Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill is a play about a family of four and their dysfunctional descent into oblivion. Mary is addicted to morphine, and the rest of the family alternates between pretending she isn’t and attempting to forget that she is by consuming alcohol. By the play’s end, every character is deep into a drugged haze. Each character is tormented by inner demons, and though they love each other, their treatment of each other is erratic at best. Edmund, who is afflicted with tuberculosis, is the only one who is sinned against more than he sins himself. His father hates that he is an atheist, his mother never wanted to have him in the first place, and his brother envies him because he has shown him up to be a drunken bum. (Cronin 108) In a family fraught with denial, dishonesty, and refusal to listen to or acknowledge each other’s’ personal struggles, Edmund sets himself apart from his family members because of his ability to accept blame, listen to others and ultimately forgive.
Tyrone is ashamed of Mary’s addiction, and he feels that having the support of him and their sons should have been enough of an incentive for her to have quit for good. Guilt over this makes him hate Edmund, whose birth was the reason Mary first acquired the drug. He therefore puts blame on Edmund for, not only her addiction, but also for the complex family problems that did not arise until after he was born. His constant need to put blame on other people is probably exacerbated by his own perceived lack of success in his acting career. His greatest achievement in his life was receiving a note from his idol Edwin Booth, complimenting his role as Othello, and every moment since seems to have been far less gratifying, including those spent with his family.
Mary tries to be a doting mother to her children but is overcome with self- hatred because she can not escape her addiction. She lives with the uncomfortable knowledge of what her addiction is doing to her family, but at the same time, she also blames them for it. She blames Tyrone because he hired a cheap, quack doctor, and she also blames Edmund because his birth led to her taking the drug. Mary similarly has regrets about her past, often resenting that she left the convent she grew up in to marry Tyrone. She is tormented by the fact that there is nothing she can do to help Edmund’s sickness. She hides behind her addiction to avoid the blame of her family and her own guilt.
Jamie is Edmund’s older brother. He dislikes himself because he feels he has not been successful with his life. He blames his father for his current life because Tyrone tried unsuccessfully to push Jamie into an acting career. He hates himself for not having amounted to more, but seems oddly pleased with the fact that he let his father down. He blames Edmund for Mary’s addiction,and he uses Mary’s addiction as an excuse for his own to alcohol. He is also blamed by Mary and Tyrone for leading Edmund astray.
Edmund is the character that displays the most astute sense of self-loathing but the lowest degree of blaming others. He has a morbid obsession with death, probably in part because of the guilt that has been unwittingly placed on him by the rest of the family for an act he was not consciously responsible for: being born. Edmund is closer with his mother than the other family members are; but since Mary ultimately shuts off from everyone, Edmund is the most “left out in the cold.” (Manheim 179) Edmund is a self-proclaimed “stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!” (O’ Neill 157)
Edmund’s position regarding blame is the first thing that sets him apart from the rest of his family. Where the others are eager to blame each other for their problems and mistakes, Edmund is far more willing to accept blame and internalize it because he is already accustomed to living with it and putting it on himself. He is the only one who seems to have been able to break through the family’s vicious cycle of self-loathing and blame, instead sinking deeply into only self-loathing and staying there.
A second trait that differentiates Edmund from the others is his willingness to listen to others. The other characters have a tendency to live in their own perception of things and refuse to hear of alternatives to their ways of thinking. This tendency is demonstrated most of all in Tyrone. In many ways Edmund is more emotionally evolved than his father. Edmund tries to put himself in his father’s shoes, telling his father that he’s “tried to be fair to you because I knew what you’d been up against as a kid.” (O’Neill 148) Edmund is the only person who makes this effort to connect with Tyrone, but Tyrone doesn’t recognize or appreciate these attempts at empathy.
Coming off the tail end of his story of his difficult childhood, it seems Tyrone wants his story of suffering to be the worst one. Edmund’s experience of being homeless and broke in another land pales in comparison to Tyrone’s own lived experience, and Tyrone won’t let him forget it. He disguises Edmund’s truths as “damn morbidness” and refuses to hear anyone’s but his own. (O’Neill 150) Tyrone even minimizes Edmund’s past suicide attempt, citing the fact that “no son of mine ever would” and that Edmund “wasn’t in his right mind” even when Edmund asserts that he was sober. (O’Neill 150) He refuses to believe his own story about his father eating rat poison, clinging again to the belief that no member of his family would ever go that way.
