meals, a central activity of family bonding, are absent from the play. Lunch happens between acts, and dinner falls apart as everyone in the family goes his separate way. Mary's isolation is particularly acute. She is isolated by her gender, as the only woman of the family, and by her morphine addiction, which pushes her farther and farther from reality. The past becomes a refuge, but not in a positive way. Mary uses an idealized recreation of her girlhood as escapist fantasy. As she sinks further and further into the fog of morphine, she relives her childhood at the Catholic girls' school. The past is used to escape dealing with the present.
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). 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.
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. Edmund is the only character that can see that things must change. 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.
The four Tyrones are deeply, disturbingly human. They have their jealousies and hatreds; they also remain a family, with all the normal bonds of love, however troubled, that being a family entails. Each character has their vice that keeps them stuck in a cage with their past torturing them. Mary's morphine, Tyrone's frugality, Jamie's drinking, and Edmond's health are all recurring patterns and arguments throughout the play. Unlike his brother, Edmund is able to forgive and understand all of the Tyrones, including himself. Edmund finally sees the future and what could be but does not move towards it and remains stuck in the misery of the past. Instead of some happy ending or significant change that could occur in a play, it is one in a long string of similar days for the Tyrones, filled with bitterness, fighting, and an underlying love.