Edmund isn’t afraid to confront Tyrone when he has done him wrong, but the difference between him and the others is that he is actually open to hearing his opponent’s side. Edmund confronts Tyrone angrily about his sending him to a cheap state sanatorium instead of springing for quality medical care for his son. In the end, Tyrone offers Edmund a stay at a second-rate sanatorium, a compromise that Edmund accepts with a laugh. Tyrone also shares with Edmund stories from his past that show how he became the stingy man of today. After James’ confession to his son, Edmund is “moved, stares at his father with understanding. ‘I’m glad you’ve told me this, Papa. I know you a lot better now.’” (O’Neill 154)
Edmund’s openness to listening paves the way for a groundbreaking interaction between the two of them, one where they each understand the other better than ever before. When this conversation took place between Jamie and Tyrone instead, they butted heads so much that no solution could ever have been reached. Edmund listens as his father explains the origins of his miserliness, and through his listening and appreciation for what his father is sharing with him, the root of the conflict that causes much of Edmund’s confusion is revealed and Edmund “begins to see the light.” (Carpenter 156)
Partnered with Edmund’s capacity to listen to other people is his talent for seeing through peoples’ facades for what they really are. Edmund holds out hope for his mother longer than Jamie does, but even he realizes how she seems to hide behind her addiction, to hide from the rest of them and herself. He exclaims, “You know something it her does it deliberately—to get beyond our reach, to be rid of us, to forget we’re alive! It’s as if, in spite of loving us, she hated us!” (O’Neill 142)
Edmund also demonstrates this ability by noticing equivalent behaviors between his two parents. Mary has a desperate, all-consuming desire to return to the past, a time when she was young and her life was full of promise. Although we learned from Tyrone that Mary’s past was not as perfect and promising as she makes it out to have been, Mary would (and does) give everything to go back to that time. She associates these memories with her wedding dress, which she spends much of the play searching for, as she searches for her lost youth. “Where is it now, I wonder? I used to take it out from time to time when I was lonely, but it always made me cry . . .” (O’Neill 117)
Tyrone has similar regrets about his past and the career he might have had, and the note he received from his idol in praise of his acting is his version of Mary’s wedding dress: a symbol of past happiness and achievements and a bar against which their present unhappiness is measured. While Tyrone condemns Mary for her practice of living in the past, Edmund catches on to the fact that Tyrone has a habit of doing the exact same thing. Tyrone wonders aloud where the note could be and Edmund suggests “with an ironical sadness” that it “might be in an old trunk in the attic, along with Mama’s wedding dress,” which she is upstairs searching for at that very moment. (O’Neill 155)
Edmund’s ability to see things as they are is a contrast to his family members, who seem to see things as they want to. Edmund’s uncanny ability to see the truth in the behaviors of his parents puts him in a unique position of clarity, almost like that of a narrator. Interestingly, it turns out the play is quite autobiographical and Edmund is a representation of a younger Eugene O’Neill himself. Long Day’s Journey into Night is in fact O’Neill’s attempt to grapple with his own family experience. (Costello 1) Given as a gift to his then-wife Carlotta, he thanked her in the introduction for enabling him “to face my dead at last and write this play, write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.” (O’Neill 7)
This accounts for Edmund’s seeming ability to see things more clearly than his family—O’Neill is telling a version of the story he witnessed with his own eyes from Edmund’s viewpoint. O’Neill “wrote Long Day’s Journey so that he could face his dead at last and, after pitying them and understanding them, he was able to forgive his family. The play is O’Neill’s act of contrition, but also his act of forgiveness.” (Costello 5) This motive behind this and O’Neill’s personal role in it explains Edmund’s forgiving character.
Edmund’s ability to forgive is what most sets him apart from his family. Forgiveness is evident in his relationship with Jamie. Edmund’s sickness has taken all the concern, especially their mother’s, away from Jamie, a fact that embitters Jamie. Jamie also blames Edmund for causing Mary’s addiction, and he is resentful of the way their parents see him as a drunken failure in comparison to his brother. Jamie’s bitterness toward Edmund regarding this is apparent by the way he mockingly refers to Edmund as “mama’s baby, papa’s pet.” (O’Neill 169).
The last moment of illumination in the play occurs between Edmund and Jamie, in which Jamie makes the bold admission to Edmund that, because of his jealousy, a big part of him has always wanted to see Edmund fail, so he has intentionally led him astray in life: “Never wanted you succeed and make me look even worse by comparison. Wanted you to fail. Always jealous of you.” (O’Neill 169) He wants Edmund to be great, but he warns that he will do his best to make him fail.
Edmund has always looked up to Jamie as a hero, and Jamie to Edmund as his creation, his “Frankenstein.” (O’Neill 167) His admission to Edmund was very brave because, as Jamie tells him, Edmund is all he has left. By telling him this he is running the risk that Edmund will hate him. Jaime tells his brother, “I love you more than I hate you. My saying what I’m telling you now proves it . . . Greater love hath no man than this, that he saveth his brother from himself.” (O’Neill 169-70) What Jamie has done to his brother throughout the years is disappointing, but his bravery in confessing it to Edmund is a noble act of love and compassion, and for that reason Edmund seems to forgive him. Each character in Long Day’s Journey into Night is battling an internal demon of some kind, but Edmund is the one who is most able to resist blaming others for his. Throughout the play, Edmund is explicitly blamed by his family for being born: “It was your being born that started Mama on dope.” (O’Neill 169) While the others are in a hurry to cast blame and admonish each other without looking internally for the causes of their strife, Edmund accepts (to a self-defeating fault) his role in his family’s downward spiral. He is therefore more willing to accept the others for theirs, should they recognize it themselves. This willingness to listen and attempt to understand his family members sets Edmund apart, and it allows him to make steps toward forgiveness. “Like the others, he also journeys through the fog and the night. But, unlike them, he has seen—and will again see—beyond the illusions which surround him.” (Carpenter 158) Edmund’s eventual forgiveness of his family was the motive behind O’Neill’s writing of the play, and it gives Edmund the most promising future of his family.
O’Neill, Eugene. Long Day’s Journey into Night. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. Print.
Carpenter, Frederic Ives. Eugene O’Neill. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Print.
Costello, Donald P. “Forgiveness in O’Neill.” Modern Drama 4 (1991):499. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.
Cronin, Harry. Eugene O’Neill, Irish and American: A Study in Cultural Context. New York: Arno, 1976. Print.
Manheim, Michael. Eugene O’Neill’s New Language of Kinship. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse UP, 1982. Print.